OPINION Sarah Reynolds

NWR Issue r19

Writing our Way to Belonging

Published in memory of Tony Bianchi

Tony Bianchi courtesy Vimeo

People are always impressed when I tell them I’ve written a book. Until I tell them it’s written in Welsh. Then the nose crinkles, the brow furrows and the voice takes on a reedy tone of incredulity.

But why? You’re not even Welsh.”

It’s a fair question.

Certainly, writing in Welsh won’t make anyone rich. Welsh is apparently not a high-status language – a point underscored when Newsnight recently asked if Welsh was ‘a help or a hindrance to the nation.’ Persecuted and undermined for centuries, the dogged persistence of the language is perhaps part of its appeal. To me, Welsh is fascinating: both ancient and contemporary, elegant and logical, indigenous and exotic, all the more so because it is not my mother tongue.

Many Welsh writers have come to the language later in life: RS Thomas, Bobi Jones, Christine James, and Glyn Jones to name but a few. However, as an outsider, the experience of learning Welsh is different from that of a Welsh person learning – or relearning – the language. There is no political baggage, no question of Welsh identity, we are not reclaiming our language from the clutches of colonialism, or as Bobi Jones argued in Language Regained, ‘putting the language back where it belongs.’ Yet, for some Welsh learners, the experience is equally profound.

The cultural anthropologist Carol Trosset argues that language learning is a powerful tool for social inclusion: ‘Learners receive a warm welcome in Welsh-Wales, having by their effort demonstrated their respect and concern for the language and its survival.’ (Language in Society, Vol 15). Fluent learners are held in high regard and the winner of the Welsh Learner of the Year competition is admitted to the prestigious Gorsedd of the Bards.

However, it is perhaps the ultimate mark of success as a Welsh learner not to be recognized as a learner at all. What better way to assert one’s mastery of the language than to aim for the most prized competitions in the National Eisteddfod, judged anonymously and on literary merit alone? Two writers who are not native to Wales have achieved the impressive feat of winning the Prose Medal: Tony Bianchi, an Englishman, and Jerry Hunter, an American. Bianchi also won the Daniel Owen Memorial Prize.

Of course, the phenomenon of writing in a second language is not peculiar to Wales. From Samuel Beckett and Milan Kundera to Eva Hoffman and Yiyun Li,
literary history has produced writers who favour a language ‘other’ than their mother tongue. To write creatively in a second language requires an intellectual and an emotional investment. It is not just an expression of cultural capital – it is a claim to ‘linguistic citizenship.’ (John Edwards, Language and Identity)

Glyn Jones claimed, ‘The language which captures [a writer’s] heart and imagination during the emotional and intellectual upheavals of adolescence, the language of his awakening … is the language likely to be the one of his creative work.’ (The Dragon has two Tongues). Jones was lamenting the impact of monolingual English schooling on Welsh literature but perhaps his argument holds true in a different context. Both Hunter and Bianchi began learning Welsh as teenagers and for Bianchi at least, the process was emotional. He claims, ‘I fell in love with Welsh like you fall in love with a piece of music.’ Hunter too, describes an emotional connection to Wales. In a television interview with Guto Harri he described Wales not only as his home, but ‘lle mae ‘y nghalon i’ (where my heart is).

If one can fall in love with a language and a culture, then perhaps it is also possible to fall out of love. In her memoir, French Lessons, the American linguist Alice Kaplan claims that people choose another culture ‘because there’s something in their own they don’t like, that doesn’t name them.’ Certainly, none of us chooses our mother tongue any more than we can choose our family. In her essay, ’To Speak is to Blunder’, Yiyun Li writes of a ‘private salvation’ in the choice to live in a second language, an opportunity to shed the shackles of one’s upbringing and reinvent oneself anew. Reading between the lines of Bianchi’s semi-autobiographical Cyffession Geordie Oddi Cartref (first published in the author’s English translation in [link:https://newwelshreview.com/contents-96.phpNWR 96, Summer 2012]), perhaps he too sought escape through language. In the story, ‘Eric ’n’ Ernie’, a twelve-year-old Bianchi, albeit semi fictionalised, is so terrified of his father that he cannot move to help the man when he is clearly gravely ill. When the price for saying the ‘wrong’ thing is so high, it is safer to say nothing at all.

Whether enforced or self-imposed, exile is a common trait amongst second language writers. Eva Hoffman was a teenager when she began learning English., and like Jerry Hunter, she went on to become a university professor in her new language. However, as a Polish Jew forced into exile in Canada, her linguistic conversion was not one of choice but necessity. In her memoir, Lost in Translation, she writes, ‘The voices of others invade me… I am being remade fragment by fragment.’ For Hoffman to conquer the language, she must allow the language to conquer her. Losing one’s mother tongue in this way is a violent act, and when it is self-inflicted, as in Yiyun Li’s case, it is ‘a kind of suicide’.

The bilingualism of Wales makes for a very different experience of language learning. English is unavoidable, even for those Welsh speakers who might otherwise choose to be monolingual. Native English speakers are at an advantage here; we do not have to abandon our mother tongue in order to find a new voice. A choice to speak Welsh is a choice to be bilingual.

It might be argued, then, that for an English speaker, learning a minority language such as Welsh is an expression of privilege – bilingualism of the elite. Is it possible to be a member of the powerful majority group yet also identify as part of a minority group?

The examples of Bianchi and Hunter suggest one can indeed be a member of both groups. The very act of writing in a minority language is a statement of political allegiance. By making a contribution to Welsh-language culture, these writers give themselves a stake in its continuity and preservation. In so doing, they write a role for themselves in the story of Wales.

In the eight years I have lived in Wales, the language has gradually seeped under my skin and become a part of me – not the largest part – but a significant part, nonetheless. My own literary voice in Welsh is still fragile and imperfect, no competition for the heavyweights Hunter and Bianchi. Nevertheless, it is a voice that I have chosen and one that I intend to use.

Learning a new language allows us to step out of the story of ourselves – to reimagine ourselves anew and tell a different version of our story. To a writer, that is a gift. When we write in an adopted language, we are writing our way to belonging, we are writing ourselves a new path home.

Sarah Reynolds writes fiction and nonfiction in Welsh and English. She won the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition in 2014. Her first novel in Welsh, Dysgu Byw, was published by Gomer in 2016. She is currently writing an English-language novel while studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

Main image: Tony Bianchi, courtesy Vimeo


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