This year’s Wales Book of the Year awards were announced without the usual glitz and ceremony but the quality on show in both languages was ample cause for celebration.
In the case of Nation Cymru the fact that its editor Ifan Morgan Jones brought both the Golwg 360 People’s Prize and the overall Welsh language award back to his home in Llandysul was a veritable champagne moment. The fact that his book, Babel – described as the first steampunk novel in the language – is in large part about a newspaper editor and about the skulduggeries of journalism, makes the story of its success a wee bit post-modern, with its vivid, imagined world seeming to bleed into today.
Let’s hope that part of the conversation about this book includes the word “translation” as it fully deserves an audience beyond the boundaries of a single language as has happened with last year’s winner, Llyfr Glas Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros, now being widely translated.
Keeping it in Ceredigion Aberystwyth-based Niall Griffiths won the fiction category and also garnered the overall English language prize for the second time, following the success of Stump in 2004. The fiction prize was sponsored for the first time by the Rhys Davies Trust and on its behalf Dai Smith was delighted that the award was going to Broken Ghost ‘acclaimed widely for its stylistic verve and its passionate commitment in the hope of humane renewal amidst fracture and despair.’
Griffiths isn’t just a superb high-octane prose stylist but he’s an attentive, knowledgeable nature writer too and Broken Ghost is shot through with glistening, enlivening examples such as “the lovely sound that the waves make, a soft sigh and collapse. A lull,’ while elsewhere “sundews reach for their midge, their deadly little pearls of such ugly honey. Dragonflies, joined tail to tail, create lovehearts on the canary grass” and “polecats skulk for moist caves beneath the boardwalk, there to curl and gasp. Old energies heave in the peat.”
It’s brim-full of such lovely stuff, though all leavened by an almost biblical anger at the ruptured, fractured state of things, Griffiths balancing such opposing forces in a writing style muscular enough to wrestle you to the ground and leave you panting.
Similarly, nature is a constant theme in Mike Parker’s Creative Non-Fiction Award-winning On the Red Hill, with its charting of seasonal change and adjustment around the author’s home of Rhiw Goch near Machynlleth. It’s little wonder that this fine book should have been shortlisted for the Wainwright Nature Writing Prize in the same week as the WBOY announcement. Nature, though, is just one of the many bright threads in the absorbing tapestry presented in this ‘great, queer, rural triumph of a book’ as Tom Bullough described it. Mike is a regular Nation.Cymru contributor and so we’ll probably send him a cake. Heck, we might even bake one.
The Welsh language Non-Fiction prize went to Alan Llwyd for his magisterial, gargantuan study of T. Gwynn Jones which could also double as a lifetime achievement award. Alan Llwyd couples fine intellect with dynamo energy and has contributed an enormous amount of scholarship – not to mention volume after volume of fine poetry – to our culture, this latest biography, Byd Gwynn sitting weightily and authoritatively on the shelf next to similar tomes about Hedd Wyn, Kate Roberts and Goronwy Owen.
This year saw the advent of a new category awarding the best works in Welsh and English for children and young people with the winners being Elidir Jones for his Chwedlau’r Copa Coch: Yr Horwth. In a Nation Cymru review it was suggested that part of the book’s success was the inherent musicality of the Welsh language itself which “has been such an inspiration to so many different fantasy series. Without coming over as a modern-day Matthew Arnold, there’s something inherent in the Welsh language, some mix of the rolling rs that sound like the rumbling of mountain roots or the churning of waterfalls, and the lightness of the vowels that tinkle like fairy wings, which sound as if they belong to the world of elves and monsters.”
Meanwhile, Sophie Anderson won the English award as well as the Wales Arts Review People’s Choice Prize for her lyrical folk tale of magic, belonging, and choosing your own family The Girl Who Speaks Bear, (Usborne). The novel follows Yanka, who was found abandoned by a bear cave as a baby, and has always wondered where she is from…
Poetic experimentalist and consistent boundary-pusher Zoë Skoulding’s Footnotes to Water won the poetry prize for a collection which, in part, follows the journeys of two forgotten rivers, the Bièvre which disappeared under the rubble of an urbanising Paris and the river Adda in Bangor, a small, mainly culverted watercourse which slinks through the city before emptying into the Menai Strait. In a section of the poem sequence called ‘Adda’ Skoulding ponders how
our mouths flower in a name
becoming distant to us
what’s vibrating underground
echoed in metal lids as
the town dips towards what it’s
forgotten what’s still there on
the tip of the tongue a rush
of kingcup campion bramble/in its stutter is what it’s
saying what it’s saying is
The river poems were researched both in the field and in the archive, the latter taking the poet to intriguing sources, if your pardon the pun, such as Florence Nightingale’s letters about the typhoid epidemic that spread through the city in the late nineteenth century.
This year’s Welsh language poetry award went to Caernarfon-based Caryl Bryn for a pamphlet of highly personal poems, Hwn Ydy’r Llais, Tybad?’ (I guess this is the voice). Despite the uncertainty in the book’s title, with its hint of doubt about finding her own voice, the judges were certain enough about the lilt and authenticity of these youthful poems about grief, love, vodka and youth itself to favour them over volumes by well-established poets such as Idris Reynolds and current archdruid Myrddin ap Dafydd.
It was also a signal success for a small new press, Cyhoeddiadau Stampus which is powered by the vim and energy of a slew of other young poets who, like Bryn, are reconfiguring the approaches and indeed the concerns of Welsh language verse, laying claim to the territory.
All in all a bumper year at a time when we need good cause for popping corks. Here’s to them all and to you, dear reader for heading off to buy some of them. Which is a very, very important part of the exercise.