On Being a Writer in Wales: Jane Fraser
Every writer in Wales will have a different story to tell, each one unique.
For me, being a writer in Wales is a multi-faceted experience: positive in the main, but not without its challenges.
I’ll start with the positives:
Connection with place
I have a deep connection with Wales in terms of place, in particular the Gower peninsula.
At 51 degrees north and 4 degrees west, this compact peninsula, the UK’s first designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is my cynefin and my home for almost fifty-years.
Since I came to writing, at what some would say a relatively late age, it continues to be my special patch of earth, with which over time I have developed multiple relationships.
It has also afforded me many creative opportunities and much scope to make stories.
Warts and all
My relationship with Gower was the impetus for the writing and publication of my first short story collection, The South Westerlies (Salt 2019).
I was urged by my then PhD supervisor, the much-missed poet, psychogeographer and man-of-Gower, Nigel Jenkins, to tell its stories in fiction, warts ‘n’ all, as he had done through his psychogeography, Real Gower (Seren, 2014).
Lines taken from his poem, Advice to a Young Poet, were the signposts I followed to get reacquainted with a place I thought I knew, and dig deep under its pasteurised façade to deliberately focus on its underbelly: low-end tourism, struggling farms, struggling farmers, the loss of cultural traditions: Gower’s ‘otherness’.
Know your place. What legends and myths
have had their shaping here?
What stories, novels, histories
And who have been denied a voice?
What songs, here,
await their singing?
And how, in this place, worker of the word
might you make yourself useful?
The South Westerlies was the result of this deep investigation mainly done ‘on the hoof’, the eighteen stories being unified by place and the tone of the prevalent south-westerly wind, giving the collection an out-of-season feel.
It is definitely not a collection that would be endorsed by Visit Wales!
My debut novel, Advent, (Honno, 2021) is also writing which is not merely set in Gower, but made in Gower: place is not a cosmetic backdrop but the very DNA of the story and an affecting agent in the lives of the fictional characters who inhabit the peninsula.
Advent, set in 1905, again focuses on the now hidden aspects of yesterday’s Gower beneath today’s so-called rural idyll: industrialisation, coal-mining, religious fervour, and agricultural poverty.
I believe my novel found its perfect home with HONNO, the Welsh publisher committed to giving voice to the women of Wales, both past and present, to tell and sell their stories to the world in both English and Welsh.
As a writer in Wales, Gower is the place where my creative juices flow and where I have aimed “to make myself useful” and give voice to those “who have been denied a voice.”
I align with Edna O’Brien when she says: “as long as the words and the story spring from a true place, that’s all that counts.”
I aim to reveal Gower’s truth as I see it and render it real in a fictionalised sense.
Being a writer in Wales, as anywhere, can be a lonely business. For me, connection with other writers is an invigorating and sustaining experience.
As a ‘young’ writer in the fullest sense of the word, I would like to acknowledge the ongoing support I receive from the community of writers here in Wales.
I am lucky enough to have been a Hay Festival ‘Writer at Work’, a prestigious creative development award, funded by Arts Council of Wales and managed by Literature Wales.
The award picked me up at a critical point in my journey as a novice writer and placed me in an immersive literary ‘boot camp’ for nine days for two consecutive years.
Here I enjoyed: the company of other writers from Wales, writing across all genres, in both English and Welsh; the opportunity to listen to visiting authors and experts in their field who shared insights into the mysterious world of publishing and the pitfalls and differences between writing and being a writer; and access to agents and publishers and all manner of networking opportunities in situ at the Hay Festival.
This was a life-changing and life-giving experience. It gave me the confidence to think of myself as a writer for the first time.
Importantly, it gave me a degree of profile and visibility and I signed a contract with a UK Publisher and a Literary Agent soon after, thus meeting the personal objectives I had set myself on going to Hay.
Perhaps as important, was the friendships and long-lasting connections I made with other writers who maintain contact in the flesh and virtually. For this I can’t thank them enough.
So what about the negatives of being a Welsh writer?
Whether a hypothetical readership within or outside Wales would recognise my writing as ‘Welsh writing in English’ remains to be seen.
I have not felt the need to deliberately or self-consciously make use of a style of syntax or lexis to emphasise that I am in any way different from an English writer writing in English in the way Caradoc Evans did in the past, pushing the language out of shape to draw attention to ‘Welshness’ for his specific satirical agenda.
For I have no specific agenda merely to tell my truth as I see it.
I have tried not to use exaggeration, merely realistic language that fits my characters’ stories and reflects theme and tone.
In this way I think the stories reflect the current psychology of me as an emerging writer living in an increasingly self-confident, post-devolution Wales where I feel there is no need to ‘flag wave’ but rather to let words speak for themselves.
Quietly. Truthfully. Confidently.
But. And it’s a big but.
From my conversations with other writers (and indeed film directors) in Wales, it often remains true that Welsh creatives have little ‘take-up’ in a commercial sense in a global market.
There appear to be generally-held pre-conceptions outside Wales, that the themes Welsh writers are concerned with are ‘small’ and ‘quiet’ and focus on subjects that have little broad appeal. (though Irish writing and brand Ireland are very marketable hot property).
Contrary to this, as a writer I see Gower’s and Wales’ ‘otherness’ as having positive leverage in an increasingly globally homogeneous world.
This is in opposition to the views I have heard over the years by some Literary Agents and Publishers who have advised us Welsh writers to play down any Welsh element in our writing, and make place anonymous and stories less rooted.
Instead, writers have been urged to play up the universal. In doing so, their writing would be likely to have wider success.
Sadly, this might be the case in commercial terms.
However, I do not feel the need to play down any Welsh element in my writing and am proud to assert that the themes I concern myself with – love, loss, longing, birth, death – are not ‘small’ and ‘quiet’; but of universal importance.
And for this reason I will continue to locate my fiction in Welsh places with real names and try to put Gower and Wales on the map.
Who I am
I do not write because of commercial considerations or to appeal to London-centric publishing industries. History has shown that when people do not see themselves represented in fiction – or indeed, any media – then in a way they cease to exist.
My view is that my place is central to my stories, and central to who I am as a writer.
I believe that writing confidently about place could add value to how Gower, and indeed Wales, is seen by the wider world, looking towards us, outside in from beyond its so-called borders.
I trust my attempt to represent Gower and Wales in fiction is a positive response to New Welsh Review’s no-holds-barred rallying editorial to all those concerned with the future of Wales and its culture. As Gwen Davies wrote back in 2016:
Even as we are all still in shock following the folly of the EU referendum, now more than ever is the time to try and counteract the potentially evil influence of a centralising media focused on a populist corrosively mainstream and two dimensional political identity.
If you identify with Wales (ambiguously, ironically, by whatever route), read us, read our writers and our books, support our publishers, artists and film-makers. Commit to our culture. Or find it gone, washed back to the 1950s on a wave of union-jack spattered lukewarm lemonade.
Margins not mainstream
In this context, I was thrilled – if not surprised – for HONNO and for myself when Advent won the Society of Authors’ Paul Torday Memorial Prize 2022 for a debut novel written in English.
And of course there’s the wonderful; indie publisher SALT, who gives voice to those writers around Great Britain who, like me, are at the perceived ‘margins’ and not in the ‘mainstream’.
In the words of the aforementioned Nigel Jenkins, SALT has given a voice to me personally, a newbie writer, who might otherwise have ‘been denied a voice’.
Staying with the theme of connections, a little about my second collection of short fiction aptly named, ‘Connective Tissue’, which is forthcoming from SALT on 15th October.
As with my other writing to date, these stories concern themselves with that which is hidden from view: in this case, the emotional strategies we employ as humans, either consciously or not, to get us through life.
Though Gower is not central to this collection, as ever, it insists on making its presence felt in many of the stories: its tidal islands, its liminal spaces; its forlorn beaches in winter, its derelict lighthouse, the flotsam and jetsam.
Though the eighteen stories move into other physical territories, the writer is always rooted in Gower, in Wales, where she belongs, and where she feels creatively fed.
As Lawrence Durrell says in his essay ‘Landscape and Character’ in Spirit of Place [FABER, 1969] where she can “hear its pulse tick” and enjoy her own “correspondences” with place.
I hope ‘Connective Tissue’ is evidence of that.
Connection with readers
To conclude, this writer in Wales, is delighted when her ‘hard homework’ as my youngest granddaughter calls it, connects with a readership.
It makes it all worthwhile and is perhaps proof, that in the words of Jenkins’ poem, I am (finally) making myself “useful”. Here’s how the writer and academic Alan Bilton connected with my tales:
I loved ‘Connective Tissue,’ a book so good it feels like your Greatest Hits Album. I remember reading several of these stories over the years, but put together they form a magnificent collection – funny, sad, moving and linguistically playful, demonstrating an enormous relish for language.
It feels darker, stranger and riskier than ‘The South Westerlies,’ but there’s the same keen observation, feel for landscape, and empathetic understanding of the complexities of relationships. This is grown up writing in the best sense…
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