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Through A Glass Darkly: Helen Klonaris’ If I Had the Wings

Helen Kloranis creates an immersive portrait of queer life in the Bahamas

In her first solo short story collection If I Had the Wings, Helen Klonaris shrewdly maps the intricacies of Bahamian race relations and sexuality. The stories ring with the authenticity of conservative Caribbean life as well as a barely concealed bitterness about the status quo. With a diverse cast of characters and complex yet relevant themes she presents a work of commendable social critique.

Over the course of eight stories Klonaris walks the reader through a multitude of lives that have been raised and ravaged by Bahamian taboos. From the bleak self-determination of Flies to the not-so-innocent childhood schemes in Cowboy, she treats liberally with idea of one’s Self in relation to the Other. In the eponymous short story If I Had the Wings the author offers a darkly introspective narration of incest, a sinister tone which is continued by the folk-tale inspired Ghost Children.

With Pick Up Girl, Cracks in the Wall and Weeds Klonaris enters more adult territory, moving from complications of race to complications of sexuality. In her stories she is particularly concerned with one’s awareness of sexuality, and the place of the queer adult in Bahamian society. Her characters alternate between blatant defiance and subversive protest in response to sociocultural hostilities. Far from falling flat as a fictionalized representation, the stories in If I Had the Wings paint an accusingly vivid picture of current affairs in the archipelagic state.

Throughout the stories, Klonaris weaves threads of myth and folklore which eventually fan out in an impressive showpiece: The Dreamers. In a style reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale she treats the reader to a sinister but not quite dystopian near future of religious censorship and existential crisis. Though the substance of this story deals largely with the supernatural, Klonaris uses her longest and most varied narration to dismantle and redirect present social constructs.

By using this heavyweight story as the anchor of the anthology Klonaris successfully builds a crescendo from simmering anger into riotous action. The oppressive tone that pervaded previous stories is now banished by an almost hopeful outlook – an unconscious wish on the part of the author, perhaps – and the reader is left with a feeling of optimism despite the remarkably grim line-up.

As it relates to contemporary Bahamian life, this line-up appears to be a self-reflexive accusation of intolerance and a subtle clarion call to get with the times. Klonaris manages to be progressive without feeling preachy, grounding her stories in the intimacy of spiritual and personal revelations without sacrificing a useful message to the Bahamian people. What she has managed to capture is a darker reflection of life in the Bahamas, a startling and unvarnished truth.

This truth reveals itself in multiple ways. The white protagonists in Flies and Cowboy are literary manifestations of the struggle to understand one's sometimes conflicting feelings on race. In such an examination tumultuous outcomes are almost inevitable, and despite displaying an acute awareness of her European heritage, Klonaris’s experiences are unavoidably limited by the privileges of her complexion. To her credit, she does not shy away from the experiences of queer people of colour; still, overall, her criticisms of race relations in the Bahamas are forgivably few and lack any satisfactory conclusion.

Because the author understands that it is the nature of society to be unsatisfying she subverts the social order with rebellions that are both quietly intimate and painfully public. Each protagonist is a rebel, rejecting the solace of social acceptance for the uncharted wilderness of personal freedom. Whether it happens in a forest at dawn or in the middle of a crowded nightclub, this turning point of self-actualization is the pivotal centre of each story and, arguably, gives the collection a universal appeal.

If I Had the Wings is an immersive portrait of queer life in the Bahamas, a thinly veiled reprimand of stubborn social tensions, and a noteworthy oeuvre of political and religious protest. Klonaris has held a mirror up to her country, and they may not like what they see.

 

If I Had the Wings by Helen Klonaris. 166 pp. Peepal Tree Press.