Antigona and Me - Book of the Month
by Kate Clanchy
In March 1999, four Serb policeman came to Antigona’s house looking for her husband who, they believed, was a member of the Kosovan Liberation Army. While one held her and her two younger children at gunpoint, the others took her thirteen year old daughter, Flora, up to the roof and made her shout and scream for her father. He didn’t appear so they threw her off.
Antigona and her children manage to escape and, after a nightmare journey through Europe, end up in England, living close to Kate Clanchy, poet, journalist and mother. From the moment they meet in the street, the two women’s lives become entangled. Kate, impulsively and with typical generosity of spirit, offers Antigona a job as cleaner, and thus begins a long-lasting friendship. For five years, Antigona cleans Kate’s house and looks after her children and, in return, Kate helps her to negotiate a path through the dense bureaucracy and legalese – immigration, benefits, social services, tax – that ensure her stay in the country. Meanwhile, Antigona gradually tells Kate the details of her dramatic story.
Antigona was a victim, not only of the Kosovan war but of the society in which she grew up. She came from the mountainous region, the Malesi, that straddles Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia, a place so backward and isolated that people live by their own code, a system of laws that derives from the Middle Ages – the Kanun of Lek. Not only do women have no rights in that society, but it is legal for a man to kill his wife. In fact, when a woman marries, her family give the bridegroom a bullet to shoot her with should she get out of hand.
For Kate, proximity to the Albanian family brings with it challenges to her own assumptions and beliefs. Employing Antigona makes her question whether it is right that low-paid immigrants should be doing housework and childcare for other working women and it leads her to explore the unrealistic expectations that modern women place on themselves to 'have it all' and the failure of feminism to create a better gender balance within work and the family.
Kate Clanchy brings a journalist’s instinct for a story and a poet’s sensibility to her telling of Antigona’s life. It is a shocking one: not only the incredibly harsh Albanian life; the violent drunken husband; the atrocities of war; but the treatment of her family as refugees in this country. But what shines out from this potentially gloomy tale is Antigona – clever, beautiful, resilient, courageous and resourceful – and the relationship of the two women, which is at once challenging, supportive, warm and funny.
Read our interview with Kate Clanchy.