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Virginia Wolf and I

By Satyapal Anand

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Having taught Virginia Woolf for half a century at the university level in India and abroad I find this piece from Guardian London worth reading. Can one think of a literary exercise like this, say in one of Qurrat-ul ain Hyder’s novels.

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own remixed to form a new story

Kabe Wilson rearranges words of Woolf’s 1929 essay to produce a novella anagrammatically entitled Of One Woman Or So …  Alison Flood

Virginia Woolf Spreading the word … Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own has been reformulated by the artist Kabe Wilson. Photograph: Beresford/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

When Virginia Woolf stood up to give a lecture to the Newnham Arts Society in 1928, she started by imagining her audience’s puzzlement. “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction,” she begins, “what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?”

The title of Olivia N’Gowfri’s novella Of One Woman Or So echoes the title of the essay Woolf published in 1929, A Room of One’s Own, which combined the Newnham lecture with another given at Girton College. However, there’s a little clue in the novella’s opening – “But should I have? Here comes the fear, the sight of it in mid-air, and the heat …” – of the deep connections between this story of a mixed-race girl who ignites controversy at Cambridge University and Woolf’s study of gender and literature.

The novella is, in fact, assembled from the 37,971 words that make up Woolf’s essay, painstakingly rearranged by Kabe Wilson into a work of fiction.

The artist spent four years in a process he calls “a kind of linguistic mathematics”, consulting lists of words on a computer to ensure each and every word of Woolf’s essays was used. Wilson said he spent “day after day in a hot computer room combing through the latest draft, trying to balance out conjunctions and pronouns across the sentences, needing to stay extremely focused in case I made a mistake”.

Of One Woman Or So has now been turned into a piece of art, a 4x13ft sheet of paper displaying the novella’s 145 pages, each word of which has been cut out, individually, from a copy of A Room of One’s Own, and reformed to create an entirely new work.

Detail from the covers of A Room of One’s Own and Of One Woman Or So Mathematical transformation … the covers of Virginia Woolf’s classic essay and Kabe Wilson’s novella Photograph: Kabe Wilson

Wilson hopes that the novella “playfully celebrates Woolf’s canonical work by bringing contemporary critiques to bear upon it – posing questions brought on by the historical changes between 1929 and the present day”, with the new contexts and meanings of the old words “reveal[ing] the connections and tensions between the voices of Virginia Woolf and Olivia N’Gowfri, reflecting cultural changes in race, sex, class, and the role and power of literature” since A Room of One’s Own was published in 1929.

Woolf’s essay explores how a woman “must have money and a room of her own” to write fiction, suggesting that “poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for 200 years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry.”

Turning it into a work of fiction, set 80 years later, wasn’t easy. “There was a lot of planning needed before starting – building up a sense of what the story could/would be about (based on the words available),” said Wilson. “But once I had a general idea of the plot, setting, and narrative style, I got started, knowing I was going to face problems along the way, but not yet sure what they would be.”

“The most difficult thing to deal with was that I didn’t know whether or not it was actually possible, and I wasn’t going to find out until the very end. The fear was that I’d write the entire book, then be left with 300 uses of one word without any natural way to fit them all in. Or else I’d significantly overuse one word and find every instance inextricable from the sentence it was in.”

A close-up of a page from Of One Woman Or So Balancing out conjunctions and pronouns … a close-up of a page from Of One Woman Or So. Photograph: Kabe Wilson

Making sure the two works’ words echoed each other exactly “became very methodical” at the end, Wilson said. “The last job to do on the final draft was going through and deleting or replacing instances of the word ‘the’. I had overused it about 100 times, and I really had no idea whether or not it would be possible to get rid of one of them, let alone a hundred. It had previously been very tough to get the number of times I’d used the word ‘be’ down to match Woolf’s usage (234), so I was worried that ‘the’ might be just as difficult a word to find usable synonyms for or otherwise workaround. As it turned out it was much easier than I’d expected, so that was quite a satisfying way to complete it.”

According to Wilson, “the real fun” of the project “was in multi-layered wordplay and finding connections between words – linking different meanings across separate historical periods”.

“There were points when I wondered whether it made sense, trying to connect Virginia Woolf with African-American cultural politics from the other end of the 20th century. But then I discovered connections I hadn’t expected, which really showed how much language and literature intermix,” said the artist, pointing to the fact that Toni Morrison wrote her master’s thesis on Woolf, then taught Stokely Carmichael, who has a key part in the story, at Howard University.

“CLR James was published by Woolf’s Hogarth Press in the 30s, then in the 60s, he supported Carmichael’s radical student movement. The coincidences were often amazing,” said Wilson. “I needed a writer to link Woolf and Carmichael – then I found I had the words ‘C’, ‘L’, ‘R’, and ‘James’. I wanted to reference one of his books and found the only one I had the right words for was Letters from London, which gives an account of his travels around Bloomsbury in the 30s and meeting Edith Sitwell. It’s all there, it’s just a case of finding the words to connect all the strands together. Every time something fitted so well into place, I felt like the word was a ghostly gift from Woolf.”

Wilson describes A Room of One’s Own as being about “the possibilities of creative practice – about what women could achieve if they had the space to create, and the practicalities of doing so”.

“Now creative capabilities have expanded with digital art, so literature no longer needs to be limited to pen, paper, and print. The notion that I was doing something that contributed to the development of the form, and the history of Woolf’s text, was exciting enough to get me through the Ctrl+X, click, Ctrl+V days,” said the artist.

From the prologue of One Woman Or So

A page from Of One Woman Or So Cut and paste … a page from Of One Woman Or So Photograph: Kabe Wilson

“Though prouder fellows of five colleges are still claiming that they were the most affected people generally agree that the University Library came off worst. This, as you will see, is because it was thought to be the most at fault, and to the one who passed judgment upon it ‘the sentence could only be death.’ The massive structure, itself in a year of celebration, suffered such serious damage in some parts that they had to immediately close almost a quarter of its open-access shelves. These remain closed even now. I am told they do not expect them to be opened again, with the millions of pages restored, for at least four years, in time, they hope, for the shelves to turn the modest old age of eighty. I later discovered that the great Germaine herself had been writing a piece on her ‘favourite library’ for The Guardian at the time, referring to it as ‘heaven on earth. It must be assumed that her notes went the same way as those pitiable books that hellish night when she saw the brilliant crimson sky and realized the observation was no longer relevant. Her brick heaven was about to go from being the subject of free comments that very few would read to the front page of every paper in Europe and many beyond.”

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