Following the death of novelist and short story writer Siân James at the age of 90, Emma Schofield takes a look back at a career which spanned over forty years and reflects on why James’ writing has made such a significant contribution to literature from Wales.
‘Prolific’ is a word which tends to get thrown about too easily these days, but when it comes to describing the career of Siân James, few other words feel appropriate. James leaves in her wake an impressive thirteen novels, two collections of short stories and a memoir, born out of a career which started in 1975 with her first novel One Afternoon. This first novel secured not only the renowned Yorkshire Post First Novel Prize, but her position as a valuable new voice in writing from Wales. The success kept on coming. Her third novel, A Small Country, won the Yorkshire Post Novel Prize while James’s first solo collection of short stories, Not Singing Exactly went on to win the Wales Book of the Year Award in 1997, making her the first female writer to secure the award.
In spite of these awards and her extensive writing portfolio, I will admit that, like so many others, the first time I encountered James’ writing was as a fresh-eyed undergraduate, as part of a module in Welsh writing in English. We studied A Small Country alongside a selection of James’ short fiction and I distinctly remember the ease and warmth of the writing, as well as the clarity of the voices which rose from the pages. The characters were easy to empathise with: women who had ordinary lives, much like my own, women who struggled with everyday problems and relationships, women who worried about friends, family and money. The writing was witty and sharp, even when depicting situations which could so easily have become bleak and heavy.
That wit and precision in her writing was part of the Siân James magic, it made her stories readable and easy to pick up again and again. Yet that lightness did not make James’ writing frivolous. While not overtly political, the reality of social and political issues was everywhere in James’ stories. In the introduction to Not Singing Exactly, Katie Gramich comments on how, despite the possibilities for political commentary, James ‘does not seem particularly interested in politics: her cottages in Wales do not burn down, nor do her factory workers go on strike’.[i] Instead, a different kind of politics lies at the heart of much of her writing. Gramich goes on to describe the way that ‘sexual politics is at the centre of this collection’, an assertion which was arguably true of everything James wrote. Her characters had financial problems, they were subjected to sexual abuse, misogyny, social pressures and the challenges of motherhood. The politics was everywhere, but woven so artfully into the narratives that it never felt as if we, as readers, were being hit across the head with a political placard.
Women were almost always at the heart of James’ writing. She had her own, gentle brand of feminism; a feminism which focused on women’s relationships, their roles as mothers and daughters, and on the social, political and domestic expectations placed on women in Wales. That sense of expectation was prevalent in James’ work, a pressure which many of her female characters seemed to struggle with. The title story of Not Singing Exactly presents the story of a young woman who, having become pregnant at sixteen, finds herself trapped in a life she does not particularly want because she found herself feeling ‘frightened and stupid’ and unable to face the prospect of abortion. Similarly, in A Small Country we are introduced to the charismatic Catrin, a character who longs to leave her rural home in Carmarthenshire and study art at college in London. James’ characters are real, their struggles and frustrations genuine and their lives familiar to so many other women across Wales. This ability to capture the challenges faced by women became a hallmark of James’ writing throughout her lengthy career.
And then there was Wales. James moved away from Wales and lived in England for much of her adult life, but she returned to Wales as the default setting for her fiction. The connection to Wales remained linguistic as well as geographical, James retained her Welsh language skills and drew on them to bring another Welsh writer to new audiences by translating Kate Roberts’s novel Y Byw Sy’n Cysgu, published as The Awakening in 2006. In many ways James was ahead of her time, a writer who crossed linguistic and geographical borders with ease and fluency.
Writers of Siân James’ calibre and skill do not come along every day, but Wales has been fortunate to benefit from her writing for several decades. As the literary world remembers a writer who wrote with grace, wit and honesty, James’ writing may find its way to new audiences, where the poignancy of her characters and stories still has so much to say about the lives of women in Wales.
[i] Katie Gramich, ‘Introduction’ to Not Singing Exactly (Dinas Powys: Honno, 1996), pp. vii-x (p. x).