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On being a writer in Wales: Kathryn Tann

12 May 2024 6 minute read
Kathryn Tann, photo by Rob Irish, and her book Seaglass: Essays, Moments and Reflections which is published by Calon

Kathryn Tann

First of all, let me shoo the elephant kindly from the room, and tell you that as I write this, I am not in Wales.

In fact, I am currently in sunny Yorkshire, and it’s the first place I’ve lived since leaving Wales that I haven’t felt quite so homesick (though typing that sentence did just induce a wave of the sensation).

I love it here, but as ever, I’m looking forward to my next journey home. I go as often as I possibly can – to the little house my parents have on the coast near Barry, to my sister’s terrace in Cardiff, and to South Pembrokeshire where, though I have never lived full-time, I think I love most of all.

I was born and raised, the youngest of four, in the Vale of Glamorgan. But – here the other elephant, hiding in the corner – most of my family are English. I speak with a considerably neutral accent in which only discerning listeners can hear evidence of my origins.

I speak terrible Cymraeg (though Welsh lessons were the only language lessons that I didn’t despise. It’s a fab language). I have no Celtic blood to boast – that I’m aware of.

Nevertheless, I am steadfastly and stubbornly Welsh. At university – my first foray over the border – I discovered a searing pride in where I came from that I hadn’t realised was there. It had been cultivated over 18 years of state school and sea air.

Eisteddfods, road signs, Welsh cakes and music. I knew the Welsh national anthem but not the British one, and suddenly I realised how lucky I was to come from a place that had such a strong sense of identity.

Up in the North East, this surprised a lot of my English friends, particularly those who came from the south and who often couldn’t identify with this kind of experience.

So I can tell you what being a writer from Wales is like. For me, it’s a constant advocacy for the importance and relevance of regional stories, and a steadfast defiance of the often unconscious dismissal of Welsh-flavoured literature in UK publishing. I’ve talked about this lots, and written about it too.

It’s also an awareness of the integral part that my home has played in the writer I’ve become. At eleven, already desperate to be a writer, I entered a satirical short story into my school’s eisteddfod.

This competition was a massive deal in my primary school, and when my name was called out in our St David’s Day assembly as the winner, I felt absolutely elated – and gobsmacked. I was robed and chaired as that year’s bard, and it’s an achievement that never wore off.

It would be no exaggeration to say that this remains one of the highlights of my writing career. What a joy to garner such excitement for the arts, within hundreds of children’s hearts, every single year.

Wales continued to play its part, propelling me toward that early dream of being an author. At 21 I received a grant to attend the Emerging Writers’ course retreat at Ty Newydd, our National Centre for Writing. It was transformative, and it was also the first time I dared to call myself a writer.

In the same year I started my career in publishing among the independent presses of Wales, learning all about this industry from the inside out, and meeting all sorts of brilliant writers who, I’d had no idea, were working right on my doorstep.

A couple of years later, having crossed the border again to study writing in Manchester, my first long-form essay, ‘Return to Water’, was highly commended in the New Welsh Writing Awards. Six months after that, I was approached by a new non-fiction imprint, set up by the University of Wales Press.

So used to hearing that infuriating suggestion from the London-centric industry to ‘be less Welsh’, there I was asking myself: am I Welsh enough? But this country, of course, is a myriad of experiences. There’s no right way; there’s no template.

Two and a half years after that and here we are, launching my debut essay collection, Seaglass.

And, unsurprisingly, Wales is splashed all over the pages of my book. It’s in the stories of my swimming memories – the beaches, lakes and estuaries. It’s in the mountain hikes, the food, the captured moments and the jar of sea glass on my windowsill.

But what about being a writer in Wales? Despite my ‘official’ residence being here in York, much of Seaglasswas written elsewhere. At the Nant writers’ cottage at Ty Newydd, at my parents’ house, and lots of it in Pembrokeshire.

There, I overflow with inspiration and ideas. Though sentimental, I’m not spiritual – however something about the land there fuels me in a way no other place does. More than anything, it makes me happy. And happiness, it seems, is the key to my best work.

So I keep coming back, and until I make that trip permanent once more, Wales will remain one of the essential ingredients of my creative life, regardless of what I write about.

‘How wonderful, as a Welsh writer, to have a whole country behind you,’ an author said to me this week, right after my book launch. I thought it an exaggeration at first, but it’s not untrue.

I feel buoyant with the support of the small but mighty literary ecosystem that has gotten me here – and prouder than ever to be part of it.

Kathryn Tann’s Seaglass: Essays, Moments and Reflections is published by Calon. It is available from all good bookshops.

Kathryn will be discussing her book with Jon Gower at Waterstones in Cardiff at 19.00 on Tuesday 14th May 2024.

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