Andrea Ashworth tells how her past haunted her as an undergraduate and ultimately fuelled a bestselling autobiography.
Like almost all freshers, Andrea Ashworth arrived at Oxford ‘a teenager, newly catapulted into the outside world, busy chasing exotic things, books, people, causes, travel’. Unlike most of her new friends she was secretly ‘deeply, awfully ashamed’ of the horrific domestic violence and poverty she had endured in Manchester – a life her mother and sisters were still suffering. ‘Whispering encouragement to my poor, crushed mum while I was standing inside the phone kiosk, in the shadow of the stately Bodleian Library and the serene beauty of the Sheldonian Theatre, I really sorely felt the doubleness of my life,’ Ashworth admits.
‘Oxford life seemed truly incredible to me, coming from a childhood with few privileges and almost no books, from a violent home in which it was provocative, and sometimes dangerous, to show interest in “too much learning”. It was wildly new, this freedom to follow my curiosity without fear of reprisals.’
But it was only after she graduated in English and went to spend a fellowship year at Yale (in African-American Studies) that Ashworth began to feel a need to write about what had happened to her family. ‘The sudden geographical distance was a slap, and so was the fresh wave of privilege I experienced as an Oxford grad now ensconced in a glorious Ivy League college. A sort of existential seasickness came over me: I couldn’t square the brilliance and promise of my life at this point with the darker and more trammelled aspects of my childhood. It was almost as if I wasn’t sure which was real – the past or the present. So, I started to write about the past, hoping to put it in its place and leave myself free to get on with living my shiny present and building my future.’
At just 21 years old, she began to jot down the vignettes that would eventually became her bestselling autobiography of her childhood experiences, Once in a House on Fire. ‘I think I was sufficiently open-eyed to realise that everyone is complicated – we all contain multitudes, even if the elements of our lives aren’t obviously a jumble of dramatic disparities or catastrophes. But I was too young back then to realise that it’s natural to feel as radically complicated and inconsistent as I felt – profoundly happy and hopeful; also painfully unsure and often afraid – and that suffering and poverty are not things to be ashamed of.’
She has also been Junior Research Fellow at Jesus and at Wolfson and a fellow in creative writing at Princeton. Now living in Los Angeles with her husband and two children, Ashworth is using her own skills and experience to help mentor and support girls and women around the world through a humanitarian organisation called W4 (the Women’s WorldWide Web), which is the brainchild of one of her sisters, Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke. ‘W4 is a digital platform that raises funds for grassroots organisations that do life-changing (even life-saving) humanitarian work, in developed and developing countries, in both the northern and southern hemispheres. We aim to protect girls’ and women’s human rights and to help them to become empowered through education, mentoring and entrepreneurship, with a special focus on digital equality. This year, we’re in the process of expanding to a social business model that will enable people to support female entrepreneurs around the world through crowdfunding and/or buying their products.
‘I’ve had the great good fortune of seeing that publishing my story has been able to help other people, especially young people, going through hard experiences. It makes me very happy to think that my story has given anyone else hope,’ she says. ‘Although I’ve never thought of myself as a “victim” or a “survivor”, I have been plagued by survivor’s guilt. Making an effort to improve other people’s lives – whether it’s via charity work or by simply trying to be generous and kind – helps me to feel less guilty about my good fortune. I would feel squeamish if I didn’t try to spread a bit of goodness. I think most of us feel this way.’
Portrait by Adrian Green; book jacket by Picador.