Some of Wales’ top writers and artists choose their cultural highlights of 2016.
Two books are my highlights this year, Rachel Boast’s Void Studies (Picador) and Stefan Hertmans’ War and Turpentine (Harvill Secker). Boast is an amazingly ambitious poet, the nearest thing we have to a French Symbolist working in English. I realise that might not in itself be a recommendation, so I’ll say what I mean: she writes with extraordinary delicacy about the transient and the in-between, and there’s a bleakness in her vision which is also very affecting. She has something which I admire: a way of using language that is moves between the lush and bone-spare in surprising transitions, and often merges them. The title gestures to Rimbaud’s unwritten project, Etudes néantes. It takes a lot to finish something Rimbaud never really started, and she has whatever it is.
Stefan Hertmans is a Belgian writer, and one of the leading contemporary Dutch-language poets. His grandfather, Urbain, was a poor iron-worker who fought at the front in WW1 and died aged 90, leaving his grandson 600 pages of notebooks. Hertmans kept these for thirty years before writing this… what? memoir of a memoir, remembrances of a rememberer, in which he mixes his granfather’s memories of his own father with Hertmans’s own recollections of Urbain. The descriptions of war are savage, and the account of Flanders in the late 19th and early 20th century are beautifully detailed. But Hertmans’s writing, and the way he constructs the book, are remarkable. It is a work of empathy, and I imagine it in the future as the classic it already is.
In the realm of what the surrealists would call spectacle trouvé, or found spectacle, I’d also add the strange ballet of cranes that has been performing across the Oxford skyline for over a year now, as a vast shopping centre West of the city centre gets built. They dance, shiver, dip and rise against a changing backdrop, and at night their sharp little lights mark them out like signs of the zodiac coming, for a change, to look down at us.
Upon being asked to select a cultural highlight from this scabrous year of seemingly unremitting bleakness I was determined not to choose something rooted in either misery or pessimism. That this led me to select a mid-80s cinematic period piece probably says much about me (and the pop cultural ‘safe space’ of my childhood) as it does the year from which I’ve actively sought to escape.
It’s easy to pigeonhole John Carney’s Sing Street as an 80s teen movie, yet unlike the 80s teen movie genre itself – an almost exclusively suburban American experience – it is written from the vantage point of some three decades in the future; one that doesn’t shy away from exposing its setting and characters to the merciless light of timeworn experience and harsh reality. This is recession-hit Dublin, not the affluent suburbs of Chicago. Its girls are draped in ill-fitting lycra and acid-washed denim from the market rather than the latest salmon pink offering from Ralph Lauren. The dads aren’t investment bankers or high-flying salesmen; they’re unemployed, and broken and occasionally absent. A seemingly inescapable cycle of compromised destiny that seems almost certain to infect the children of the next generation, unless they actively choose to do something about it
Yes, Sing Street is an escapist movie in the sense that a bunch of downtrodden social misfits form a band in the hope of storming the charts and getting the girl – an entirely noble set of aspirations, if ever there was one – but it’s one that instead takes its cues from Garth Jennings’ marvellous Son of Rambow rather than the earnest conformity of the John Hughes oeuvre to which it has been erroneously compared. At heart it’s a ‘happy sad’ movie – a term that Ferdia Walsh-Peelo’s ‘Conor’ uses to describe the music of The Cure – a key influence upon the music created by his ramshackle band of urban loners, given that its numerous laugh-out-loud moments are cut through with the nagging pain of longing, regret, and lives terminally unfulfilled.
What Sing Street succeeds in perfectly capturing is that timeless sense of invincible liberation that exists for only a fleeting period of your life; when all that exists in your fragile armoury is you + pop music + your gang of awkward-looking mates, against the whole bloody world.
One in which, righteously, ‘no girl can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins’.
Craig Austin is an Associate Editor at Wales Arts Review.
So much has happened in 2016 that picking out a single highlight is a difficult challenge, but as I think over the year I’m drawn back to the early summer when Alys Conran’s atmospheric debut novel, Pigeon, was published. The novel itself was a refreshing read, depicting a lively tale of a childhood friendship which changes, breaks apart and ultimately grows, the narrative flowing easily in Conran’s capable hands. Yet what really stood out for me about this novel was the way in which it bridged the gap between the English and Welsh-language literary traditions in Wales. Pigeon was published simultaneously in English and in Welsh (translated by Sian Northey), bringing together two literary traditions which we still have a tendency to, wrongly, regard as disparate from each other. Publishing the novel simultaneously in both languages signalled an important moment of cultural unity at a time when the whole nation was tearing itself into separate camps over the forthcoming EU referendum.
We have a remarkable history of translation, both from English to Welsh and vice versa, within the Welsh literary scene, but in the past this process has often been characterised by sometimes lengthy delays between the publication of the original text and its translation. Pigeon afforded a chance for readers in both languages to read and engage with the novel at the same time; if bilingual publishing is to continue to succeed in Wales in the future it could learn a lot from the way in which author, publisher and translator worked together to bring this exciting new work to attention. On a related note, the novel also inspired one of the most fascinating sessions I attended at this year’s Hay Festival, featuring Alys Conran, Sian Northey, William Owen Roberts and Tony Bianchi in a discussion of the process of translating work and connecting with other nations through translations of Welsh work. It was a thoughtful exchange which looked to new horizons in Welsh writing and publishing, showcasing an appetite to engage with the wider world and reach out to new readers; it is a sentiment we need more than ever from our cultural practitioners as 2016 limps to a close.
Emma Schofield is a lecturer in twentieth and twenty-first century literature at Cardiff University and a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.
2016 has been a volatile and detrimental year politics-wise, but fortunately, a bumper year for books. This year proved a to be a silver-lining amidst the sociopolitical mess, with a lot of books coming out which shed light on racism, minority representation and freedom of speech. The much awaited novels by heavyweights such as Zadie Smith (Swing Time), Ali Smith (Autumn) and Jonathan Safran Foer (Here I Am) made their way to bookshops around the world.
From the dozens of books I read this year, these are some of my favourites:
The Vegetarian (Portobello Books) won this year’s Man Booker International Prize along with many accolades and I must say, it deserved this and more. It is a poignant story, which is written as a three-part drama, of rebellion, power and struggle against conventions. This allegorical tale of a woman, written in a Kafka-esque narration, is visceral and incredibly moving.
A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker) is another shortlisted book for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. It is an eclectic, beautifully written literary work which recounts the story of a Portuguese woman amidst the turmoil of Angolan independence. Oblivion is one of the most underrated books of the year as it expertly combines history and fiction. Written as a series of vignettes, this translation is a remarkable lyrical representation of the consequences of war and the circularity of our actions.
Multiple Choice (Granta) is a cleverly written book, reading deceptively like a Chilean Academic Aptitude Test. Divided into sections such as “Reading Comprehension” and “Sentence Order’, it allows the reader to participate in the fiction shrewdly weaved by Zambra. Multiple Choice, under the guise of a standardized test, offers commentary which is equal parts grave and tongue-in-cheek about political regime, education and family. It is an engaging literary work which will be thoroughly enjoyed by socially conscious readers.
Umami (Oneworld Publications), yet another work of translation, is an unconventional novel about the residents of a neighborhood called Belldrop Mews. The eclectic mix of narrative voices gives us a coherent picture of what loss and grief is like for different people and their journeys to find closure. Umami is a vibrant, bittersweet story of finding peace with yourself and others after losing loved ones.
All Things Cease to Appear (riverrun) is a complex, haunting drama which is part murder mystery and part ghost story. It starts with an appalling murder and then goes back and forth to give us a complete picture of all the events that transpired before and culminated in this tragedy. Well-drawn characters and insightful observations about relationships makes this one of the best literary mystery thrillers of the year.
Rabeea Saleem is a freelance literary critic who writes for a wide range of top publications and is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.
The highlight of the year for me was hearing “Safe and Sound”, the super-sensational-psychedelic French group Justice’s first single in five years. I was on my way back from my dacha on the state run bus, which since Babushkas travel for free on think they can abuse anyone. It was rank with the stench of old Soviet piss. I had my headphones plugged into my phone and was flicking stations when I landed on Dozhd (rain). I was in the shittiest mood. Bowie gone. The Brits has just voted out of the EU and back into 1936 Germany and Trump was on his way to The White House. In a nutshell the world had gone to shit and it would also take me a week to get the smell of stale piss out of my nose.
I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing at first. Surely nothing in the world could ever be that good? In a world gone to shit how could someone create a bass line so funky, so full of life, that it had the power not only to make me forget about the pungency of my immediate surrounds but restore my faith in mankind? But there it was; the staccato-machinegun-fire-slap-bass-line that unfucked me.
When I arrived home the flat was empty because my wife and daughter had stayed at the dacha. I found the song on Youtube and played it ten times or more loud as fuck. Within the space of thirty minutes, confidence lost had been restored; faith diminished was now blazing. Songs can save people can’t they? It wasn’t until I heard that song and saw the effect it had on my mind that I realised how much I had needed saving.
Mao Oliver-Semenov is an author and poet whose latest collection, The Elephant’s Foot, is available now.
It was as if my very own Dream Jar had been burst open. For one weekend I was able to step out of my front door and into the topsy-turvy world of Roald Dahl. To celebrate the centenary of the treasured Welsh author, Cardiff was transformed into a City of wonder and imagination. Happiness, laughter, slippers and sandwiches filled Bute Park as we arrived for the peculiar pyjama party picnic. Gloriumptious performers in fancy-dress, singing, dancing and story-telling helped us celebrate everything we love most about Roald Dahl’s enchanting tales. At every twist and turn along the balloon and bubble filled trails of Bute Park there was a new whimsical delight to feast our eyes upon. The BFG’s belongings had been hidden within trees sparkling with Dream Jars. We took photos amongst the splendiforous sculptures of enormous forks and spoons. Then there were gasps of amazement as a giant peach floated, as if by magic, across the Welsh sky. Children and adults alike danced and cheered as Fantastic Mr Fox was freed from the evil farmer in a truly Fantastic live performance. The excitement was contagious! For lunch we tucked in to delumptious Dahl inspired treats such as the ‘malt-ilda’, a concoction of doughnut pieces, espresso sugar and malt chocolate sauce that Willy Wonka himself would have been proud of. Finally, a giant pillow fight left us all with a silly grin and feathers in our hair as we walked home. It was a whoopsy whiffling day.
I love sitting in a theatre or a concert hall before a performance, or opening up a book, and knowing almost nothing about the artists. It’s rare these days – not even a friend had recommended this gig – and so I waited in St. David’s Hall in anticipation of the unknown, of what could not be anticipated.
I was also a bit nervous too, because it was a birthday present for my boyfriend, and he’d been sceptical of some elements of the write-up. “Beyond Borders digs into both what divides us and what brings us together as ordinary people,” according to the Festival of Voice Web site, giving the sense of a sort of forced right-on-ness.
Thirteen musicians walked on stage and began: first, a sound like the outdoors, strings struck like percussion, then a single female voice, pure and earthy at once, singing about “the lass I loved.” I noticed there were only women on stage. When all the musicians joined in, their voices blended for a tumultuous chorus – first, an insistent signature, 2/2, like drumming, then another rhythm I couldn’t keep count with – not syncopated, but not 2/2 either. Wow.
I glanced at Paul. The gig had become a moment.
The performance was a twist on a project called “Songs of Separation,” a collaboration among ten Scottish and English musicians led by the double bass player Jenny Hill. After the Scottish referendum, the women spent a week at the Isle of Eigg in Scotland, each leading one of the songs that would make up the album, celebrating the similarities and differences in their traditions, and tapping into a variety of music – traditional, original works, and even a music hall song.
In Cardiff, four soloists joined the group, adding Welsh and Irish musicians to the mix.
They made a gorgeous sound. I usually prefer a mix of ranges – prefer choirs to female or male choirs, though the Welsh male voice choir may be an exception. But there was something subtle about the way these female voices blended, like strands of wheat – each wheat-colored, but blends of gold and tawny gold and bright gold and brown-ish gold creating the sound’s color.
The soloists, who aren’t on the CD – Georgia Ruth and Gwyneth Glyn from Wales, Julie Fowlis of Scotland and Karan Casey from Ireland – complemented this landscape. Georgia Ruth’s performance was especially effective, her voice deeper and plainer than the others.
And how unusual it was to have only women on stage. I try not to lapse into feminist clichés: women aren’t more collegial than men, they’re not nicer, they’re not better friends. Such traits are individual (which is at the heart of what feminism is saying, unless I’m being simplistic). But I also had to admit: there was a different vibe with 13 women playing on stage.
(I never noticed “man” was in that word before.)
No guitar solos.
Plenty of virtuosity.
I wondered if Eliza Carthy, who is a member of “Songs of Separation” but who couldn’t make the Cardiff gig, might have outshone her fellow musicians, but a friend who heard them at the Cambridge Folk Festival, where Carthy did play, felt the same way.
There was also a harmony of purpose, forged on the Isle of Eigg. The songs were political: “Soil and Soul,” written by Rowan Rheingans, who won the 2016 BBC Best Original Folk Song of the Year for a different song, about the environment; the traditional “London Lights,” that hints at income disparity.
It seems amazing, now, that this performance by 13 women from all four countries took place before the vote to leave to European Union. It feels like such a statement against the philosophy that accompanied the referendum – rhetoric now heard, even more stridently, in my home country, America.
I bought the CD that night, and I’ve been listening to it a lot since Trump won the presidential election – an antidote to the news. I play around with inviting ten women writers from different countries to an island off Wales, try to figure out how we might create a harmony of words out of a harmony of purpose.
“What will we lose, when we lose?” Rowan Rheingans asks in “Soil and Soul.” “What will we leave, when we leave?” Right now, I need to hear both the message, and the music.
Link to Songs of Separation Web site, which has a video about its making:
Carole Burns won Ploughshares’ John C. Zacharis First Book Award for her collection, The Missing Woman and Other Stories, published by Parthian.
One of my literary highlight of 2016 is the ever-increasing events, readings, book launches, festivals, pop-ups book shops and everything in between that Cardiff has had to offer this year. I started the year saying to friends how ‘there isn’t much on offer in Cardiff in terms of literature’ and find myself ending it with the words ‘there’s actually a lot going on now in Cardiff as compared to before’. Whether it was a lack of awareness and involvement in the writing/literary community at the start of the year, as compared to now, I can’t say. But there is no denying that there has been a steady rise of events in the city. Little Man Coffee has hosted many nights of events, including Milieu, Juke, Collective, and The Lonely Crowd, to name a few. While Octavo’s Book Café and Wine Bar have also been holding book launches, Sunday Sessions, Writer in Residences, as have Waterstones Cardiff.
Added to this was Made in Roath, which returned for another year in October with art, workshops, readings for the residents of Roath, and also Cardiff’s very own first book festival where I enjoyed listening to Jasmine Donohaye talk about the processes and incentives behind writing Losing Israel, winner of the Wales Book of the Year Creative Non-Fiction Award 2016.
The Welsh Mental Health Arts Festival also returned for a second year, offering again, workshops, performances, art, and chances at networking and engagement not just in Cardiff but other places in Wales.
The reason why a collection of these local events has been a highlight for me is the public engagement and grassroots feel that they have. They offer individuals and writers both old and new a chance to get involved and feel connected to their local scene. There have been and always will be the big festivals. But the year-long intimacy of the local events is what has sustained my interest in 2016.
Durre Shahwar is a writer, poet, and Associate Editor at Wales Arts Review.
Second Hand Time by Svetlana Alexeivitch is seven pages short of seven hundred in length. Unlike the baggy monsters that are the norm for the fiction of America, an Editor has been at work. Not a page is redundant. Alexeivitch’s subject is the last European Empire. Her book’s scope is sweeping, its effect cumulative, its content sobering and unique.
All experience is half purposed and half serendipitous. My reading of this author is firmly in the second camp. My interest at the Hay Festival for 27th June was a meeting of two heavyweight knights, Evans and McGregor, on the topic of history and memory. Alexeivitch in conversation with Bridget Kendall was an afterthought. In fact her theme is the same, the meaning of history but shifted Eastward from Germany to Russia and Belarus.
The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 provoked much comment for its unorthodoxy. Arts commentators know no history. Had they troubled to look the prize winner for 2015 went not to an imaginative writer but to an author whose skills were those of a journalist.
Voices on Russia are a regular at Hay; Kasparov from within, Oliver Bullough and Tim Judah, extensive travellers, from without. They have reported on the facts of geography, the twenty thousand abandoned villages, the thirty-five thousand with fewer than ten inhabitants, the plummeting population, the life expectancy lower than many African countries. The Alexeivitch voice is the inner geography, a woman with a tape recorder catching the voices of authenticity.
Some of the material is familiar, echoing Solzhenitsyn or Conquest. The more modern is new. Moscow is the most Moslem of European cities. Police murder of immigrants goes uninvestigated. For her epic view the author is modest “I was just the right person in the right place. I met people who had met Lenin.” The central issue is the opposite of Germany. “When I look around Russia the hate horrifies me, the necessity to hate someone.” She observes the “absolute lack of desire to reflect on the main thing, Stalin and the war.”
One of her voices speaks of the conquest of Germany. Every female, age ten to eighty, was target for rape. A new law prohibits dishonour of the armed forces. Anthony Beevor, the historian of Berlin 1945, would now on visit to Russia be liable for arrest. “Second Hand Time” is essential reading for insight to the Europe of our era.
Adam Somerset is an art and culture critic and a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.