A Cambodian Reflection on Virginia Woolf

Posted by @ 12:35 pm on March 3rd, 2010

In 1929, Virginia Woolf rallied that women need a room of their own, not just to be a writer but to be free. Free here is used loosely. Freedom has more to do with creativity and empowerment, which may ultimately be what “freedom” means. I just want to differentiate between “freedom” in the constitutive or religious or new age definitions and what I mean.

I first read Woolf when I was eighteen or nineteen. In the most cliché ways, she totally rocked my world. Back then, I was some suffering, struggling poet—and a very bad poet too! Since then, I make it a point to teach her to my first years, hoping she’d inspire them to think critically, in the same ways she’s inspired me. And she did inspire me: I believed her. I believed I needed a room of my own to write, to be a good writer.

But driving through the Cambodian countryside—countryside here being a very poor translation. Here’s the problem with language, yeah? I say countryside to many Westerners, and they (WE) think of pastoral cowfields or quaint little bed & breakfasts—I’m reminded of Woolf and her call for a room. See: the houses in Cambodia sit on stilts (which is utterly irrelevant to my point, more of a cool observation) and they don’t have any doors, or rather, if they do have doors, they’re never closed. Driving by, anyone can see straight through the houses, which are more like shacks. They’re small, no bigger than my two bedroom apartment, and there aren’t even walls to differentiate personal, individualized space.

Another side-note: it’s not uncommon for newly married couples, especially in the country, to live with the bride’s family for a period of time after marriage, or at least until they can afford their own home.

So imagine scoring yourself some hot bride and moving in with her parents, in a home without doors and walls. Or imagine scoring yourself some hot groom and bringing him home to live with your parents, in a home without doors or walls. But that’s not my point.

Driving through Cambodia, I wonder if Woolf was right, if a “room of my own” is what I need. (I’m not even touching her second requirement—an allowance—which is highly problematic in a very privileged way.) On this trip, I’ve noticed how much “space” I need as an American, how quiet we are—good God, there’s nothing so loud as 45 Vietnamese people on a tourbus together!—and how much I value my privacy. This isn’t uncommon for Americans as a whole, but it seems like as writer-artist-creative types, we covet these things diligence.

This is meandering, and you’ll have to forgive me. In the States, I get a lot of “cred” for being a “writer.” When I used to teach, my very generous chair would make all sorts of “allowances” for my creative freedom. People expect me to be quirky, socially awkward, etc. The few people on this trip who know I’m a writer could care less. Sure, they think books are nice, but they value my being “American” much more than my CV. If anything, my awkwardness and nervousness is called “snobbery” on account of my being “better” than the others here because I’m American.

So here I am, back to Woolf & this room business. I’m caught thinking about how different the lives of the people here are, how poor they are (a quick anecdote: my tour guide says, “You can tell the Cambodian people are poorer than our—Vietnamese—people by looking at their water buffalo.” So I look at their emaciated, dusty water buffalo. I’m not sure Vietnamese water buffalo look any different, as I’m not entirely sure I’ve seen one in real life, but if these animals are any indication of wealth, I have to admit, it’s pretty dismal.), I’m caught thinking about Shakespeare’s sister. Fuck: I could take gender out of the picture here & just say Shakespeare. Cambodia has a lot of art, yes. No question about it. I’ve spent the last few days seeing its incredible legacy, but here and now, in the Cambodian countryside, there are no rooms. There are no doors. There’s very little money, if any at all.

What is the relationship between space & creativity? How different would our lives be if we lived in houses without doors, spaces without barrier? Would we, in fact, have better lives? (I’m not saying we should all live below the poverty level, etc. Rather, I’m just thinking about space, rooms, walls.) Would our “art” improve?

So here’s my point—Do I have a point!?!—one is obvious: my circumstance is linked inextricably to my writing, that is, the fact that I’m a privileged American has everything to do with my “freedom” to be a writer. I think about this all the time. Nothing new. But what is new development for me is the role of physical space and writing.  I’ve always fancied myself as someone who can write anywhere. It’s something of a joke. Because when it comes down to it, I’m armed with my Moleskine journals and my MacBook Pro, my fair trade organic coffee & my Pink Noise or iTunes. I’ve been able to write because I’ve had the privilege to be able to, because I’ve had a room of my own—despite my own, often very romantic, notions of being racialized Other—and I’ve had, in some form or another, an allowance, though mostly an allowance that I’ve earned myself.

But the Cambodians in the countryside, where is their room? Where is their allowance? And yet, people are writers here too, despite what Woolf called for. So I wonder how much of Woolf’s demands have to do with personal comfort and how much of it has to do with necessity.

Man, this is not going at all how I expected it to. I wanted to make some grand point about space and writing, privacy and creativity. Instead, this has become something else entirely. I’m not even sure what.

But even now, it’s not like I’m willing to give up my pleasures, nor would I want to. I just observe how other people live, make some clever points about it, and go back to my cush life. I want to be challenged just enough to question my life without doing much else. What can I say? I’m American.

Ok. I’ve been typing on this long enough. Take out of this what you will. I’ll have more reflections on Southeast Asia to come. You can look forward to one about haggling, at the very minimum.

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