A Room, a Home, a Country of One’s Own
by Ope Adedeji
In Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”, she says a woman must have money and a room of one’s own if she is to write fiction. For me, Woolf’s meaning of the word “room” could extend to seeking jobs that provide financial freedom, writing other kinds of profitable stories and taking on ‘serious’ jobs — didn’t Buchi Emecheta say that living entirely off writing is a precarious existence? Room, for me, is my space, defined by books on bookshelves, photos plastered across the wall, on Mixtiles, and my Swiss cheese plants clustered in corners. Still, it can mean more, like the absence of a burden to perform my gender in any and every way, including one that consumes my precious-writing time.
Virginia Woolf is one of several female authors who wrote about home or experienced its unique complexity. As a child, Ms Woolf sat on the plush green sofa in the drawing room of her childhood home in St Ives, Cornwall, writing. She made up stories using neighbors and other elements around her. It was a hobby she held dearly, one her father supported too, but it was only after she left the dark house in St Ives, after her father died, that she knew she wanted to become a writer. From that moment on, it seemed as though she had to move through homes, searching for spaces where she could retreat to write without distractions. She was inspired by home but severely aware of the negative impact home can have on women who write.
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Home is a curious case for women who write. Burdened by gender norms, motherhood and life, women who write have historically had to search for, carve and insist on home. This search or insistence for home is also characterized by a search for time. In her book Jane Austen at Home, Lucy Worsley shares less-known aspects of Austen’s fight for freedom and her complex relationship with home which mirrors Ms. Woolf’s sentiment. “For Jane, home was a perennial problem,” she writes. “Where could she afford to live? Amid the many domestic duties of an unmarried daughter and aunt, how could she find the time to write? Where could she keep her manuscripts safe? A home of her own must have seemed to Jane to be always just out of reach.” Centuries after Austen’s plight, women still need to think carefully about where and how to write. At the end of Buchi Emechata’s Second Class Citizen, in a final streak of violent behavior, Adah’s husband burns her manuscript at home. This propels her into leaving him and finding a home elsewhere in London. It is ironic. Adah left home — Nigeria —- in the first instance because she wanted a home of her own — one where she could tell stories, only to be chased out of it by an abusive husband. A tale as old as time.
In the past decade, I have skated through several rooms — not necessarily my own — looking for liveable and sleepable spaces and, most importantly, spaces where my ideas can flow freely. So when I overhauled my entire life and moved to a new country, this was one of the proverbial lights at the end of the tunnel. A room with 24-hour power seemed more attractive than staying close to the rooms that were my sources of inspiration.
“What cuts the deepest channels in our lives are the different houses in which we live. ” ― Leonard Woolf
In the years that my writing started to mature, I lived at my grandfather’s house. I left my parent’s rather luxurious home because I needed some measure of independence from their watchful eyes. Daddy Bariga’s house was a short square house before a bend on Ilaje Road, Bariga. This was before the government came to raze the road in claims to reconstruct and modernize it. Though a law student, I ran a blog and wrote short stories: one about an Aunty with an obscure past who killed herself and another about a woman who suffered from postpartum depression and killed her child. Daddy Bariga’s house was face-me-I-face-you — a block of tiny rooms facing each other; you heard when the neighbor had sex, grunting in the hot night, and when they fought about meat stolen from the pot they kept in the communal kitchen. These neighbors were characters in my stories. Their shrill laughter rang in my head — above the din of their generators — when I wrote, and I saw their shadows on the pages of my notebook.
My grandmother had died several years before. Her room, though devoid of any signs of her and her methylated spirit smell, had me curious about the things she may have brought to life with her hands in the space. What kinds of ideas flowed freely through her when she was alone and had space to hear herself think? I once read that women from my grandmother’s time had rooms of their own, rooms separate from their ‘matrimonial room’. Yet these days, it is almost an abomination to consider having a different room from your husband.
When the pandemic came, my siblings and I split up to live in spaces where the virus might not travel fast. I moved in with my partner and we lived in a serviced apartment in a Government Reserved Area. I stayed up all night to write stories that I sent to publications across the world. I jogged each evening until the sun set and returned to warm water rushing through the taps and air conditioning on full blast. I stared out the window and knew I couldn’t return to my former life without a change. I needed my space. After the pandemic, I left everything and moved to a new country.
“Fitting [in] is a luxury rarely given to immigrants, or children of immigrants. We are stuck in emotional purgatory. Home, somehow, is always the last place you left, and never the place you're in.” ― Scaachi Koul, One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter.
Norwich was home for the first 10 months of grad school. My first time in a flatshare with four others, including two classmates, one of whom was a friend from Nigeria. It was a room slightly bigger than the one I had in my grandfather’s house but brighter and with a view of the trees in the woods behind the house. The walls were not as thin but the floors creaked and I could hear when my upstairs flatmate had sex with her partner. My classmates were predominantly white and the feedback from colleagues, while useful, often lacked nuance. My upstairs flatmate was racist and she would often send blasts on the group chat or knock on my door asking that I keep it down when I was only whispering to my partner on the phone or listening to soft music that could help me write. She smiled through her teeth when with her high-pitched voice, she said Nigerian food smelled and that we were dirty. How could I write in a place like this? I found myself rereading “Second Class Citizen” — Adah had left home too to write too. Her story, while comforting, offered little hope — at least until I processed my feelings about it in an essay about books as ammunition to survive the black experience abroad.
On the bus or at the GP Surgery, I listened for Nigerian voices that would give me inspiration. We, after all, speak loudly wherever we are, establishing and declaring our presence. I needed them to transport me home and give me inspiration for the stories I needed to write. Other times, it was the noise from a playground nearby. I listened and heard the blended chorus of children singing in Yoruba, a sound from another time and space. This gave me the courage to write the short fiction I published in my cohort’s anthology. The woman who killed her abiku child before his threats to leave her were fulfilled. The story got several agents curious about my work.
“And the danger is that in this move toward new horizons and far directions, that I may lose what I have now, and not find anything except loneliness.” ― Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath.
The decision to leave Norwich was more for convenience than creativity. I have only recently learned to prioritise the latter. Will I function in this space? This is a question I now ask. Even though I had produced my best stories in my short year as a grad student, my time as a scholar was ending, and I wanted to save money. I moved to Bournemouth to live with my older sister, her husband, and my niece.
One evening during my last few days in Norwich, a few members of my cohort met for drinks with one of our tutors for the first time in the entire pandemic school year. He asked if I would be able to write in Bournemouth. I hadn’t given the question much thought. It was a good question though. I hadn’t lived with my family for years. Not since sharing my grandfather’s house with my siblings or living in my parent's home. I needed an inkling of solitude at “my home” to write. I said I would make it work, and I tried.
Bournemouth is a coastal city that attracts tourists in the summer. They go to the beach to bury their legs in the golden sand while licking ice pops and gulping down slushes. It has a peculiar laziness that is similar to Norwich — or Ibadan, my grandparent’s hometown. It is my dream city: for the poetic quietness that allows you to think and write. In September though, when you have parents coming in, and a niece who freaks out when it’s time for bed, it loses all its color. I spent nights crying into my pillow, frustrated about my life. Why did I leave Norwich? Why did I have to work? Why did I have to work in tech to make good enough money? Why did I need to polish surfaces and soak beans for moin-moin in contributing to the family’s upkeep and meals? The depressing winter darkness didn’t help. I became lonelier. I needed my space; a place where I would have bright orange ceiling bulbs, tall lamps, and floor-length windows; where I could decide to outsource my cleaning and decide if I wanted to cook alone, for myself. It was selfish, and I couldn’t talk to most people about it. I was privileged not to spend Christmas alone and without the rich egusi that formed part of my Nigerian Christmases. And still, I needed to be alone in a way I couldn’t explain.
The year wasn’t all bad. I did make it work. I won a scholarship that paid me to write, and James Clear’s note on Maya Angelou’s writing process showed me that great writers do not wait for inspiration. They create the space they need: if it means — like Maya Angelou — booking a hotel or coworking space to write. It was the year I finished my first-ever manuscript.
“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” ― James Baldwin, Giovanni's Room.
Summer. Flies buzz in and out when I leave the windows open. The house is spacious. For a London house. Two rooms — one en-suite and a bath. One long hallway and a storage space with three doors. A verandah perfect for sitting out and drinking Prosecco. Not great for winter. Before moving in, I pictured my writing corner: A small Ikea desk surrounded by tall plants. A swivel chair. Photos on the wall. I prayed for it. I got it. I felt the same way Virginia Woolf must have felt when she found Monk’s House, a 16th-century cottage in East Sussex. She wrote, “This will be our address for ever and ever; indeed I’ve already marked our graves.” Although it’s not the house I see myself raising my kids in, let alone living in forever, it’s the house I see myself creating some of the best worlds of my late 20s. I had worked hard enough to rent it, and shortly after moving in, I spent weeks of unemployment writing and designing my space. I scrolled through Amazon and Ikea, purchasing candles and dustpans and vases. I know I’m in good company when I read in Hilary Macaskill’s “Virginia Woolf at Home” that Virginia and Agatha Christie had similar renovating habits.
In my sleep in this house that I love, that I call home, and in which home lives, I dream of the places I previously called home; the things and people who remind me of home. The camp bed in my grandfather’s house on which I lay to write. A thin violet mattress with flower splotches spread on the carpet. The smell of kerosene, skin deep on the couch and on napkins, used to chase bed bugs. The grandfather clock that was taken down a few months after my grandfather died. The broom hiding behind the door, once used to chase a lizard that snuck into the living room on a warm day before exams. The ghosts who walk through the house.
The other day, the middle-aged woman whose fried rice (garnished with cubes of meat and dodo) I ate almost every morning in my third year of university came to me. She died in 2022, on Christmas evening, and a few nights after, I saw her wandering in that house, that house that lives in this head, this head that lives in this city. The next morning I started a short story about her. I had seen her, really seen her, in my dreams, a thousand miles away from the house where I first knew her.
There is a chapter in Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to See that I find deeply fascinating. It starts like this: “A tree reveals itself to an artist only when the artist can establish a relationship with the tree. If we are not fully ourselves, fully human, we may look at our fellow humans without truly seeing them, just as we may look at a tree and not truly see it.”
I often tell people that my best stories are vivid because I mirror the characters after people I know intimately. For example, Isaac in After The Birds was formerly called John, named and described after a tech CEO who was a good friend. He’s still one of my best-written characters to date.
Importantly, though, the places in which my stories are set have a profound effect on them. If you’ve lived several decades in a city, it only makes sense that it influences the shape of your work. For example, in After The Birds, Arin, the protagonist who falls in love with two men (her husband and a friend — the tech CEO) lived in the house that was my childhood home.
My childhood home is a blur, but I recall specific details such as the colorful TV cover and wall gecko poop that lined the dirty tiles. It is why I enjoy the zoom-in writing technique. You look into the world you are building and find the smallest but most meaningful things to help your reader truly see it.
“Therefore, I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject, however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.” ― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own.
Harmattan is my favorite time of the year to write. The cold and subtle heat between your toes. The white dryness of your skin and cracked bleeding lips. The smell of chicken poop, indicating that Christmas is here. The sound of Boney M from music shops. In London, it is summer — the cooler and brighter days. I realizeI’m making new rituals to birth the stories I care deeply about. Sometimes, I’m nervous, and I pray never to lose my sense of authenticity; a thing I’ve heard happens when writers write for a new audience, this new place that has given them the space to write. If anything, being here makes me eager to explore new kinds of stories, writing styles, processes and formats. It makes me yearn for a transformative definition of home. Home doesn’t have to be one thing. Home can be the several spaces that have made me uncomfortable while writing and the ones that have given me and are giving me a chance to write. It’s also the people who accommodate this need for space to write. It’s this home and future homes, this room and future rooms, this country and future countries.
image credit: Mackenzie Scheick