Series editor John Lavin introduces A Fiction Map of Wales, a collection of short stories defined by location and identity.
Rhys Davies was and perhaps is the Welsh short story writer. In his day he was praised by everyone from John Betjeman to D.H. Lawrence, from Muriel Spark to that master of the form, William Trevor. He won the Edgar Award for the Best Short Story published in the United States in 1966, and was retained on a contract by the The New Yorker; something that is indicative of the high esteem with which the literary world as a whole regarded him at that time. And yet, despite his status as arguably Wales’ greatest practitioner of short fiction, his works are sadly not as widely read as they once were.
It was partly for this reason and partly out of a desire to encourage and promote new short fiction in Wales, that over the past two years, with the financial help of The Rhys Davies Trust, Wales Arts Review has published a series of stories by some of the best known names in Welsh literature, as well as by some of the most promising.
Like the majority of the best Davies’ short stories, these pieces are all set in Wales. But like Davies, who memorably declared ‘a curse on flag-waving’, these stories are not in any way interested in parochialism, but rather in offering true reflections of society. That they are all set in Wales is not incidental but importantly, it is also not defining.
When James Joyce set about writing Dubliners at the beginning of the twentieth century, he intended not only to ‘give Dublin to the world’ but also to deliver ‘a chapter of the moral history of [his] country.’ When setting out to put A Fiction Map of Wales together, Wales Arts Review, while not perhaps having quite such deliberate intent as the great Irish writer, nevertheless did have it in mind to almost inadvertently create such an effect. Our reasoning was simply this: if, over the course of twenty-one months, we were to ask the majority of the most significant and promising Welsh writers in English to each contribute a short story that was set in a location in Wales of their own choosing, then how could the face of Modern Wales not reveal itself? Happily everyone that we asked agreed.
Unlike Joyce, rather than seek to solely describe the country’s capital city, we sought to give as many of the constituent towns and villages that make up the country of Wales ‘to the world’, as was possible. We did not, as Joyce did with Dublin at that time, see Cardiff as ‘the centre of the paralysis’ (even if the story that is set there does take place in that city’s prison) but simply as one other place on the map (albeit clearly a highly significant one, considering the size of its population). Besides, in contemporary Wales we saw a lot to be positive about and a lot to be proud of too; as Joyce would perhaps have done had he written those Irish stories at a later period in his life (in a letter to his brother Stanislaw he reflected that he had not, in Dubliners, given enough time over to the warmth of his native people and to the beauty of their landscape.) But, of course, we also saw a lot to worry and alarm, and a lot indeed to mourn. The twenty-one individually commissioned pieces collected in A Fiction Map of Wales reveal, as they should, a multi-faceted portrait of a by-and-large gentle-hearted nation that has not always been treated as kindly as it might be by its more powerful neighbour. This is perhaps why we think so much of Dubliners in this instance. Wales, like Ireland, is a country with a particular love for and indeed a particular gift for the creative arts, and it is a country in which you feel a distinctly palpable need for experience to be retold through art. This volume is important because it does just that. Over the twenty-one stories collected here we see the face of a nation emerge. It is a lived-in face to be sure but one with many stories to tell. One with many new, impassioned futures to make.
The stories reveal many things about Wales and, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a strong emphasis on the repercussions of the closure of the mines and the general de-industrialisation of the country. This book is very much a Map of Wales in the post-industrial era.
The opening story, Rachel Trezise’s ‘The Abergorki Long Veg. Growing Society’, for instance, takes place in a town very like Trezise’s hometown of Treorchy (Abergorki takes its name, indeed, from Treorchy’s first colliery, opened in 1859). Though ostensibly a humourous piece, dealing with the minutiae of Valleys’ life, the story also focuses, in Trezise’s own words:
quite heavily on what it means to be a man in a post-industrial landscape where male voices, quite literally in the case of the Treorchy Male Voice choir, have been dominant, but… now suffer… from mass unemployment and huge shifts in attitude and culture.
Stevie Davies’ ‘Tuner of Llangyfelach’, meanwhile, examines both the personal history of her characters as well as the social history of South Wales, and finds the two to be inextricably linked. She introduces us to a narrator whose father was ‘puzzled that the root of love should turn out so cloven.’ As in her devastating recent novel, Awakening, Davies is more concerned with the roots of who we are both as individuals and as a society, rather than in the surface level dazzle which perpetuates so much of contemporary fiction. It is a stunning example of the short story teller’s art, that medium which her namesake, Rhys Davies, once described as being formed out of ‘the lapses into disorderliness of mind and the hidden impulses which provide… tiny, concentrated explosion[s]’.
Stories from the exciting group of young Welsh writers; Thomas Morris, Rhian Elizabeth, Joao Morais and Rhys Milsom; often speak with a new degree of rawness about the realities of life for their own generation. They show teenage and twenty-something life as it is in the quiet, work-sparse post-industrial villages and towns. In ‘Bolt’, Morris’ protagonist works in a video shop, lives with his ex-girlfriend’s mum and has a one-night stand with a middle-aged counsellor. Unlike Sel in Trezise’s tale, he is not an emasculated masculine figure but rather, one for whom masculinity is an entirely different concept altogether. He is certainly a deeply untraditional male figure and someone who would unquestionably appear profoundly emasculated to a person of Sel’s background and generation. Lonely and lost (having moved from Bangor to Caerphilly to escape his violent father), he seeks comfort in middle-aged mother-figures, while being happy to reveal facts such as the following:
The first time I took off Hannah’s [his ex-girlfriend] clothes, I was so turned on I came in my pants. She never found out though; I hid it well.
Hardly standard male braggadocio. When the middle-aged psychiatrist he goes home with reveals a penchant for rough sex his response is an endearing combination of perplexity, sadness and plain terror.
Moving away from stories which are so evidently coloured by socio-cultural and socio-economic questions, Cynan Jones’ ‘Aberarth’, is a piece, nevertheless, that is drenched in a past from which the central alcoholic narrator cannot escape. A narrator whose emotional state is mirrored by the erosive landscape around the tiny seaside village which gives the story its title. As ever with Cynan Jones, the work is a startling one, brimming with an austere poetic intensity that seems particularly attuned to the area of West Wales that he calls home. Dic Edwards’ ‘Distance’ meanwhile, set a few miles down the road in Aberaeron and the nearby village of Llanon, also deals with introspection, albeit the introspection of a man torn apart by grief. The main setting of a roadside café by the Llanon petrol station which the narrator thinks resembles the Edward Hopper painting, ‘Gas’, is used as a medium to discuss not only Edwards’ feelings about the artistic process but also his reflections on the human condition.
Carly Holmes’ ‘Ghost Story’ takes us back to Aberath, and as with Cynan Jones’ piece, Holmes seems to have also fallen under the spell of this austerely beautiful, Ceredgion landscape. ‘Ghost Story’ is a spine-tingling tale that does just what it says on the tin but it is also a wonderfully poetic piece that is deeply in touch with the landscape within which it takes place.
Francesca Rydderch’s ‘Love: A Pathology’ is also set in Ceredigion, the county that this most thoughtful of writers used to call home. Needless to say, Rhydderch brings the verdant fields and woods of a West Wales summer to green-bright, blue-pulsing life. These evocations are, however, powerfully contrasted with the central protagonist’s memories of urban life in her homeland of Russia, in a subtly nuanced piece that, as its title suggests, has a harder centre than you might at first think.
The Welsh landscape continues to mirror emotions in Georgia Carys Williams’ ode to melancholy, ‘Swansea Malady’, and also in Kate Hamer’s Christmas-set ‘The Visit’, a compellingly honest piece that revolves around the protagonist’s return from London to her family home outside Machynlleth. The narrative of this Yuletide visit is the narrator’s feelings of emotional isolation from both herself and her parents and yet the story is not one which is devoid of hope, ending as it does with a simple moment of communion.
Family relationships are also in turmoil in acclaimed poet Rhian Edwards’ first full-length foray into short fiction. ‘Beyond the Perforation’ is a bittersweet marriage-counselling comedy that finds the narrator identifying with Bridgend (a location that her American husband desperately wants to leave) and claiming that:
your hometown is like the black sheep of your family and only blood relatives have the natural right to slag it off. If anyone else tries to trash the place, you turn into a poor man’s Braveheart, willing to defend the place to the death with a broken pint glass.
Elsewhere in the collection, the Welsh landscape takes on a more sinister appearance in Jon Gower’s almost Tarantino-esque, ‘Some Killing on Cydweli Flats’. Although the work is set in an area that Gower describes as being, ‘my favourite part of Wales, the Gwendraeth estuary, a place visited only by wild-fowlers, birdwatchers and RAF personnel’, the story is a particularly dark one about immigrant vegetable pickers (‘cutting turnips for a pound-an-hour-less-than-minimum-wage’) coming into unfortunate contact with the criminal underworld.
This a large and varied anthology, taking in dreams of Borges on Twmbarlum Hill (Richard Redman’s dizzyingly inventive ‘The Plagiarist’); a Welsh Marches poetry reading that doesn’t take place (Richard Gwyn’s darkly humorous treatise on the life of the artist, ‘The Reading’); the tightrope-like relationship between a mother and her teenage son (Linda Ruhemann’s poignant, Abergavenny-set ‘Fear’); a glamorous film star detoxing in the Brecon Beacons (Gary Raymond’s shimmering, elegiac ‘How Shall We Sing to Her?’); musophobia in Bethesda in Lloyd Jones’ delightfully witty ‘The Elephant in the Room: A Case Study’; and an eccentric rug-seller in Tyler Keevil’s perceptive, Powys-set meditation on the art of storytelling, ‘Fabrications’.
The collection draws to a close with Robert Minhinnick’s ‘pre-apocalyptic’ tale of two beachcombers camping out in the dunes of an environmentally damaged Sker Beach. Set in the not too distant future, ‘Long Haul Beach’ is, on the one hand, a warning; on the other hand, its message is already horribly close to the truth. Minhinnick, a writer who ‘is obsessed by what sand conceals and what it reveals’, may be looking at a small stretch of Welsh coastline but he is also telling us a wider story about ourselves and the way we treat each other and our environment. A fitting way to end a collection that has hopefully, to one degree or another, held up a mirror to a nation’s psyche. And told some wonderful stories along the way too, of course.
A Fiction Map of Wales is available from the H mm Foundation.