Review: Sugar and Slate by Charlotte Williams
This is an easy review to write: I loved this book. It’s a hard review, for the same reason.
Sugar and Slate is a ‘classic’, enshrined in the pantheon of Welsh literature, yet too little known.
Parthian are to be praised for this new publication, along with the Welsh Book Council for their support.
Williams pushes us to ask what ‘Welsh’ means, what Guyanese means, as much as her luminous words and intricate structure force a deeper understanding of ‘classic’.
In her very first paragraph, Williams says. ‘the Africa thing hung about me like a Welsh Not, a heavy encumbrance on my soul: a Not-identity; an awkward reminder of what I was or what I wasn’t.’
From the beginning, she invokes a connection between this country of lost languages, of peregrination and devotion, and that distant Africa, the revered and unknown mother.
The links are twisted, underground and often denied; through her personal narrative she pulls them out into the light, whether ugly or beautiful, and forces the confrontation with the history which has made her, the Welsh-Guyanese writer and academic, and made us, the Wales of the twenty-first century.
Biblical and passionate
Williams’ father was a distinguished artist and academic, the first Guyanese to win a British Council scholarship which brought him to London to study art in 1946.
There he met and married Kate Alice, the ‘contrary, confrontational, biblical and passionate’ woman from North Wales.
For a decade they lived a glamorous life in the arts world of the time, Dennis building a reputation from the beginning.
Yet the book opens with Charlotte, her sisters and mother on a cargo ship heading for Sudan, to join Dennis in Khartoum.
Williams had an unusual upbringing for a dual heritage child of her time. She spent several years in Africa, from east to west, and accompanied her father on his archaeological explorations of the ancient art of the continent.
She describes long, sleepless afternoons in Khartoum, pays poetic homage to a Lagos girlhood, describes the vivid impact of those dug-up relics on her father’s paintings.
After a decade, her mother decided she wants her daughters to grow up in Wales and returned to Llandudno. Dennis stayed in Africa, visiting for several months every summer, until he found another woman and came no more.
The small cargo of brown girls were marooned with their white mother in the dusty Victoriana of the busy seaside town, facing every variety of casual racism and misogyny with few weapons at their disposal beyond the their familial, intense difference.
It is another twenty years before Williams closes the ancient, traumatic Triangle and goes to live in Guyana, re-meeting her estranged father and finding out that there, in the Creolised, syncretic Caribbean, she does not blend in save as the ‘mix’; the privileges of pale skin and western money set her apart.
With her sister, she takes her own apocalyptic journey into the jungle to return angrier than before, knowing that so many more journeys lie ahead.
Through these wanderings, these journeys that not always physical, she is ‘dislodged, dislocated.’
In the end, she realised, she must return to Wales, and there ‘change my perception of what it was to be Welsh or what it was to be Guyanese, or both,’ if she is ever to ‘feel the satisfaction of belonging.’
Doubled and redoubled
William has a mountain of family in Bethesda, that little, Welsh-speaking town of slate-workers and all the trades needed to support them. She tracks them down, discovering her mother lost her own mother young and ended up fostered into England, and hence to London to meet Dennis.
She left behind the life of the quarries of North Wales, home to the longest industrial dispute in history when the indentured, ill-treated workers fought for better pay and conditions.
Richard Pennant, the Liverpudlian who became the first Baron Penrhyn, owned the quarries, and became one of the wealthiest men in Britain on the backs of those Welsh labourers.
The money he used to establish the quarries came from his large estates in Jamaica worked by enslaved people from Africa. Unsurprisingly, he was a prominent advocate for the Trade.
On a clear day, the castle he built with the profits of caned sugar and fractured slate can be seen from the top of the Great Orme on the Llandudno peninsula, where the young Williams girls might have climbed to watch the ships in the Irish sea.
It could be considered the apex of that deadly triangle, the overbearing statement of conquest in its fantastical re-enactment of Edwardian might.
Exploitation and loss
Wales is itself colonised, un-tongued, its people forced to mobility and estrangement. At the same time, few villages or towns in Wales did not benefit from slavery.
Iron, copper, cloth, ships were worked, owned, manufactured by the people, so much so that a ‘Welsh’ was a recognised piece of currency, the length of cotton cloth used as coinage in the Trade. Wales looks both ways in this history of exploitation and loss.
Williams carries this web of stories in every cell, in the colour of her skin and in all the ways her languages float and fly across the ocean of the page.
She shows us the overburdening legacy of such misery and destruction interleaved with the commitment and resilience needed to stand up and make something new from the past.
Grief, life and joy
Towards the end of the book, Williams describes herself as ‘reconciled to a life of to-ing and fro-ing, of coming and going.’
Many of us, in today’s globalised world, have become familiar with airport transit lounges, the limbo of Schiphol or Piarco, the ins and outs of local lockdowns and the attenuated air of uncertainty and delay.
The family trees of pain grown from trafficking in human beings make Williams’ story different from the diasporas of sailors or colonial migration, more akin to the disruptions of climate refugees or the disasters of other genocides.
The Triangle Trade was itself an engine of globalisation, fundamental to the industrial might so central to the Welsh national story.
In the debates about what Wales might become, we will get nowhere if we ignore this embodied history, this two-faced reality. It is not enough (though it is necessary) to point to the long-lasting Black communities of the south-east, that ‘recognised, albeit tiny, part of Wales shaded with a little colour.’
The relationships, the bonds of religion, of love and money with both the Caribbean and Africa are wider, more various and more influential than that narrow focus permits.
Despite the difficulties of this land, Williams loves ‘poor old mixed-up Wales … its contours and its contradictions.’
She demands that we rethink what it means to be ‘proper Welsh’, to love language and landscape without demanding a particular colour or accent, to be Welsh without imposing a homogenous lie on the many of us who cannot aspire to the mythical ideal.
Within this review, I can only scrape the surface of the many dimensions of Williams’ memoir, so I strongly encourage you to read this precious book for yourself, and find those parts of it which speak most to you.
In our complicated national conversation we all need subtlety, imagination, a genuine historical understanding and love for the many parts of ourselves.
Sugar and Slate offers not just one but many ways to work towards a capacious and well-grounded Wales.
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