Place, familiarity and distance: What Katherine Mansfield taught me

Earlier this summer, Chris Mourant, a PhD student at King’s College London uncovered four unknown Katherine Mansfield short stories.  Here, award-winning novelist Kirsty Gunn writes of her connection with Mansfield and the process of writing ‘home’.

Home obsessed Katherine Mansfield’s writing life. Being “home”. Going “home”. Or rather, not going “home.” It obsesses me too.

For what is home? Where is it? Here? There? All I know for certain is what the writer in me knows-  as Katherine Mansfield knew: That the place one longed to leave long ago became in time the place to which one longed to return- and does so still, in stories and in narratives that read with the same intense inevitability of memory and of dream.

Having said that, neither is “home” as simple as the place where one was born. It can be a remembered home, an inherited home. My new “elegy”, as Virginia Woolf described all her fiction, is a story of place and belonging that is deeply rooted in my own sense of imaginative and cultural self – though is not where I was born. I was born in Wellington, in New Zealand, and far away from the hills and rivers and skies of Sutherland, in the Highlands of Scotland where my book The Big Music is set.

And yet, this place is also my home – as much as the Wellington of my childhood that I share with Mansfield – and I have made of it in this fiction a kind of pilgrimage to a place of belonging that is as real as the place stamped on my passport. Sutherland and Caithness – the particular part of the world where my story comes from – is the home of my father and his family and is richly familiar to me. So I first started going there with my Caithness granny when I was a girl and have been returning ever since. The colours of its landscape, its skies…These elements of my life are as real as the colour of my eyes.

The book has taken eight years to write and in that time I returned to Wellington on a Writers Fellowship – to work on a project based around the city of my birth and the relationship of my own writing to that of Katherine Mansfield’s. I returned to the places in the city both she and I knew well – the Botanic Gardens, the streets of Thorndon, the building where she was raised that incorporated part of the girls school I attended. Katherine Mansfield was at my elbow the entire winter I was “home”. I went there with her, you might say. Yet all the time, as I was writing stories and essays and responding to that experience of a Wellington childhood, my imagination was also gathered up by my other home – that place in which my larger work of fiction was located.

When I got “home” from New Zealand I went straight up to Sutherland, to our house there, my “home”,  and finished the book. Come this summer I will be working on my Thorndon project in that same place – with the Sutherland hills outside my window, only Wellington and New Zealand will be in my mind.

Katherine Mansfield knew all about that kind of splitting – the dual imagination that comes with being both her and there, home and away – and I have learned from her and her writing what it is to be both inside the worlds of our words and outside looking on, reading, imagining, tracing the lines of the stories to make maps, tracings, pathways of the places where we might go.

Professor Kirsty Gunn, University of Dundee

Kirsty Gunn was born in Wellington and educated at Queen Margaret College in Thorndon, Victoria University and Oxford. She is the author of six books of fiction including a collection of short stories and a compendium of poetry, essays and fiction, and is published in the UK by Faber and in over twelve countries and languages throughout the world. The boy and the sea was winner of the 2008 Sundial Scottish Book of the Year and Featherstone was a New York Times Notable Book and Recipient of a Scottish Arts Council Bursary for Literature. She has a Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Dundee and lives in London and Scotland with her husband and two daughters. Her new book, a story of family and homecoming, The Big Music was published this June.

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