Ann Bjerregaard talks to Dylan Moore, author and editor of the Welsh Agenda ahead of the release of his debut essay collection, Driving Home Both Ways (Parthian). Here the two discuss the book’s central themes of home and globalisation, Moore’s influences as an essayist, and the constant struggle to balance writing with family and a full-time teaching job.
It is obvious from your writing that you have travelled a lot, and in this collection, you write about your journeys. Is there something about travelling that is especially conducive to writing?
Often I’ve found that only travelling is conducive to writing. I’m a schoolteacher, a magazine editor and father of a teenager and a toddler. So for me writing tends to happen in the gaps between real life, what most people might think of as ‘holidays’. Away from the daily grind, most people default to the things they really love to do. So most of my writing is done on planes and trains, in bus station cafes and airport terminals, in hotels and hostels, at campsites. Those transient spaces are my happy place.
It’s a different headspace, too. When travelling, there’s little need to wonder what to write about: the material is all around you. I’m curious about the world, and will usually read a lot about places I am going to visit before I go as well as en route and while I’m there, which leads to deeper, richer thinking and observations. And, of course, as is evidenced by the book, being somewhere else helps you think about home in a different way too.
In Driving Home Both Ways, you talk a lot about Wales and about being Welsh. What does it mean to you to be a Welsh writer?
Being Welsh and being a writer are two fundamental facets of my identity. The two things come together in ‘Becoming Welsh in ‘99’, the opening essay in the collection, which I originally wrote way back in 2005. For me that essay was seminal. It was the moment I found my voice as a writer, and it’s no coincidence that was bound up in discovering, or unpicking, my national identity.
In Driving Home Both Ways, there are pieces written across Europe, from Portugal to Poland, and in the USA, Mexico, India, Cameroon… and about many different topics. But everything I write is filtered through a personal lens, and a keen sense of who I am as a person and as a writer. And I’m Welsh; this country has left its stamp all over me.
In your essays, you frequently invite the reader to imagine alternatives to current social situations or take action to change them. Do you envision a particular kind of reader when you write? That is, who do you hope will listen?
I’d hope anybody who reads me would be receptive to what I have to say. I’d hope that the kind of change I encourage is the change we need. It’s not a polemic or didactic book. I’m not telling people what to think. It’s a reflective book, and I hope the pieces reflect the realities of the places I write about. I love Newport, where I live, but the book doesn’t pretend it’s not riddled with social deprivation that negatively impacts thousands of human lives. So too Mexico City. What an incredible, vibrant megalopolis. But what a cesspit of crime and corruption. I love people, and therefore I hate poverty, prejudice, injustice, inequality. It’s unthinkable not to imagine alternatives.
I don’t envision a particular kind of reader. Everyone’s different, and will want different things from reading. I just aim to be truthful. I write from experience. Hopefully, the pieces are true to the places and people they describe, and true to my values. And I hope people can sense that honesty. If that changes the way some people think about a particular place, or a particular situation, so much the better!
You mention Dylan Thomas, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, but do you have any contemporary influences? Any writers today that you think everyone should read?
Plenty. In terms of writers who have directly influenced me in writing this book, the most pertinent is Jonathan Raban, whose travel essays and cultural commentary are a must for anyone working in this hybrid genre. Although my title essay, ‘Driving Home Both Ways’, predates Raban’s 2010 collection Driving Home, the fact I chose that as the title for the whole collection is definitely a nod to a man whose work oscillates between London and Seattle in the same way that mine does between Wales and everywhere else.
Zadie Smith, despite being feted primarily for her novels, is another essayist I can only aspire to emulating. She’s got a gift of being able to write beautifully and authoritatively on a bewildering array of subjects. Then there’s Geoff Dyer, who I admire for the way he defies categorisation, the way he invents his own genres to suit the subject and material.
I’ve come late to Svetlana Alexievich, who I seem not to have noticed when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015; my seventeen-year-old son recently lent me The Unwomanly Face of War, and I think it might just have changed the course of my entire writing career. I’ve just started Boys in Zinc, about the Soviet army in Afghanistan, and realise I’m going to have to read it in bits because it’s so affecting. You can’t take that much suffering in one sitting, and it’s no wonder the Nobel committee described her work as ‘a monument to suffering and courage in our time.’
Driving Home Both Ways seems to revolve around the notion of globalisation. Would you like to elaborate on what this means to you?
I’m glad you’ve asked what it means to me. There are plenty of people more qualified than me if you had wanted a more academic definition. As a concept, globalisation cuts across disciplines like little else; it defines our time. And you’re right to say that Driving Home Both Ways revolves around it. For me, it’s about the fact we’re closer, these days, as a human family. Our lives are interconnected in ways we couldn’t have imagined even twenty years ago.
I’m an Xennial, that ‘microgeneration’ born between 1977 and 1983. Supposedly, we combine the cynicism of Generation X with the optimism of millennials. I’m not sure I can agree with such broad-brushstroke sociological categorisation, but it’s true to say that we are the only generation to have had wholly analogue childhoods and completely digital adulthoods. I think that gives us a unique perspective on globalisation, if we take it to mean the way the world has simultaneously grown and shrunk since we came of age in the late 1990s.
We can take affordable flights to the other side of the world in a way our parents could never dream of, and yet we don’t need to because social media has us connected transnationally for most of the time anyway. And when we do go travelling, it’s a different kind of adventure. Globalisation simultaneously means cultural homogenisation and an ever-growing move toward multiculturalism. As a result, our cities are becoming more diverse even as our countries are becoming more like each other.
It was kind of quaint, when I lived in Valencia, to have to trek across the city to find something approaching a decent curry. I’m used to the world being on my doorstep. Cardiff’s Tiger Bay was one of Britain’s first multicultural communities, only a century ago. It’s rightly celebrated as a place that offered a glimpse of the global future. I’m looking forward to the Eisteddfod being held there: Wales welcoming the world.
In what ways would you say that globalisation is a different notion from the Western capitalism you so scathingly criticise?
Western capitalism is an economic system designed to ensure the moneyed retain wealth and power. It’s elitist, self-perpetuating and unfair. Its fallout is increasing inequality everywhere, within and between countries. It is linked to globalisation in the sense of ‘Coca-colonisation’, rampant cultural homogenisation which ensures unprecedented levels of brand recognition and the maintenance of Western culture’s hegemony, which in turn allows that perpetuation of power and wealth concentrated in the G7 or G8. Naomi Klein dealt with all of this in No Logo.
Globalisation more broadly is not necessarily so destructive. For me, it’s a slightly romanticised version of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘global village’ idea. We’re all closer together now. Jet travel and the internet have helped create a truly global human society that we can all play a part in. It’s fantastic to see that the new curriculum for Wales has active global citizenship as one of its key planks.
Like anything else, globalisation can be harnessed for good or for ill, but there’s no escaping it’s a fact. Lots of current political trends – notably Brexit and Trump – are part of a backlash against it; there’s a fear attached to the radical changes it brings, which are leading some people to embrace a dangerous brand of introverted nationalism. But I’m hopeful that as national borders become less meaningful, we can forge a future based on our shared humanity. Cultural differences are what make us interesting as a species, but as the late Jo Cox is famous for having said: ‘we have more in common than that which divides us’.
I have lots of friends who are migrants and refugees, hardly surprising given that 1 in 113 people globally has been forcibly displaced. Globalisation for me is meeting someone from halfway across the globe and realising you have ‘more in common’: an addiction to coffee, a passion for a particular football club or a somewhat parallel political situation.
Your writing gives a very sensual description of the places you have visited. These descriptions might have fit just as well in fiction writing. Why did you choose to write about your experiences in this particular way?
I think I’m just too interested in the real world. It’s becoming increasingly hard to make stuff up that’s at least as interesting as the world as it is. I love fiction, and I used to write it, a bit. I still attempt to, sometimes. I have ideas for sprawling, epic novels. But then there’s that cliche that life is ‘stranger’ (by which I think people mean ‘more interesting’) than fiction, and I think that’s true. I think fiction writers have got their work cut out today. Why read a dystopian political thriller, when you could just watch the news?
Would you like to tell us something about your writing process and routine?
I’d love to, if I had one. Quite simply, I write when I can. I’ve been a parent since I was twenty, and a teacher since I was twenty-two. I love being a dad and I love teaching teenagers, but it’s quite simply the worst combination for getting any writing done. Apart from when travelling, I mostly write in cafes in relatively short bursts, a couple of hours at a time, fuelled by coffee and cake. That’s why my writing is served mainly in relatively short essays and fragments. Having said that, I am embarking on a new writing adventure in the autumn. Teaching part-time will free up a couple of days a week for me to be at my writing desk at home, so hopefully the next book will be like a doorstop.
What is your next big project?
Next academic year is going to be huge for me. I’m starting a research masters degree in Transnational Writing at Bath Spa University in October, and the course will coincide with my year as Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow. The two should dovetail really well. As well as writing a follow-up to Driving Home Both Ways, inspired by forthcoming visits to Peru, Spain, Mexico and Colombia, I am hoping to explore the theme of displacement in a global context. Migration is the one feature of globalisation that continues to define our age. I’m not one hundred percent sure yet what form the final project will take, but I’m hoping to take Desmond Tutu’s call to arms as a starting point: ‘There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.’ Next book, I’m going upstream – and we’ll see where that takes me.
Driving Home Both Ways is available now from Parthian Books.