Author Joanna Walsh Is Not Here to Offer You Comfort
Imagine a world without words. A place where “the first wordless president” (whose gender is of so little consequence that it isn’t defined) campaigns via “gaze fixed on the distant horizon,” and children are educated by numbers and images. In a time when our lives revolve around the tap of keyboards and the ping of text messages, writer Joanna Walsh has made the impossible plausible.
In Worlds from the Word’s End, her latest collection of short stories, Walsh takes her fascination with language to new levels. Take, as an example, the title story, in which a woman writes a letter to a former lover, explaining why she won’t be writing in the future: there simply, literally, aren’t the words to do so. The narrator begins with the line, “We need to talk,” before embarking on a tale that robs the world of words—completely. “Communication went out of fashion,” the narrator goes on, at “about the same time as we stopped speaking.” Robbed of words is how one might feel in the presence of a rising literary luminary, especially one said by playwright and novelist Deborah Levy to be “fast becoming one of our most important writers.” But when I meet her in the garden of a local café on Oxford High Street, there is no trace of pretension or ivory tower coolness: language is ample and her demeanor inviting.
Walsh admits that the road to becoming a writer was a fraught one. “I had quite an equivocal relationship with writing, and I tried not to write for a very long time,” she tells me. “I felt, ‘what right do I have to make anyone listen to the things I have to say?’ So I did illustration because I loved working with text and I liked being playful with how I used illustration to interpret what I read. The subject matter was usually less visually exciting—economics, pensions—so I took the words and concepts being used to bring out more imagery. Illustration,” she adds, “was always in reaction to someone else’s text. But eventually, I wrote Hotel (Object Lessons), which was something that I wanted to write that I could never have done as an illustrator.”
When asked about intentionality in her work, and what she hopes the reader receives from Worlds from the Word’s End, Walsh flinches. “It’s not for me to say,” she explains. “Writers have different levels of intention. Working with the idea of a reader with an exploratory view for both writer and reader—writing shouldn’t be able to describe itself other than through itself. Writing should be an adventure for the writer as well as the reader.” She adds: “The writer is never in complete control in any case, as the reader always brings a lot to a text: everyone’s understanding of language is slightly different.” A Walsh story doesn’t come prepackaged with a point of view. The reader is not ushered steadily to an obvious conclusion—she wants to create the platform for you to begin that journey.
However, when I raise the point that the readers who love her books undoubtedly have an expectation for where her stories will take them, she laughs. It seems one thing that can be expected from her writing is a level of healthy discomfort—a sensation that she intends not just for the readers to experience but for herself as well, always striving to veer away from being too familiar or comfortable from the territory she takes on. “My readers trust me to make them feel uncomfortable,” she replies, a bit of mischief in her voice. But she’s right: people seek an escape from the norms of society, and while some cling to happy-ever-afters and fantasy, others enjoy being able to confront the essential strangeness of life through the funhouse mirror of fiction. Sometimes it’s enough to know that there is someone out there who finds the world to be as strange and fraught as you do. Which is exactly what Walsh offers. Playful, intuitive, and incredibly sharp, Walsh has a way with words that leaves one certain that they will remain eternally fashionable.
Written by Shaunna Latchman
Photographed by Liam Bundy