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On Being a Writer in Wales: Richard Gwyn

24 Mar 2024 6 minute read
Richard Gwyn

Richard Gwyn

The American writer Lydia Davis once wrote thatto translate is also to read, and to translate is to write, as to write is to translate and to read is to translate.

So that we may say: To translate is to travel and to travel is to translate. 

These words resonate powerfully with me, having recently completed a book about travel and translation. So how does this fit with ‘being a writer in Wales’?

As a Welsh writer, I have written relatively little about my native land. The publisher’s blurb on my first poetry collection, more than thirty years ago, put it this way: ‘Some Welsh authors write solely about Wales. Richard Gwyn stands apart from these . . .’

A review of my most recent book of poems, Stowaway: A Levantine Adventure, continues in the same vein: ‘For a book written by a Welshman, published by a Welsh press, supported by the Welsh Books Council and reviewed in Wales Arts Review, it is remarkably reticent about Wales with, I think, only a single mention of Gwalia to nod to its native land.’

It is strange for me to read this, because even though my books have often been set far from Wales — my first novel was set in Barcelona, the second in Crete, both places in which I lived for long stretches during my twenties — I feel deeply attached to the red loam of my native patch, have lived for the past 33 years in Cardiff and yet, at the same time, I don’t really think of myself as belonging anywhere.

A paradox, I know, but one that I share with the Scottish poet and translator (from Spanish, like myself) Alastair Reid, who claimed that the ideal state for a writer might be that of a ‘foreigner’, someone who has no proper home, no secret landscape claiming them, no roots tugging at them.

Such a person is, if you like, properly lost, and so in a position to rediscover the world, from outside in.

Reid believes that if they are lucky, such adventurers might “smuggle back occasional undaunted notes, like messages in a bottle, or glimmers from the other side of the mirror.”

Sometimes I feel as though I have always been a foreigner.

Only in my third novel, The Blue Tent, did I ‘come home’. I always suspected I would, but it just took time.

And The Blue Tent will almost certainly not be the last of my books to engage with Wales, or rather, the small portion of it that I recognise as unmistakably my own, the Bannau Brycheiniog, or more specifically the Mynyddoedd du, or Black Mountains, that mysterious massif in the shape of a hand, which forms a landscape, or a dreamscape, that for me bears all the characteristics of a recurring obsession.


Which brings me, in a roundabout way to my latest book, Ambassador of Nowhere: A Latin American Pilgrimage.

This is a story that deals with travel to distant places — Nicaragua, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Colombia — and is deeply in thrall to the notion of ‘being a foreigner’, although I do end up back in Wales towards the end of the book, chasing memories of my father, who was, for most of his working life a GP in rural Powys.

I had not intended him to figure in the book, but he died as I was nearing its end, and I couldn’t keep him out.


I have always loved maps, and in my late teens I stuck a map of South America on my bedroom wall. Convinced that I had a special affinity with that continent, the map proved strangely prophetic, but it took me three decades to put my travel plans into action.

The ‘Ambassador’ of the title is flagrantly deceptive.

In 2014, I spent a year as a ‘Creative Wales Ambassador’ (a term chosen by the Arts Council of Wales, not me) and since I had been commissioned to complete an anthology of Latin American poetry in translation, published as The Other Tiger in 2016, it seemed like a good idea to chronicle my journeys across that continent in search of its poets and poetry.


It was unfortunate, to say the least, that I ended up in conversation with a small town police sergeant in Colombia, who on being told I was from Wales, informed me that no such place existed, and that I must therefore be the Ambassador of Nowhere.

Ironically, that town on the Magdalena River, which has the unlikely name of Mompox, is itself remembered in words uttered by General Bolivar, the Liberator, who (according to Gabriel García Márquez) claimed that “Mompox does not exist.

At times we dream of her, but she does not exist.” In this way I was caught in a web of illusion, or of dreams: a policeman from a town that may not exist accusing me of coming from a non-existent country.

Eduardo the police sergeant and his brother-in-law Washington then took me to the saddest discoteca in the word, where we downed two bottles of fiery aguardiente, while a handful of dancers, all of them middle-aged and half-drunk, circled aimlessly in a moribund chug around the dance floor to the lachrymose accompaniment of a pot-bellied Latin crooner.  

The policeman never guessed that he had gifted me the title of my book.

Insatiable curiosity

Returning to my opening quote from Lydia Davis, I happen to believe that whether or not we write or travel, translation forms a fundamental aspect of who we are, since we are all translators.

While early childhood is the acute phase of translation, a period marked by insatiable curiosity and of translating and being translated by others, it seems to me that any writer worth their salt remains curious and continues to translate, because all writing is a form of translation — from silence, or from life itself.

Richard Gwyn’s Ambassador of Nowhere: A Latin American published by Seren. It is available from all good bookshops. 

Richard Gwyn will be in conversation with our books editor Jon Gower in Waterstones, Cardiff on Thursday 28th March at 19.00.

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