September 17, 2014
Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own rewritten as Of One Woman or So
by Zeljka Marosevic
An artist has rewritten Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own by rearranging all the words in the text to create a completely new piece of writing.
Of One Woman Or So by Olivia N’Gowfri (both anagrams of A Room of One’s Own and Virginia Woolf) has been rearranged by multi-media artist Kabe Wilson to tell a new story about a young mixed-race girl going to Cambridge University to study English Literature. While Woolf’s essay, originally given to Cambridge students, argued for women to have an equal place in the academy and in culture, as well as a space of their own to write and think, Of One Woman Or So addresses different concerns. The work is described on its website:
Set 80 years after A Room of One’s Own was published, it playfully celebrates Woolf’s canonical work by bringing contemporary critiques to bear upon it – posing questions brought on by the historical changes between 1929 and the present day. As the old words are given new contexts and meanings, they reveal the connections and tensions between the voices of Virginia Woolf and Olivia N’Gowfri, reflecting cultural changes in race, sex, class, and the role and power of literature.
According to an interview with the artist, the project took four years to complete, with Wilson using computer word lists to take every word in the original text and put it to new use in order to tell another story. The project came out of an idea Wilson had while studying at Cambridge; “can you use all the words of one book and make a completely new one?”
Wilson calls the piece ‘The Dreadlock Hoax’, the name itself a mash-up of The Dreadnought Hoax, the prank that members of the Bloomsbury group, including Woolf herself, played on the Royal Navy when they blacked up as Abyssinian emperors in order to gain passage on the battleship HMS Dreadnought. Wilson wanted to engage with that event and how the context of blacking up has changed over time. As part of this, and to invert that moment, Wilson recently delivered a lecture dressed as Virginia Woolf in the author’s old home in Bloomsbury; the lecture itself was then revealed to be a hoax.
In Wilson’s version of A Room of One’s Own, Olivia N’Gowfri is dismayed by the elitism, chauvinism and the eurocentricism she encounters at Cambridge; after reading A Room of One’s Own and discovering radical Black theory she decides to take radical action and burn down Cambridge’s libraries and the ideas they foster and represent. But changing her mind, she instead decides to recycle Woolf’s text, making her own story, Of One Woman Or So. This text can now actually be seen, as Wilson has painstakingly created the piece as a collage:
On a 4x13ft sheet of paper, all 145 pages of the novella are displayed – with each word individually cut out of a copy of A Room of One’s Own and stuck together in the new order. Wilson’s punctuation and formatting changes have been added in pen on top of Woolf’s words, to show how the two artists collaborated across time to create one unique work.
The resulting text has the effect of being urgent, questioning, political and ironic, much like Woolf’s original essay:
And in “reality” we are not equals. They are making the current state seem natural. Its pure age says, “existence is naturally thus. I have the experience of watching, century upon century. When human beings think to do things differently, they fail. I saw it all.” And so we accept that…
Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.