Something a little different: NewnhamWrites

I know, I know, I know – it’s been a while. There’s no excuse, except that time has slipped past me. It feels like yesterday that it was the height of summer, my lawn was parched and we were like deers caught in the headlights in the aftermath of Brexit. And then in the blink of an eye, it’s dark in the morning, frost dusts the ground and I want to hibernate.

But I can’t. I’ve been working on an exciting project interviewing alumnae from Newnham College, Cambridge. They’re all writers. Some have always written; others turned to writing as a second career; while some pen novels as a parallel job. Aside from being women and utterly brilliant at what they do, the one common factor among them is their drive. I wouldn’t say this is typical of a Newnhamite. Even though I’m one myself, I wouldn’t have a clue as to how to describe a Newnham alumna. And as I think more about this, I wouldn’t consider Newnhamites to be a tribe. The great thing about Newnham is its diversity, the fact that it celebrates differences; that more so than some other Oxbridge colleges, it encourages young people from all walks of life to come and study there. But when you do leave, I think the place remains a part of you – whether it’s the sense of belonging it gives you, the memories formed, the friendships, the beautiful gardens, the opportunities that come as a result of studying there.

What struck me most about the people I interviewed is, that in order to do what they do, they have had to compromise and juggle. But none of them talked about that as a sweeping statement. None of them complained. Leaving Nordic men to one side, it’s still rare to hear a man talk about juggling his career and parenthood, or making compromises, or taking an active decision to step down from work because of children. They are never asked, ‘how do you do it?’ There are never remarks (good or bad) made about their bodies post children. They rarely have to face the reality of a reduced income stream, or no income stream, or asked how it feels to lose their financial independence.

As a woman, it’s a given that in the Game of Life, you compromise more. Take, for example, Isabelle Grey, who, when her daughter was born, realised that journalism was far too unpredictable a job, so turned to screenplay writing instead. Or Jenn Ashworth who refuses to talk about how she juggles being a mum to do what she does because men don’t talk about that, so why should she? Or Radhika Swarup who writes in the early hours of the morning because that’s her quiet time before the daily chaos of parenthood kickstarts. And you can imagine the fervent juggling Carol Cooper, a GP, teacher, newspaper columnist and novelist has to do. Claire King was the only one who talked about job-sharing with her husband and having shared responsibility for their children.

Over the next five weeks I’ll be posting each interview. I hope this is just the first batch of many. I’ve enjoyed getting an insight into their writing lives – one absolutely hated writing their first novel; another absolutely hated school and the rules that went with it. One went speed dating and was inspired to write a novel, another wrote a story that paid homage to her ancestral history, and another wrote a beautiful and heartbreaking mediation on love and happiness.

The first Q&A will be out this Thursday.

Until then!

Amna

P.S. If you are a Newnham alumna and a writer and would like to take part in the next series, please get in touch – Amna@akboheim.com