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On Being a Writer in Wales: Charlotte Williams

19 Nov 2023 6 minute read
Charlotte Williams – photo by Tina Horsfall

Charlotte Williams

I’ve lived in Wales most all of my life. My entire education from the day I stepped foot into the system at five, to my PhD all those years later has been within Wales.

I’ve written most every day of my life, most people do – texts, notes, letters. I write sometimes academically, sometimes non-fiction, sometimes creative fiction, sometimes more, sometimes less, always with purpose.

This makes me a writer but I like to think of myself as a Welsh writer, full of the references to landscape, to the sounds and symbols of nation, the histories and heritage, the politics and the cultural nuance of place.

And this is how, quite recently, I defined that, saying: ‘I want every piece I write to be an inscription on my nation. I am seeking by turns to place the me within Wales and the beauty of Wales within you.’ 

Yet the fact that I open with this set of claims about my positioning somehow suggests the insecurity of my assertions, because that is, I am a Black Welsh writer.

This month Penguin republished my memoir Sugar and Slate (first published 2002) alongside the late Leonora Brito’s Dat’s Love and other Stories (1995) in their Black Britain Writing Back series.

The Series, the idea of Booker Prize winning author Bernardine Evaristo, aims to retrieve and promote vintage literature by Black Britons that may have been overlooked and that represent a broad variety of preoccupations, genres, styles and voices from across the UK.

Evaristo has said ‘I believe that the novels I have chosen have withstood the test of time, even if they are of their time’.

Recognition

This recognition from what we might call the Black British literary canon comes hard on the heels of both books being inaugurated into the esteemed Welsh writing in English literary canon via their publication in the Library of Wales series, Leonora’s in 2020 and my own in 2022.

This type of accolade is second to none. Yet at the same time it raises those longstanding questions we so often debate in Wales about exposure of Welsh writing in English beyond the borders, about recognition, promotion and the whole Londoncentricity of the publishing arena.

Do people beyond Wales read books from Wales? But it also says more; and here’s the twist. Black writing in Wales seems to have stood as an outlier both to the Welsh writing in English canon and to the Black British writing canon.

To refer to an age-old binary – on the one hand perhaps being too Black and on the other not Black enough to command attention. That sounds a bit simplistic but let me expand.

Black Welsh writers

In the early 2000s there were very few of us in Wales who might refer to ourselves as Black Welsh writers and more importantly we had no sense of ourselves as a constituent.

Neil Sinclair had written his two wonderful memoirs drawing attention to what he called the Afro-Cymru identities of Tiger Bay. Leonora’s Dat’s Love, a much acclaimed collection of short stories came out in 1995.

There weren’t even a handful of us and the works, although recognized, were hardly significant enough to be considered as a departure within the literary compendium.

At the same time the idea of a black literature beyond the metropolis had barely registered within an established Black British canon that spoke largely to the metropolitan experience.

In the 90s Ingrid Pollard’s groundbreaking visual imagery placed us in the countryside – being in but not of the place – but it was really Jackie Kay’s work that signaled the reach and scope of a black experience that referenced a literature of the sub-national and regional hyphenated grid: Black-Scottish, Black-Welsh, Black-Irish culminating in a much referenced poetry collection Out of Bounds.

The Black British listing would have to stretch its multicultural imaginary to accommodate this decentering trajectory and give us presence.

Open exchange

In 2003 I had the opportunity to have an open exchange with Leonora in print in New Welsh Review*.

We were twinned for a conversation between Llandudno and Llanrhymni – vaguely referencing two very different experiences of growing up mixed race in Wales – the city and the country, the north and the south, immersed in a black community / in a white Welsh-speaking community. Leonora was born in the same year as I, she of Welsh-Cape Verdian heritage and I of Welsh-Guyanese we didn’t know each other.

Our chat ranged across a plethora of topics bearing on writing with political purpose and culminating in the very theme of this article – I asked:

Would you locate yourself within the category Welsh writer? Or are you a writer in Wales?

Her response: A Welsh writer is what I am

Mine: It is truly surprising that we haven’t seen more Black literature from Wales given our history, don’t you think?

It would take some twenty years after that for me to be able to locate myself with some confidence in a collective positioning – Black Welsh writer.

Belonging

Today, there is a list a names and a list of genres I could reel off that showcase writing by people of colour in Wales, including that of the Booker Prize nominee, Nafida Mohamed and the national poet Hanan Issa. Whether these authors would embrace this category or not is still questionable.

But this literature I like to call Black Welsh writing is significant to nation. This literature, our literature, makes contributions to our understanding of Welsh identity, belonging and place.

It writes back to nation questioning histories and myths of heritage and resetting the compass points towards alternative futures. It disrupts the very assumptions and understandings of nation itself.

This is work that takes Wales to the world and brings the world to Wales in its transnational connections. The wizardry of this positioning exploits the schism of national identity and seizes the creative potential of the margins.

It works through fissures and faultlines in borders and boundaries, taking beautiful meanderings across the language and culture of place. It rediscovers and reinstates lost histories, and when in performance opens up new hybridized spaces and transforms our cultural institutions.  This is writing with political purpose.

Pigeonholed

The late Leonora’s acute social observation, her elegant and light touch political commentary is a pioneering example of working with the privilege of this perspective.

Writers of colour are still as yet grossly underrepresented in UK publishing as a whole – I have heard of publishing ratios of 9/1 in favour of the books of white writers.

They are too often pigeonholed by their blackness, too often offered as marginalized decorative narratives along the edges of a mainstream that barely shifts to make room.

I embrace the triad Black-Welsh-writer which isn’t a limiting category but one charged with expanding the literary repertoire of nation.

*Williams C (2003) From Llandudno to Llanrumney: Inscribing the Nation New Welsh Review No 62 pp 27-34

Charlotte Williams’ Sugar and Slate is published by Penguin. It is available from all good bookshops.


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Eva Arnott
Eva Arnott
6 months ago

When my late husband, Peter Arnott, was a first-year student in 1948 at what was then UCNW Bangor, his roommate was Percy Forbes from Guyana. They lost contact years ago, but I wonder if Percy, who was Black, stayed in Wales.

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