This probing, honest and illuminating collection of essays is of course very timely but it’s also one of the best books published in Wales in many a moon.
Many of its contributors address matters of race at a time when Black Lives Matter grows from a call for action into a plate-tectonic shift. But race is only one of the issues being explored in a superb array of personal essays which should be read widely and fast-tracked onto the National Curriculum.
Within its pages you’ll find such a range – Sikh faith examined and ultimately rejected by Ranjit Saimbi, who chooses to find his self in other ways, in an essay set cheek by jowl with Özgür Uyanık’s account of cultural disinheritance as he deals with the loss of his father and a concomitant absence of knowledge of Turkish literature.
Or we find out about the pivotal moment a young girl led an anti-war protest in her school, a moment of profound change for Iraqi-Welsh writer Ruqaya Izzidien.
The three editors were looking for creative essays that were both ‘sincere and authoritative’ and in working with the various voices found that they were ‘expressing themselves devoid of the burden to explain, conform or pander to those who do not necessarily share their outlook.’
As Durre Shawar puts it, the writers’ journeys are ‘stoic, uplifting, nuanced and inspirational…strong Welsh voices that are unapologetic and don’t pander to stereotypes of what a Welsh experience should look like to the outside eye.’
That’s most certainly true. Born in Germany, of mixed European and Middle Eastern heritage Sarah Younan’s account recalls her an upbringing in Africa when she was clearly mzungu (the Swahili word for white person) in some eyes, such as those of the neighbourhood kids in the Kenyan village where she grew up.
Yet, later on, the expat kids at the German School in Nairobi found her not German enough even as she discovered she wasn’t sufficiently mzungu. Her essay is also a pulsing account of nightlife in Nairobi and a critique of the sort of long-stay tourists that so immerse themselves in local culture that they can kid themselves they’re actually becoming Maasai.
Kenya recurs in an essay by Kandace Siobhan Walker who presents different stories about women and water although each of them usually starts with a man, be he a shepherd encountering the maiden of Llyn y Fan Fach, a luckless fisherman on the edge of Lake Victoria or a boy washing dishes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
By conflating the tales of the beautiful women in the lakes – nameless in Welsh as in Dholuo – we see universal patterns to such stories, and similar functions to the myth, namely to warn against cruelty. But then the essay switchbacks to the searingly personal, morphing into an account of modern-day domestic violence. I’ve now read it twice and imagine that won’t be the last time.
Taylor Edmonds ‘Finding Voice’ examines being ‘mixed-race and that I liked girls’ in an essay whose arguments about the marginalisation of LGBTQ+ people, and especially people of colour are shored up by statistics and evidence but she finds solace in words. ‘This leads to it’s being hard to know what to do with all this injustice…but poetry has become a tool through which I can explore things that are difficult to articulate.’ Not just a tool but an empowerment too.
One of the most affecting pieces in the selection is Kate Cleaver’s ‘Look At Me’ which ostensibly is about learning to ride a trike but turns out to be about the many challenges involved when the rider is neurodivergent. Upliftingly, it transpires that learning to ride, learning to balance was akin to re-routing the brain so that ‘every turn of the pedal, I got closer to learning to read.’ The dyslexic brain was creating new pathways and Cleaver could not only ride a trike but eventually journey through the world of books.
Some of the essays are cleverly inventively and imaginatively constructed, ranging well away from conventions of form. Josh Weeks in his ‘Dear O’ addresses epistles to the OCD he lives with, a mental disorder which is ‘like making a deal with the devil. Short-term euphoria. Long-term misery.’
Meanwhile, Dafydd Reeves turns to old form storytelling in examining Bipolar Disorder, constructing a fairy story about the aptly named Rhwngdaubegwn or ‘between two polarities,’ featuring a cast of faerie royalty and nihilistic magicians.
Bethan Jones-Arthur powers her piece about coming out with oodles of valleys’ humour, with a classic Welsh mam in the middle of a swirl of karaoke, Sourz apple and Strongbow. This one reads like a stand-up routine and comes at just the right point in the collection and one has to laugh at drinking ‘cheap wine that could double for balsamic vinegar’ and her Auntie Cath singing a version of ‘Alone’ by Heart, seemingly at half speed.
Language is, of course a constant consideration and the collection opens with Derwen Morfayel’s musings on words such as ‘marginalised,’ ‘xenophobia,’ ‘bilingualism’ and ‘belonging to a culture.’ Regarding the last of these, she points out that an important freedom is ‘being more than one thing at once. Something you are is not something that can be taken away so easily. A place that has at some point been home creates an unbreakable feeling inside us that no amount of distance or rejection can change.’
Meanwhile, poet and editor Grug Muse ponders having more than one language ‘competing in (our) heads, patching the holes in one with bits of the other, always impure, bastardised – diluted.’ She suggests that like language, water is changeable and our relationship to it depends on whether ‘we are drinking from it, sailing on it or even drowning in it.’
On the other hand, language is a source of difficulty for Isabel Adonis who feels that ‘children are indirectly being taught how to be nationalist, to identify with being Welsh, thus creating others.. .leading to division between Welsh speakers and all others. “Others” including my own Wales-born and Welsh-descended children, are not welcomed into Welsh-language schools’ and she suggests that what the ‘Welsh are doing to their nationalism is recreating a British nationalism…which is divisive and exclusive.’
Other words in ‘Just So You Know’ are less familiar and top of the list might be “boccia” a game played as a member of Team GB by Ricky Stevenson, who lives with cerebral palsy. Playfully, yet challengingly he avers how part of him ‘gets a sick satisfaction from the fact that he’s a marginalised voice practising a largely ignored sport.’
Tantalisingly, and in the same mischievous spirit, he never really tells us much about the game, which sounds as if it has a relationship to bowls or boule, but the reader is left in no doubt that it’s tough to play, especially in the Paralympics, or if your medication’s just been changed.
Some of the complexities of queer history, and ‘the bleak histories of where my freedom came from’ are mapped out in Dylan Huw’s sterling contribution to the collection, in which he looks at his 2019 gayness as ‘boring, uninteresting, predictable even.’ The ghosts of ‘recent queer history’s activism, art and politics follow me everywhere.’
His contemplation of the tension between ‘our recent brutal past and the Western liberal consensus which allows gay men such as myself to live in something like “freedom”’ is shot through with passionate references to key works of art, from James Richards’ contribution to the Venice Biennale to George Michael’s final single.
The final essay in the collection is that by Nasia Sarwar-Skuse recollects various homes – in Pakistan and Manchester – and ends with a coda that seems to echo the concerns of so many contributors: ‘I write to excavate the places which are buried within me: a room in a house from long ago, the scent of my mother’s garden or an issue which asks for my attention. Each word I write tells me that I belong.’
Just So You Know is edited by edited by Hanan Issa, Durre Shahwar and Özgür Uyanık, published by Parthian and can be bought here for £9.99.