Our British Council International Writer in Residence programme is now in its third groundbreaking year. After an arduous selection process sifting through many fascinating and worthy applications, we zoned in on Helen Klonaris, who we are thrilled to welcome to Small Wonder. Helen was on site for the entire Festival, a warm and positive presence, helping generate a serious, engaged, literary atmosphere at the festival in 2017. She has written a powerful and thought-provoking essay on her experience of staying at Charleston and exploring the surrounding area, which draws both on the most patent literary influence at Charleston – Virginia Woolf – but also from more far-flung writers, to argue for social justice in a global context. Read it here.
Below is an interview with Helen, in which we asked her about her writing, activism and thoughts on the Festival.
“Tell us a little about what the Bloomsbury Group and / or Charleston mean to you.”
Helen: Yesterday I arrived in Charleston. I went into the house briefly, not for a tour, but to greet Darren who, I was told was the expert on everything Bloomsbury and who would take me and others on a real tour, soon; in that moment, as we stepped inside, the first thing that struck me was the smell of old wood. The smell of old walls. And even as I thought this, I knew it was not simply wood or old brick, but more than this it was the scent of the lives of those who had lived here that had seeped into the walls and the wood stairs and floors and refused to leave.
I thought of the tenacity of the artists and writers who had lived here, who had come in and out, who had conceived ideas and created art out of them; whose values had resisted the shape and texture and color and lines with which Victorian society at that time dictated they make life; how they pushed past these, and loved as they chose, and as best they could. How they said no to war and to homophobia. How they believed women had a right to words and their own minds. I thought, that is the scent beneath the damp air that refuses to leave.
There is memory here of what it means to be the kind of artist who has the courage to say no to the dominant paradigm and to create not simply what the eye can see, but what it cannot.
Ten years ago I read one of Virginia Woolf’s essays, “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” in which she begins by saying “No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil.” She went on to tell of the way in which needing a pencil is sometimes a necessary excuse to get out into the streets where you are no longer yourself; instead, you shed home and self to become nameless… and as you walk, in that state of namelessness, you let go of the beauty the eye sees and open to the possibility and complexity of the lives of strangers you encounter there.
What made sense to me then was the walking, and how walking and writing fiction share a rhythm, share a shedding of the self to find looming up ahead the faces and hands and emotions and everyday lives of people we have never met. The journey begins with our bodies but takes place in a realm that is not material, returning in the end home and to a self we remember, however changed.
Today, I cannot help but also think of Woolf’s essay, and the Bloomsbury Group too, in the context of streets I have been walking in San Francisco and Oakland and Berkeley, California; the stories that are emerging from streets across the US and here too in the UK. What does it mean to be an artist who says no to the dominant paradigm in these times? Here is an image that haunts me: all across America men in football jerseys, most of them black, some white, kneeling in protest as the US national anthem plays. And that is only what the eye can see.
“What are your first impressions of Charleston and the festival?”
Helen:It is the second morning in Charleston. I had a tour yesterday, and was surprised at how moved I was standing inside these rooms that Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant had painted – so many surfaces touched. Their sensibilities, their aesthetic, and then too whatever they had been feeling and thinking as they spent their time, brushes in hand, painting chevrons on a wall, or circles and crosses on a fire place, the figure of a woman on a panel. The house is still alive with them, and of course as a writer myself, I cannot stop the emotions coming to life inside myself. When we stood in Vanessa Bell’s room, looking out at the garden, knowing already how much she had loved and grieved over the years, how sad she appeared in her last self portrait, I was sad too.
And now I am thinking about the writers who came through yesterday, who talked to us about love, or perhaps more accurately the pain of love, and I thought, that too lives inside the house, where a woman loved a man, who loved a man…
But I also thought about the ways writers tap into the veins of the emotions of a place or time, though all we may see is a chair, a stack of books, a photograph on a dresser, the writer haunts the room and listens to what is not there, a sobbing child hiding in a closet, fearful of being seen, and dying to be seen…
Later that evening Kit de Waal told a story about her haunting of a time – mid 60s, when Malcolm X visited Smethwick here in England. She wanted to know, she said, what emotional effect that big world event would have had on a small person, ‘a nobody’, someone who might have lived there, like her own dad. How might his life as a black man in a deeply racist time have been made better? Sitting in the audience, I felt the emotion open inside me; that is what her writing did, brought me onto Marshal Street and into the house where four black West Indian men sat trying to recreate a West Indian Christmas. I wanted to weep.
My first day at Charleston moved me. I suppose I am that writer that haunts places too. And times. After the tour I sat in the garden looking out over an ancient apple tree and dahlias, toward the French doors of Vanessa Bell’s old room. Today I will visit Monk’s House, the place Vanessa’s sister Virginia Woolf lived with her husband Leonard. I’m curious what stories will find me there.
“Where or when do you feel most creative?”
Helen: When I hear poetry read aloud, when I read experimental works, where words and space and meaning cause me to reach beyond what I already know – in the gap I feel something like a calling that pulls me towards a new edge, a new possibility in language… inside the gap is where I want to write. Perhaps that is what happens too when I am traveling, or more specifically walking in a place that is unfamiliar, where I am not familiar to those around me, and the landscape, the smells, the sounds too are stranger… in that space, that gap, I find words wanting to come, characters emerging and showing themselves to me before they are off and I am following them, watching where they go and what it is they are secreting away so that I have to look carefully at their mannerisms, their darting eyes, the stain on a back pocket where a pen has leaked through, what they are holding in the closed fist of their left hand.
It is raining today here in Alfriston, and it is days like this too, when the colors outside are muted, when the ground is wet and window panes are streaked and I’d prefer more than anything to get back into bed with a book – it is this kind of day too that calls the writing to come.
But there are other kinds of days when I don’t have the luxury of space and poetry, or time, when I have been teaching and the papers for grading are in stacks on my desk and on the floor next to the bed, and it has been weeks or even months since I wrote; on days like these I feel a stretching inside that has become painful, an accumulation of unnamed, unarticulated feeling that needs sorting, that needs the pen and the page to begin knowing itself; on days like these I steal time to write, to create. I steal time from my students, from my wife, from canvassers knocking at the door and wanting to talk politics. I do not answer the door. I leave the papers in stacks. I turn off the phone. I leave the house sitting in my green armchair and it is a physical relief to turn to the blank page, and to sink down into the fleshy mass of what wants to become conscious inside my feet, my hands, my throat.
“Tell us a little about a session from the festival which has been of interest to you, and tell us what you’re most looking forward to over the weekend at Small Wonder.”
Helen: There have been exciting moments for me in all of the sessions so far. It is wonderful to be in a space once more where people are taking words so seriously. As Nikesh Shukla, editor of The Good Immigrant said last night, “Words are important”. They matter. How we use them, how conscious we are of them matters.
I often think that it is stories, shaped by words, that shape the world we live in, from the most benign things, like the architecture of a house, or an apartment building, to the ways neighborhoods are placed in relationship to other neighborhoods, and to shops and hospitals and structures of power. It is stories we tell that make a wall around a city or a country necessary, or not. So I appreciated the words shared by Shukla and Salena Godden, as they grappled with ideas of Britishness, of the basically good values at the core of British identity, while at the same time questioning, calling into account, those behaviors that continue to perpetuate an us vs. them mentality, the ‘us’ being white, the ‘them’ being brown.
Salena Godden gave us a metaphor – a giant man sorting colored glass bottles, into the appropriate bins, but what would happen, she asked, if some of the usual colors got mixed up with each other, then which bin should they fall into? Her essay, and her reading of it, became more and more impassioned, a chant, a spell-casting, an enchantment so that I felt the glass exploding and no two colors were the same, and no bins could hold the mosaic she had chanted into being beyond the existing architecture of our lives.
This was good. This was, I thought, what words should do. Blast us out of the comfort zones in our own minds. Leave us stumbling a bit before discovering a new balance, a new way of walking in the world. And of seeing it.
This moment resonated later that evening with something Peggy Seeger said, as she elucidated the power of folk songs to spread ideas. She was likening folk songs to doves, once you let a song out, you can’t bring it back. This is the power of the song, like the story, I thought, that once told, as Leslie Marmon Silko has said, you cannot call back. It is out there spreading its message, its seeds of, in Seeger’s case, revolution. But the power of song, said Seeger, (and of story) is such that unlike a dove it cannot be shot down. I was reminded here of one of the last scenes in the film V for Vendetta. “Why won’t you die?” said Creedy to V; “Because V said, beneath this mask is more than flesh… beneath this mask is an idea, and ideas cannot die.”
In the spirit then of ideas, I am looking forward to more of them. I’m looking forward to “Refugee Tales” and “All That We Are,” and “The Letters of Sylvia Plath” on Sunday. I’m looking forward to words. To hearing what writers are making possible in their stories.
Helen Klonaris is a Bahamian writer, performer, and teacher who lives between the Bay Area, California and Nassau, Bahamas. As a human rights activist, she co-founded several organisations including The Rainbow Alliance of the Bahamas, and Woman Speak: A Journal for Caribbean Women’s Literature and Art, among others. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies and her short story ‘Cowboy’ was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Helen is the co-editor with Amir Rabiyah of the anthology Writing the Walls Down: A Convergence of LGBTQ Voices, and her debut collection of short stories, If I Had the Wings, has just been published.
Helen says: “I was quite emotional when I found out I had been selected for the British Council’s Writer in Residence at Small Wonder. I felt seen and valued as a writer. I love the attention Small Wonder gives to the short story and I’m looking forward to being
in the thick of the energy of writers passionate about the form and their craft. I’m an islander, and I like to think of short stories as small places where the possibilities for
transformation are potent. I’m excited to experience that potency at Small Wonder, to partake of it, to be inspired to experiment and to write new stories from it. These times need our stories, I think. And the Small Wonder Short Story Festival is an incredible
convergence of some of the world’s most captivating storytellers. I’m thrilled and honored to have this opportunity to experience Small Wonder, its writers, and the magic of Charleston!”
Helen will be attending all events, responding to the festival in writing, and appearing in Welcome to the Caribbean on Saturday 30 September. Please give her a warm welcome.
This opportunity had been made possible through a partnership between Small Wonder and the British Council.
We’re delighted that Helen and her publisher Peepal Tree Press have also agreed to share some of her work online. Read ‘Cowboy’ a short story from her debut collection here.
Born and raised in Pretoria, South Africa, Kagiso Lesego Molope moved to Canada in 1997 to study. She has written three novels for young adults, published by OUP SA: Dancing in the Dust, The Mending Season, which is now included on the national school curriculum in South Africa, and This Book Betrays My Brother, which won the 2014 Percy Fitzpatrick Prize, awarded by the English Academy of Southern Africa. Kagiso will be attending all events at Small Wonder, meeting with our authors and responding creatively to the festival. On learning she had been awarded the residency, Kagiso said: “The most exciting part of this residency is spending time with other writers. Writing can be a very isolating profession, so I feel very lucky to have this opportunity to get out and connect with authors and improve my short story writing skills. I’ve written novels but I’ve been more intimidated by my short stories, so this is a chance for me to take them out and work on them in a supportive environment.”
Read Dust-and-No-Dahlias – based on Kagiso’s experience at Small Wonder
Read Kagiso’s blog
“It’s the first time I’ll be at a festival dedicated solely to the short story, my absolute favourite form. I’m devoted to Alice Munro’s work above all, but I’ll just as happily read and reread Chekov in translation or Carver or Welty. So it’s a thrill to know I’ll be completely immersed in short stories and short story writers for a long weekend. If I’m not too overawed, I’m gonna have me the time of my life. Then there’s Charleston House and its ghosts to investigate. I’m particularly interested in Vanessa Bell’s daughter, Angelica Garnett, and her bittersweet relationship with the house and its history.”