In May of this year at the Blue Sky cafe in Bangor, at the goodbye party of iconic 55 year old Welsh language literary review Taliesin, Angharad Price spoke to novelist Alys Conran and translator Sian Northey about Conran’s debut novel, Pigeon, which was published earlier this year simultaneously in English and Welsh. Here we publish an English rendition of a conversation originally conducted in Welsh.
In the first of a new series of articles, in partnership with Bath Spa University and their Centre for Transnational Creativity, we look at the concept of transnational literature.
Angharad Price: We are here tonight to present Alys Conran’s novel, Pigeon – and its translator – who better than Sian Northey.
I have had the privilege of reading through both novels English and Welsh and I can say both are fantastic. I’m going to ask a few questions about the inspiration behind this novel and the writing process. Alys, to begin, this is your first novel. Can you tell us how you went about writing it?
Alys Conran: Pigeon is a character that I’ve always been writing in a way, since I first started writing creatively but I couldn’t find a place for him until I had another character for him to misbehave with. It was a really difficult process. I had enormous difficulty with the book. It was a very long battle –
Angharad Price: How long did it take to write the novel?
Alys Conran: It’s hard to say. Years. Honestly, years. Because I abandoned it half way and came back to it. At one point, I had double the material, then I halved it. It was a matter of confidence with the material and trying to find stories I could add to it, and in the end I had Pigeon.
Angharad Price: So not one of those novels that flows from you?
Alys Conran: Unfortunately no. Not at all.
Angharad Price: So your protagonist’s name is Pigeon. The novel starts when Pigeon lives in a village that, to me, is a bit like Bethesda. It’s a slate quarrying area, and the novel is a post-industrial novel, one of the first post-industrial novels set in this area. Pigeon comes from an unprivileged background. He is mistreated by his sort-of step-dad and he has a strange relationship with his best friend, Iola. It is a poignant tale. It’s painful to read at times. There’s poverty. There’s the lack of opportunity. And yet, there’s a certain spirit to the novel. Alys, you said that this wasn’t an easy novel to write. Emotionally, did it draw a lot out of you?
Alys Conran: Yes – especially this boy Pigeon. When I think of him now, I have a pain. Maybe Sian understands that after translating it. I felt some guilt about representing him and his life well. I still worry. In many ways, it’s a dark novel and that was really difficult to spend time inside.
Angharad Price: what made you write about this sort of character? This sort of boy, hard but fragile at the same time?
Alys Conran: When I wrote just a little bit about a boy called Pigeon, I’d been living in Edinburgh and Barcelona and outside of Wales for a long while and I was spending time with people who thought themselves to be open, who accepted and celebrated multiculturalism. But yet, I felt that my own identity wasn’t acknowledged. That the image of Wales they had was a grey one – like a pigeon – and very obedient – that there wasn’t any darkness there. Wales and home were much more complex than that and I started writing with those feelings, forming Pigeon.
Angharad Price: What do you mean by ‘obedient’?
Alys Conran: Yes, it’s an odd word, obedient. I mean, a sort of feeling of being easily put in our place.
Angharad Price: Pigeon is someone who refuses to be put in his place isn’t he? He kicks back.
Alys Conran: yes.
Angharad Price: He is punished for that. Gets put in prison. He’s a rebel.
Alys Conran: Yes, and full of imagination. He pushes against any rule, full of spirit.
Angharad Price: And another poignant character for me was the character of his mother, Mari. There’s a moment when you describe the mother and Pigeon after the stepfather leaves. Such people! They have nothing left in their lives. I was stunned by your ability as a writer. For me, you’ve absolutely done them justice. What was your inspiration? How did you go about conveying that experience so effectively?
Alys Conran: I think that the characters are familiar to me. They’re similar to people I have known – not that they’re like anybody in particular but they came to me naturally.
The process of writing is such a strange one for me. I go to the centre of the thing. Maybe I’m not aware of how hard something is. I don’t get the chance to stop and ask if it’s hard for me, even if it’s hard for Mari and Pigeon.
Angharad Price: you have a chapter when they go to chapel – which is hilarious – there are also many hilarious moments in the novel – and Iola wants to be accepted there. She feels some cosiness in the community feeling but then Pigeon decides to join her in the chapel and things get messy. They decide to put graffiti on the Bible’s pictures, which of course is totally disrespectful.
Were you writing from experience?
Alys Conran: well I have to be careful because I went to chapel in Bangor.
I was quite a good girl in chapel to be honest.
No, no. It’s fiction.
Angharad Price: Since we’re talking about the realistic or local detail – this novel does things that Welsh novels have done for centuries, which is to combine English and Welsh. It’s quite common isn’t it, to see some English in a Welsh novel. But it’s very uncommon to see Welsh so frequently in an English novel. In this sense, Alys, you’re a pioneer. Was that a central theme for you? We assume that the characters speak Welsh most of the time, unless you write ‘she spoke in English’ or ‘she couldn’t speak Welsh.’ Was the theme of language something that you intentionally wanted to tackle?
Alys Conran: When I write, I don’t plan ahead usually. So I didn’t know that I was writing a novel about language. But when I came to Pigeon, finally, and he had a friend, and they started on their journey together through the story, from the moment they started speaking to each other, I knew they needed to speak in Welsh or else it would be all lies. Fiction isn’t a lie. I couldn’t write Pigeon speaking English. From that point on, the novel developed into being one about language. About losing language. That wasn’t the Grand Plan. This is one of the ways that the book took on its own spirit.
When it comes to Pigeon the character – that’s a name someone else gives him obviously. It’s an English name but he adopts it as his own and turns the meaning for his own use.
Angharad Price: at that point, let’s bring Sian Northey into the conversation as the novel’s translator. She’s translated this novel into the Welsh language but to all intents and purposes, it was already in Welsh, which is quite a feat. How was it to translate a Welsh novel from English back into the Welsh? How have you conveyed that transition from language to language in the Welsh version?
Sian Northey: I thought it would be much harder than it was. That’s what worried me to start: how to make the two languages in it work. I made a first version on instinct and I really hope that worked!
I’ve left where someone speaks in English, in English. And when they speak in Welsh, somehow because of that, it made it easier. They fit tidily into the language I used.
Angharad Price: and the title: Pijin.
Sian Northey (to AC): You were right in the end.
Angharad Price: In the end you decided to use the name Pijin rather than translating it into Welsh.
Sian Northey: To start, I felt painful about publishing two novels at the same time, with almost the same covers, the same name, but I was persuaded. And I’m very, very pleased that I was persuaded to use Pijin. He is Pijin. I wouldn’t let anybody change his name now.
Angharad Price: you considered using ‘Colomen’ as a title?
Sian Northey: I considered everything! Eventually settled on P I J I N in Welsh and P I G E O N in English.
Angharad Price: Alys, what inspired the idea to have a Welsh version published at the same time as the English?
Alys Conran: That idea came from the publisher. When I heard that they wanted to publish it, they immediately said thy wanted to publish it in Welsh at the same time. I was thrilled. And when I read Sian’s chapters for the first time it was an incredible experience – that was Pigeon in his own language.
Angharad Price: did you consider translating it yourself?
Alys Conran: I would never have written this novel in Welsh. I’ve got to be totally honest about that. This novel would not exist if I’d have been writing in Welsh because I needed the tension between two languages to write it in the first place. Then there was the question of whether I’d translate it myself and there were many reasons why I didn’t want to. I just didn’t want to. I’d been such a hard process, like I said, writing it. I didn’t want to write it again. But also, I believe in the process of translation which is, I think, a process of reading. I didn’t think I could read the novel like someone else.
Angharad Price: Sian, to close, can you tell us about the process of translating – was it like writing your own novels in any way?
Sian Northey: no, it wasn’t like writing my own novels.
What’s od is that is that it made me discuss how I wrote and we discovered that we write in similar ways. We both feel that huge responsibility ‘Sorry, I haven’t told your story exactly right, have I?’ sort of thing.
As I translated, I swung form having a lot of fun to realising I had that responsibility. The English here is unconventional. Alys has an unconventional way of punctuating. That was pleasant: that’s where my freedom to play started.
Alys Conran’s fiction, poetry, and translations have been placed in several competitions, including The Bristol Short Story Prize and The Manchester Fiction Prize. Having previously studied Literature at Edinburgh, she completed her MA in Creative Writing at Manchester. She also ran projects to increase access to creative writing and reading among traditionally excluded groups in North Wales. She is currently writing a second novel, with the support of a scholarship.
Sian Northey writes in many genres. She is the translator of Pigeon into Welsh (Pijin). Her latest book is the novel Rhyd y Gro (Gomer, 2016) and in the same year she has received a Literature Wales bursary to write a novel in poems for teenagers. Her novel Yn y Tŷ Hwn (Gomer, 2011) was chosen for the Wales’ Literature Exchange’s Bookcase and her first volume of poetry,Trwy Ddyddiau Gwydr (Carreg Gwalch, 2013) was on the shortlist for Welsh Book of the Year.
Angharad Price has published three novels: Tania’r Tacsi (Gomer, 1999), O! Tyn y Gorchudd (Gomer, 2002), translated by Lloyd Jones as The Life of Rebecca Jones (Maclehose Press, 2012) and Caersaint (Y Lolfa, 2010), shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year 2011. The second was awarded the coveted Welsh National Eisteddfod medal for prose in 2002 and the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year award in 2003. She has also published several critical volumes on contemporary Welsh literature, and translations between German and Welsh. She is currently a lecturer in Welsh at the University of North Wales, Bangor.
In 2014, Angharad was nominated by Wales Literature Exchange and chosen by The European Society of Authors alongside nine other European authors to select Finnegan’s List 2014, a subjective list of classical and contemporary works, which have not been sufficiently translated or have simply been forgotten.
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Bill Rees reviews Pigeon, the debut novel from Alys Conran, and finds a narrative that is “thoroughly engaging” and “heart wrenching”.