Review: Land of Change – Stories of Solidarity & Struggle from Wales Edited by Dr Gemma June Howell
Dr Rhea Seren Phillips
The breadth and expanse of voices bellowing out from within this anthology is a staggering record of resistance.
There are seventy-nine contributors each with distinct cultural and lived experiences who share a connection to Wales.
It is through this focus on representation that the anthology instantaneously exhibits solidarity, freedom and equality within its two hundred and thirty-six pages: an epigrammatic account of struggles from Wales.
Dr Howell has certainly achieved her aim of creating ‘a plethora [born] of shared experiences’ to ‘preserve a collective of marginalised “others” through the lens of lived experiences’.
Writers and their contributions in the anthology include ‘Working-class Woman’ by Rhoda Thomas; ‘He Only Swore in Welsh’ by Tony Webb; ‘Clyw Lais Y Ddraig Yn Rhuo’ by Gwenno Dafydd ; ‘Black Lives Matter Speech’ by Queen Niche; ‘Can Blindness be Desired’ by Eric Ngalle Charles; and, ‘Breath Play’ by Rhys Trimble, amongst many other multifaceted and veracious accounts of working class culture.
Exasperation and indignation
‘Breath Play’ by Rhys Trimble details his experiences in a Welsh hospital through poetry infusing his space in the anthology with bilingualism and experimental language.
Through his poetry he demonstrates the ability of many working class communities in Wales to think through a multitude of cultural perspectives, in this instance, Welsh and English.
Crucially, Trimble draws attention to the inadequate service and care that working class communities have come to expect from a public-funded health care system.
Exasperation and indignation at being muted and abandoned by a political system that should protect communities and stand for them permeates throughout the anthology.
Yet, the anthology goes a long way to address these concerns through a broad range of written and visual portrayals of working-class struggles, directed by the voices who have lived experience of present-day inequity in Wales.
Land of Change includes black and white as well as colour images throughout the anthology. It might seem a superficial observation but this book is a collection of ‘lived experiences’.
Each image contributes to its written counterpart and becomes a further form of expression and entry into the perspectives of working-class culture.
So, Dr Howell’s decision to prioritise authenticity over cost is courageous but it is effective in amplifying the voices within the collection for readers from a variety of backgrounds; texturizing the written through the visual.
Restrained and honest
I must admit to being affected by the restrained and honest portrayal of “The Pit Pony” by Sarah Oneill.
This image exhibits how working class structures often include interdependency between humans and animals, demonstrating an alliance of security and endurance for both groups. Ponies were integral to the work of miners and the image draws readers to this shared narrative but also to their muted history of mistreatment.
Following on from this, “Carnival of Resistance” by Phillipa Brown presents youth and age in the female form shown through skeletal figures in varying stages of undress.
Brown uses bold primary colours to contrast with the disturbing representations of these frowning emaciated women.
The image presents a dangerous vulnerability where the object of the subject’s unease is ubiquitous rather than hidden within the image itself. This vulnerability is reflective of its accompanying written piece.
The accompanying written piece by Zoe John, Ph.D. researcher at Cardiff University, discusses violence and gender in Mixed Martial Arts or MMA.
Her field notes records interactions between her and her coach, and suggests a frequent exhibition of sexual and aggressive behaviour towards her.
She asks herself ‘did the coach find me sexually attractive? Am I in danger’ and this question epitomises the anthology for me, not just for women but for all those living in a post-Brexit Wales where cultural belonging is often used as a disguise for outdated, bigoted and racist behaviour.
Conversations on representation
The anthology indicates that there are a variety of communities within the working class structure who feel at risk, are muted or rarely acknowledged within a dominant white-Welsh narrative, and it stands in defiance against that narrow portrayal of Welsh history.
‘Other’ has seemingly infinite definitions, subject to personal as well as historical prejudices. Land of Change initiates conversations on representation in a wider national and cultural context in Wales.
Fundamentally, it is the coarse attitudes that emerge against the contributors in each essay and story that must be addressed to facilitate sustained change in Wales.
This anthology will be intrinsic in that cultural advancement, already generations late.
Kate Cleaver demonstrates the attitudes facing many with a hyphenated identity in ‘Am I Black Enough”.
In this contribution, Cleaver discusses an interview with a white ‘creative writer looking for Indian people to help tell stories’ for a Wales—India intercontinental project.
She goes on to say, ‘I will be hit with being “ethnic” and at the same time I seem to be left on the side because I’m not ethnic enough’.
This is a concern that has been facing a new generation of Welsh. Yet, it is not a twenty-first century problem.
Many nineteenth and twentieth century novels and poetry discuss the ways in which communities perceived these people and the affect it had on that person’s sense of belonging, Country Dance by Margiad Evans to name one of the many.
Yet, this anthology is about working class structures and giving people from that community a voice, emphasising a muted narrative rather than a modern identity.
In “There’s Room For Me Too” Krystal S. Lowe says, ‘Tell the truth./ You prefer racism instead of change — don’t you?/ Hear me./ If your shows cannot showcase me — Write. New. Shows’ and this anthology strikingly does just that through the careful selection of writers and artists by editor, Dr Gemma Howell.
It is my hope that the anthology reaches a national and international readership to broaden an understanding of this often-stigmatised community.
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