Over the next few weeks Wales Arts Review is proud to share a selection of excerpts from a new anthology of marginalised voices, Just So you Know: Essays of Experience, published by Parthian Books on August 1st. This collection aims to bring to light stories, issues and lives that have too often been overlooked, and challenge us to think anew. The anthology includes essays on topics such as self-identity, language and culture, the immigrant experience as well as BAME, LGBTQ+ and disabled writers confronting heteronormative ideals rarely addressed through a Welsh lens. In this extract, Grug Muse explores the dilution of the Welsh language through her journey to Tryweryn reservoir where the wholly Welsh-speaking village of Capel Celyn was drowned in 1965.
i forget the arabic word for economy
i forget the english word for عسل forget
the arabic word for incense & the english
word for مسكين arabic word for sandwich
english for والله & صيدلية & مطعم
/stupid girl, atlantic got your tongue/
– Safia Elhillo, The January Children
In her poem ‘To make use of water’ Safia Elhillo talks of when her English gives out to Arabic, and English creeps into her Arabic as dilution. She forgets words in both languages and finds herself swimming in the space between them. A member of the Sudanese-American diaspora, she chastises herself: ‘stupid girl, Atlantic got your tongue’. It’s a familiar feeling for anyone who has more than one language competing in their heads, patching the holes in one with bits of the other, always impure, bastardised – diluted.
In Safia’s poem, language becomes water, and water is fluid and dangerous, a substance where one can swim or drown. To imagine language as water is to give it the quality of both the bridge and the border. It can act as a substance through which things move, or objects are carried; equally it can seep into materials and change them, ruin or destroy them. It can sit still, in a pool, or it can rush and crash and destroy. We are 70% formed of water and can drown in a teacup of it. It has been a marine highway, connecting people and cultures; transporting slaves and war machines. It hides sea monsters, it waters our gardens.
Like language, water is changeable and our relationship to it depends on whether we are drinking from it, sailing on it or drowning in it. Both are inconsistent, their forms ever changing.
In a recent S4C documentary, a man is interviewing a Spanish fascist. ‘Ojalá’ the fascist says. ‘Ojalá, soon we will get rid of the Muslims from Spain’. Ojalá, meaning ‘God willing’, from the Arabic ‘Law shaa Allah’ (‘and God wished’) – medieval Arabic seeping into Spanish. Language like liquid.
During the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, Welsh is used by the Royal Welch Fusiliers to encrypt radio communications and hide messages from interference. Language as moat.
‘Na, dim diolch,’ I say to a man trying to sell me a wristband on the Bangor High Street.
‘Why don’t you fucking speak English like everyone else you fucking twat?’
Language as ice, cracking and breaking under you, sending you crashing into the water below.
In the dystopian world of Y Dydd Olaf [The Last Day] (1976), robots have taken over. Marc is doomed, but his thoughts and memories are preserved for future generations from the insidious robot take over by his ability to speak Welsh, a language so insignificant that the robots have deleted all trace of it from their hard drives in order to save space. In the book, Marc wages a guerrilla-linguistic war of resistance, a lonely campaign for his own sanity, one man against the hegemonic power of a monocultural majority.
Mae Nhw wedi anghofio un peth: wedi anghofio fod rhan o’r rhaglen gyfieithu is-ieithoedd ar gyfer yr Uchel Gyfrifydd wedi’i dileu ers amser. Ac heb wybod fy mod i’n gwybod hynny!
Yr hollwybodus ei hun, yn methu deall fy iaith fach i!
Fe â’r dyddiadur hwn drwy’i grombil electronaidd heb roi cam-dreuliad iddo! Fydd o’n darganfod dim yn hwn sy’n waharddedig – oherwydd nid yw’n deall yr un gair o’r iaith fach ddibwys hon! Ac fe fydd popeth – y gwaharddedig a’r diwaharddedig – yn cael eu micro-ffilmio a’u storio’n ddianaf yn y cof electronaidd.
[‘They have forgotten one thing: have forgotten that part of the sub-language translation programme for the High Computer has been deleted. And they don’t know that I know!
The All-knowing himself – unable to understand my little language!
This diary will pass through his electronic depths without giving him indigestion! He will discover nothing which is forbidden in it – because he doesn’t understand a word of this little worthless language! And so everything – the forbidden and un-forbidden – will be micro-filmed and stored, unharmed, in the electronic memory.’]
Y Dydd Olaf is a modern classic. Out of print, it’s available only through the generosity of the copyright holders as a free online download. Printed off, words disappearing off the top margin, held together by a crinkled plastic wallet, it seems like a facsimile of the document the text purports to be. The unofficial account of the end of humanity, written in a language considered too insignificant to be a threat. Dead and unimportant, it survives as an accident, in spite of itself.
The book is part of a wider body of dystopian, utopian and sci-fi literature obsessed with the Welsh language, and its extinction or survival. Wythnos yng Nghymru fydd [A week in the Wales to be] (1957) by Islwyn Ffowc Elis is typical of most postures assumed in these books, imagining both a utopian, fully bilingual Wales, where English and Welsh are truly equal, as well as a dystopian Wales where not only has the Welsh language died, but so has basic human decency. Y Dydd Olaf is different in that it takes the existentialist panic head on, turns the languages’ relative obscurity into a strength, a defence against monocultural hegemony. Forty years later, as computers and phones are increasingly listening into all our conversations, speaking a language the computer doesn’t understand, or at least is not being paid to provide targeted advertising to its speakers, feels increasingly like a blessing.
Despite the defiant tone of the book however, Marc is still a tragic figure, an isolated speaker of his language. By writing in Welsh he is evading the censorship of the robots, but equally, he is writing unsure whether anyone will ever be able to understand or decipher his document. He is speaking into an abyss.
Since the 1980s marine scientists have followed a similar creature, something calling out in a private language, waiting seemingly in vain for someone to understand, and answer. It is the sound made by an unidentified whale, whose calls resonate at 52hz, much higher than the blue whale’s 10-39 hz call, and the fin whale’s 20hz. It has never been seen, only heard. Like a neighbour climbing their stairs next door, scientists have listened to the 52hz whale move between the Aleutians in northern Alaska, down to the coast of California, swimming distances of 30 to 70 km a day for 30 years. Like Marc’s language in Y Dydd Olaf, the whale is considered somehow defective. Scientists speculate that its unique frequency is the result of a malformation, or that it is a cross between a blue and fin whale. Members of the deaf community have suggested that it may simply be deaf. It is certainly a maverick. Its path does not follow the seasonal migration patterns of other whales. It seems to prefer its own company. Or maybe it is hiding? Is ostracised? Is searching for something? It is tempting to anthropomorphise, to project human narratives onto this enigmatic creature. There is something so deeply compelling about the story of a whale that has been calling out for 30 years without ever receiving an answer.
Unlike the whale, however, Marc is bilingual. His isolation is selective. As an eight-year-old, I was not yet fully bilingual, and my father’s family, all American, were all monolingual English speakers. At my grandparent’s house in Massachusetts, I sit at the top of the stairs, hidden in the shadows of the dark attic, arms folded over my knees. My plan had been to hide up here until the adults in the parlour below had forgotten about me, before jumping down to surprise them. But now I have become engrossed, eavesdropping on the conversations going on below and have forgotten all about scaring them.
My American cousins cannot understand me talk. I can barely understand them either. When my grandmother takes me and my siblings onto her lap to read us story books, as she has done with all my other cousins, we quickly get bored of listening to stories in a language we do not understand. We become restless, badly behaved. My older cousins tease me when the sentences I am trying to form get tangled in my mouth and come out misshapen or broken. I grow frustrated, lash out. I do not understand and am not able to make myself understood. And now they are sat downstairs, talking in exasperated voices about what a badly-behaved child I am, how me and my siblings don’t know how to behave, how we aren’t like the other children who love their grandmothers’ stories and sit listening quietly.
I stay up on top of the stairs till they finish their conversations and have dispersed around the house and garden. I wait till my face has lost all its blotchiness before creeping back downstairs. My English improves. I don’t believe a whale would choose monolingualism.
I cross the River Taff daily on my way from Grangetown, where I currently live, into town. Just below the Millennium Stadium, two bridges cross the river, one for the trains and the other for cars and pedestrians. The Taff has been diverted, it is now flowing through an artificial culvert, further west than it used to flow in 1830. The water is green and murky. When the rain has been heavy the river swells, a frothing brown, and you can stand on the bridge and watch debris sweep by from upstream – bits of plastic, branches and pieces of wood, anything that floats. Once, when the water was still enough for the silt to sink back to the bottom, I saw a turtle paddling in the shallow water.
I once biked up the Taf, through Pontypridd, Abercynon and Treharris, Aberfan and Abercanaid to Merthyr, where Taf Fawr and Taf Fechan join. From there, I followed the Fechan up into the Brecon Beacons, into the Pontsticill reservoir, climbing higher and higher, watching it disappear into the hills, to the drained reservoir at Neuadd then up to its source, on the southern slope of Pen y Fan.
At its mouth, the river now mixes with the Ely and sea water to form the tidal lake around which the new Cardiff Bay is being developed; expensive apartments and exciting sporting facilities, the administrative and governmental buildings of the New Wales, filming studios, fashionable cafés and restaurants.
A few weeks after my bike ride up the Taf I am getting my bike fixed in Cardiff, in a small bike shop near the river. The man asks for my phone number, to let me know when he will be done, and I have to repeat it twice, because he says he does not understand my accent.
He asks for my name, and again I am asked to repeat it twice, and then spell it out.
‘Haven’t heard that name before,’ he says.
‘It’s Welsh,’ I reply.
‘Well so am I,’ he says, suddenly defensive. I didn’t say you weren’t, I think, yet here we are, both suddenly foreign, both swirling in the waters of the Taf estuary.
There is no word in English that conveys the difference between Cymraeg and Cymreig. Both meanings – Cymraeg, meaning something pertaining to the Welsh language, and Cymreig, something pertaining to Wales – are squeezed into the English word ‘Welsh’. A language is not a country. It’s a universe, and when you shift between one and the other the nature of reality shifts slightly with you. When llynnoedd change into lakes, nentydd into streams their nature changes slightly also.
‘Fesul tyˆ, nid fesul ton
y daw’r môr dros dir Meirion’
[The sea will swallow Meirion
not wave by wave, but house by house’]
Metaphors of drowning are often used to describe the situation of the Welsh language. Inundations, floods, and sweeping tides are invoked to describe the sweeping away of the Welsh language. It is repeated in songs and poems and paintings and books. And nowhere is this metaphor more poignantly made true than in the actual drowning of Cwm Celyn in 1965. A wholly Welsh-speaking village, its residents were relocated in order for the valley to be turned into a reservoir, to supply the city of Liverpool with water. People still, on occasion, pull in at the side of the road to piss into the lake.
The image of a watery-ghost village, a submarine grave, caught the popular imagination, sparking protests at the time, nationalist politicians swept down onto the small village, and inspired young people to try their hands at amateur incendiary device construction and vandalism. The impact of the drowning of Capel Celyn, to create the Tryweryn reservoir, far outlasted the 60s. It inspired pop songs, a wealth of mediocre poetry, and a sustained graffiti campaign.
The summer of 2018, and a heatwave drives the water levels of the Tryweryn reservoir to the lowest it’s been for many years. The Arenig behind it is a barren grey of dried grass. After weeks of sun, mist has descended, but the level of the reservoir continues to drop as the rate of water consumption by the city of Liverpool outstrips the level of rainfall.
Travelling from Bala to Caernarfon, I pass by the reservoir and can’t resist pulling into one of the laybys to have a look. I pull in by the memorial chapel at the western end of the reservoir, where the old bridge used to cross the Tryweryn River above the village. It begins to rain heavily as I creep through the trees at the shore, coming down to the rocky beach. Below me the exposed shoreline has revealed some of the remains of the village. A thick layer of silt and mud covers the whole area, cracked by the heat. Barren, like the moon, the shapes give way to meaning and form a map of the former village. The roots of hedges survive, marking the borders of fields. The compressed earth of roads and paths have survived the erosion of lake water and have become raised tracks. The remains of walls are also visible, as is the riverbed that the Tryweryn is now again trickling down. Further up the shore, someone has found the sign for one of the farms, still intact, a signpost for a place abandoned for fifty years.
I walk further down, deeper into the lake bed. It is thrilling to walk on what is usually submerged, and I am not the only one here. I find pieces of blue china, half submerged in the water, pick them up, wipe them clean and put them in my pocket. Even in the rain, people appear from the trees up along the former shoreline, venture onto the muddy lakebed, poke in the mud. Parents bring children to see the drowned village. It has become a perverse pilgrimage. This, they seem to say, this is our existential fear made tangible. It’s a wound, and we don’t want to poke it as much as to climb into it and curl up in it.
I have now ventured too far down. Although the surface of the mud seems dry, the water table is not as far below as it seems and under the surface crust the mud is deep, and soft, and I begin to sink. I turn back to the shore, try to make my way back, but I am sinking. My shoes are getting stuck, filling with mud so I take them off and carry them. I am sinking up to my knees in soft, claylike mud, and for a moment I think I might drown, get pulled into the depth of the lake. But of course, I don’t. I clamber, using my hands, mud now in my hair and on my face, and climb out of the lake, back into my car, where I drive home in my underwear, wrapped in an old blanket, hair dripping fat droplets onto the seat.
Just So You Know: Essays of Experience is available to pre-order at Parthian Books.
Grug Muse is a PhD student at the Welsh department in Swansea University. She won the chair at the 2013 Urdd eisteddfod and her work has appeared in publications such as O’r Pedwar Gwynt, Poetry Wales and Wales Arts Review. She is co-founder and co-editor of Y Stamp, a Welsh language Arts magazine; and in 2017 published her first volume of poetry, Ar Ddisberod with Cyhoeddiadau Barddas.