This week, we present an interview with Oxford graduate Rosalind Jana. Rosalind’s writing career started before she went to university: she won the Vogue Talent Contest at 16, and her work has been published in newspapers, magazines, and websites. Straight after university, Rosalind published her first book, Notes on Being Teenage, and a poetry collection, Branch and Vein. We have caught up with her to talk about writing advice, feminism, and the impact that studying at Oxford has had on her as a writer.
First of all, belated congratulations on the publication of your book, Notes on Being Teenage. Could you tell us a bit about the process of writing it?
Thank you! It was a slightly strange process, as I got to university with this non-fiction book deal already secured, and had to squeeze in putting it together around my academic terms. At the beginning I had a lot of research to do, especially when it came to interviewing a wide variety of young women about their experiences with adolescence. I knew from the start that I wanted to weave in all sorts of stories and push beyond my own, singular perspective. So in the first instance a lot of it just felt like endless collating: finding people to chat with, transcribing interviews, reading things, looking at helpful resources, making ENDLESS lists, fleshing out the shape of each chapter, and threading everything together section by section. Somehow I muddled through it all, frantically writing the first draft in the summer after first year, and then slowly going through various stages of restructuring and editing during my second year. I'd get my academic work done during the day and then go and sit in Turl Street Kitchen late into the evening, hunched over my laptop, editing. I'm not quite sure what else to specifically say about the process. I'd been writing for several years, but had never done anything on that scale before, so it was definitely a case of jumping in right at the deep end! But I learnt so much through that. It gave me all sorts of insights and experiences and skills, as well as the really quite incredible chance to get to chat with so many interesting teenagers about their lives. The book came out just after I finished my final exams in third year, so it really did sit with me on and off throughout the entirety of my degree.
Speaking of being teenage, you have started writing at a young age. Oxford Writers' House is currently running a writing prize for young writers (age 8-18), The Peregrine Prize. What advice would you give to young people who have just started writing?
This sounds like a wonderful prize and, actually, one thing I often recommend is entering competitions. I won the Vogue Talent Contest when I was in my teens, and it was such a pivotal point. Contests tend to help sharpen your voice and give the chance to get your work out there. There are loads of ace ones for young people that are SO worth trying out. Having the nod of approval from other people who like your writing is both galvanising and great professionally, but even if you don't win, the process and rigour of entering is very helpful. Beyond that, I feel it's all relatively same old, same old advice, but still important stuff. The main point being that good writers also tend to be good readers. Read everything. Read stuff you love and try to pull apart what you love about it. Read things you dislike and think on what you'd do differently. Read stuff that gets your heart beating and your mind whirring. Then write, write, write, and write some more. Edit it. Get used to other people seeing it and giving feedback. Write some more. Edit some more. Repeat. Know that you're always, always learning and improving, moving from achievement to setback to progress and back again. We all are. Then get your work out there. Begin a blog if that's helpful, or set up a zine with your mates. Enter those aforementioned contests. Put your poems online. Do stuff for your student paper. Look out for sites and mags that specifically publish young and emerging writers. Pitch to them. Work on developing your voice, your areas of interest, your particular skill set that makes you stand apart. Good luck!
In Notes on Being Teenage, and in much of your writing in general, feminism is an important topic. Do you think that how we write about feminism is just as important as writing about it?
Absolutely. I feel like my thoughts and behaviour have really been informed by all the great writing out there on feminism: online and offline, academic and entertaining, serious and playful. I've learned an incredible amount: moving from a pretty basic understanding of the tenets of equality and the expectations placed on young women (that typical light-bulb moment of going, "aha! I don't have to shave off all my pubic hair! That's really sexist, yes!") through to a more complex understanding – I hope – of all the areas feminism intersects with, especially when that comes to race, class, sexuality, gender identity etc. I absolutely credit all of the brilliant writing, some of it fiercely good, some of it moving, some of it sharp, some of it funny, some of it necessarily uncomfortable, some of it gentle (some all of those things at once and so much more) for giving me the room to learn, listen to others, and try to continually reassess my values.
How we write about feminism helps influence how we practise feminism.
That includes being attuned to a wide range of voices and perspectives and points of experience, not assuming that any one viewpoint is universal, and making sure to not fall into only looking at a particular, limited notion of equality. Beyond that, I feel like with my own writing, my feminism is kind of implicit in what I'm writing about: whether it's on clothes, politics, female authors, or representations of beauty. It underpins so much of what I'm looking at.
Clothing is also central to your writing. Do you think there is a relation between clothing and writing, between the texture of a garment and that of a text?
Well, yes, even on a semantic level both 'textile' and 'text' come from the same Latin root: 'texere', meaning to weave. There's all sorts of wonderful writing on the linguistic and metaphorical relationships between fabric and words. I've just finished re-reading Hilary Mantel's An Experiment in Love and she has some dazzling paragraphs on clothes, memory, and the ways in which we stitch together stories.
There's a real shared language between garments and prose: all those images of narrative threads and rich seams.
I've actually been exploring some of these links in a project recently, so this is a very well-timed question! For me, personally, I wonder if perhaps the crucial idea here is storytelling. I often feel like I began to work out who I was via the clothes I wore and the things I wrote. In both mediums I got to play around with lots of possible versions of myself, both in visuals and voice. I found dressing up an immensely liberating way of experimenting with my identity, and the way I moved through the world, while writing gave me the chance to sharpen my thinking and offered up the utter joy in being able to, occasionally, express myself just as I wish. They're both very creative things to me. I like your reference to texture too. I'll spend ages working out what colours and fabrics fit together in an outfit, and hours longer fiddling with the balance and rhythm of a paragraph. I guess with both it's about making the elements balance up and fit together seamlessly.
Your poetry collection, Branch and Vein, is published by New River Press, a recently-established publishing house aiming to provide an alternative platform for contemporary poetry in Britain. How did this come about and what drew you to their project?
I've been writing poetry on and off for years, but it was the one medium I didn't share masses of publicly. I did enter the odd contest, and performed some of my work at university, but I always thought it was something to carry on developing very quietly: tinkering with villanelles here and there, occasionally putting things on my blog, and storing everything up on my laptop. Then a friend told me I'd really get on with this poet called Greta Bellamacina. This friend then put us in touch, and Greta and I emailed on and off for perhaps a year, trying to meet up, failing to organise things, and trying again. During this time she commissioned some of my poems for places including Champ magazine. Then last year she got in touch again to say that she and her partner Robert Montgomery were setting up an in independent poetry press and they wanted to see more of my work. Obviously I LEAPT at the chance. It all happened very quickly, really. I sent them a massive file of work, they said they wanted to publish it, I rather feverishly wrote lots of new material and then, suddenly, a few months later it was out in the world. I'm endlessly grateful to both of them. They are such energetic artists, as well as being continual champions of other people's creativity. I admire that hugely.
Finally, you read English at Oxford, graduating in 2016. Although you began writing long before going to university, I was wondering if you could tell us about the impact that your Oxford experience has had on you as a writer.
Oh, it had a major, major impact. I did get to university knowing what I wanted to continue doing when I left, but my three years of study were crucial to developing how I think and work now. The trial by fire of having to read such a huge amount of material in a short space of time, distil down the crucial bits and synthesise everything into some kind of cohesive line of argument was an invaluable experience. I didn't always enjoy it at the time. In fact, I often found it horribly stressful. But I can feel the impact in my writing all the time now. I know how to research things very quickly. I construct and demolish paragraphs again and again until everything flows. I'm willing to defend my arguments out loud (thanks tutorial system!), I learnt things then I'm using in my current projects (thanks that week of work on Renaissance stage costumes!), I fell ever more in love with the possibility and flexibility of literature. Oh, and I'm very, very familiar with working right up until the last minute of a deadline...