Naima Rashid reflects on the pleasure and importance of the café space to her writing practise – a room of one’s own away from the demands of home and hearth.
Beyond the romance of the writer and the café, does working in a café have practical value?
Women who write must create this elusive space on the go, this room of one’s own. The structure of the room is fluid here; it manifests itself in all manner of forms, sometimes as borderless as a windowsill when your son is having a gaming night in the lounge, your usual workplace, and sometimes as boundaryless as writing in the middle of a throng, with only a barrier of will between oneself and the noise that can thwart any attempt to focus.
I write best in cafés. Since this wasn’t possible during lockdown, I made do with all sorts of makeshift ‘rooms’ of my own on the go, as home became a shared high-tension workplace with three grown people managing work days from a small space. I am delighted to be able to return to work in cafes with ambient noise, right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the street. Returning after a good year’s gap and the possibility of future lockdowns lurking on the horizon, I want to think about why they work so well.
The café is both an island and a window to the world. It’s the right distance from life, the optimal degree of removal from its pulse, so that you can switch between writing-in-solitude mode and people-watching mode, finding a rhythm between the two. You can also park your materials there, take a stroll down the street and return after a good stretch or stroll.
The noise in a café is just right. It is pleasant enough to be a background hum, but not loud or distinct enough to be distracting. It plays in the background, the music of humanity flowing softly along – an optimal soundtrack to work to.
In order to be productive as a writer, one has to strike that delicate balance between being in the thick of life, its pulse and its stories, and being removed from it, removed enough to process and make sense of it, make art from it. The ideal alchemy is created when you alternate between these two rhythms of immersion and distancing. A café allows me to do that.
At home, the story is too familiar and one is too directly and personally implied in it for it to serve as inspiration. If anything, I risk getting tangled up in reminders of roles and responsibilities since objects in the field of vision will invariably pull one off in one direction or another. I look up from my laptop, and there’s my son’s jumper on which I need to sew a button. Enter Avenue of Overdue Tasks. Pause short story. A poem is about to reach its climax, and I’m looking for that crucial turn, when I see the chicken defrosting on the sill. Dinner running late (again)? Poem ending delayed, late dinner rescue mode on.
It’s different in a café. I can suspend these roles and reminders to write full-throttle. I need to enter another dimension of identity, not a mother or a wife, but a writer and a thinker. I need to romance this self a bit, I need to be in a place where my accountability is to a higher muse than the gods of the hearth and domesticity.
After a sprint of a couple of hours, I’ve poured out drafts I know in my bones will still ring true some days later. When I visit them with a fresh pair of eyes, I have two options for resting. I can leave my materials, and take a stroll down the street and be back, or I can order a fresh cuppa and people-watch, mind soaking up everything like a sponge. Either way, I’m plunging headlong into the marrow of life, the thick of the flow where I cut my material from. This is the raw material of art, the fabric from which I quietly file stories in a filing cabinet. At the right moment, the filed story or snippet, sometimes a face, a flash of an image seen fleetingly through a shop window, the look in the eyes of a face spotted in a crowd, will be drawn up to the pull of the right call.
There’s a woman who comes with her baby in a pram, strikingly beautiful face and vacuous, hollow eyes. I’ve seen her come three times in the span of the morning. It’s déjà vu. She’s unaware of how she attracts heads. Was it ennui driving her away from home? What was that void in her eyes? I remember when, as a young mother myself, I felt like a stranger in my own home, unable to feel at home in a new body, unable to get comfortable with myself performing the motions of motherhood, suddenly responsible for an unfamiliar new being. I’d leave the house to anchor myself in something that still felt like me, somewhere I could remember doing what I did before taking on this new role which felt like drowning for the longest time. Was she leaving home again and again only to find herself in a place she remembered? Some place that felt light, that felt right, that felt like ‘the rest of them’.
A homeless man, a familiar face now on the High Street, I know from my daily visits. Even in his tatters, he walks with the air of an Ottoman lord. I have never seen him beg. He has the office of a mendicant, but the pride of a monarch. Who was he in his past life? What are these airs his body remembers, this nobility built into the fiber of his sinews? His rags confirm a state which his marrow denies.
The sights pass through the cornea, become imprints upon the mind. Before long, I feel a tug of something unfinished calling. My barometer, the cup of coffee, reads ‘Empty. Refill needed.’
About Naima Rashid
Naima Rashid is a writer and translator. Her first book, Defiance of the Rose (Oxford University Press, 2019), was a translation of selected verses by Pakistani poet Perveen Shakir from Urdu into English. Her writings have appeared in Asymptote, The Scores, Poetry at Sangam, Wild Court, and other places. She was long-listed for the National Poetry Competition 2019. She is a collaborator with the translation collective, Shadow Heroes.
Feature image: ‘Writing’ by Zhang Xiaogang, 2005, used under Fair Use, via Wiki-Art.