Wales Arts Review speaks to the editors of Welsh (Plural): Essays on the Future of Wales – Darren Chetty, Grug Muse, Hanan Issa and Iestyn Tyne – for an insight into this watershed collection of essays and its ambition to reveal imaginative perspectives on Welshness that are not bound by clichés and binaries. Here, we hear from each of the editors on their vision for this book and the challenges faced in making it a reality.
How did the concept of the project come about?
Grug: Hanan, Darren and I were at the Hay Festival in 2019 as part of the Hay Writers at Work programme, and over the course of the 10 or so days we were there, questions about the place of Welsh writing in the British publishing world kept coming up. Wherever you fall on the question of Britishness, and I’m one that would enjoy watching this union fall apart, I think it’s hard to escape the fact that Welsh writing has struggled to get the same attention as Irish (Northern or Republican) and Scottish writing gets. Maybe it’s a branding problem, maybe it’s numbers, whatever it is, nowhere does it feel more evident than when you are a Welsh writer hanging out in the Hay festival, which might be physically on the Welsh side of the border, but emotionally I think it’s fair to say it’s not. So, this book in many ways was born out of those conversations: why can’t books about Wales, and by Welsh writers, do well in the London publishing scene.
But… hold on. What do we mean by Welsh? Who? When, to quote Gwyn Alf. It’s those first conversations that got us started, but it’s the questions that came next that made the book interesting. Yes, let’s get the world to pay attention to Wales, but let’s make sure it’s a reflection of the Wales that we all know, the different Waleses that we all know, not the 2D caricatures you get in escapist novels or feel-good films about miners.
Iestyn: I joined the team a little later, when the idea was beginning to take shape; a few contributors had expressed an interest by that point and I remember the infectious enthusiasm that bubbled over in the first Skype call I had with the others. I hadn’t been to Hay – and haven’t been yet, but it looks like Welsh (Plural) will be the reason I finally make it! – and so hadn’t been part of those initial conversations, but I already shared the same frustrations and similar ideas to Hanan, Darren and Grug and was very happy to be invited.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you were looking for in the writers?
Hanan: We built a ‘dream list’ of writers we wanted to approach, keeping in mind how important we felt it was to balance aspects such as gender, location, heritage, proximity to the Welsh language etc. There’s so much talent out there it wasn’t hard to compile that list but narrowing it down was a challenge. We thought there might be some overlap or duplication of topics but even though there are themes running right through the book, each essayist has a fresh, distinct perspective.
Darren: We wanted people who could write memorable essays – and perhaps play with the form. So Marvin Thompson’s essay is a poem followed by his reflection on the process, Charlotte Williams combines personal writing with her account of chairing the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities, Contributions and Cynefin in the New Curriculum Working Group, Gary Raymond wrote his essay as a first-person role-playing game and Rabab Ghazoul’s is a series of letters to the editors. As we say in the introduction when discussing the cover, the book is our collective tailor’s quilt of stories.
There must have been some idea of notions you wanted to work against when discussing the vision for the book? Cliches about Wales, or just concepts of what a book like this could be?
Iestyn: As we’ve mentioned in the blurb – which is taken almost word for word from the original brief we set our contributors – there is a set of images that the idea of Wales brings to mind for many people – ‘if it’s not rugby, sheep and rolling hills, it’s the 3 Cs: castles, coal and choirs’. In fact, the book contains references to all those things; indeed, they are central themes in many – sheep, in my own essay; rugby in Joe Dunthorne’s essay; and there’s mention of Wales’ ‘modest’ mountains in the opening paragraph of ‘Medium, Rare’ by Mike Parker. Several of the contributors refer to the Wales’ industrial heritage and life in its wake … so I don’t think the book necessarily works against all those cliches, I suppose an element of truth is often the starting point of a cliche; but we did want fresh reimaginings, and that is what I believe we got.
In terms of what books like this could be, we did steer away from work that was too drily political – the idea driving Welsh (Plural) is that more creative writing can be harnessed to offer a vision for the future, too; that this is not a less valid way of thinking of how things could be; and that you can paint a picture of the future you dream of without necessarily having every answer for every step of the way to hand. I hope Welsh (Plural) gains an audience with people who perhaps feel that conversations on the future of Wales that happen in the political realm fail to engage them for whatever reason.
Do you think it was harder or easier to pull this all together during the pandemic?
Grug: One of the biggest challenges was that we all live a distance from each other, which meant that even pre-pandemic we were already mostly meeting through Skype and Zoom, so in a way the pandemic had very little effect on the project.
Darren: Literature Wales have been very supportive from the off, and they did offer us a weekend at Tŷ Newydd to meet as an an editorial team. But the pandemic prevented that from happening. Skype, Zoom, Google Docs, Email and WhatsApp have all played major supporting roles in the creation of the book.
How did you see the collection taking shape as the contributions began to come in?
Hanan: The hunger for a book like this was what struck me. Almost everyone involved expressed how necessary they felt it was to have a book highlighting Wales as a distinct yet inclusive nation. Also, how the sense of not being Welsh enough was such a common sentiment regardless of where people lived, their ethnicity, or gender. The collection became such a clear demonstration of just how pointless it is to stereotype Welshness.
Darren: Yes, there seemed to be lurking in many contributor’s minds a kind of Platonic ideal of Welshness that one can picture but never actually attain. But then there are also fascinating reflections on why that might be and what it might say for Wales.
Were there any disagreements about direction between editors – any example of where some tension resulted in a revelation for all concerned?
Iestyn: I wouldn’t say disagreements about direction; however, we assigned a combination of two editors to each individual essay and this was definitely a good call – it meant that we could challenge each others’ interpretations of what people had written. In my experience this was particularly valuable when working on an essay by a writer of whom I’ve been a long time admirer – my co-editor in that case was able to highlight the blindspots I might have had, which ensured a careful and considerate edit.
Darren: Yes, an editing team of four didn’t mean that we all ended up doing a quarter of the work a single editor would. Collaboration involves additional work – conversations, consultations, negotiations – but I think the book is much richer for that. I like that the (Plural) aspect of the book extends to how it was curated and edited. It’s almost three years since our first conversation at Hay in 2019 – and we’ve been in conversation throughout since then!
Tell us about the decision to go with an English publisher for a book of essays about Welshness?
Grug: Almost just to see if we could. Could a book about Welshness succeed outside of Wales? It’s going alright so far, we will keep you posted!
Darren: We talked to a lot of publishers. We knew we were going to devote a lot of time to putting the book together and we wanted a publisher that was as enthusiastic about the book as we were, and was confident they could give it the exposure that we think it deserves. Repeater have published some excellent radical non-fiction and understood what we were trying to do with the book.
What impact would you hope for this book to have?
Hanan: I’m hoping this will become a go-to book when discussing Welshness. As well as book-shops, I can see it on syllabuses, in Welsh gift shops etc. quietly spreading the story of a country rich with varied experiences.
Iestyn: I think it’s also important to emphasise that while we’ve been able to bring a collection together that is hugely diverse in perspectives and experiences, a sequence of 19 essays is still never going to present the full picture in all its complexity. I would love to see it spark more writing in the same vein; more story-sharing and more listening, too!
Darren: Yep, I think we’ve built on Dai Smith’s observation that Wales is a ‘plural experience’ and I very much hope that others will too.
Has there been any talk of future collaborations between you four now you’ve had this experience?
Grug: I’m a longtime collaborator with both Hanan and Iestyn, working with Hanan as an individual writer, and getting into all sorts of misadventures in Welsh language publishing with Iestyn, as part of the team that used to run Cylchgrawn y Stamp, and now runs Cyhoeddiadau’r Stamp. I expect we’ll keep going – Darren, Hanan and Iestyn are three people that I have enjoyed working with immensely, and have learned so much from them, but I think we all deserve a break after Welsh (Plural). After that, who knows?
Hanan: I agree a break is needed! Grug, Iestyn and Darren are phenomenal writers I admire very much so I will always have time for future collaborations with any or all of them again. A Welsh (Plural) children’s edition perhaps?
Iestyn: Before anything else, I’m looking forward to actually meeting Darren at last! This collaboration has been entirely virtual from the start, and I’m so glad that the return of live literary events this summer will finally allow the four of us to meet up face to face. We must remember to get a picture!
Darren: Yes, we’ll be taking Welsh (Plural) to festival this year – Hay, Amdani! Fachynlleth, Green Man, Bristol Transformed, Good Life. So it might just be that I’ll finally meet Iestyn when we’re on a panel together!
Welsh [Plural]: Essays on the Future of Wales is available now via Repeater.