sugar and slate Williams

Sugar and Slate by Charlotte Williams

With news that Professor Charlotte Williams is to be appointed the head of a working group to improve the teaching of BAME history in schools in Wales, Wales Arts Review republishes from our archive this 2014 essay by Dr Lisa Sheppard on the importance of Williams’s work to a multicultural understanding of Wales’s past, present and future, focussing on her 2003 Wales Book of the Year-winning autobiographical ‘novel’, Sugar and Slate (2002, Planet Books).

Welsh academic and author Charlotte Williams has done much in recent years to inscribe the black voice onto the literary and cultural map of Wales. Her widely-published, often collaborative research has opened up a space for discussion about multicultural Wales, obliterating the idea that the nation is wholly tolerant of ethnic diversity and suggesting that prominent ‘bicultural’ tensions between Welsh and English speakers, and between the Welsh and the English, arguably exclude minorities. Some of her claims have been widely discussed and have been met with criticism, particularly by campaigners and academics working in the field of Welsh language rights. Her autobiographical novel, Sugar and Slate (2002), however, was more warmly received, and won Wales Book of the Year in 2003. Sugar and Slate is the site of a nuanced exploration of Williams’s own complex identity as an individual of mixed race and heritage in Wales. This hybrid text consists of prose, poems and letters, and echoes the slave trade through its movement between Wales, Africa and Guyana, as it teases out Wales’s own complex victim/oppressor status within the British Empire. I suggest, too, that Sugar and Slate can also be read as an attempt to re-write the Welsh industrial novel in order to create a space for the black community in Wales’s past, examining Wales through its international links, as well as through its binary relationship with England. Sugar and Slate explores the binary relationships upon which Williams’s own identity are based, as well as that of Wales, and finds them inadequate. Locating Williams’s literary work amongst the work of other writers of contemporary fiction from Wales who attempt to re-imagine Wales’s relationship with its minorities, with England and with other countries worldwide, I hope to suggest that the multicultural Wales of contemporary fiction is far more complex than sociological studies would suggest, and advocates a more creative approach to expressing and promoting Welsh diversity.

For the past fifteen years, Charlotte Williams has been one of the foremost figures in the debate about Welsh multiculturalism. This debate has foregrounded issues pertaining to diversity more broadly, such as the participation or visibility of black or ethnic minority people in public life, as well as focusing on Wales-specific issues, such as English-Welsh relations, Wales’s status within the United Kingdom, and Welsh language rights and relationships between Welsh and English speakers. Charlotte Williams’s sociological work stands at the intersection between these concerns, as she argues that the prominence given to issues of language and the issue of English in-migration to Wales means that more general issues of race, ethnicity and immigration are ignored. Much of Williams’s most acknowledged and contested work emerges out of language tensions that arose in the early 2000s concerning English in-migration to Welsh-speaking communities in north Wales. It could be argued that these tensions came to a head when Gwynedd Plaid Cymru councillor Seimon Glyn was branded a racist for suggesting that the English language and culture were alien to this area of Wales, and that young people from local Welsh-speaking communities should be given priority over English incomers when it came to buying houses in a place where language and culture are under threat. Drawing on these tensions, Williams offers a three-tiered explanation of how, in her opinion, Welsh / English animosities have become the ‘real issue of Welsh racism’, obscuring the concerns of, or discrimination faced by, racial and ethnic minorities.

The first tier Williams identifies is that of Wales’s language divide between Welsh and English speakers in Wales, which seems to be closely associated with the second tier, that of hostility between the Welsh and English nations. She argues that these hostilities have partly led to the racialization of the divide between Wales and England, and argues that the language of debates surrounding multiculturalism, race and immigration is commonly used when discussing Anglo-Welsh relations. She contends that in the discourse of wider debates on international immigration, words and phrases such as ‘“swamping”, “floods”, “tides” and “carriers of disease” are used to describe English incomers to Wales’s Welsh-speaking heartlands. She also notes that these English in-migrants are termed ‘white settlers’ by Welsh language rights campaigners such as the Welsh Language Society and Cymuned, thus, Williams suggests, casting the Welsh (and particularly Welsh-speakers) as the ‘“black” oppressed’. Reaching the third tier, Williams links this antagonism and the Welsh people’s alleged refusal to acknowledge the existence of other forms of racism in Wales to the nation’s colonial/imperial past, and its dual status within the British Empire. ‘[S]ome people,’ she argues, ‘would want to see the Welsh as the colonized rather than the colonizer’, claiming that Wales’s continued existence in a binary relationship with England is not only a denial of the nation’s diverse history and the role Welsh people played in British Imperial expansion, but also a rejection of its links with other countries and peoples worldwide. Her claims about the language used to describe English incomers have been answered and countered by figures on the opposing side of the debate. The academic and language campaigner Simon Brooks, for example, has explained how the claims and arguments made by Williams and others, such as the press, were often based on evidence from articles written by Welsh language campaigners which had been incorrectly translated from Welsh to English. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Williams, in her academic work at least, argues that the Welsh need to reassess their nation’s relationship with England and refrain from seeing themselves as colonised. She also advocates abandoning the practice of equating Welshness with blackness.

Her autobiographical novel, Sugar and Slate, published in 2002, however, seems to adopt a somewhat different approach. On one level it seems to adhere to her academic work’s claims that Wales needs to explore its international connections more and re-examine its role within the British Empire. As well as being the site of a nuanced exploration of Williams’s own complex ‘[n]ot-identity’, as the text moves between three different continents, it also explores Wales’s own dichotomous status within the British Empire as it explores Williams’s differing roles as she moves around the world, ranging from an outsider during her childhood in north Wales as one of the only black people amongst a crowd of white faces, to privileged expatriate after emigrating to Guyana as an adult. Despite her criticism of the way Welshness is equated with blackness by Welsh language campaigners, in Sugar and Slate, Williams does, at times, compare her own blackness with her own Welshness to illustrate feelings of marginalisation and inferiority. She also draws a parallel between her mother‘s Welshness with her father’s blackness to further emphasise this idea.

Recounting the early days of her parents’ relationship and their decision to leave London behind them and head to Africa, Williams, in her novel, describes the English capital as ‘[t]he London of John Nash, Wyndham Lewis and Elgar that very gently nudged them away with all its imperialist assumptions and its contradictions.’ Williams’s black Guyanese father, the artist Denis Williams, and her white, Welsh, Welsh-speaking mother, Katie, both feel out of place amongst the English cultural elite. She notes how they ‘rubbed along the edges of a very glamorous London’; both are marginalised, or exist on the peripheries of the dominant culture. Katie’s Welshness means she faces similar difficulties as Denis in finding lodgings in London. Indeed, it seems that ‘No Welsh’ should be added to the infamous ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ signs which adorned guesthouse windows in mid twentieth-century London. Williams describes how ‘[w]hen Welsh and Irish girls came to London looking for work [like Katie] they found the same lodging houses willing to let them in as the coloured chaps.’ Here, Williams’s Welsh mother and black father appear to be equally marginalised or discriminated against in relation to a hegemonic, white, English culture. London’s relationship with both Wales and Guyana is constructed as a colonial one here – London is the centre, and the Welsh, the Guyanese and others seem to flock there from the peripheries. Occasionally, though, it seems that Katie’s Welshness is even more exotic and dangerous than Denis’s blackness. Describing her parents’ attendance at gatherings of London’s artistic elite, Williams notes how:

He [Denis] became the interesting chap to have at parties; a curiosity, a poodle, the comfortable stranger. Ma was not so easy. She was Welsh and uncomfortably different. ‘You’re the English one,’ she used to say to Dad, knowing in her heart that she was the real dark stranger.

Katie’s strangeness is so great that it even manages to supersede her black husband’s visible difference. Denis appears to be able to blend in, he can become ‘English’ whereas Katie is uncompromisingly Welsh, as demonstrated by the declarative sentence ‘She was Welsh’. Blackness and Welshness are once again equated with one another in the description of her as ‘the real dark stranger’. Here it is the Welsh woman, rather than the black man, who is threateningly different, who is other to England’s cultural hegemony.

The Charlotte Williams of Sugar and Slate inherits both her mother’s and father’s difference, and as she does when discussing their history, draws parallels between her own black and Welsh identities. This is most evident as Charlotte, the narrator, makes preparations to move with her husband to Guyana. She attends a training and information session in England with other prospective British émigrés to prepare her for life in the former colony, where she declares that ‘[e]verybody else […] w[as] very white and very English and I suddenly felt very black and very Welsh.’ Her marginalisation is further emphasised here as she is different from ‘everybody else’. Although by heading to Guyana she is revisiting the birthplace of her father, she ironically feels excluded and alienated here. Despite her condemnation in her sociological essays on the subject of the way in which the Welsh people see themselves as oppressed by English cultural hegemony and equate this oppression with blackness, she herself engages readily and frequently in such practices in her own literary work to explore her experience of multicultural Wales and Britain, as well as her parents’ experience of multicultural London.

Another irony is apparent in the training session scene, though, which contradicts Williams’s sense of her black, Welsh marginality. As well as feeling inferior due to her black and Welsh identities, she is also cast in the role of the coloniser at this point. She notes that ‘[t]he list of what-to-takes and what-not-to-takes wasn’t too dissimilar from a list I found in a book about travel to the Dark Continent written seventy years before’. The opposing roles in which she is cast within one paragraph demonstrate how definitions of identity based upon binary oppositions such as coloniser/colonised, English/Welsh, white/black rarely suffice, particularly in the case of Williams’s own diverse Welsh-Guyanese, mixed-race heritage, and the identity of what she terms ‘poor old mixed-up Wales’.

Another way in which Williams’s Sugar and Slate seeks to demonstrate the inadequacy of binary constructions of identity is through its engagement with the form of the Welsh industrial novel through its re-enactment of the Atlantic slave trade as Williams travels between Wales, Africa and Guyana. Whereas Raymond Williams noted that Welsh novelists of the mid-twentieth century adapted the novel form to represent the world of the Welsh working classes, thus creating the Welsh industrial novel, Charlotte Williams’s work adapts the form of the Welsh industrial novel to claim a space for Wales’s black community. The novel’s title, Sugar and Slate, itself alludes to the products of industry in both Williams’s native Wales and her ancestral Caribbean home. As well as her own movement around the world, she describes how other cargoes completed parallel journeys centuries earlier:

Perhaps the iron bar may have gone down in history as a simple fact of the industrial development of parts of Wales were it not for other world events […] The African iron hunger was fed and strengthened by the trade in human beings […] a great movement of human cargo to the Caribbean. Only by trading their fellow man could the Africans acquire the iron the needed so badly […] In Wales in particular, the iron masters grew wealthier and wealthier, ploughing back the profits of spices and sugar and slaves to make more and more iron bars […]

While many Welsh industrial fictions focus upon stories of a subjugated Welsh working class, Charlotte Williams’s industrial narrative is different. Emphasising the use of Welsh iron in the slave trade, she links industrial Wales to Africa and the Caribbean, claiming a space for her black ancestors in Wales’s history. More interestingly, her acknowledgement of both Welsh and African complicity with slavery means her account resists a simple victim/oppressor binary.

In her fictional account of multicultural Wales, then, Charlotte Williams seems at once to adhere to, and to contradict the suggestions made by her sociological studies. Her novel demonstrates Wales’s need to look beyond its binary oppositions to a network of international connections in order to recognise its potential for diversity, whilst also relying upon these binary relationships to express her own difference and that of Wales. Her nuanced literary portrayal seems more complex than her sociological investigations which see Welsh/English animosities as a barrier to multiculturalism. Her fictional representation sees the relationship between Wales and England not only as one where Wales can at time seem marginal or ‘other’, but also as one of many transcultural interactions which contribute to both Welsh and wider British multiculturalism. Her evocation of ‘poor old mixed up Wales’ in Sugar and Slate seems to sum up this complexity:

Poor old mixed-up Wales, somehow as mixed up as I was […] I love its contours and its contradictions. There is the north, ‘Welsh Wales’ they call it, and a very different south, connected only in name… The Welsh and the English, the Welsh-speaking and the English-speaking, the proper Welsh and the not so proper Welsh, the insiders and the outsiders, the Italians, the Poles, the Irish, the Asians and the Africans and the likes of us, all fighting amongst ourselves for the right to call ourselves Welsh […]

Here the traditional binary antagonisms through and by which Welsh identity is seemingly both produced and divided are interrupted by a newer multicultural presence. Williams’s vision of ‘mixed-up Wales’ here seems to echo a process which she calls ‘identification’. In her essay, ‘“I Going away, I Going home”: Mixed-“Race”, Movement and Identity’, Williams discusses her own complex identity in light of two women’s texts and suggests that ‘a recognition of multiple points of identification’ might allow for more a fluid concept of belonging rather than more rigid, binary definitions of identity, which may be reliant on being one thing or another – Welsh or English, black or white. Her evocation of ‘poor old mixed-up Wales’ seems to demonstrate how the presence of multicultural identities in Wales requires us to rethink what it means to belong to Wales and how diverse groups of people might be able to ‘identify’ with Wales and traverse the binaries that can divide the nation, rather than feel excluded by them. Sugar and Slate’s use of binary oppositions – its drawing of parallels between Welshness and blackness, and Englishness and whiteness – also demonstrates how Charlotte, the narrator, and her mixed race family ‘identify’ differently at different moments. Thus Charlotte, in the training for Guyana, can imagine herself as both coloniser and colonised.

Discussing her experience as a reader of Welsh fiction, Charlotte Williams has noted, ‘[t]he more I read the more it appeared that my dis-identification with the central themes of Welsh women writers were multiplied’. As an author, however, by reimagining a fictional Wales where older transcultural relations coexist with the new, and drawing on themes of multiculturalism, border crossing and postcolonial relations, Charlotte Williams could strongly identify as a Welsh writer. A number of other contemporary authors writing about Wales foreground similar themes and issues. Trezza Azzopardi’s The Hiding Place, published in 2000, for instance, follows the lives of a mixed race family in Butetown who, partly due to their mixed Welsh-Maltese background and partly due to the transformation of the old multicultural Tiger Bay into Cardiff Bay, have to deal with Wales’s multifaceted multicultural inheritance. Creatively re-imaging the relationship between Wales and England as part of a wider Welsh multiculturalism, North Shields-born Tony Bianchi’s fiction often seeks to imagine his adoptive Wales and his native Northumberland as places where a hybrid Welsh-English identity can playfully exist. Many other novelists writing about Wales in both Welsh and English still reserve a place for English-Welsh relations, or the relationship between Wales’s two main languages in their depictions of an increasingly multicultural nation. Perhaps, as the contrast between Charlotte Williams’s own novel and scholarly work demonstrates, fictional portrayals of Welsh multiculturalism can be more nuanced than ‘factual’ or empirical analyses. As Williams has herself noted, ‘[p]erhaps we need inspiration to imagine our futures. A number of contemporary novelists have demonstrated that they are well in advance of many people in public life’. Perhaps the imaginative and lucid contemporary fictional representation of multicultural Wales demonstrates that a more creative approach is needed to exploring and explaining the complexities of Welsh cultural plurality.

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Celebrated academic and writer, Charlotte Williams OBE, talks us through her writing space as part of our Writers’ Rooms series. Alongside a successful academic career, Williams has engaged with the literary life of her home countries, Wales and Guyana. She is most well known in Wales for her groundbreaking text A Tolerant Nation? Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Wales (co-edited 2nd Ed. 2015); for her award-winning memoir Sugar and Slate, which won Wales Book of the Year 2003. She has made numerous television and radio appearances and is a regular commentator on issues of Welsh multiculturalism. In 2007, Charlotte was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for services to ethnic minorities and equal opportunities in Wales. Charlotte is currently working in Melbourne, Australia as Professor of Social Work and Deputy Dean at RMIT University. Her home and wider family network are in north Wales and she returns home each year.

Lisa Sheppard is Lecturer of the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol in Welsh, School of Welsh, Cardiff University

A version of this essay with footnote e can be read here.