On Being a Writer in Wales: Elaine Canning
When I first came to Wales in September 1999, it was for a very practical reason: to initiate a career as a junior academic in Hispanic Studies at the University of Bangor.
Before then, I had never visited Wales, but I had sampled something of a delicate slice of Welsh language and culture – some Dylan Thomas poetry and short stories at school, followed by a first-year university module on Celtic languages, including Welsh.
My plan was to stay in Wales for the three year fixed-term contract and then return home, to Ireland, to all that I believed defined who and what I was.
More than twenty years later, I’m still here, having made Swansea my home and forged a pathway I hadn’t anticipated as a writer and public engagement professional in arts and culture.
I retain my Irish accent – though family (not Welsh friends!) say I’ve acquired a Welsh lilt, and I have a son who identifies as both Irish and Welsh (sport and music rankings determining self-identification at any given time!).
I now find myself occasionally referred to as a ‘Welsh writer’, an assimilation which warms my heart, though one which I don’t quite feel I’ve earned.
I’m a writer in Wales, passionate about the literature and culture of Wales which feeds my day to day, from wonderful poets like Vernon Watkins and R.S. Thomas to acclaimed award-winning contemporary writers; I’m grateful to the literary and publishing worlds in Wales which have welcomed me and my writing.
I grew up in a working-class family in Belfast where culture not only mattered, but dominated – my experience of growing up during The Troubles from the late 1970s onwards was that conflict and trauma triggered impulses to reaffirm identity and connections with place, not least when the essence of who you were was being challenged.
I did not come from an Irish-speaking family, but from the moment I began learning Irish at school, it formed a significant dimension of who I was, along with the cultural-related activities I took part in – dance, choir, music lessons, and summers at the Donegal Gaeltacht.
It is those memories of family and friends, as well as the storytellers I grew up with, namely my grandparents, that are so special to me. I still visit Belfast every few months and it will always be ‘home’.
But as Gabriel García Márquez commented: ‘What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.’
The memories and voices of my childhood and teenage years in particular permeate my writing.
It may be that being physically distanced from Northern Ireland prompts me to connect with it through telling stories.
Spanish Civil War
Memories of the year I spent as an Erasmus student in Salamanca, and the many months I spent in Spain subsequently, whether researching in archives or exploring new cities, also influence my work to a large extent.
My debut novel, The Sandstone City, tells the story of eighty-eight-year-old Belfast man, Michael Doherty, who is not yet ready to pass over due to concerns about his granddaughter who has mysteriously abandoned her plans to settle in the Sandstone City of the title.
The novel is set between modern-day Belfast and Salamanca, with pepperings of other periods of Belfast’s history and the Spanish Civil War, and is about belonging, the fracturing of family dynamics and the loss of self.
It questions how we re-invent and re-imagine ourselves when our connection with a particular place is fragmented at best, ripped apart at worst.
Like my short fiction, The Sandstone City incorporates other worldly, magical realist components which function as a way for protagonists to navigate and make sense of what can otherwise seem inexplicable or unmanageable, particularly when they disconnect from the reality around them.
According to Frances Mayes, ‘Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it.’
To date, I have written one short story set in Swansea (‘Chalk Moon’, published by Nation.Cymru (2019)) and others were there are more subtle references to Welsh settings and characters.
Perhaps the association with place is not pre-determined by recollections of childhood experiences, but by the ways in which said place may allow you to express your voice as part of a multi-cultural, diverse society.
This is certainly what Wales has done for me: whether I’m writing about real or imaginary places, my long and short fiction has found a home with Wales-based literary magazines and publishers, most recently with the brilliant Aderyn Press, led by Costa-nominated writer Rebecca F. John.
And if where you are is who you are, perhaps now, having lived almost half my life here, my contribution to Wales is a little more than the hint of a lilt in my voice.
The Sandstone City by Elaine Canning is published by Aderyn Press.
The novel will be launched at 6:30pm on Thursday 3 November at HQ Urban Kitchen in Swansea with signed copies available to purchase from Cover to Cover. More info here:
At 6.30pm on Thursday 10 November, Elaine Canning will be in conversation with Carly Reagon, author of The Toll House at Swansea Waterstones with signed copies available to purchase. More info here:
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