Our British Council International Writer in Residence, Helen Klonaris, wrote this piece following her experience at Charleston last autumn during the Small Wonder Short Story Festival 2017…
I came looking for ghosts. I walked the downs, morning mist ghost-like. I followed a lone traveler up ahead till I could not see him anymore. Till he had disappeared into the grey. I walked on. Through several stiles, stopping now and then to breathe in the cool wet air, to watch the black feathered birds against an opaque sky, to notice a spray of red berries. I turned around at the river, the path too muddy and slick to continue. The same river where she, the woman writer, had kept walking up to her waist, rocks in pockets, till the river swollen and full spoke to her, said Come beloved, come let me hold you; till the river swallowed her, perhaps to make her ghosts go away.
I came looking for them anyway. I walked through the house, where the artists had lived – the sister of the woman writer and her lover; her husband and their child. Colors and brush strokes and curious designs –their imaginations– apparitions against walls, doors, fireplaces, and dining tables. I stalked the rooms, listened for them in between lines of story, felt the quiet grief of a woman grown old in the interstices between creation and death, in the artist’s room that stared out onto the garden – flowers, apple trees, rosemary and thyme shading the walkways, the paths made quaint inside the garden walls.
Leaving the house to wander through that same garden, then beyond its walls, hesitating next to the pond where a statue of the Lady of the Lake looked on, I remembered a story I had read years ago, when I was a child at St. Andrew’s School in the Bahamas. For days it had been the English writers who haunted my consciousness as I walked the narrow streets of Alfriston, the shadowed hallways of the house at Charleston, the somber rooms at Monk’s House in Lewes. Writers like D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, Charlotte Brontë that had shaped my adolescent writer’s sensibility. But walking beside the pond at Charleston, it was Graham Greene’s “Destructors” I remembered. Which is to say it rose up out of the watery unconscious and made itself present to me again. A story that had pressed its metaphors upon my young self to be remembered again in years to come, that would haunt my own words when I wrote and when I sat or walked or did not write – though the stories are always there (Graham Greene himself once said), impressions behind our wakefulness – its images waiting to be articulated in a way that brings them forward, newly interrogated, newly configured, speaking to a different yet contiguous time.
Here was what I remembered: a young English boy had come to a new town bringing with him his history. An architect father, fallen in the world of material things. He became the leader of a boy’s gang. He proposed to them nothing so inconsequential as stealing bus rides. He wanted to do something far more creative, far more substantial. He knew of a house. Built by a famous architect. It was Bank Holiday. The old man was away, the house empty. He instructed the boys to bring tools, for their goal would be to take the house apart, walls from floors and ceilings, all furniture, appliances, sinks, bathtubs smashed. I remembered that he found money, pound notes inside a mattress, which he burned one note at a time, “ashes floating above his head like age.” I remembered that the owner of the house came back early, and they trapped him in his own outdoor loo. I remembered how Trevor, that was the protagonist’s name, said to the old man, “There’s nothing personal.” And how when the old man finally got out, the next morning, after hearing what sounded like a bomb explode, he exited the outhouse only to witness the complete devastation of his home, raised to the ground.
Because of the nature of the short story, the containment of the words, the images in so small a space, they have an energy that is potent. The story is a complex metaphor that stays with the reader. It can go on living inside the reader for years, dispersing its meaning over time, and as the reader lives her life, life and the metaphor sometimes explosively align.
Being at Charleston I found myself haunted by Graham Greene and by a complicated legacy. I am a Greek Bahamian woman who grew up in an island country colonized by the British, and who learned to love language taught to me by English and Welsh and Scottish schoolteachers. As a writer and activist many years later, I used that language to talk back to colonialism and to advocate for self-definition. And now here I was in the country and on the land where the writing I had learned to love came from, and which was also the colonial power so many of us grappled with in our living and writing in colonized places.
I thought I had come to hear the whisperings of Virginia Woolf on the downs, Vanessa Bell murmuring in the hallway outside Duncan Grant’s studio, but strangely it was Graham Greene’s words that caught hold of me, brought me back to the scene of the old house and the crew that were tearing it down.
Here I was in a house preserved, touched and stroked and brought to life vividly by creators, not destructors, but the story that haunted was of a house destroyed. I was caught between these worlds, these houses, and the metaphor of destruction as a form of creation. And as I turned the images this way and that, wondering at the conundrum of memory, I thought about how the Bloomsbury artists and writers were themselves destroying ideas and structures in order to create new ones. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves breaks out of the conventional paragraph to allow the unconscious space to flow and make profound connections. Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell broke out of the conventions of marriage and sexual identity to form unorthodox intimacies; their paintings broke out of conventional frames to flow onto walls, doorframes, and tabletops. The artist destroys to make room for the unconscious to surface, to leap forth from exiled places and generate necessary insights.
Thinking back on it now, I wonder what my 8th grade teachers were thinking all those years ago, only eight years after Bahamian Independence? Were they, like Greene, disillusioned with the imperial cause? By the early 1960s African and Caribbean countries were reclaiming their own voices and were bringing down the Union Jack and lifting up new national flags and identities. Some – and I am thinking here of writers like Derek Walcott and George Lamming and Kamau Brathwaite – entered the old houses, plantations and narratives, and began pulling them apart from the inside, all the better to build again, with new words. Were the educators who found themselves living and working in former colonies also involved in a destruction of old identities, and, so inspired, passed on rebellious words to us?
Perhaps. Perhaps it was their way of secretly handing us tools for our own time of destruction. Passing them to us under the table, or over a wall, hand-to-hand: a crow bar, wire cutters, hammers, screwdrivers, to begin the demolition that would surely come. Even though it meant they would find themselves abruptly staring at a much revised landscape.
I am struck now at the ways stories can travel across borders and oceans, over and through walls, hand to hand, back and forth, generating shifts in our heads and on the ground. Social justice requires this exchange, this radical alchemy. While empire building requires an imposition of new stories over and against existing ones, justice building requires altered lines of relationship, a convergence of stories and experiences that generates the energy for imagination that is liberatory.