Review: Yer Ower Voices! edited by Mike Jenkins.
Eric Ngalle Charles
As Cameroonian writers with a colonial hangover, we were taught what writing should be: The King and Queen’s immaculate English.
You are not a writer if you don’t write or sound like the Great, late Bate Besong. Contemporary Cameroonians still cover themselves under this colonial cloak.
Reading Yer Ower Voices, edited by Mike Jenkins, I was transported back to when, for the first time, I met the late Bate Besong. He was the haystack, and we, the upper sixth arts students, were the needles. Lost.
Someone needed to remind the great one that “Poetry isn’t just about using clever literary and superfluous language; it is about getting to the heart of what it means to be alive and reflecting who we are in the context of the universality of the human condition,’’ as Swansea poet and novelist Gemma June Howell puts it.
This sentiment runs throughout this collection of dialect poems. It delivers on every level. You will laugh, smirk, and grimace. Do not read this book while waiting for a train; many will come and go, and you will remain on the platform. It is gripping.
The title, Yer Ower Voices, sounds like the music of the late Lucky Dube, an exile looking into his country from the summit of a mountain. Is it filled with protest poetry? No, it isn’t.
This collection tells us that those voices that once existed on the periphery should be listened to, brought to the forefront, and platformed. You never know where we will discover the next Mabinogi.
Many years ago, when I lived in Ely, Cardiff, and played football for the Cavaliers, I was surprised and didn’t understand why my friends added the letter S to everything.
“I sees you in town, I hears you, I knows, I goes, I cooks.’’ I was lost in translation. Colonial winds must have brought to me the wrong language and syntax.
For a short while, I became a mute. A desired affliction. Whenever I talked without using the S, my mate Jonathan laughed and said, “Don’t worry, Eric just came on a banana boat.’’
Yer Ower Voices is a masterpiece, and for those sitting arranging and claiming a new curriculum for Wales, this book should be on the top of your list for its diversity of voices.
Don’t get lost in the dark humour rooted in some of the poems, like Mike Jenkins and Girls Carn Play, on page 67. Some of the stanzas in this poem would have made the late Terry Venables smile, as well as Joe Barton—their views of women and football.
All blydi lesbos anyway, on’y geh involved
f’r-a changing rooms
an oo they fancy all affairs an intrigues
like Eastenders on fields.
For a delve into the history of mining and Magaret Thatcher’s black heart, Barry Taylor, in the poem ‘Black Ole,’ takes us down into the pits through the prism of a late father—a beautiful piece laced with history and political punches.
The poem could be revisited and rewritten into a novel.
Down a big black ole
Where ew ca’n see yooer and
In front o yooer face
an ‘e ool place
Is blacker an Thatcher’s art.
I would go for Thatcher’s art anytime over her heart. Taylor’s wordplay, though subtle, delves into the chaotic relationship between Wales and the Thatcher regime. And the Conservative party, to put it bluntly.
Sion Tomos Owen, the chief of Treorchy, ‘writes for his people.’ I can hear his voice in my head. Indeed, this is how the people talk.
But old Trevor nicked the middle
Trev with a V innit?
I told him that but he’s daft see
daft is he?
aye he’s daft twice.
And to be honest, after reading this collection, I hear these sounds and voices when I mynd i’r dref, ar y tren, ar y bws.
There’s gallows humour from Topher Mills, “I was Cardiff born, and Cardiff bred, and when I dies, I’ll be Cardiff dead.’’ I died reading this cliffhanger of an opener.
And there’s the linguistic arsenal of Peter Finch. There are linguistic questions asked such as Ness Owen’s ‘Wyt ti’n siarad Gymraeg?’ And Sara Louise Wheeler’s ‘It’s not proper Welsh either.’ And Ifor ap Glyn’s ‘Teach Yourself Cofi.’
Like the cockroach nymph swinging on the ropes that link the Kelleh to the Mbanda in my mother’s kitchen, the one hundred and forty-four poems by twenty-eight writers in this collection will carry you to the streets of Aberdare, Abertawe, Caernarfon, Merthyr Tydfil, Neath, Newport, Caerdydd.
As diversity and representation go, I would have loved to read black female writers, but this does not distract from the quality of this collection.
And for those contemporary Cameroonian writers who use sticks to beat emerging talents in terms of which language to write in, I cannot reiterate this enough. English and French are not our languages. Colonial waves brought these languages onto our shores, stripping us of our tongues.
Just as Welsh writers have learned to navigate this murky water through Wenglish and dialect poetry, Cameroonian writers must learn to celebrate and appreciate Pidgin.
Reading the array of poems in Yer Ower Voices has been liberating. It should be a handy book for researchers into linguistic hybridity in post-colonial dialogue.
Yer Ower Voices is edited by Mike Jenkins and published by Culture Matters.
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