- Words Miriam Balanescu
- Photography Urszula Solty
Jo Hamya, the author of stellar debut, Three Rooms, chats with Notion about internet novels, generation gaps, and everything and nothing changing since Covid-19.
All Jo Hamya’s narrator wants is a room of her own. More than that, a flat of her own, which she can decorate permanently, move freely in and out of, and where she can invite her friends round for dinner. It’s a familiar quandary, especially for the current generation of young millennials and Gen-Zers whose hopes of owning property seem to be slipping away.
Following a young woman as she flits between short-term accommodation and temporary work contracts, Three Rooms is a must-read debut for those of all generations, written with the alluringly assured eloquence of Rachel Cusk and harking back – maybe unsurprisingly – to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Searingly observed, in Three Rooms Hamya knowingly comments on contemporary Britain with wit and cool detachment. Her writing is polished and crisp, but there are no avoiding spells of outrage when it comes to racism, elitism in education, and bewildering politics in the pivotal moment of 2019 when the novel is set.
Like her protagonist, Hamya lived in Oxford and worked on a temporary contract as a copy editor at a society magazine, also drawing on her experience as a bookseller to bring one of her other characters to life. Hamya’s unnamed narrator can be annoying – she googles “how to be a better person” before shopping at Waitrose and messages strangers on Tinder “perhaps ours is a lost generation of sorts?” – but at the same time, she is incredibly relatable. Constantly scrolling, tugged in different ideological directions by Twitter, and painfully aware of her own privilege, Hamya’s narrator sums up a lot about the woes of the social media age.
The 24-year-old only recently graduated from studying the way in which social media is shaping our lives. Notion chatted with Jo Hamya about heteronormativity and the dream to own a home, digital culture and hating her narrator.
Firstly, congratulations on the book. I really enjoyed reading it. How did you first get into writing?
I kept diaries from about the age of eight and that’s probably the most consistent form of writing that I’ve done. I went to high school in America and there was an option to do a creative writing class there and I took one year of it, and then another year, while I was an undergraduate at King’s College London – but I really didn’t have much ambition to be a fiction writer. My main form of writing was mainly essays, or literary criticism, academic dissertations, or journal work. Then at some point in 2018, I quit my job for various reasons and, as a kind of filler project between looking for a new job, began writing Three Rooms. Then it just kind of took over from there.
I guess that starts to answer my next question, which is, how did Three Rooms come about?
I think it was more political when it started. It was going to trace the lives of, through the decade from 2010, those conservative old Etonians like Michael Gove, or David Cameron, or Boris Johnson. It was going to track their lives through various spaces that had formed their politics – places like Eton or Oxford or Westminster Cabinets. Then I wrote about 30 pages of that and couldn’t really sustain interest in that kind of novel. It wasn’t really mine. I was trying to base it on writers that I admired at the time: William Boyd or Julian Barnes. I had a real issue with using speech marks or traditional forms of prose, but I have always read a lot of poetry. So, I realized that it would sustain my interest better to write in a more poetic form. But to do that you needed an individual voice, which ended up being the voice of my narrator. So, it became a shorter and much more closed novel, just through wanting to experiment with prose while reading poets like Hannah Sullivan, and Anne Carson.
You moved back home to write the book. Was that important when you were writing it?
I know it seems like a really personal book because I’ve used a lot of the circumstances and the places that I’ve been in to write it, like Oxford, and I used to work at a society magazine as well. But the narrator isn’t me and I find her kind of abhorrent. She was based on a lot of people that I was looking at on Twitter. I wanted her to exist in a kind of grey area. Being at home fed into the novel, insofar as it was practically really useful to not have to worry about rent for the time that I was writing it, and my parents were incredible in ways that made me so lucky. I mean, my dad cooked me lunch every day while I was writing. It was just the dream scenario to write a novel in and I’m really, really lucky for that. But I’d say, looking at my generation, my contemporaries on Twitter, and trying to assimilate their voice into the book and how they felt about sharing rooms with eight strangers in London while on minimum wage, or Brexit, or the 2019 election and the complete failure of that – how they felt about that fed more into writing the book, than where I was.
There was a bit in the book where your narrator is talking about female writers and how they all have very similar styles. Which writers were you trying to evoke?
Part of the book is about lifestyle and how someone forms an image of their life. To some extent, it’s a literary book, and it’s a literary character. So the kind of fiction that you’d throw up on your Instagram or that you talk about with your peers fed into that curation of self-image. Rachel Cusk had a huge influence on me. Before I wrote this book, when I was about 19, it was reading Outline that was the first time I felt that maybe it would be worth writing fiction. It was such a stylistic break to have this narrative that was so clean, and so objective. It was sort of like reading water. A Room of One’s Own works as a sort of counterpoint structure in the book, carrying on an argument, but then I think Woolf’s argument is also very flawed. One of the central tenants of the book is the way that thought works in relation to topics like privilege or news that is massively flawed as well. The way that Woolf talks about inherited privilege is quite blinkered, I feel in the same way that some people on Twitter do. I used Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems a lot to see what more I could do in prose. I think that’s an incredibly fluidly inventive book of poetry, and similar in the way it was looking at a lot of outcasts. Then that passage on publishing taste or that kind of Sally Rooney, Rachel Cusk type novel – I’m not unaware that my book falls into a similar category. I hope it’s maybe slightly different – but that’s slightly poking fun at the book itself. I think it’s good to be self-aware about these things.
Yeah, it added an extra depth of irony which I already enjoyed. There’s a lot of allusions to famous writers of the last century, from Woolf to Walter Pater, and some discussion of whether these writers should even be studied. I was wondering, where were you coming from in doing that?
Part of it was, I was writing a book about digital culture and the way that has changed socio-political thoughts; the way the digitized gig economy has changed expectations of life and modes of life; and how that would feed into a novel. I’m basically talking about inducting a new mode of technology into literary form. And modernism, the dictum of “make it new” – that as a blueprint suits experimenting in that way quite well. It keeps things quite tight if you have that as a base to work from. I guess in a sense the whole book is about how closely you should adhere to tradition. One of the other main themes is: should you really adhere to this thing where you go to university, and then you get a nine to five job, and then you get a house, and you get married, and you get a dog. You have this whole heteronormative lifestyle planned out for you. To varying degrees, the answer’s yes or no. Similarly, with looking up to these modernist cultural icons, especially something like Bloomsbury which essentially revolutionized the idea of how you could market lifestyle – in a similar way to what William Morris did, where he made working- and middle-class home decor something that could be both mass-produced and beautiful – Bloomsbury also took that idea and went one step further with it, making it seem rarefied, but still desirable, and something that you’d want to attain. In a kind of slightly wanky way, I wanted to write a book that did follow on from some form of tradition. Those were the things that I was thinking about. Because part of that book takes place in a university, anyone who’s done an English degree at a university, especially one like Oxford, questions the degree to which their reading list is useful or relevant, so I guess it would have been unrealistic not to have a cohort of people questioning that.
Definitely. You’ve already mentioned that you really dislike your narrator, that she’s definitely not you. But I guess people reading the book might see it as autobiographical. How much is autobiographical in a sense?
I’ve been incredibly lucky with my education and my career to date to have gone to Russell Group or Oxbridge universities and then worked at Conde Nast. So, I wanted essentially cultural spaces that were supposedly the highest echelons of what you could achieve, so that I could demonstrate how those things are an outdated mode of success, essentially – especially in a digitized gig economy. While I was writing, I didn’t want to just blurt out my experience on a page, because to be honest, I’ve not had the worst of it by a long margin. So, I guess what I really thought when I was writing was: what would be the worst possible judgement that you could make, if you’d gone back and been in those circumstances – from having spent too much time on the internet to prevaricating between wanting to know everything and be perfect, and then being so scared. Not achieving that kind of ideological perfection, so that you do nothing. For that reason, I find her useless as a character because she aspires to the politically, morally perfect ideological standpoint, where she is able to consider everything, but by staging it becomes immobilised and isn’t able to do anything, even if people around her saying: think something for yourself. I would really, really hope that that’s not me, that I have a firmer and more productive outlook on life, and take more action in my life for things that I believe in. But there are little bits of me in all the other characters as well, especially when they’re trying to give the narrator a kick up the arse.
Who were you trying to reach with this book? Who were your intended readers?
Well, I didn’t mean for this book to be published. It was sent into Jonathan Cape without my knowledge, but I obviously was really happy when that happened. I enjoyed writing a novel much more than I thought. It gave me a much greater sense of purpose than I thought it would. So, I’ve thought it’s something that I might like to continue doing throughout my life. I’ve written a second novel and I think I’ve settled on that. But for this first one, there was no intended audience because it was literally something that I meant to fill my time with as I was finding a new job. Then that became the job and I began thinking that as long as I finish this novel, then everything would be okay somehow. I guess how Cape has chosen to market this book is towards a sort of millennial and Gen-Z audience, which is who it’s most relatable to. But since it’s also formally indebted to a kind of poetic and modernist tradition, I would hope that it’s enjoyable to all ages. I’ve sent it to some of my old lecturers, and they’re between their 30s and 50s, in the hope that they’ll enjoy it. I want my family to enjoy it. I basically hope that anyone could read this book and remember what 2018 and 2019 were like in terms of the news cycle and the state of the nation at the time for England.
I guess the pandemic has kind of changed everything since your novel.
Yeah – but not everything. The Grenfell tower anniversary was not long ago. And in that case, practically nothing has changed since the inquiry that’s mentioned in the book. There are still 10s of buildings around London that are built with flammable cladding, and families paying for night watchers to make sure they don’t burn in their own homes during the night. Throughout lockdown, this idea of visible and invisible homelessness was so much more heightened when government provisions wouldn’t account for people who did not have a home. Political focus has altered and especially as something like the pandemic has desensitized us to how bizarre it is to have someone like Priti Patel as Home Secretary or Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Bizarre is probably just a really generous word. But it’s the same form of government, which means it’s a different context, but the same policy.
Going back to social media, with 2021 the term “internet novel” came into being. What are your thoughts on this new categorization?
The concept of an internet novel is only new and rarefied in relation to literary fiction and literary publishers because commercial or YA fiction has been taking advantage of digital technology for ages. I remember as a teenager reading Meg Cabot, and she would insert IM conversations into her books. Gossip Girl as a phenomenon was seemingly YA but the methodology used in those books is now what literary publishers are now looking at with their mouths hanging open. I did three dissertations on the concept of internet literary production, feeling really frustrated that literary publishing is behind the mark on that. It stems out of – weirdly enough for a tradition that evolves only as modes of technology evolve – this odd desire to cling to outdated forms of technology, like emails. Not that emails are outdated, but sort of two decades old, three decades old modes of technology rather than seeing where you can take the form by introducing new concepts into it. I do agree to some extent that if you write a novel in 2020 or 2021, your mode of thought has been so shaped by the internet. Even if you don’t have a Twitter account, if you have a smartphone, the way you interact with the interface of your apps, and of your browsers, the personal data that you plug into it, like your fingerprint, or facial recognition, your pedometer that tracks how far you walk every day – there’s no way that you cannot be influenced by something like that while you’re writing. It just inherently, even in the most untraceable ways, shapes how you would create a novel. In terms of the “internet novel” as a genre, I don’t find it to be this incredibly big phenomenon. It feels like quite a natural evolution of any mode of writing. But I really do like the idea that the most inane comment that’s made about internet novels online is anachronistic. In 10 or 20 years, this will be outdated, but I love that concept. I love the idea that an internet novel in a century will have the same sort of appeal and sort of historicism as maybe war novels now. It’ll sort of be a period genre that transports you back to what it was like to be alive. Patricia Lockwood’s is probably the most obvious one and I think that’s an incredible monument. That’s something that I would read in my 70s, really read back over it and be like: Oh, yeah, that’s what being 20 at the time felt like.
Would you call your own novel an “internet novel”?
You probably could, to be honest. I guess you could insofar as both of my novels centre a lot around how social media has impacted pathways of thought – how you make an argument in your head, or how you think of the things that are in front of you. But more generally speaking, I’d like to think that they focus on digital technology as well – the concept of having an iPhone with you at all times every day. I hope they focus on that more broadly. So yes, they are internet novels under the remit of also being kind of digital novels, and hopefully written in a kind of literary tradition. So that doesn’t seem like such a high-tech sci-fi concept, it’s as normal as rolling over in the morning, and reading your WhatsApp messages first thing.
In your author’s note, you say your aim in writing was to warn against the dangers of withholding capital, but your book is definitely not gritty social realism. I was wondering why you picked a relatively bourgeois or privileged narrator for that aim?
It was more the case that she is fairly privileged and yet, there is still no room for her to get past. She’s put on a casual contract when she goes to this fancy upscale job with her overblown education, and she still has to couch surf. I don’t particularly feel sorry for her for most of the book because she doesn’t take decisive action throughout it. But it would be one thing to write a heart-rendering and obvious protagonist for that story, and you’d think: Oh, of course that happens, that’s just what happens to people like that. What I’m getting at is more the sort of systemic idea of a government that for the past 20 years has been advocating for quite bourgeois privileged values, like getting a university education and then getting a high flying job and then getting a dog, etc, but still slowly stripping those privileges away from everyone but their own circle. So, to some extent, I wanted a book where the more that this seemingly right person does right, the more goes wrong. To me, that made sense as a paradox, because it’s really easy to glaze your eyes over or expect things with a protagonist who isn’t bourgeois and privileged, but I guess the frustration that you feel at her is the same sort of frustration that you would feel at a Conservative Party member. So, I wasn’t really angling for likability, or I wasn’t angling for emotion. While I was writing the book, I wanted a grey area so that people could think properly rather than just emote at the book about the politics of England between 2018 and 2019. For me, it was more important to illustrate the locations in the book and hence the title having more of a geographical reference than one in relation to plot or character. I wanted to think about the rooms that the narrator is within and the institutions that she’s a part of, the country that she feels any sort of patriotism or nationalism towards, and if not then why not. For a government that for the past 20 years has been withholding capital from all but its own people, that seems like a good kind of neutral base to work off of.
I really related to the character of the flatmate in the book, her mum, saying that it was hard for her generation growing up – it reminded me of what the boomer generation stereotypically says about millennials. What was your thinking behind your deliberately flawed characters?
I prefer the book to work in a moral grey area so that people can tease and puzzle out their own memories and judgments of what was at that time Brexit Britain at its height. So, these characters that sometimes feed into a trope, like the flatmate’s mother – she says something that everyone I know has had said to them by their parents or by older figures – and it may be true, it may be that in 20 years or so, it’s something that I’ll say to any child of mine as well.
It wouldn’t be much of a novel or there wouldn’t be much grey area to work with in that novel, if everyone said the right thing at the right time. That’s partly why I didn’t improve on the character, the interior character of my narrator, even though it was grueling. I knew people would end up thinking I was like her, but I didn’t make her a better person, because if I did, it would be a three-page novel. The characters do at various points talk a tiny bit of common sense, because, as with most people around you, no one is flawed 100% of the time, but no one is perfect 100% of the time. More than that, I guess part of the idea of their being fluid within that book is none of them have the same mode of thought as the other, or at least I would hope. So, if they seem fluid, it’s because you have this mass of contrasting information coming at this narrator very quickly. There’s really no telling what’s right or what’s wrong in what’s being said throughout the book. Part of that is mimicking the idea of a Twitter timeline, where you have no time to process information, you’re looking at a news report of genocide one moment and then a dog video the next, and then underneath that someone has a hot take on 21st-century post-feminism, and beneath that someone is entirely refuting what you’ve just read above. So, I wanted a replication of that experience with those characters, and if they seem flawed, it’s because they’re modelled on a flawed process.
There’s an interestingly distanced tone in the book, especially when it comes to talking about Grenfell Tower at the end.
With Grenfell, that’s a really difficult thing to write about, because you in no way want to sensationalize for the purpose of narrative what happened that night. I very consciously at the end chose to write solely about the experience of reading the inquiry report, not to try to create some sort of fictionalized account of what it must have been like at Grenfell, or what a survivor must feel. In the run-up to writing, I spent about three weeks reading through the report continuously. Then I listened to survivor testimonies throughout the inquiry, which were released in podcast form through the BBC, and followed up on as much as I could just purely to replicate the experience of spectatorship to an event that horrific and to that scale. Where passages have been taken from the inquiry report, it’s a really fucking harrowing thing. It’s really difficult not to cry when you read it, which is, you know, pathetic, because imagine having been through it. Any distancing that occurs isn’t through the desire to distance myself from the difficulty of expressing emotion, it’s a desire not to encroach on any sort of narrative voice or story that doesn’t belong to me. The only truthfully real experience that I can give of Grenfell is as a spectator, and that’s why it comes that way in the book. I thought that was really important because it would have been – this is a crass way to put it – utter bullshit to write a first-hand account. It would have contravened the entire point of the novel. Then more generally as to that sense of distancing, that probably comes out of the passage that you pointed out earlier, that’s poking fun at these very cleanly written, quite distanced and floating Sally Rooney, Rachel Cusk type novels. I’ve been trying to write a book in the style of William Boyd or Julian Barnes which are rich in detail, plot, and character-driven books. In the past five years, there’s been a spate of articles about women taking over publishing and women authors being on the rise. eradicating the male authorial voice. That is a process that seems predominantly to be led by women at the moment towards being quite dispassionate. It’s maybe a reaction against having read those male authors.
I think publishing works by way of trends. The way that trends work is to go in in one direction, and then countermand what you’ve just seen and go in the opposite direction. So, that’s maybe where that stems from. Maybe the tone of literary modernism is quite sharp and quite clean, but I don’t find them to have any difficulty in engaging in their emotional subject matter. If anything, I find them very emotive.
(Spoiler ahead!) I liked that there was a slight twist at the end with the third room being the Tate. Why did you go for that?
I’m so glad you got that because not everyone does. It’s a really Turner-specific thing that she wants to be a part of, in a very simplistic way that’s been peddled to her throughout her life. This is one of these spaces that she thinks it’s right to be a part of – I mean, no shade to the Tate Britain. I love going there. It is part of her idea of what life should be is walking around the Tate Britain, then Turner specifically because after having spent the book trying to create this ideal middle-class concept of life, having had this year of constantly being plugged into the news to try to tease out what the country around her is and how she could make a home in it, she ends up looking at these paintings of England. At least for me, going through places like the Tate Britain or the National Gallery is a really charged experience. It’s like watching Merchant Ivory films. It’s like watching these lush period dramas which connect this idea of Englishness and British patriotism, to lush rolling green fields, which is very much a Turner landscape – these gauzy beautiful landscapes that are imbued with a very conservative sensibility. It’s exactly what she has been adhering to throughout the whole book. But she notices what is artificial about this Turner painting. I went to the Tate Britain and walked around for about four hours. I did that exercise myself of trying to find what was artificial in these paintings that have been weaponized by people like Nigel Farage – an idea of what a country should be, that actually holds no water at all. It’s fiction. That’s why I wanted her to end up on a train. It wasn’t so much the idea that she was going home, it was the idea that she’d be heading on a train north of London, and should be able to start looking at the countryside, and connect the dots of how 2018 and 2019 conservative values, which were and are flawed as hell, the ideas of patriotism that were peddled to push people into a far-right territory, were connected to this idea of beauty and Britishness and what Englishness should be: gorgeous rolling fields and what is right and proper.
You’ve already mentioned that you’ve written another novel. What can we expect from your next novel, and from your career ahead?
I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say about it, but it asks similar questions in a different context, which are: what has digital technology and the internet done to our modes of thought, the idea that we conceive of what it is to have a personal ideology or some sort of moral dictum within ourselves and the shared consciousness that arises out of it. But equally, the inability to reconcile differences between other people. It’s also a novel about generational differences, specifically the expectations that various generations have as a result of how use to these modes of technology and the internet. Then in the future, I am gunning for a PhD. I put one aside for ages and should probably get on that. I’d quite like to be a lecturer. It wasn’t my ambition to be a fiction writer, but it’s turned out to be something that I find a lot of purpose in. I think if I wrote another one soon after this, it would become quite monotonous. It would be the same style of writing. So, I’ll probably take a break for two or three years and then come back to it maybe at the end of this decade and see if I could do it again.