Review: Maps & Rooms – Writing from Wales
‘Here in Wales, there seems to be a long overdue attempt to redress the balance of who gets to experience the opportunity of development. This is a long -term programme, and one bursary or two cannot redress the imbalance of who writes, who is being published and even more importantly, who gets to develop a taste for reading literature.’
So suggest Umulkhayr Mohamed and Taz Rahman, the editors of this arresting first publication from Lucent Dreaming. This is a new Welsh publisher (with a brilliant name) which has, via a magazine of the same name, been speeding up that attempt to present and develop the work of writers of colour.
The work herein is the collective product of a cohort of writers who were part of Literature Wales’ Representing Wales programme and it is uplifting to encounter so many new names and read work of real verve and calibre.
Some of the prose herein is short but punchy, such as Nia Morais’ spooky opener, set in a lime kiln which reminds one of the simple, matter-of-fact scariness found in another equally economical story, namely Horacio Quiroga’s ‘The Feather Pillow.’
Also tersely compact is young Carmarthen writer Daniel Howell’s story ‘Dead Woman Running’ which conjures up a phantom woman jogger dressed in green who is set off running through a story which is literally full of magic tricks.
Then there are longer tales such as Shara Atashi’s ‘The Pilgrim’ which relocates the Cinderella story to the streets of London and Southend-on-Sea.
It successfully contrasts the magical realism of dream horses, streetsweepers who look like reincarnated Persian poets and a woman who begins to deliver her work reports as verse with the shabby reality of worn out running shoes and Aldi plastic bags.
Skilfully, Atashi steers well clear of slavishly following the patterns of the original fairy story, weaving her own darkly fantastical tale with a very impactful and neat ending, as if tying it closed with a length of black ribbon.
Durre Shahwar’s ‘Rooms’ not only wins the award for seemingly sticking most closely to the book’s brief but also fills those rooms with lingering memories and transient mementoes of physical love, as she stylishly maps out a tangled relationship: ‘Our eyes would look on unashamed, unapologetic at every blemish, every hair. And then we would collect out limbs, untangle where my hand ended and his arm started, figure out which foot was his and which was mine.’
‘Raya and Tom,’ by the writer and actress Emily Burnett similarly delineates a close, if this time platonic relationship, between two lifelong friends whose lives have taken very different trajectories, as if separated by a fork in the road, on the one hand into deprivation and the other into a world of privilege.
Meanwhile, in ‘On Writing Creative Non-Fiction’ Phil Okwedy questions the veracity and dependability of memory, boldly suggesting that memory itself is a liar as the writer considers how one can mold ‘the past to shape current needs.’
There’s a good deal of poetry, too with Marvin Thompson’s say-it-straight lines tightly encapsulating three centuries of colonisation, from the opening poem ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, October 12, 1774’ – which subverts Wordsworth’s famous sonnet about the same bridge at another time – through the unequivocal ‘How to Remove a Slaver’s Collar from your Neck (in Three Easy Lessons)’ to the very timely ‘An excerpt from Top Ten Tips for Surviving a Lynching.’
The last of these hinges on the hanging, in Cardiff prison, of Mahmood Mattan, wrongly convicted of murder, an act for which the police have only just this weekend apologised, 70 years later. It includes lines of poetry which are themselves powerful indictments: ‘The stench of your innocence/is known to Allah and South Wales police/yet a noose is fitted tight around your neck.’
There is also poetry in very different registers. Taz Rahman’s playful bestiary takes its name from and perambulates around the ‘Animal Wall’ outside Cardiff Castle, taking in the sight of frozen stone animals, the pelican, raccoon and vulture before opening out into a bright, kinetic portrait of the city outside:
Here, I saw Gareth Edwards
hands in pocket
walk past the Christmas stall.
Or, later in this breezy poetic stroll, there is a more saintly encounter:
Teilo, Illtud, Canna
to the low hills west
the castle grout,
in the dark, curates rot.
The sequence of Rahman’s verse maps both real streets and imagined scenes – monks and moats, pubs and nightclubs – creating a sort of love letter in verse by this Cardiff-based writer and film-maker of Bengali origin to his now home city.
And completing a trio of poets in the anthology, Welsh Bangladeshi writer and artist Jaffrin conjures up vivid portraits of a father in ‘Abbu’ who ‘gathered the dirt under his feet/and watered it with his sweat./Built a house and a home/with the callus of his hands,’ adding up to a vignette of a man which is ‘glossed in pride.’
It’s a portrait which cracks in ‘Abbu 2.0,’ as all that hard work seems to be for nothing, leading only to ‘eyes haemorrhaged with red’ and morphing into ‘loving memories licked with animosity.’
Closing the anthology with an essay, Umulkhayr Mohamed elegantly ponders the transience of maps, from those of borders to nation states and tellingly ruminates on the differences between the way women and men give directions, the former using visible landmarks, the latter distance and direction.
In a sense this whole collection is a mapping exercise, extending the borders of Wales and Welsh writing so that it is more inclusive, more representative, the contributions collectively revealing, in the editors’ words, ‘a long held and layered relationship with place that we hope you cannot help but sit with, and wonder why writers of colour have for so long been asked to centre their writing around their racialised identities.’
Maps & Rooms, edited by Umulkhayr Mohamed and Taz Rahman, is published by Lucent Dreaming and can be bought in all good bookshops or is available here.
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