‘Writing in a minority language goes hand in hand with a level of invisibility’

I think I fell for them. The old cliches around writing in two languages. I think I may have overthought it… “Your first language is for feeling in, the second is for thinking.” Is it really that binary? “Ah, you know, you’re a different person in every language, that’s the problem.” Me? “It’s difficult enough to mature a writing voice in one language, let alone two.”

I’ve been writing in Welsh for almost 20 years. I started because I couldn’t see the women around me represented in Welsh literature. They lived their lives in rural Wales, steeped in their culture and language, yet were largely absent from the books that I read and their invisibility stung.

I decided I’d be the first girl in our family to go to university, and I decided to read English. why? Because I was obsessed with Victorian novelists, and because I saw it as a way of gaining a different perspective. Tellingly, though, I also took with me a Welsh degree reading list and made my way through it. I’m still not entirely sure why, but I think it may have had something to do with love or guilt, curiosity or a sense of duty? Or perhaps a combination of all four.

Drift is published today by Doubleday

Back home once again, I began writing the women of my life into books; I used the landscape and the dialects to foster a sense of place so that language, geography and culture were inextricably entwined. I explored ideas around tradition, heritage, memory, cultural preservation and the natural world.

When you write in a minority language, there’s also a feeling that you’re recording a culture too, a sense of a literary vocation if you like. You have one of the oldest bodies of literature in Europe to draw on, there are the folk tales and the ghost stories, there are the rules of writing to revel in and rebel against.

At school we’re taught cynghanedd, the old Welsh strict meter poetry system of internal rhyming that means that poetry should reverberate with sounds. Every Sunday night, we would listen to the radio as Talwrn Y Beirdd was broadcast, and two teams of competing poets sparred becoming famous and infamous for their use of language. Cynghanedd would seep into my prose, making me rewrite things that didn’t “sound well” on reading out loud. The old trope of Welsh being “sing-songy” perhaps being the least irritating and probably the most accurate.

And as I wrote more and more, there was the freedom to write anything and everything in Welsh. Culturally, it is very common for a poet to write soaps and stage plays and a novelist to write for children and adults alike. A writer is a writer in Wales. There was also the delight in pushing boundaries, in trying to rejuvinate an old literary tradition. Occasionally, over the years, someone would ask why I didn’t write in English and I’d cite the old cliches, or maybe, more to the point, I hid behind them. After all, it’s human nature to stay where you’re comfortable, but then, something changed…

Perhaps it had something to do with hitting a certain birthday. The loss of two beloved grandmothers, but I felt a shift. I think it was something to do with invisibility again. Writing in a minority language goes hand in hand with a level of invisibility. Go on, name a Scottish Gaelic writer? A Welsh-language one? Put simply, it’s a choice that English-language Welsh writers do not have to make. And it isn’t an easy one.

Here comes the guilt again. The love. The curiosity and the sense of duty. Being bilingual is always going to be prickly when there’s such an imbalance of power between your two languages. Ask the Catalan writers, the Gaelic ones, the Basque novelists and the Breton poets. It is always going to be political, but it also allows you to somehow look back at yourself, to turn outwards and to take a seat at the table.

There are so few Welsh language writers who also write in English, some for political reasons, some for artistic ones, some for practical ones, but for me, it feels important to broaden what people think of as Welsh writers and carve out a little space for those who write in both languages. Wales’s strength has always been the diversity of its people, be it linguistic, political, racial or cultural and it is only through hearing from more of them can we dispel some of the tropes and stereotypes that linger around Wales and Welshness.

Drift began after visiting a small rural town in Ceredigion, and hearing a man speak Welsh with a distinctive accent. I found out he was Syrian and that he had brought his family to Wales from Aleppo. With no preconceived ideas of the value of learning Welsh, he had done it, as a natural step to feeling more at home. To connect him to the place and the landscape and the people. Soon, there were interviews of Syrian children popping up everywhere on the news, all chatting away in Welsh and the ease with which the two seemingly different cultures had assimilated was striking.

I started to look at Syrian folklore, in order to find our common stories, the common threads of our humanity and found that the earliest mermaid stories came from Syria. Being brought up next to the sea meant that the first stories my grandmothers had told me were about the women of the sea and suddenly, I saw a way of bringing both cultures together in a story that explored our common humanity, our shared stories, the tragedy of war and colonization and the generational trauma that results.

It is a novel about cultures on the brink for different reasons and a novel about my two languages ​​and the tension between them. Writing after all arises from tension.

As for those cliches, like all cliches they are reductive and simplistic. When you’re bilingual, a certain kind of drifting happens. A coming in and out of, a melding and a separating, and when cultures and languages ​​come in and out of each other’s orbits, that’s when stories happen.
Drift is published today by Doubleday

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