:: Article

In Conversation With Friends

By Victoria Wang.

In her most recent essay Books Do Furnish a Room (2017), the author Penelope Lively concludes that not only do books furnish a room, ‘even more do they furnish the mind’, as well as telling us about their owner’s past and influences. I’ve read quite a few books, 364 according to Goodreads. But if you were to scrutinise my current collection, you’d be appalled. Maybe not at first. But if I asked you to check how many female authors are represented, you’d notice a significant skew towards male authors. Admittedly, the seven volumes of Harry Potter are still living at my childhood home, but still.  My recent favourites might help you to understand me better. For every book I read by a man, I am reading two by a woman. It’s a conscious decision because it has to be.

On my Tinder profile, partly crafted by my ex-girlfriend, I wrote, ‘still can’t believe that Joyce and Woolf hated each other’. Depending on my mood I set the search criteria to either just women, or women and men. Some of the conversations I have on Tinder start because of this literary allusion. But I noticed a trend, which, as a scientist, is something that is becoming second nature to me.

When women referred to the Joyce/Woolf dispute they invariably knew of the two modernist writers. They might proceed to ask whether I had favourite novels by either, or say that they themselves adored Woolf but couldn’t stand Joyce. A couple of men wrote something similar. However, there were a few men who didn’t know of Joyce or Woolf, and tried to start a chat by asking me who they were. With so much information at our fingertips, couldn’t you just google the two names? My hunch is that women only tend to speak up when they are confident about something, whereas men are happy to take the plunge and risk disappointment.

La Force de L’Âge – Simone de Beauvoir (1960)

The second volume of her autobiography. My feet slipped effortlessly into her shoes as she describes how she was torn between action and passivity in the face of fascism, how much she loved reading, writing, thinking, walking, and Sartre.

Has it ever occurred to you that our public spaces are dominated by men? On your next stroll through town or on your way to work, look around you and you’ll see that almost all the statues you see are of (and by) men. Finding a statue of a real woman in London – as opposed to a goddess or a woman as a symbol of wisdom, justice or freedom – is like playing Where’s Wally. Don’t get me wrong, things are changing, albeit slowly for someone as impatient as me. Early next year will see the installation of the first statue of a woman, Dame Millicent Fawcett, on Parliament Square, cast in bronze by Gillian Wearing.

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy (1997)

Debut novel. Exquisitely written, evocative of a place I’ve never seen but imagined so colourfully, describing muteness and anger as reactions to beauty and tragedy too difficult to comprehend, for children and adults alike.

In work settings women are more likely to acknowledge the contributions of colleagues and collaborators. So, it is impossible for me to write the preceding paragraph without saying explicitly that the observation about women in public spaces wasn’t mine. It was Ellen’s, as she never fails to ask poignant questions. It was Ellen who helped get my Tinder profile up to scratch. She asks me where I want to go in life, on a professional level. I understand this to mean what kind of position do I want to reach and what attributes would a person in that position have, rather than precisely what job do I want.

‘I want to be in a position of power,’ I say, putting down my glass of beer. ‘Somewhere I can make decisions.’ I indicate by waving my arm in the direction of the makeshift dance floor in this basement gay bar, where straight women command the area, confining intimately chatting couples, flirtatious glances, and attempted dance moves to the side-lines. Immediately, I find myself backtracking. ‘I mean I want to have responsibility.’ Ellen gives me a dirty look. She tells me I am doing what women are taught to do, to take up less space and not use big words to describe themselves. ‘But Ellen, honestly, I want to be respected for what I do. I want to be regarded as an expert.’ – ‘Of course you do. All you have to do now is find your area of expertise.’ Easier said than done. I have some more beer.

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy (1869)

Epic novel. A classic I was worried would be boring, but was actually filled with humour, philosophy, and the histories of love and Europe.

I remember the first time I thought politics might not be as boring as it purported to be. It was October 1999, I was six and a half. In Austria, voting happens on a Sunday, so that you can participate in democracy right after going to church. In the evening of the same day, the first projections are broadcast on radio and television. There we were, my baby sister, probably asleep, my mum and dad, their marriage still intact, and me, unable to sit still for too long, moving from the big brown comfy armchair up to the TV to inspect the bar graphs and pie charts flashing up every few minutes. This was exciting: the uncertainty, the updates, the numbers, the unexpectedly high blue column representing Jörg Haider’s far-right freedom party. My parent’s dismay. This way something tangible, something understandable, different from what politics normally looked like: white men wearing suits and ties, using big words I didn’t understand, debating concepts too abstract, disagreeing and, as my mum would point out, not getting things done.

On 21 January 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration as forty-fifth president of the USA, I joined one hundred thousand other people on the women’s march through London. Apart from voting in elections, this was the first time I had ever done anything overtly political. I remember it was a sunny, cold, jean-stiffening day. Some women were wearing pussy hats, others, dressed as suffragettes, carried signs reading, ‘same shit, different century’. People were shouting and singing into megaphones, and I was surrounded by human beings as angry and angrier than me. I’d like to write that this experience was empowering, but it wasn’t. If anything, I felt less powerful, more overwhelmed, less sure about what to do.

A Scattering – Christopher Reid (2009)

Poetry. About cancer and death and grief and mutual affection and all the indescribable cracks and crevices in a person.

It is  Saturday afternoon, in a Bloomsbury coffee shop with Selin who is visiting from San Francisco. It’s not just any coffee shop, but the one attached to the London Review of Books bookshop. I’m attracted to bookshops just as I’m attracted to women who fall precipitously in, and then equally abruptly out of, love with me.

Selin is gripping the sides of the coffee table between us. Her body is drawing itself up from its habitual slump that probably stems from being bent over a microscope for too many hours of the week. ‘Can you believe they didn’t invite me to go out for a drink with them? Can you believe it?’ She had been working in the lab on a Saturday afternoon and several other scientists were also around, doing those crucial experiments that somehow never finish during normal working hours. ‘I mean, it’s even worse than that. It’s not that they deliberately didn’t ask me. They didn’t disinvite me. They just overlooked me.’ Three male colleagues who had been working on the same floor of her building finally finished their work and were about to go out, when Selin bumped into them near the elevators. ‘Is anyone else getting the bus?’, she asked, hoping for some friendly company on the ride back. The three men exchanged quick glances. ‘Oh no, we were, uh, going to get a drink at that new place on 7th.’ A second before she replied, ‘OK, then I’ll come with you.’ A pause. ‘And fuck you for not inviting me.’

By now Selin is breathing quickly, heavily, and her agitation is attracting the looks of the other customers. I almost say, ‘Calm down, Selin!’ I stop myself. Instead, we order a second pot of tea. ‘In a way, this is nothing, right? It’s a small thing that didn’t do any harm. Yes, it hurt your pride and it wasn’t fair, but nothing bad happened.’ She agrees with me. Selin and I have much in common. For one, we are not particularly emotional in our professional lives. We make decisions concerning our careers, as much as possible, based on facts. Our personal lives are a different matter. But feminism is where our professional and private lives meet, or intersect. In many ways, we’re the lucky ones: so far. Such occurrences haven’t impeded our progress. We tell them as anecdotes, but deep down we know they’re so much bigger than that, than us.

A Little Life – Hanya Yanigahara (2015)

Novel. Excruciatingly realist, full of humanity, and, at times, too sharp, drawing blood.

I tell Selin my own recent incident. There was a man in a pub in central London, sitting on a bar stool by the counter, half facing the bar, half facing the rest of the room, his left hand lightly holding onto his lager. I first noticed him watching me as I went up to the bar to order. It was a natural thing to do since I was immediately in his line of sight. But he looked too directly, for too long. I paid, gathered my drinks and walked a few paces away to return to my friend. We started chatting again. My friend was completely oblivious to the man, and he didn’t seem to care about her either. But he was in my field of vision. Almost every time I glanced in his direction I felt his stare and sometimes, even worse, a smile. Nothing happened, but I felt disgusted. I felt lust, not for this man in particular, but for all that a look like that could mean in a different context. I felt flattered that someone was paying me attention, even in this basest of ways. I felt aroused because, for better or for worse, the situation made me think of sex. I felt shame for these last reactions. It’s a vicious circle.

A Writer’s Diary – Virginia Woolf (1953)

Diary. Edited and collected from her many diary volumes by her husband, Leonard Woolf, about how and what she read and wrote.

I stumbled across an essay about the seventeenth/eighteenth century philosopher Mary Astell. Naturally, I’d never heard of her or her most well-known tract, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694-97), in which she advocated for women’s higher education and especially the study of philosophy. The essay I read was by a woman who struggled through academic life as a female philosopher herself. She explores how reading Astell helped her feel connected and useful. But the essay ends on the frustrating note of her ‘walk[ing] out of [her] career in philosophy without a regret’. I don’t think that’s the answer.

Instead, I turn to my copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (1946), believing that I will find Mary Astell in the index and read a bit more about her. Not only is she not there, but neither are many other women. Glancing through the index, which itself is over thirty pages long and densely packed with the names of famous, infamous and frankly unknown men and nomenclature, there are only a handful of female names.

A few of them are goddesses (Aphrodite and Artemis). Several of them are monarchs (Queen Elizabeth I, Christina Queen of Sweden, Empress Theodora, Empress Justina, Empress Irene). One is a saint (St Monica, but only really important in that she was the mother of St Augustine). Two are novelists (Jane Austen and Mary Shelley). Then there are a few more women (Madame de Vercelli and Madame de Warens) who are only portrayed in their relation to male philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

What about Diotima of Mantinea who was instrumental in the discussion on love in Plato’s Symposium (385-70 BC)? What about Hildegard von Bingen? She contributed to Catholicism, natural history/philosophy and medicine. What about Mary Astell? What about Mary Wollstonecraft and the entire suffragette movement? Instead we get two entries in the index, ‘virginity’ and ‘women’. V.W. And V.W.? Where is she? A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, Woolf’s most formally philosophical pieces, were published in 1929 and 1938, respectively. Russell and Woolf even knew each other personally.

Let me tell you what the worst thing is. I read History of Western Philosophy cover to cover when I was about eighteen, and I simply did not notice or pay attention to this complete lack of women.

The Unwomanly Face of War – Svetlana Alexievich (1985)

Interviews, war diaries. Stories of all the Mulans transported into Europe of the twentieth century, not Disney, not for children. Not about heroines, just women in the throes of war.

‘You can’t complain about the sexism and still buy the chocolate,’ says Emma. We are walking along the Dublin quays and I am munching away at the Yorkie bar that came as part of my airport meal deal. Man fuel for man stuff. It’s not for girls. I am furious about the sexist marketing of the chocolate bar and my response is to heroically defy Nestlé and show them that I, a woman, can also eat Yorkies. Emma rolls her eyes, ‘You know that’s not the answer. This isn’t Lord of the Rings, you’re not Éowyn, and you taking a bite of the chocolate isn’t going to send virtual shock waves to Nestlé’s headquarters, annihilating its CEO.’ The logical consequence is not to buy any Nestlé products, just like when I was thirteen and in secondary school. We researched fair trade, farmers’ exploitation, and animal cruelty. Half of my class turned vegetarian for half a term. I vowed not to knowingly buy food from the big bad multi-national called Nestlé. I made my mum dread going grocery shopping with me. My resolve lasted a few weeks until a girl at school started bribing me into a friendship by buying me Kit Kats during lunch time.

Deutschstunde – Siegfried Lenz (1968)

Novel. About duties and fascism, and how these can be countered with colours, northern German landscapes, winds, words, and expressionist art.

Sally brings a bunch of daffodils to the house party. ‘Oh, they’re lovely, Sally, thanks so much,’ says Emma, putting them into a jug. ‘Would you like a drink? And meet my friend, Victoria. We met in Cambridge.’ I shake Sally’s hand and smile. Her hand is small, warm and dry. Sally asks whether I’d been to Ireland before. ‘Yes, I’ve been to Dublin a couple of times before actually. The first time when I was fourteen with my school class. We had to get off the bus at a stop called Galloping Green. I didn’t think about the name too much then, but now I think Joyce had an unfair advantage, growing up in a place with such picturesque names.’ Emma had told me that Sally is a writer and I want to impress her, so I continue. ‘The second time was not long ago. I came to retrace some of Bloom’s and Stephen’s footsteps with the help of a chunky guidebook. I mean, standing at the top of those narrow stairs in the Martello tower was just incredible. Because you know that Joyce would have stood in that exact same spot a bit more than a hundred years ago.’ I realise I’m babbling. ‘Sorry, you must be sick of complete strangers raving about Joyce.’

Sally smiles, ‘Not at all. It’s interesting because usually they’re not Irish strangers, they’re often foreign strangers. It’s almost as if he exiled himself and took all his admirers with him.’ She’s taking me seriously, so I immediately warm to her. I feign outrage, ‘But does that mean you don’t like his writing? That if you’re Irish you automatically don’t like him?’ I can’t believe I’m discussing Joyce with an Irish writer in Dublin, it’s almost too good to be true. ‘Of course I think he was a genius. And his short stories are phenomenal, but he’s not the be-all and end-all.’ Sally asks what I do, I tell her about my PhD research, I enquire after her writing, she says that her first book is going to be published later this year.

‘That’s incredible, Sally, congratulations! But OK, so then I have a question for you. I know it’s a bit unfair,’ I pause, waiting for her to prompt me further. She obliges by raising an eyebrow. ‘When we’re stuck with difficult real-world problems we often turn to the arts and humanities, to novels, to writers.’ Sally nods her head in agreement, looking slightly puzzled. ‘As a writer, someone others might look to for a moral compass, what do you think people like Selin, or Ellen, or Emma and I can do, practically speaking, that is worthwhile, and somehow compatible with pursuing full-time studies or careers, that will chip away at this inequality?’ I’m asking a big, serious, seriously big, question. I’m not expecting her to have a complete answer. ‘You know, I’m not really in a good position to advise on which political party to join, especially in Britain, or indeed, whether to join one at all. I don’t know enough about you or your everyday life to understand what you’re actually like. The only piece of advice I can give, and that I follow myself, is this: write.’

Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney (2017)

Debut novel. We meet the protagonist, Frances, in twenty-first century Dublin where she is pondering and living many of the same questions that my friends and I have on a daily basis.

Victoria Wang is a PhD student at UCL/The Francis Crick Institute. She also makes time to read and sell books, and write about science and fiction.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 15th, 2017.