2018 was our fourth year of welcoming an international writer to Small Wonder to soak up the inspiration and respond to Charleston. The bar this year was set very high, and we eventually settled on Layla AlAmmar.
Layla AlAmmar grew up in Kuwait. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh. Her debut novel The Pact We Made will be published in March 2019 by the Borough Press and her short stories have appeared in the Evening Standard, Quail Bell Magazine, and Aesthetica Magazine where her story ‘The Lagoon’ was a finalist for the Creative Writing Award 2015. She currently works as an English Instructor at a private college in Kuwait. In taking up this opportunity she is keen to show how a new generation of Arab-Anglophone writers are working to claim their own voice, their own ‘space’, and to bring their experiences and truths to a western audience.
Layla said: “I’m thrilled and honoured to have been chosen as the 2018 British Council International Writer in Residence at Small Wonder. The festival is a brilliant showcase for the short story and an opportunity for cultural and creative dialogue.
Q: Layla, congratulations on your residency. How did you come to hear about this opportunity and why did you decide to apply?
A: I had decided that a writing residency might be a good next step in developing myself as a writer, and so I had been researching various residencies but hadn’t applied to any. Then, I happened to see someone retweet the British Council call for applications. The details of the residency intrigued me, and even though the deadline was a week away, I decided to take a chance and apply.
Q: We’re glad you did. How do you think the residency fits in with the phase you’re currently at in your writing career?
A: My first novel is coming out in early 2019, so I felt the residency would be a great opportunity to develop as a short story writer as well as to meet and connect with other writers and people in the industry. I also have great respect and love for the short story form, and the festival’s focus on that was something that interested me greatly.
Q: You live and work in Kuwait. Can you tell us a bit about the writing and literature scene there, and how you got started?
A: The literature scene in Kuwait is quite nascent, unfortunately, particularly when it comes to writing in English. There is a lack of structure to the community, such as frequent workshops and writing groups and so on. It is not yet seen as something someone could aspire to be and study the craft of. There is a growing interest in it though, and things are changing albeit slowly.
My own writing began at a young age, perhaps 11 or 12, but it was always more of a hobby than anything I aspired to on a professional level. A few years ago I decided to take it more seriously, so I completed a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh. Following that, I had a few short stories published as I was finishing my first novel, which then was bought by the Borough Press.
Q: And which will be published in the UK next Spring. Can you tell us a bit about it, and how you came to write it?
A: The Pact We Made tells the story of Dahlia, a young Kuwaiti woman struggling to find independence amid the pressures of a society that, for all its signs of progress, continues to view women and their roles in certain, fixed ways. It’s a story about the doublethink, or dualities of self, that living in such societies can engender, where the private inner life can differ substantially from the public life. People will naturally find parallels between my life and Dahlia’s, and there are certainly frustrations I have with the society that I have explored through her narrative, but it is not my story nor is it that of every woman in Kuwait. It is simply a story, containing (I hope) many different truths and realities.
I had always shied away from writing anything about Kuwait, not out of fear of censorship or local restrictions, but simply because writing is, like reading, an escapist endeavour for me. It’s something I do to inhabit lives that differ from my own, to explore foreign settings and realities. But in the course of my master’s program, my colleagues wanted a piece about Kuwait, and so the novel sprang from a short story I wrote then and which received positive reactions from colleagues and professors.
Q: Following on from that, what books or authors from Kuwait would you recommend to UK readers?
A: Mai AlNakib is a wonderful Kuwaiti writer who had a short story collection out a few years ago called The Hidden Light of Objects. She writes in English. On the Arabic side, there is Saud AlSanousi, whose book The Bamboo Stalk won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013 and has since been translated into English. There’s also Bothayna AlEssa, a well-regarded as yet untranslated Arabic novelist, who is very active in the local writing community.
Q: You’ll be in residence with us for the whole of Small Wonder, as well as exploring Charleston and its surrounding for a few days ahead of the short story festival. Charleston is the former home of the Bloomsbury Group artists Vanessa Bell (sister to Virginia Woolf) and Duncan Grant. The house became a rural retreat for many prominent artists, writers and intellectuals of the early 20th century. Can you tell us a little about what the members of the Bloomsbury Group mean to you?
A: It may be a bit obvious but whenever I think of the Bloomsbury set, I picture Virginia Woolf. And I picture her as she appears in that classic photo we all know from 1902, as though she’s become unstuck in time, her gaze fixed on the margins. Her face in that photo seems to hold a thousand stories that I imagine myself uncovering. With the wider set, what attracts me is how they lived so far beyond definitions, how they constituted a small bubble of anarchy that rejected war and gender norms and societal conventions, opting instead to live somewhere ‘beyond’. It’s a bravery I find myself lacking at times and which I’m fascinated by in them.
Q: And finally, what do you hope to achieve by participating in the residency at Small Wonder Festival?
A: My hope is that the residency at Small Wonder will be an opportunity for me to listen and learn from writers accomplished in the short form. I hope to commune with fellow readers and share our love for the power that fiction has to inspire empathy and break down borders between people and segments of society. I also hope to be able to present my own voice and perspective, coming from a part of the world that is often misrepresented through politicization or racialization, and to show that not all our narratives centre on war and religious ideology.
Layla AlAmmar was in residence at Charleston from 26 – 30 September 2018, attending all Small Wonder events and responding to the festival. Read her blogs here.
‘I wanna stay and never go away…’
In the song, Billy Fury refers to the embrace of his love, her softness and satin and lace, but it is a sentiment that comes to my mind whenever I find myself on this island. Albion! Albion, with her moors and dales, her highlands and lochs, her cliffs and peaks. Whenever I spend time here, I’m struck anew by the richness, the depth and variety, of the landscape—so different to the flat, monochromatic of home. Albion changes constantly, rising and dipping, so that here is a sharp slope and there a gentle stream cutting the field.
In the legend, this land was founded by women. It was the 3970th year of creation, and a great king of Greece sought to marry his thirty daughters into royalty. But the women would not submit, plotting instead to eliminate their husbands, so as to serve no one. The king discovered the plot and sent them adrift on a rudderless ship. After three days, they reached shore and a land which the eldest daughter, Albina, would name after herself. At first, the women, innocent, gathered fruit and acorns for sustenance. Later… well, what happened next is a tale for another time…
I’ve arrived in East Sussex to spend the week at Charleston Farmhouse, home and haunt of the equally subversive Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury Group. Of them, Dorothy Parker said, they ‘lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.’ They, like Albina and her sisters, would not submit. Not to society or convention, not to law or duty, but only to art and each other.
I am here, on the land they walked on, loved on, cried on. I am looking at their trees and breathing their air. I’m smelling their damp mornings and walking their bovine fields. I’m watching their birds alight on branches and listening to their twitterings and coos.
I am in Albina’s south, and she is lovely.
The sisters arrive on this virgin land, and Albina, in a show of stark masculinity, promptly claims it, naming it after herself. The women find fruit and nuts to sustain themselves, venturing further and further inland as they realise that civilisation has not touched this place. It is theirs to conquer. They tame the fields and subdue the forests, but it isn’t enough.
Albina and her sisters want more: they want to hunt; they crave meat; they want, in a sense, to be men.
As I walk through Charleston, through the house with its wild motifs and triangles of love, through exhibits on Orlando and Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases of black LGBTQIA+ lives in South Africa, I’m reminded again that this is the human condition—the curse of the human condition some might say. This wanting of more, this wanting to be true to ourselves, to submit only to our natures, is part and parcel of who we are.
I see it in my friends back in Kuwait, struggling to be who they are in the face of a society that loves to label and categorize. I see it in family members, pushing against the safety of traditions, the time honored, the tried-and-true. I see it in myself as I carve out this path that none before me has attempted.
It seems odd that doing what feels most natural should fill you with such anxiety and fear. Odd, also, that it should result in persecution, exile, arrest, or death…
There are consequences to following your own nature. We mustn’t forget that.
The women hunted, fashioning flints into knives and conceiving of traps with which to capture the flying, crawling, leaping, bounding beasts around them. However, this bloodlust brought with it a different kind of lust— for when, indeed, do lusts ever travel alone? There arose in Albion a legion of incubi, beings of darkness who grew emboldened by the sisters’ passions and began visiting them in the night. The result of these unions was a race of giants that dominated the land for untold ages.
This is the part of the story that’s meant to be cautionary. The women have disobeyed, and now they are made to suffer the consequences. But is it really all that bad? The sisters’ insubordination has resulted in something grander, something greater, than men. They have produced giants, beings that can reach up and hug the moon, that can tickle the stars and trace words into the clouds. Can you see them? Crossing the heaths and stepping over peaks? They have eyes like lochs and cheeks cut like the Cliffs of Dover. These women—these powerful, vain, unapologetic women—traveled beyond definition and found there a new way to be. What is that but a rousing call to buck the status quo?
As Ben Okri said last night at Small Wonder, ‘The word “No” is a very big idea.’ He could not have put it more succinctly. If all good stories begin with “What if?” then surely all great leaps forward in human history begin with the word “No”.
We will no longer be silenced and disenfranchised.
We will not fight in a war we don’t believe in.
We will no longer be slaves.
We will no longer adhere to rigid constructs of gender and identity.
We will not tolerate politics of division and exclusion.
We will no longer pretend to be anything other than who we are.
So you see, we can draw a very clear line from Albina and her sisters, to Boudica and Joan of Arc, to George Eliot and Emily Bronte, to Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, to Clara Barton and Susan B. Anthony, to Emily Wilding Davison and the Pankhursts, to Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, to Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem, to Huda Sha’arawi and Nawal El Sadaawi and Laila al-Othman, to unknown, untold, and anonymous others lost to history. All powerful, all vain, all unapologetic.
These are not cautionary tales but signposts to a new way of being. They are reminders that despite the pain and hardship, history will remember our struggles fondly, and that—perhaps—with every “No” and every push forward, we make the path for those that follow just a little bit smoother.
As the Indian mystic saint Mirabai, another little subversive, said,
‘Go to that impenetrable realm
That death himself trembles to look upon.
There plays the fountain of love
With swans sporting on its waters.’
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.
Question of the Day NUMBER 1 to Helen during Small Wonder 2017
“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.
Question of the Day NUMBER 2 to Helen during Small Wonder 2017
“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.
Question of the Day NUMBER 3 to Helen during Small Wonder 2017
“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.
Question of the Day NUMBER 4 to Helen during Small Wonder 2017
“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.”