Joanna Walsh is a multidisciplinary writer for print, digital and performance. The author of seven books, she also works as a critic, editor and teacher. She is a UK Arts Foundation fellow, Markievicz Awardee in the Republic of Ireland, and the founder of #readwomen (2014-18), described by the New York Times as ‘a rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers’.
The Momus Questionnaire was created by musician Nick Currie, and is designed to identify the aspects of the subject’s personality which give them a positive self-image, or ‘subcultural capital’.
Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?
I like the words ‘mardy’ and ‘ornery’–not words that are necessarily native to me (mardy was brought by midlands friends into my northern english childhood) but they taste good in the mouth: there’s something round about them, something to chew on. It’s good to have something to chew on while you silently rebel, and silence can be the most effective way to rebel, or maybe the easiest way that has any effect: a refusal to engage as expected. I’ve spent my writing life trying to pull that silence into words which is itself a contrary pursuit.
What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?
I’m not sure. I’m very susceptible to suggestion and have spent an unnatural amount of time during my life trying to follow impossible rules that it turned out hardly anyone was paying more than lip service to after all. I can be very literal. Maybe ‘my way’ is to follow things to the point of absurdity (until someone patiently convinces me it’s not entirely necessary or productive). I am lucky to have a few people close to me who will do this.
What creative achievements are you most proud of?
Things where I’ve done some work with form to do with that pulling silence into words thing. I like my short story work, but it fits recognisably within the short story genre. Break.up is recognisably essay. But Hotel and Seed are different. I re-read Hotel recently for the first time in years. It’s really quite strange. Maybe I’m even beginning to do something there.
If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?
Walking away from a marriage. Marriage is a state institution. Whatever the feelings of the people involved, it can’t help but encounter ways of living that are designed not to help the people involved but the institution, whether it is the religious or national. This works both ways: marriage can be an aid to guaranteeing certain sorts of access to law: to property and financial rights, to children and passports. It asks for something in return, which is to enter a network of extended traditions: about law, property, finance, family and nationality, and also to encounter certain attitudes, certain ways of life. Even if you find a comfortable place in marriage, within, or in defiance of, these traditions, the encounter is inevitable. I could find no possible place. Leaving allowed me to suddenly and suprisingly easily abandon struggles with these extended traditions that were taking up far too much of my time and energy.
If you had to make a song or rap boasting about your irresistible charm and sexiness, how would you describe yourself?
Oh no I don’t think I could do that.
Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?
I run a pressure group called @noentry_arts that campaigns for changes to arbitrary age barriers in the arts. These tend to affect older practitioners as age limits are usually ‘under x years’ as tho people always crossed a barrier of financial or professional security at a certain birthday. I’ve had occasional offers of work from programmes that want me to work with age-exclusive groups, or that have offered discounts to participants on the basis of age rather than financial status or cultural security (is a university-educated 25-year old with family financial support really more needy than a 55 year old with family financial responsibilities and without a degree?). I’ve always said no. This is really hard as I’m freelance and do have family financial responsibilities but, fuck it.
Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.
Well that’s the problem: nobody can be seen to be ‘everything’ anyone would like (or hate) to be, as no one’s life can be led entirely in public. Managing a public persona is a skill in itself, or maybe an aptitude (or most likely both) which may or may not have anything to do with the skills that demand this person leads a ‘public’ life. The idea of a ‘public personality’ embeds the idea of a ‘private person’, or splits that person in two, which is only one way a ‘personality’ could be split–or grouped. The public/private binary is all tied up with ways we work and the ways we’re valued (I just saw a group of women with prams walk past my window, doing very private work). Performance is a useful alternative: it’s what can be seen without performers having to encounter this split that ties value to person on the scale of public-ness: a performer is not necessarily a ‘public persona’ outside that performance. It is the performance that’s public. So, no.
If you were an Egyptian pharoah and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
I’m not very object oriented. But I feel uncomfortable if I don’t have clothes I like. APC raw denim, please: double or even triple.
Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?
Not at all.
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)
I’ve just finished writing a short book called ‘My Life as a Godard Movie’, which will be published by Juxta Press this November in their series, ‘Words for Portraits’. I’m fascinated with Godard’s portrayals of fascination in his early movies: so much looking! So much beauty! So much focus on beauty in women, conventional beauty: white, thin and young; beauty that appears not ‘as if by magic’ but as if it were magic: beauty as exceptional, and, so, exclusive. So far, so much like so many films by so many filmmakers. But Godard claims this conventional beauty as a radical force. Why does this act still hold so much power when we know it’s a con job?
I’d also like to mention Millais’ painting of Elizabeth Siddal as Ophelia, a work of art we know she nearly died from…