Dispatches from #SmallWonderFest

I was blessed to spend a week in Sussex for the Small Wonder Short Story Festival. It is the foremost short story festival in the UK. It takes place at Charleston farmhouse, the former home of the Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf) and Duncan Grant. It was a magical week, and I shared some thoughts on it.

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A Wondrous Place

‘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.

To Be…

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.

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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.’