Michelle Cahill on her debut, Daisy & Woolf

Daisy & Woolf rewrites the story of Daisy Simmons, an Anglo-Indian side character in Mrs Dalloway. In doing so, Cahill deftly explores the intersections of gender, race, class, and literature, and how the literary canon has kept People of Colour in the margins.

30 May 2022

1. How and when  did your fascination with Daisy start?

It began with re reading Mrs Dalloway as an adult and for the first time discovering Daisy. She is encountered by the reader in brackets (‘she had no sense of discretion’), she is described as an ‘adorable’ amorous object without her community. We don’t know where she lives, what city for example. She is purposely described as ‘vain’, ‘dark’ and lacking a moral compass, suggesting promiscuity. I have only found one critic who takes notice of Daisy describing her as English though Woolf always describes her, through the eyes of Peter Walsh, as ‘dark’.

At the time, I was also reading the Letters of Jean Rhys edited by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly. They provide insights into Rhys’ creative process and her personal struggles. In one of the letters dated April 14, 1964, she wrote about the Brontë sisters, then  went on to write about Jane Eyre, saying that she was often vexed at the ‘portrait of the ‘paper tiger’ lunatic; the all wrong Creole scenes, and above all by the real cruelty of Mr Rochester….’ Rhys imagined there were several Antoinettes and Mrs Rochesters. I realised that my Daisy was altogether different to Virginia Woolf’s. In my novel, India is not a referential colonial subject for society table-talk, but India has its own hub of intellectuals; freedom fighters, entrepreneurs, activists and strong women such as Daisy.

I needed to give Daisy a vibrant inner life: a body, a mind, and a voice in my novel.

2. Both you and Daisy are Anglo-Indian. Did your experience as an Anglo-Indian and mixed-race person help shape the way you saw and wrote Daisy?

I think so. The experience of being Anglo-Indian has been one of self-erasure and a particular kind of concealment since you are always between cultures and homelands: India and England, (as well as Australia) neither country which you can properly claim.

Anglo-Indians are a heterogenous community so an ethnic description, even a single descriptive label is inadequate and there have been many terms used ambivalently over the decades, and centuries. ‘Anglo-Indian’ was first used in the 1911 census but before that it was ‘half caste’ and ‘country born,’ and even ‘Indo-Briton’. The imposed definition of the British Nationality Act required a British-born paternal ancestry, shaping an idea of nationality which is based on whiteness.

Through intergenerational displacements mixed ancestry people become impoverished and homeless.(Just think of the sad life of Jean Rhys.) I don’t claim to be a victim of these dynamics, but writing can be an act of reparation. About 4% of Australian Indians identify as Anglo-Indian. On migrating to Australia, I found that I could be judged by different communities to whom I bear a resemblance: not being white, not being a Hindu nor a Moslem Indian; and not quite Australian. (Of course, there are other Indian minorities: Parsees, Jews, Jains. They, like Christian are outside the official and dominant caste system.)

In the Calcutta chapters of Daisy and Woolf, I dramatise these different social, cultural tensions as they were during the early 1920’s when anti-British riots and race riots take place, and the city is divided by zones.


3. You mention Woolf's racism several times in the novel, could you expand on this for our audience who have yet to read the book but are interested in this?

Well, there are repeated undertones of the racist ideology that Woolf inherited in most of her references to India in the novel, Mrs Dalloway. Specifically, Daisy is described as ‘vain’ and ‘very dark’ but also as she is sexually objectified as ‘adorable’ and ‘charming’. Through Peter Walsh’s eyes we are provided with a depiction of India that is backward, tedious and disorderly; the women are far less attractive than British women, which appears to excuse Peter from stalking a young woman near Regent’s Park. Through the eyes of Clarissa’s circle, India is chaotic, and on the verge of uprising. It is a place where the coolies beat their wives. This kind of reduction was fairly stereotypical of the Raj era.

Woolf’s Orientalism manifests more generally in many of her novels. The painter, Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse is described as having “Chinese eyes” yet this racial sign doesn’t shape her personality or her development as a character or an artist. The Chinese reference instead is unknowable, creating a cool distance rather than cultural warmth or connection. And even in Mrs Dalloway there is a certain aesthetic passiveness associated with Chinese objects while Elizabeth Dalloway, Clarissa’s daughter, who is quite unlike her elitist mother, is described elusively as having ’Chinese eyes’:

‘She had no preferences. Of course, she would not push her way. She inclined to be passive, it was an expression she needed, but her eyes were fine, Chinese, oriental, and as her mother said, with such nice shoulders and holding herself so straight, she was always charming to look at.’ (149)                               

Woolf did blackface. She took part in the infamous Dreadnought Hoax of 1911, dressing up as an African prince with friends, other disguised Bloomsburians. They boarded a battleship, the HMS Dreadnought wearing turbans, robes and blackface, pretending to be Abyssinian royalty. Although Woolf didn’t mimic Swahili one of the instigators had the caucasity to do so. Nonetheless, Virginia Woolf seemed not to be aware that to parody brown people is a form of control over them. She extolled the prank in a lecture written for the Memoir club some years later. To this day, I find it alarming that some Instagrammers have posted these photographs without referencing how inappropriate that behaviour was to people of colour .

Virginia Woolf sits on the left hand side of the photograph.

Having read some of the letters and diaries, it is apparent that racist assumptions are evident in many of the Bloomsbury correspondences.  In Daisy and Woolf, I reference some of these incidents, for instance, on how Julian Bell wrote letters to his friend, Eddie Playford, about his affair with Shuhua Ling revealing racist stereotypes about the Chinese and even worse ones about Indians also.

4. This novel also touches on the racism faced by Authors of Colour in the publishing industry, an issue that is very close to us. Could you give us an insight into your experience getting published as a Person of Colour? Did you face any backlash or questions on why you picked Daisy when there are many other (read: white) characters from Woolf's?

It can be retraumatising to discuss these issues; so, I will make my remarks brief. I am always speaking through trauma, something that white people don’t readily appreciate. Although I’ve been an author and poet, an independent literary editor, and know something about publishing and the dynamics that privilege white writers in this country as well as in the canon, during the writing of the novel I came to realise that I had only glimpsed a small part of the obstacles facing minority writers. The playing field remains very uneven, the opportunities available to POC writers are undoubtedly restricted. What needs to happen is a more open discussion with white mainstream culture about the structural issues and more sensitive readings of minority storytelling.

My publisher, Hachette, recognised that Daisy and Woolf is a story that needs to be published and reach readers because it’s a transformational novel. It revives and restores the ghost of a shadow character and gives her centre stage.

It’s true there is little encouragement to research minority characters in academia, and there is a veritable tsunami of microaggressions that you have to survive just to get a novel like this one ready for publishing. The risk is that you are seen to be mirroring a text located in the canon, rather than creating a precedent. But it is actually hard work because you are excavating on the one hand, but also contributing by adding something entirely original.

Metafictional and experimental fiction are less mainstream genres for BIPOC writers. Our material existence places pressure on us to reform and resist history and there are many ways to do this. Perhaps it is literary criticism that should be held to account as much as the industry or the canon. After all criticism constructs the canon; threatening to overwrite fiction. At times in my novel, Mina performs as a critic, being critical of the industry and of Woolf’s Bloomsbury and the white establishment. But in that role of criticism, we always see through her eyes, her subjective position. She does not perform as an independent authority on Virginia Woolf or Leonard Woolf or Vanessa Bell. In her critical act she makes herself vulnerable by exposing her own contingency.

During my research it alarmed me that the only substantial criticism that I’d read on the roles of India and Woolf in Mrs Dalloway, after a century of scholarly industry, was an essay that described Daisy as a British woman. How could this be? It points to the selective filters in critical research and the strategic and investment directions of literature, whereby certain topics and subjects are effectively white-washed.

The tide of all this structural racism as well as microaggressions kept surging and washing over me, yet I somehow survived and wrote the book,


5. And finally, is there a book (or books) that made you feel represented?

As a writer, I feel represented by the books I’ve written: Letter to Pessoa, Vishvarupa, The Herring Lass. I’ve mentioned the influence of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and in terms of my gender as a reader, Coetzee’s Foe has been an important text. Other books where I felt represented are Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Tsitsi Dangaremba’s Nervous Conditions, Melanie Cheng’s Australia Day, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race, S.L Lim’s Revenge and Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji.

Michelle Cahill is an author, essayist and poet. She also edits the online literary magazine Mascara and co-editor of the anthology Contemporary Asian Australian Poets. Her short story collection, Letter to Pessoa, won a 2017 Glenda Adams Award.

Cover image credited to Nicola Bailey.

Michelle Cahill on her debut, Daisy & Woolf

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