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from the August 2019 issue

Reimagined Communities: An Introduction to Welsh Writing

It was one of those double-edged moments when you catch a glimpse of yourself as others see you. Sitting in a crammed Trinity College bar, fifteen years ago now, following a seminar on Branwen ferch Llŷr, a friend was asking about the difference between contemporary and Middle Welsh, how much of a leap was required for me to read this iconic medieval text. As I considered, a voice cut in from the table next to us: “Welsh?” I knew his face but not his name. I’d seen him around College: an economist, I think. “It’s all medieval, isn’t it?”

As innocuous a comment as this might seem, it—along with countless incidents like it—has come in my mind to represent the narrow silos where Welsh-language culture is categorized away in the collective imagination. If known at all, it is often through a gauze where Wales remains druidic, heroic, romantic. Othered. From here there may well be a jump to a Thomas or two—Dylan, R. S.—but more often than not they appear as lonely figures, separate from the broader, national, crucially bilingual culture of Wales through which they wrote. “Despite our speech,” as R. S. wrote in his 1958 poem “Border Blues,” “we are not English.”

The relative invisibility of the contemporary Welsh-language scene can feel incongruous to its core readership, which enjoys a literature of caliber, depth, and ever-increasing diversity. There is no doubt that it is a tightly-knit community of readers, nor that publishing and marketing practices for an audience of half a million or so Welsh speakers operate along different lines from other mass markets: the spaces where Welsh-literature happens are, to an extent, different. The annual National Eisteddfod in the first week of August, the largest cultural festival of its kind in Europe, remains the key date in the publishing calendar and the winners of its numerous literary awards highly celebrated. And if the Eisteddfod is the establishment, the custodian, there is also a proliferation of local festivals and live literature nights, many of which consciously evolve the centuries-old live poetry tradition of Wales for a younger, contemporary audience. We have literary fiction, popular novels, a zine culture: publications which, by and large, continue to be sold at smaller independent bookshops or cultural centers. The young editorial team at Y Stamp magazine are leading a new charge in experimentation and self-publishing. O’r Pedwar Gwynt, our foremost literary magazine, is defiantly European and internationalist in its outlook as it nurtures a uniquely Welsh editorial stance. For a culture so often understood in terms of its fragility—and rightly so in many regards—more than ever there is much to celebrate.

Literary translation remains crucial to ensuring broader access to Welsh-language writing, but so too do other and, in some senses, profounder acts of cultural reconciliation. For a small nation we are millstoned by many internal borders, the residue of a population which for so long was not equipped with its own unified history and culture. There is a charged interplay of literary and nonliterary Welsh, of standardized language and regional difference, which can render even fluent speakers reluctant readers. Increased access to Welsh-language education, both in schools and communities, is absolutely central in this regard. There is the perceived divide between the Welsh-language and English-language literatures of Wales, which since the publication of Caradoc Evans’s My People in 1915 have run along parallel, if not oppositional, lines. A subtle shift marks a significant difference between that which is Cymraeg—of the Welsh-language—and that what is Cymreig—of Wales. Increasingly as a community of writers and readers we are operating on much more cross-cultural terms, or as the scholar M. Wynn Thomas puts it, “across the cultural divide that has been both the making and the undoing of modern Wales.” 

For me, it was back in that College bar, a young student thrust into the position of an apologist, that a slow process of reconciliation began. While it had been easier for me to project outward my own desired image of Welsh-language culture and heritage, the challenge as I came to understand it was fully to engage with the productive complexities of the contemporary scene. I gravitated toward the cultural touchstones which I simultaneously longed to champion and to challenge. And so I would have traced for you Welsh literature’s roots back to the sixth century. I would have opened that red hardback of Branwen in my hand and explained its position in Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi (The Four Branches of the Mabinogi), a literary marvel, the earliest prose stories of Britain. Through the work of some of its finest artists—from Gwerfyl Mechain to Dafydd ap Gwilym to Dic Jones—I would have plunged into the intricacies of cynghanedd, an ancient system of assonance and internal rhyme which remains at the heart of much Welsh-language poetry today. But I don’t know if I would have mentioned a single contemporary novel. The work of the writers on my bedside table—several of whom are among the authors presented here—would not have tripped so easily from my tongue. And the English-language literature of Wales? That would have felt like a different conversation altogether, not necessarily mine to have.

The urgency of this process of reconciliation is compounded by the precariousness of Wales’s current political standing. Culturally we are at a crossroads, and reflected in the finest of contemporary Welsh-language literature is a process (a struggle) of resolving ourselves to the particularities of our own nature. As Jan Morris wrote in her foreword to Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country (1984):

It is a small country, in many ways the archetype of a small country, but its smallness is not petty: on the contrary it is profound, and if its frontiers were ever to be extended, or its nature somehow eased, its personality would lose stature, not gain it.

Much of the broader value of Welsh-language literature derives precisely from the dense, complex, cultural layering in which it is forged, in this small patch of earth on the western fringe of Europe. If the topic of Wales, of Welshness, occupies a central place in the national canon, this should not be mistaken for parochialism or protectionism. It is a feature of a literature which, often through the bludgeonings of circumstance, has had to deeply consider the politics and poetics of place, of language and memory, of incorporating diversity into a fight for survival. In a world reimagining its cultural and political axes, Welsh-language literature gives voice to an experience more necessary and valuable now than ever. Instigating a meaningful conversation with ourselves does not limit our relevance. Rather, limitation lies in that gauzy, majoritized imagination which reduces a minority culture into a lesser one, a static part of a purportedly greater whole. Contemporary Welsh writing cannot be read in those terms. It is a national literature (re)defining its own story as it writes.

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Contemporary writing began for me in the 1990s, as I came of age alongside a generation of writers who each in their own way challenged and recharged the torpor of Welsh writing at the time. The critical response to Robin Llywelyn’s debut Seren Wen ar Gefndir Gwyn (A White Star on a White Background) captured an important cultural moment in this regard. This highly original novel, interpreted by some as a critique of neo-imperialism, was hailed a masterpiece by the judges of the 1992 National Eisteddfod, who awarded Llywelyn that year’s Prose Medal. Its publication heralded an equally enthusiastic counterresponse in what ultimately became a debate centered on the nature of Welsh readership. Championing this work was seen by some as an act of elitism, flowing counter to the development of the popular Welsh-language readership, which had been largely nurtured on social realism. To my teenage mind as it was then, Seren Wen was among the books that taught me that my culture was confident enough not to seek to please. Mihangel Morgan’s work also belongs in this category, particularly his early novels Dirgel Ddyn (Mysterious Man) and Dan Gadarn Goncrit (Under Solid Concrete) and the short story collection Saith Pechod Marwol (Seven Deadly Sins). Morgan’s queer, dark, funny writing continues today to confront the absurd banalities of everyday life, and to subvert with cutting affection the preciousness often associated with Welsh cultural life. The figurative and psychological landscapes these authors traverse—be they Seren Wen’s Gwlad Alltud (Land of Exile) or Dirgel Ddyn’s Welsh for Adults evening class—imbue the familiar with a sense of the uncanny, in a manner that is usefully unnerving for a tightly-knit readership.

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It would be satisfying to present a narrative of the 1990s as a decade which began with this literary awakening and culminated in an act of devolved social democracy, with the founding of the National Assembly of Wales, Y Senedd, in 1999. There is of course no such neatness of resolution. With this degree of self-determination came even greater scrutiny of the question of Welsh identity, or, more correctly, identities. The generation of authors featured here have come to literary maturity in a postevolution age, the cultural confidence and frustrations of which are equally reflected in their work. The relationship between politics and Welsh-language writing has always been close, particularly so with socialist and nationalist movements. Many of the best and most popular writers of the twentieth century—Kate Roberts, known as Brenhines ein Llên (Queen of our Literature), Saunders Lewis, Islwyn Ffowc Elis—were central figures in the establishment and early development of Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales. Lewis’s iconic 1962 BBC radio lecture, Tynged yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language), provided an impetus not only for the protest movements of the 1960s and '70s but also for the renewed flourishing of Welsh language publishing and cultural production in film, television, and music.

Nid dim llai na chwyldroad yw adfer yr iaith Gymraeg yng Nghymru. Trwy ddulliau chwyldro yn unig y mae llwyddo.

It will take nothing less than a revolution to restore the Welsh language in Wales. Success is only possible through revolutionary methods.

The late Gerallt Lloyd Owen’s Cerddi’r Cywilydd (Poems of our Shame), a strident response to Charles Windsor’s inauguration as Prince of Wales in 1969, represents a pinnacle of this tradition. (Ask a Welsh literature student of my generation and they’ll recite to you much of this collection by heart.) But the forcefulness of this writing is less of a defining characteristic than the hard-won awareness which lies behind it, that of the power dynamics deeply embedded in the use of, and suppression of, language and culture. There is not an author writing in Welsh today who will not be conscious of their personal-as-political agency in this regard, however they choose to engage with it. This is far from a new phenomenon: the enduring popularity of figures such as the poet and essayist T. H. Parry-Williams owes a great deal to the honesty of their push-and-pull portrayal of this cultural responsibility. As he signs off his iconic poem “Hon” (“This One”): Duw a’m gwaredo, ni allaf ddianc rhag hon: “God help me, I cannot escape this one.”

The exploration of this equivocal middle ground is also a feature of the English-language literature of Wales, and especially so for those writers who choose to work in both languages. As Gwyneth Lewis writes in her poem "What’s in a Name?" from the 2003 collection Keeping Mum:

Today the wagtail finally forgot
that I once called it sigl-di-gwt. […]
Lleian wen is not the same as 'smew'
because it's another point of view,
another bird.

Much of our best writing inhabits such nuances and slippages: our tradition of praise and religious writing equally met by the literature of doubts and misrememberings which emerges in the negotiation of the Welsh experience.

The social drive of Kate Roberts’s work, both as a novelist and short story writer, is expressed not in grand gesture but in the subtlety of her psychological observations, focused on characters or communities otherwise ignored: women and children; the impoverished workers of industrial north Wales; those living with mental illness. More recently, the novelist, children’s author, and activist Angharad Tomos and the poets Menna Elfyn and Nesta Wyn Jones are notable for their exploration from a feminist perspective of the intersection of personal and political in the Welsh experience. The publishing house Honno, the longest-standing independent women’s press in the UK, continues to do vital work in presenting contemporary and lost classics of Welsh women’s writing, in both our languages. The founding of the poetry collective Cywion Cranogwen, the 2018 publication of the anthology Codi Llais, and the pop-culture magazine Codi Pais all speak of a confident, progressive new generation of women writers in Wales.

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In Imagined Communities (1983) Benedict Anderson held the novel form to be the best “technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation.” Increasingly in Welsh-language writing form and genre themselves are challenged, boundaries blurred so as better to reimagine a space for itself. The writers presented here are best known by and large for their prose, but they are also recognized as dramatists and scriptwriters, singer/songwriters, poets and podcasters: the collective impact of their creative energy is felt across literary and cultural forms.

The recent rise in popularity of Celtic Noir has not only presented Welsh culture to new international audiences, but created a space within the culture where different forms and communities speak to one another. The dark worlds depicted in television series such as Y Gwyll (Hinterland) or Craith (Hidden) draw on the same sources as the work of authors such as Caryl Lewis and Llwyd Owen, both featured here. While these writers initially seem to inhabit wildly different worlds, they bear equal witness to fundamental shifts in the make-up of contemporary Wales. Owen’s exploration of Cardiff’s criminal and psychological underbelly inversely speaks to the new power structures and political classes of Wales’s young democracy and lays bare what is often seen as the cozy hypocrisy of middle-class suburban Wales. The dystopia presented here, “after the vote,” represents a natural progression from his established dark worlds.

The changing psychological and linguistic landscapes of rural Wales form the basis of Lewis’s work, its communities emptied of the increasingly urbanized Welsh-speaking population. The exquisite, near timeless vocabulary with which she evokes the natural world runs counter to the time-and-duty-bound existence of the characters who inhabit her landscapes. In theme and tenor, she shares much with Cynan Jones’s lyrical prose. Something of the darkness of survivor literature runs through the work, though there often remains an element of quiet celebration and resistance. As Christopher Meredith’s Welsh-speaking character Wil responds to a compliment on the quality of his English in the 2012 novel The Book of Idiots: “Thanks […] Call me Caliban.”

The expansion of Manon Steffan Ros and Fflur Dafydd’s body of work toward science fiction (gwyddonias) speaks of this increasing drive in Welsh culture towards brave new worlds. The sparse postapocalyptic landscape of Ros’s profoundly moving Llyfr Glas Nebo (The Blue Book of Nebo), winner of the 2019 Wales Book of the Year, is simultaneously informed by her deep sensitivity to the relationships between people, place, and home. The universalizing strength of her writing for young adults is never more profoundly felt than here. A siege on the National Library of Wales in Fflur Dafydd’s 2009 thriller Y Llyfrgell (The Library) sets the scene for an exploration of collective memory and cultural ownership. Adapted into the film Y Llyfrgell (The Library Suicides) (Euros Lyn, 2016), there lies in its deliberately-within-touching-distance 2020 setting an implicit challenge to the futures we choose to build for ourselves through the readings of our own past.

It is also in the challenges of inherited memory that much of Llŷr Gwyn Lewis’s work is located. His prose debut, Rhyw Flodau Rhyfel (Some Flowers of War), deliberately injects personal experience into writing which grapples with the lines between fact, fiction and memory, the real and the unreal. His short-story collection Fabula, an extract of which is featured here, continues in this vein and, to adapt a line from his own poem “Rhyddid” (Freedom), seems to “take pleasure/ in the ambiguity of its wavelengths.” In some ways occupying similar ground to Patrick McGuinness, whose Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory won the 2015 Wales Book of the Year, Lewis’s work has the additional charge of a young person’s, a new generation’s, need not only to seek a place in the world, but to form of the world’s disintegrating framework a new reality.

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In 2016, Parthian Books published what came to be Alys Conran’s award-winning debut novel, Pidgeon, side by side with a specially commissioned Welsh translation of the same work, Pijin. A novel of childhood, loss of innocence, loss of language, it is a book in which the psychological relationship between English and Welsh resonates at its emotional core. It resonated also with a broad readership within and beyond Wales, with many readers buying a copy in both languages. To my mind, contemporary Wales is one of the few places in the world where such a bold, culturally significant act of simultaneous publication could take place: it speaks of a particular confluence of cultures at a significant moment in its history. Welsh literature does not by any means present a silver bullet when it comes to the assimilation and acceptance of cultural diversity: many authors, from Tony Bianchi to Kate Bosse-Griffiths to Charlotte Williams, attest to the complexities of the Welsh experience in this regard. But they remain fruitful complexities through which to inform a broader conversation. To quote M. Wynn Thomas once more, engaging with the “significant differences, creative hostilities, silent connections and hidden attachments” of Welsh literature is enabling us further to develop a diverse, inclusive literature that remains very much our own.

© 2019 by Casi Dylan. All rights reserved.

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