Writing from Somewhere: Anglesey and Chornobyl
I’m a firm believer that writing comes from place. Stories arise from characters who are somewhere, stories involve events that occur somewhere, writers create a somewhere on the page into which the reader can step, explore, and experience the story unfold around them.
For me, it’s often the confluence and place and character, and a tension between the two, that sparks the whole process of creating a story. For my debut novel, The Half-life of Snails (Parthian Books 2022), this journey took me from a childhood memory, to the edge of Anglesey, and then deep into the radioactive Exclusion Zone around Chornobyl.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of the Chornobyl disaster. The shattered reactor on a tiny black and white TV, the sombre tones of the newsreader, the blue sky outside defying the warnings of a poisonous cloud heading our way, the cherry blossom drifting, drifting, drifting…I couldn’t understand, at six years old, the complexities of the situation, but I did know something had changed.
That the landscape beyond that closed window was different, that an invisible threat was present.
Years later, I was sent to run a training session at Wylfa nuclear power station, and felt apprehension creep into the palm of my hands, a nettle-sting of nuclear anxiety reignited.
But this time I was an adult, an academic, and a writer: I knew what to do with the experience. Despite my childhood fears, I chose to go into these landscapes and discover the characters and places that could reveal the complexities of nuclear accident, nuclear anxiety, and what it’s like to live in the shadow of nuclear power.
Living and working in North Wales, I was able to spend time in the landscape around Wylfa, talking to communities, touring the site for Wylfa B, finding the tensions and textures of place from which my fictional characters and story could grow.
I have worked on farms and been inside nuclear power stations, and so I gathered not only concrete details about place, but a sense experience. Sensory and emotional data to underpin the development of narrative.
Eventually, though, it was time to face my childhood fears and travel into another landscape.
I visited Ukraine in spring 2016, while the reverberations of the Euro Maidan Revolution and Russia’s annexing of Crimea still shuddered through the country.
The risk assessment for my trip was hefty and I was nervous…those nettle-sting palms again.
I had arranged for a ‘fixer’, one of the tour guides who usually took groups around what had become a Dark Tourism site, to take me on my own through some of the off-track parts of the Zone, and to meet the workers and Samosely (evacuees who returned illegally to their homes after the disaster) living in the Exclusion Zone.
Maxim drove me from Kiev to the first checkpoint (military uniforms, guns, dogs, barriers, spring blossom, butterflies) and we crossed in the Exclusion Zone.
I think I expected to feel something then, the shudder of fear or a grand sense of something shifting. I was here, in a place I’d feared my entire life, notebook and pens ready to capture the moment. But the landscape looked exactly the same as it was on the other side of the fence.
The experience was different though: now we had to monitor our radiation levels with a dosimeter. This little yellow device, the size and shape of a late 1990s mobile phone, ticked and purred in the background as we drove on pitted roads into the forest, stopping at schools and villages uninhabited for decades, reclaimed by wildlife.
Occasionally the purring would quicken, and in some areas would tip into an alarm call like a fearful bird or tiny siren.
As I took photos, jotted notes, paused to feel the landscape and imagine how my protagonist, Helen – a Welsh farmer, a prepper, a single mother, an anti-nuclear activist – might feel in this space, I relied on this tiny device to ensure I didn’t come to harm from that same invisible threat I had sensed as a confused six-year-old.
Perhaps, my formative memories are why the protagonist’s child, Jack, left behind with his aunt, became such a vital pivot point for the narrative.
These were creative decisions made inside the landscape, responsive to the sights, smells, feelings and textures I found there, the mirroring or contrast with that familiar landscape of the Anglesey coast back home: Chornobyl’s crumbling concrete sarcophagus, and the view of Wylfa like a radioactive sandcastle on edge of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Relics of the lives displaced by nuclear accident became links between the landscape of Chornobyl and Anglesey, between the mother abroad and the child and sister back home.
A Tonka truck, rusting outside an evacuated nursery half consumed by saplings and brambles, appears again in the garden of the Anglesey farm where Jack is staying.
A tiny white sandal lost under a bed tips Helen back into her memories of childhood, her closeness to her sister before they drifted apart: one working in Wylfa, one fighting to stop its replacement taking the family’s ancestral farm.
Meeting the residents of Chornobyl, the women who had returned to their homes because dying of radiation was preferable to dying of homesickness, resonated with my conversations with farmers threatened by the plans for Wylfa B, who told me that the land didn’t belong to them, but that they belonged to the land.
The power of landscape to define us, to be shaped by and in turn to shape our identities, the need to be ‘home’, the intense and chest-crushing hiraeth at the heart of the novel, comes from these forays into place, and was exacerbated by me leaving my home in Wales to write the book.
I was offered funding for doctoral study, and took it. I knew it would ensure the book got written, got the space it needed to develop from my head and heart into words on a page.
I felt the wrench of homesickness as a tiny echo compared to the displacement of others through accident, war or industry. But an echo that resounded through the novel even so.
Mine is a story about two places, two somewheres, and the people who live there. The landscapes I visited for the research are changed now, by development, war and time, but the somewhere in the novel is a place of its own, full of questions and tensions that persist.
Just before the Hardback edition of the novel was launched, Russia invaded Ukraine, and millions more people were displaced and threatened, homes destroyed, and families separated. I still don’t know if some of the people who helped me with my novel are safe, but I am doing all I can to help.
If you want to help the residents of the Exclusion Zone, the children and animals of Chornobyl, please join me in donating to https://www.cleanfutures.org/
You can follow Philippa on twitter @thejackdawspen
Philippa Holloway is an author and academic, teaching Creative Writing at Staffordshire University. Her debut novel, The Half-life of Snails, is out now with Parthian Books, and her short fiction/non-fiction is published internationally and in the UK with Litro, Nightjar Press and Comma Press among others.
She has been recognized in literary awards including the Rhys Davies Short Story Prize and the Writers & Artists Working Class Writer’s Prize.
She is the co-curator of a global writing project responding to the pandemic and the collection 100 Words of Solitude: Global Voices in Lockdown 2020 (Rare Swan Press), and is currently co-authoring a textbook on Creative Writing and the Anthropocene.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.