Jo Hamya is an author working at the Booker Prize and PhD candidate at King's College London. Her debut book, Three Rooms, came out in 2021. She was born in London and moved around the world for her parents’ work. Earlier this year, Middleground’s editor-in-chief Pauline caught up with Jo, whose story ‘Osmosis’ was published in the magazine’s third issue. Their conversation led them to talk about generational expectations, British political landscapes, and representation in the art world.
Pauline: The story that you tell in Three Rooms is a very modern tale. It covers academia, class, entry-level employment, living in London in the 21st century and wanting to get out of the cycle of low-paying jobs and expensive rent. Why was it important for you to tell that story?
Jo: At the time I started writing the book, it was more a bildungsroman about a group of boys who had ended up being in the ruling political elite of the 2010s, basically like David Cameron or Michael Gove. And I knew I wanted to write a book that spoke to the political and class structures of how the country is made up and how that feeds in on a micro-level to people in their twenties and thirties, who are trying to establish the conventional idea of life — having a mortgage and a family and a house — and how those ideas have become luxuries. But I moved away from writing about those boys and those men because the news cycle at the time filled in a lot of that information in a much more compelling way. At the time when I was writing, I’d just graduated from my master's and I was looking for a job. I was looking to start my life in accordance with how my parents' generation had managed to get their entry-level job, and then work nine to five, get promoted, meet someone, start a family. It was this idea of social mobility. But for myself and my friends, the economic and social landscapes have moved on from what our parents knew.
It was important to me then because I wanted to cover why my generation was living with a greater degree of precarity than my parents' generation. But since publishing, it's interesting because those questions have been expanded upon by recent events of our time. In 2018 and 2019, I guess they revolved a lot around ideas of nationalism and sociopolitical infrastructure, which is why the book is centred around events like Brexit or Grenfell. But then moving forward, the pandemic hit and we all got stuck at home, but that looked very different for different people.
Some of us were okay. It was easy to work from home. We had a comfortable living situation that allowed us to set up offices at home. On the other end of the spectrum, the homeless population in Britain was being punished for being outside, for breaking lockdown regulations, but they had nowhere else to go. And now with the cost of living crisis, those questions that the book addresses are coming up again — what in your life should you class as a luxury and what is essential to living?
Pauline: It's so interesting to talk about this now because the world you're depicting in the story went out the window for a bit. And it has come back tenfold, but we’ve got a different understanding of it. Our relation to it is maybe a little bit different, but the way that it's built hasn't changed. And your nameless protagonist, in this pre-pandemic world, already struggles to find her place in the world, both as a woman and as a person of colour. Are there any ways in which that struggle resonates with you?
Jo: Yes and no, in the sense that the themes are relational, but the execution is a bit different. I was quite pointed about her being mixed-race, particularly in the context of the elite institutions that she was working in. There's an element of passing, but also not passing that goes on at Oxford and the society magazine. From a class perspective, she's incredibly well-educated and well-spoken, but the mannerisms that come with working somewhere like a society magazine or being somewhere like Oxford are things that you are born with, and there's no way to pick up that kind of coded language when you kind of come into those places uninitiated.
I also worked at a society magazine and went to Oxford. But more generally in the arts sector, there’s almost an incestuous landscape of everyone knowing each other from having spent countless hours drinking together at lunch in the nineties. And it's very difficult to break into that.
As to how she might struggle as a woman in the books, in a sense it is quite a feminine novel but that wasn't at the forefront of my mind while I was working on it. There are snippets about femininity, such as her struggling to find an outfit for the party, which I don't believe is an experience a man would necessarily go through. But those things also have a lot to do with the aesthetics of class representation.
Pauline: Listening to you talk about is making me think about how intersectional the book is. Femininity segues into race, which segues into class. These different themes were also present in your short story ‘Osmosis’, in which your protagonist overhears an argument between two people about racial diversity, or lack thereof, in artistic spheres. What are your thoughts on that? What kind of representation have you seen in the literary world?
Jo: ‘Osmosis’ is actually based on a conversation I wasn't supposed to hear about me! I was in a different room and heard this conversation about race and the idea of representation for representation’s sake. There are some incredible writers who very pointedly write about race and representation and who want their work to be cast in that light, which is wonderful and really necessary.
What was a concern to me is what happens when you are a non-white, non-heteronormative artist or writer whose work doesn't necessarily concern those themes but is then cast through that as a promotional angle or a way for a boardroom or a meeting room of white professionals to demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Those are really intimate themes to cover, even through the medium of art, but it’s almost expected that you should be able to kind of give that piece of yourself, essentially for market purposes, to sell more work, to sell more books, to get more likes on Twitter, but they're extremely delicate and fraught things to explore on an individual basis.
And I'm only 24, so I don't feel ready or brave enough yet to express those things in a way that’s as nuanced and thorough and fair to myself and to other people as I'd like to.
That's what ‘Osmosis’ was about — having someone talk about your identity while you're not in the room and perhaps not ready to address it, and it's not what you've worked on anyway. And then having that be the lens through which you're seen.
It was a way of creating a point of contact between tokenism and pigeonholing and forcing us all to make everything about our identities, even though we're complex beings with loads of different identities and different things that we're interested in. But also having that pressure to represent something that is never placed on people who are white, cisgender or heterosexual.
Pauline: And you’ve clearly got an interesting way of bringing up those topics in your work. You tend to opt for very precise, almost academic prose and pair it with formatting-free dialogue. When we worked together on your piece ‘Osmosis’, you stated that the latter is non-negotiable. Why are these choices important to you and what do you think they say about your writing?
Jo: Those are really personal choices of style and character, which may well change and evolve over the next few decades. I guess having a polemical approach to content and then a very strict approach to form means being able to use a text more as a thought experiment than a story. So I'm less invested in whether people like or don't like my characters and more invested in what they think along the way.
The decisions that I make with style eliminate a sense of make-believe or suspension. My concern is more that the reader is aware that what they're holding is a novel, that it's a construct through which they can think. Free format of dialogue without any speech marks is a way to do away with the idea that a made-up character is saying made-up words. Instead, this is a proposition that is being put forward within a body of text that you should read polemically.
I would want my reader to think rigorously while also, by benefit of reading fiction, be able to move away slightly from their own thought patterns.
Pauline: It sounds like there are a lot of dichotomies in your work. You have a very concrete and real political climate, in both the, in both Three Rooms and ‘Osmosis’, while wanting to allow your reader to have as much flexibility within that world as possible. Additionally, your characters are quite passive. In ‘Osmosis’, she's overhearing a conversation, and then in Three Rooms she's not taking action on the things that she could take action on, but you want your reader to be active in the way that they're going through the story, which is really interesting.
In a way, it’s more eye opening than having an active character because you're forced to make up for what the characters are not doing or not able to do, so you're putting a lot of power into your reader's hands, which is really powerful.
We’ve talked briefly about how much your own struggles have influenced your work. How does your mixedness impact your work and how do you relate to it?
Jo: I think this is a fairly classic response for a lot of mixed-race people, but as a teenager I basically felt between two camps and not fully able to belong to one set or the other, but also sort of held at a distance by both.
I'm quite happy to be between camps, if that makes sense. It definitely feeds into a lot of my work, which is essentially sitting on the fence and observing two extreme ends of the spectrum and then bringing them together.
I haven't yet written any extended work on the experience of mixedness, but it's definitely an underlying principle that governs how the work has set out. That being said, though, I was really glad and grateful to be published with Middleground because it's been really beautiful to see more outlets like yours, focusing on the experience and expression of mixed-race existence on its own merit, without being forced into making work "tokenistic".
I think I'm still in the phase of enjoying watching both ends of my spectrum and bringing them together, but at some point I know that I'm really going to enjoy parsing out what mixedness is on its own terms.
Pauline: Do you think that's something that you'll explore more fully than anywhere at some point?
Jo: Yes, I think so. The next book I've written is a more explicit exploration of gender and gender relations. Three Rooms builds on the idea of class. And some of my friends and my editors have begun to think, well, it's got to be a trilogy. To put it crudely, we’ve completed class and gender, so race has to come next.
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