Sina Queyras tells the story of their queer bodies in academia
With lines like “[…] my perspective deepened, widened, rose above, until I felt like an emotional astronaut, an umbilical cord over my head connecting me to the vast collective of animals, people and trees”, (10) the way Sina Queyras describes the settings and people in this novel shows not only versatility, but a mastery of their craft. It is therefore not surprising to know that they are lecturers in the creative writing department of Concordia.
Released on May 31, Queyra’s latest book, Rooms: Women, Writing, Woolf, is the culmination of Queyras’ persistent attempts to connect Virginia Woolf to her personal life, as well as her writing journey, and how these two relate to the struggles of queer and female bodies. It tells Queyras’ own coming-of-age story as they emerge from a troubled childhood and adolescence in rural British Columbia. It then takes the reader to the beginning of his adult and professional life following his return to college after dropping out of high school. As the Queyras tells this story, anecdotes featuring experiences of sexism and homophobia weave naturally into the text. It creates a journey in which the Queyras discover their own power and independence, and show the reader a time when their experiences shaped their view of their sexuality.
Unfortunately, the way Queyras discusses her journey with gender identity often relies on notions of strict gender binary. That said, praise is deserved for putting this trip into words in the first place. “Writing this book has helped me come to terms with how I’ve largely shut down the non-binary part of me over the years, both in my life and in my writing.” they stated. The link. By opening up this part of their identity, Queyras also creates space for more non-binary people to exist, feel represented, and write.
The contemporary writing scene is indeed growing to include more of these experiences. Queyras was quick to praise her contemporaries, highlighting Isabel Waidner, Andrea Lawlor and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore as creative innovators in the representation of gender and sexuality. Queyras even mentioned a graduate of Concordia’s creative writing program, Eli Tareq el Bechelany-Lynch, who they say “does crucial work exploring queer bodies.”
Although Queyras is a white person of French and Icelandic descent and his first language is English, his understanding of what it feels like to learn the English language self-taught is surprisingly accurate. In Rooms, they explain that they have never been good in class and have not finished high school, in part because they have failed English classes several times. For this reason, they had to learn English grammar on their own before returning to school. “People who arrive at the language by trial and error rather than a fundamental understanding of the grammatical systems generally do not learn those systems in the way that a native or well-educated speaker and writer of that language naturally assumes” (29) Queyras writes, reflecting on their experience learning English grammar. This understanding of language learning difficulties is surprising, not only because it may seem like a white Canadian author will never know how to put it into words, but also because it comes from a university professor. . Nevertheless, Queyras asserted that they believe that “grammar is necessary for writing, but it is not sufficient. […] Ideas are the energy, the fuel of writing. Asked about his role as a teacher and how it relates to his stance on grammar, Queyras said he was aware that not all students learned English in a classroom. They try to keep this in mind when scoring reviews.
At many points throughout Rooms, Queyras questions the university environment and the English canon; “Why did I have to wait until after a two-semester investigative course to meet a female writer?” (30) they write. While these were thoughts Queyras had as they embarked on their undergraduate degree in the late 1980s, the same question can be asked today at Concordia’s English Literature Department. Although there are lessons on Joyce, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Tolkien, Spenser and Milton, there are no lessons on Elliot, Dickinson, the Brontë sisters, Austen or the subject of Queyras’ book, Woolf. And what about authors of color? “I’ve met so many people in positions of power who have never had their worldview challenged,” Queyras said. “As I explain in Rooms, they tend to react with disbelief when challenged. This is still true today, even though they have an understanding of equality and are concerned with the idea of diversity. We have the feeling that the problem is elsewhere.
One of the main themes of this book is the Queyrassian experience of being a “young queer body coming into consciousness” (45). They elaborated on this idea in an interview saying, “I grew up in a world where camps – forestry or sawmill work, construction and mining – were a central part of our lives, literally the organizing principle of some of the towns in which I lived. […]. I felt, growing up in some of these spaces, that we were right next to the looting. This is indeed the picture that is painted in the book, as the Queyras move chronologically, albeit tangentially, through their lives. They continued, “My own experience coming to me, having escaped the grip of resource extraction, then through so many sexist and often homophobic halls had a big impact on my body and my thinking – and in my own research of my room. . I am still processing it. A particularly powerful quote in Rooms which highlights this theme comes as Queyras reflects on the lack of support from his family during his undergraduate studies. They remember thinking, “Why isn’t anyone clamoring to take me down this path?” (52).
Queyras draws connections between their life story and Woolf’s novels, diaries, and letters throughout the book. Woolf’s writing is deeply cognitive. It focuses on the inner workings of the mind, to the extent that the reader can see a character’s subconscious plotted before their eyes. The Queyras text works in a similar way. For example, the word “rooms” is used structurally to create patterns in the text, where cathartic moments are framed by the physical aspects of the various rooms in which the Queyras is found. For example, a time when the Queyras experience domestic violence and use the various doors and windows as ways to represent their emotional state.
On a more technical note, Rooms has rhythm in the narrative, in the overall structure of the text, but lacks it in its prose. Throughout the text, we do not know if it is a novel or an essay, because if it is a novel, it is written as an essay, and if it is an essay, it is presented as a novel. Queyras describes the book as “[…] memory part, test part. It may not be a defect; the genre is an increasingly trendy way of writing. Yet Queyras prose falls short on several occasions. Woolf’s style of writing is a delicacy one can rarely appreciate in other authors, and attempts to Rooms to reproduce it are sometimes a disservice to the text.
Rooms addresses many important topics while honoring Woolf’s legacy, proving that Woolf continues to be relevant to literary and feminist discourse, nearly 100 years after her famous essay, A room of one’s ownhas been published.