A Queer and Brown Reading of Virginia Woolf

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A friend once chided me that for the amount of time I spend reading, it’s a shame that I didn’t know much about classics. So there I was, struggling with Virginia Woolf, trying hard to connect to the text.

And then I got to this portion:

A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips, in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.

I was halfway through reading A Room of One’s Own, past details of elaborate lunches and other minutiae I didn’t bother remembering, when I felt like Woolf was actually onto something.

The “queer, composite being” she writes about is of the utmost interest to me, as a woman myself. And a queer one at that. While I agree with her thoughts on women, on their relegation as inferior to men, there’s a lot that’s still missing for me. This ain’t my feminist canon.

To be clear, what she points out as women’s inability to write (specifically fiction) stems from lack of money and space. Had women inherited lump sums of money from their ancestors (500 pounds to be exact), they would’ve been able to acquire a writing room all their own, with enough money to get by and sustain themselves.

I suddenly had flashbacks: of times when I wrote at a laundromat off of Alum Rock in San Jose while waiting for loads of laundry, of writing in anger inside a friend’s old car when I ran away from home, by the stairs of an old apartment in Brisbane that I unofficially shared with what seems like ten other people.

I also think of Lorena Barros whose poems continue to inspire me, an activist and community organizer whose poetry and essays centered on the liberation of women as integral to the liberation of Filipino people.

I think about the work of black women writers like Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, Latinx writers like Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, of Chrystos; whose books, poems and essays have been influential in the way I understand and see the world around me.

What then are we to make of Phillis Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself?

– Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens

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Woolf writes: “One cannot think well, live well, sleep well if one has not dined well.” Moraga writes: “Third world feminism is about feeding people in all their hungers.”

Reading Woolf these days seems a lot like supporting Hillary Clinton for me: you agree with them on a certain level, but it’s just not enough.

I recognize the historical importance of A Room of One’s Own, the role it played in opening up the conversations on gender oppression, the reality of women’s (lack of) political and artistic contributions and the kind of material and mental support Woolf was advocating for.

At the same time, I also know that the kind of work I’m genuinely interested in surpasses the boundaries of Woolf’s proposed room, one that goes out into the world — one that enables women to write and make art that challenges gender, race, economic and class oppression. The kind that Lorena talked about:

To liberate the creative potential of women, it is first of all necessary to liberate the [Filipino] masses of which they are part.

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Got thoughts on Virginia Woolf? Share them in the comments below!

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