Antonia Hayes manages to pack a lot into this small book of essays. The three essays describe how growing up with two languages impacted her; how her early love of reading focused on The Baby-Sitters Club series; and suggests that a room of one’s own for women writers, as advocated by Virginia Woolf in 1929, is not enough.
Hayes writes that she was not brought up to be bilingual despite her Filipino mother speaking in Tagalog to her own mother. The author initially thought, as children will, that this was a secret language they used to exclude her. In spite of this, Hayes discovered she had some unconscious knowledge, laid down in childhood, when she began to learn of Tagalog as an adult. She describes how Chinese children adopted by French speaking Canadian families displayed the same brain function as Chinese raised children when listening to Mandarin.
The essay covers some fascinating facts about how children learn their mother tongue and other languages learned when her son had developmental difficulties due to a traumatic brain injury. The brain of a child is incredibly plastic and damaged areas can be compensated for by other functional areas and her son quickly became fluent in French when they moved to Paris.
The second essay describes her love of reading, truly discovered in first book she chose for herself The Baby-Sitters Club Super Special #1, the thickest book on the bookshop shelf. Moving to Sydney further enhanced her love of the characters and stories when she found school friends who were equally obsessed with the books, TV series and games of the series. Hayes writes she loved the characters rather than the plots; there was even an Asian character with whom she could identify. Eventually she grew out of the books because, as she changed, they remained stuck in time. One thing that didn’t change for the author was her handwriting which was modelled on the character Mary Anne’s writing.
The final essay argues Woolf’s seminal work ‘still feels relevant and urgent’ (page 72) in spite of many women, like Hayes herself, having a room of her own and money enough to write as a career. The reader is asked to imagine herself in the green room at a literary festival crowded with writers where the woman novelist, with her two children stealing all the chocolate biscuits, is being asked how she juggles motherhood with writing… and wanting to throw something at the interviewer – so sick is she of the question.
Then there is the writer reading a review of her latest work which has more to say about her novelist husband than her or her work. Then compare these writers to the ‘famous male author’ (page 77) who responds to a young female writer’s praise by telling her she looks nice and they should have a drink later and then expresses surprise that she’s on a panel with him – he thought she was a publicist. And what about the writer who is a woman of colour? Why does everyone expect her to represent ‘her people’, white writers are allowed to write about anything that inspires them, why shouldn’t she?
It is these issues, and others like them, which the author asserts need to be tackled for women writers and why a room of one’s own is still not enough and we only have a few years left before the centennial of Woolf’s essay to tackle them. We need a universe of our own – one where our work is not read and judged through the filters of looks, what we wear, age, subject matter or readership, or comparison with male writers but on our own merits.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 8
Released by: Penguin Australia
Release Date: August 2017
RRP: $9.99 paperback, $4.99 eBook