NWR Issue r15

Podcast: Contemporary Literature from Wales

Gwen Davies on recent fiction in English from Wales. Robin Chapman on the rejection of politicisation in Welsh-language literature since devolution. Suzy Ceulan Hughes on Library of Wales classics & the influence of the Welsh tradition in English on contemporary U.K writers. New Welsh Review's multi-media programme is sponsored by Aberystwyth University. Directed & edited by Jordan Blower. Produced by Elinor Joinson.

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Podcast: Contemporary Literature from Wales with Gwen Davies, Robin Chapman and Suzy Ceulan Hughes from New Welsh Review on Vimeo.

Gwen Davies is a literary translator and editor of New Welsh Review.

Dr T. Robin Chapman is Senior Lecturer in the department of Welsh & Celtic studies at Aberystwyth University.

Suzy Ceulan Hughes is a translator of European languages, a writer and critic; she is the English books editor of

Gwen Davies, editor of New Welsh Review, talks about traditions, themes and innovations in recent contemporary fiction from Wales in English (00:00)

New Welsh Review is part of a tradition of literary journals that has its roots in nineteenth-century nation building. In the 70s, and again in the 80s, new and revived journals, including Planet and New Welsh Review, were nurtured by what was then the Welsh Arts Council. Because the short story is such a mainstay of the literary journal, writers in that form have found a platform and financial support through the magazines (as well as prizes such as the Rhys Davies award). These factors have led to book publishing culture favouring story anthologies and collections which in turn can offer a home to the longer short form, the novella. Technology has also had an innovative impact on book-length, with the rise of the Single Kindle. New Welsh Review is developing this trend, with an annual Reading poll, writing prize the new Welsh Writing Awards and its sister ebook imprint, New Welsh Rarebyte. Together these champion the shorter book across nonfiction and fiction, in categories such as nature, travel writing, the novella and memoir. Our first short ebook and mini print title published under our New Welsh Rarebyte imprint was an essay of 8000 words, Woman Who Brings the Rain, A Memoir of Hokkaido Japan, by Eluned Gramich, a beautiful study of learning a language and how to belong, which was shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year last summer.

The Welsh tradition for short stories and the novella is in line with publishing trends in Europe rather than the UK, as the experience of our novella specialist, Cynan Jones, testifies. His very short books, including The Long Dry and After the Factory, had success with European translations, especially French and Italian, before the author was bought from his original publisher Parthian by London publisher Granta. His early publishing career coincided with the recession, and publishers in Wales, with their high tolerance both for the so-called ‘quiet book’ as well as innovative (ie short) length, kept Cynan going, just about, until the economy improved and he found a greater profile with Granta and prize nominations such as the Sunday Times Short Story Award. Here are some other Welsh activists in the Welsh shortness campaign, both in the novella and the short story.

Gee Williams (her towering novella ‘Blood Etc’ in the Parthian collection of the same title). Stevie Davies (a standalone novella, Equivocator, once again published by Parthian). Francesca Rhydderch (a finalist in the 2014 BBC National Short Story Award). Mary-Ann Constantine (a funny, spooky novella, ‘The Collectors’, within her collection from Seren, All the Souls, involves Breton folk-lore, leprosy and horrifying anthropological voyeurism). Tyler Keevil, an Abergavenny-settled Canadian, writes sensitively about male working mores. And most recently, last year’s English-category Wales Book of the Year winner, Thomas Morris’ We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Faber), a short story collection with settings that range from Caerffili’s Big Cheese Festival, through speculative scenarios of memory manipulation to Dublin stag parties. Other names to note are Rebecca F John, published first by Parthian but picked up by Serpent’s Tail for her next novel, a gay ghost which shares territory with Sarah Walters.

Turning from issues of format to themes, Wales’ recent fiction in English has shown strengths in the following areas. Firstly, magical influences, a strand which has belonged to us from stories (many with Iron Age motifs) that were passed on orally and recorded in the Medieval period. Seren’s marvellous series of novellas, New Stories from Mabinogion, retells these for a contemporary readership, and among their authors shine Flur Dafydd, Tishani Doshi, Trezza Azzopardi and Lloyd Jones. These stories and their originals are colourful, bizarre, time-tricking and philosophical. In this category also falls the fiction of Mary-Ann Constantine (mentioned earlier), where time, the real, the unseen and the underworld are in constant slippage. Also Frank O’Connor International award-winner Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Gallen Pike, a collection with tales of secrets and rites of keeping vigil, including a [Russian] pre-satnav fairy tale in the ‘The Travellers’. Meanwhile, shading from magic realism into surrealism is the land of Swansea author Alan Bilton, with his novel The Sleepwalkers’ Ball, a cross between Mary Poppins and Kafka, being a tribute to Kazuo Ishiguro’s anxiety dream, The Unconsoled.

‘Dirty Urban’ is a sub-genre I’ve coined to cover urban writing which developed here at the start of the century when Parthian started publishing, especially its authors Rachel Trezise and Lloyd Robson. Rachel doesn’t overly identify with her Welshness, as she see herself in the Valleys Labour tradition which looks towards America. This political view reflects in her many characters that are refugees, especially from Ireland, and the Jewish diaspora. Thomas Morris, mentioned earlier, comes into this section too (although he speaks Welsh and is not wholly urban; more a small-town writer). Welsh-language writer Llwyd Owen’s Cardiff novels also do; for example Faith, Hope and Love, published by Alcemi. Crystal Jeans is another comic Cardiff novelist, drawing on her ‘outsider’ childhood on the edges of alcohol, drug abuse, unusual parental discipline and the local Jehova’s Witness community.

Climate change is important to our authors, particularly Lloyd Jones, whose novel Y Dwr is available in English as Water. We have Robert Minhinnick, an environmental activist and author of stories, poetry and superb nonfiction essays. Finally, Horatio Clare, whose retelling of the twelfth-century story of Lludd and the Llefelys, The Prince’s Pen, looks at an upland Wales that survives its drowned Eastern neighbour and is topically regarding Islam and shifting powerblocks.

In nonfiction, Patrick McGuinness’ Book of the Year winning Other People’s Countries explores themes of identity which are often present in bilingual authors, of belonging and trying to ‘be both’, as Ali smith has it. It is about being both, and loyal to a dominating as well as an overshadowed culture (his being Belgium), belonging to the past and present, and feeling compromised wherever you happen to be.

The use of historical personae is strongly present in our culture, witness Rebecca F John’s forthcoming novel, mentioned above, ghost elements in the novels of Tristan Hughes and Katherine Stansfield, and Stevie Davies’ characters placed at key historical moments, such as in her novel, Into Suez.

We have a writing and publishing scene that is diverse, tolerant, outward looking, [defiantly] European, liberal and humanitarian. It is a thinking place, with an understated but definitely present political approach that has grown out of nonconformist egalitarian traditions, and is even sharper in its Welsh-language compatriots. I expect this latent political bent to come out of the closet as cultural responses to Brexit emerge in future fiction: we are likely to see the development of satire, as has happened already in British comedy.

Robin Chapman, talking about how politicisation in Welsh-language literature waned with the advent of devolution (06:56)

When we want to talk of the politicisation of Welsh-language literature since the 1990s, we need to make a counter-intuitive leap. Because on the face of it, literature in Welsh has become determinedly depoliticised – or more precisely, apolitical since the mid-1990s. In part, no doubt, the creation of a Welsh Government in 1999 has played a role in the emergence of a more assured idiom; but change has occurred through intrinsic factors too. After forty years of agonising over the death of the language, rural unemployment and depopulation, the proliferation of second homes and the perceived brutalities of the free market, Wales in the new millennium lost patience with nobility, and developed an eagerness to re-imagine itself as somewhere less frantic and more playful. A couplet from the late Iwan Llwyd has become a watchword. ‘Daeth dyddiau diosg bathodynnau / a byw.’ (The days have come to take off badges – and live).

If the new dispensation has produced anything overtly political, it has been satirical fiction, typified perhaps by Goronwy Jones’ novel, Walia Wigli (2004). Set in 2014, it has a jaundiced assessment of bureaucracy of the new Wales (illustrated by the recurring motif of the central character’s inability to fill in an official form). We can find satire in Robin Llywelyn’s Diwrnod yn yr Eisteddfod, from the same year, where the central character returns from military service to a Wales that has been made simultaneously ridiculous and threatening by self-government.

Welsh fiction, in particular, has lost its need to serve a purpose outside itself. Its central preoccupation, rather, is the impossibility of reliably conveying human experience at all. Authorial omniscience has been jettisoned, characters have been denied the articulacy to explain themselves, and readers have been deprived of any secure perspective from which to know them. The output of the last twenty years is a collection of hauntings, dreams, hallucinations, rumours, mistaken identities, wild goose chases, forgeries, interrupted trains of thought, misunderstandings, and the unreliability, mutability and imprecision of memory.

Angharad Price’s O! Tyn y Gorchudd (2002, translated by Lloyd Jones as The Life of Rebecca Jones, 2010), superimposes imagination on her own family history, to conjure an unlived life for a relative who died young in the early years of the twentieth century. Mihangel Morgan’s Cestyll yn y Cymylau (2007) presents the reader with an unnamed biographer attempting to piece together the life of a dead artist from the confused accounts of those who are never sure how well they knew him at all. Jerry Hunter has, in successive novels, explored identity in the context of climactic events. The results are simultaneously unnerving and stimulating. Gwenddydd (2010), ostensibly a family saga set during the Second World War, explores how events shape not only lives but fashion personalities beyond the ties of blood and national allegiance. Hunter’s Ebargofiant (2012), written in a phonetic transcription of north Walian Welsh, imagines the recreation of literacy through the eyes of a survivor of a post-apocalyptic event. More epic in scope is Y Fro Dywyll (2015). Drawing on the uncertainty of the evidence, the novel conflates (or perhaps doesn’t) the lives of four seventeenth-century characters to explore, through the story of the New Jerusalem project in New Hampshire, notions of faith, ambition, loyalty and identity.

Poetry, by contrast, has embraced naturalism – even domesticity. Gerwyn Wiliams’ Rhwng Gwibdaith a Coldplay (2011), looks back with indulgence on the heady activism of the 1980’s from the perspective of a middle-aged husband and father, content now to live with the convenience of online shopping while atrocities play out on television, and happy to salve his conscience with what he calls ‘the gospel of recycling’. Younger voices, in Gruffudd Owen’s Hel Llus yn y Glaw (2015) and Rhys Iorwerth’s Un Stribedyn Bach (2014), meanwhile, explore the conflicts and kicks of being a young professional from the Welsh-speaking north let loose in Cardiff.

Suzy Ceulan Hughes, talking about the library of Wales classics, and the influence of the Welsh tradition in English contemporary UK writers. (11:54)

In the run-up to the Hay Festival last year, Gwen Davies and I had a couple of long lunches, brainstorming literature from Wales. Our conversations were wide-ranging, raising more questions than we were able to answer. Gwen addresses some of them in her own, highly-informed contribution to this podcast. She has asked me to share some of my thoughts to feed the debate.

One thing I was especially interested in was how literature from Wales has crossed national borders in its scope and influence. In 2016, David Jones’ In Parenthesis was the obvious example, and I’m indebted to an article by Owen Sheers in The Guardian for enlightening me on its continuing power to influence and inspire. TS Eliot hailed it as ‘a work of genius’, WH Auden called it ‘the greatest book about the first world war’; it was acknowledged as an influence by Seamus Heaney, and cited as a touchstone by Max Porter for his 2015 hybrid work, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers; for Owen Sheers, it has been ‘something of a presiding spirit’. Jones himself called it ‘a shape in words’. It is a glorious, boundary-breaking work. Might its influence also be seen further afield, perhaps in David Grossman’s Falling Out of Time? It’s not impossible.

Another less well-known Welsh writer who experimented with form and structure was Stuart Evans, whose 1977 novel, The Caves of Alienation was reprinted in the Library of Wales series in 2009. Reclusive writer Michael Caradock has been murdered, and the novel pieces together his life and work. There is some conventional narrative, but there are also long extracts from Caradock’s novels and essays, from critical biographies and reviews, radio programmes and interviews. All invented. It’s a masterpiece, described by one commentator as ‘one of the most ambitious novels of the twentieth century’. When I read it, it reminded me immediately of AS Byatt’s 1990 Booker-Prize winner, Possession, with its fictional diary entries, letters and poems, the invention of ‘historical’ texts. I have no idea whether Byatt had read or even heard of Evans, but it seems uncanny that these two books, published just thirteen years apart, should play with form and structure in such similar ways.

It feels important, in this very short piece, to mention some neglected women writers whose work is back in print thanks to Parthian’s Library of Wales series and the Honno Classics. There are some distinctive voices here, from writers who were firmly rooted in Wales but whose work reaches out beyond national borders. There is Bernice Rubens, Jewish-Welsh, whose I Sent a Letter to My Love is one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever read. In 1970, she was the first woman to win the Man Booker Prize. Another of her novels, I, Dreyfus, is a reworking of the French Dreyfus affair. It’s a shocking portrayal of anti-semiticism, and has to be due for reprinting in these troubled times. Also much neglected is Dorothy Edwards, who died too young, leaving us just one novel and a collection of short stories. Her work looks to Europe and beyond, but her language is steeped in music, and in the musicality of the Welsh language, which she learned as an adult, when it was unfashionable to do so. By contrast, Menna Gallie came from a Welsh-speaking background. Writing novels set in both the South Wales valleys and the former Yugoslavia, she achieved her greatest acclaim in the United States. She’s been described as one of Wales’s most prominent feminist writers, and wrote one of the first novels about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Lastly and very briefly, I’d like to mention Amy Dillwyn who, in A Burglary (1883), gave us one of our earliest aristocratic thieves, long before Agatha Christie made a habit of it.


next multi-media: Poetry Showcase: Does Eternity Mean Anything to You?


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