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Jo Hamya's "Three Rooms" Tells The Story Of Life During Brexit


The unnamed narrator of Jo Hamya's debut novel "Three Rooms" tells herself, you are brown and bourgeois, and the internet does not believe you exist. She wants her own place but can't afford it - first as a research assistant at Oxford, then a copy editor at a stylish London magazine, though she can't afford most of what the magazine puts in front of readers.

JO HAMYA: (Reading) There was a chasm between my expectations and the reality I had to exist in, which no one else seemed to grasp. When I FaceTimed home and told my parents I found it unlikely that I should ever walk into a room and meet the person with whom I would one day take out a mortgage, have a child, get a dog, make a home, they stared at me blankly. When I told my neighbor I found it unlikely that a swipe could ever incur something good, he laughed. And though I wanted to be a good feminist, be grateful for the advancements of a post-post-feminist age and #MeToo, I did not want to end up alone.

SIMON: Jo Hamya read that section and joins us now from London. Thank you so much for being with us.

HAMYA: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You've got a very striking phrase where you say that life often seemed to be a choice between missing lunch and buying Mandarin & Clary Sage face wash.

HAMYA: (Laughter) The Mandarin face wash kind of comes after a passage where she'd visited her flatmate's parents' house, and there was this face wash in their bathroom that she uses to wash her face with after she's been crying. To her, it's a very sort of aspirational thing to have this home which she owns that she can fill with, you know, things to offer to guests to comfort them and ease them. And so at that point in the book, she skips out on a few days' worth of lunch to buy this face wash, I suppose to remind herself of what it is she's trying to attain rather mistakenly because the blueprint she's working off of is, you know, a kind of England that existed under Tony Blair, a kind of New Labour movement that was very preoccupied with social mobility. And she, of course, is working through a digitized gig economy that has been under conservative rule for a decade. And social mobility is not the byword.

SIMON: She goes to work at a glossy London magazine, and she doesn't seem to like the book she has to go through - I mean, actually has active contempt for them, right? There seem to be things on breaking up with your iPhone, the tyranny of yoga, that sort of thing.

HAMYA: Oh, yes. There's a kind of running thread of criticism throughout the book on life writing. So some of that is the glossy magazine that she's at, which sort of encourages people to buy 2,000-pound chandeliers or 100-pound candles. And another side of it is a sort of what was then a trend for mainly women's writing, essays about - well, precisely that, sort of how you exist and make a life and make an identity in the 21st century. And all of this is being fed to her. I suppose she finds a sort of hypocrisy in it that these books sort of offer to make your life better but only if you're starting from a position in which it's already pretty good. And that's probably where her contempt comes from.

SIMON: I'm sure you've had this question, and we'll have it a lot more. You were a student at Oxford. Then you worked as a copy editor for Tatler in London.

HAMYA: Mmm hmm.

SIMON: To what degree is this novel a memoir?

HAMYA: It's not. (Laughter) I'd wanted to set this book in fairly upper-class or upper middle-class settings in England in order to kind of juxtapose the national politics of the time and how miserable they were. I had a sort of insight into these places and the small-scale hypocrisies that happened within them every day that I felt would be interesting or worthwhile to explore in a book, just not necessarily through my own memories or lens or perspective. So I gave that to someone else.

SIMON: It's irresistible to note that this was the same generation as a lot of the tech entrepreneurs who do not sleep on couches.

HAMYA: (Laughter) Yes.

SIMON: And they believe that freedom and creativity have prospered in this gig economy.

HAMYA: Right. The basis of the book - or the blueprint of the book is Virginia Woolf's "A Room Of One's Own," and although she makes some contentious arguments in there as well, she's sort of not free of her own hypocrisies. The core thing she says is that intellectual freedom is inextricably linked to a good kind of prosperous, material life. And I don't think anyone who, without choice, has not had bus fare, has had to meter out how much they can spend on food - I don't think anyone would seriously say that that's been good for their creativity or their intellectual freedom. I think your priorities get rearranged in a way where it's a kind of survival mechanism more than it is about creating tech or novels.

SIMON: I gather from the afterword that you wrote this book after you left your job and returned to your parents' home.


SIMON: What was that like?

HAMYA: Well, of course, I was extremely lucky to be able to do that, and my parents were incredibly generous with me. I think it was slightly frustrating for all of us. I was supposed to be looking for another job, but it meant that I could write this book with a bit more freedom, and then I would, you know - it's probably one of the most important periods of my life. I feel quite blessed that I was able to do that.

SIMON: Yeah. I think we both have a self-interest in this answer. Do young people working in the gig economy have enough time for novels?

HAMYA: (Laughter) Yes, I think so. I mean, I don't know about the States, but I know that book sales went up throughout the pandemic. As job precarity soared, so did the number of people turning to fiction. It's probably the same answer that anyone gives, which is that modes of reading may change, but reading itself and novels themselves remain.

SIMON: Well, let us hope. Jo Hamya - her debut novel, "Three Rooms." Thank you so much for being with us.

HAMYA: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN K. SAMSON'S "GRACE GENERAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.