Renegade Wales is a new anthology of Welsh short stories edited by Wales Arts Review’s Gary Raymond exclusively for Indian publisher Bee Books in Kolkata. It has formed part of the legacy of the 2017 India-UK Year of Culture projects, and has formed part of the 2019 #WalesinKolkata project. Here we publish the introduction to that collection.
To paraphrase the great American short story writer Irwin Shaw, if a novelist must remain concerned with being all of the people for all of the time, then a writer of the shorter form can concentrate on being just one person for a moment. The Welsh have a long tradition of storytelling, stretching back as far as The Mabonigion, compiled in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and is the oldest prose cycle of Britain. The notion that the ideas within a short story reverberate far beyond the words within it, unfolding and unfurling vast valleys and mountain ranges of meaning, is settled deep within the literary DNA of the Welsh people.
It has been widely acknowledged, that this tradition has hit something of a Golden Age in recent years. In the last decade, as editor of Wales Arts Review, I have been in a unique position to purvey the resurgence of the short story as a powerful literary form, and one of the chosen genres for the ideas of our great writers. Anthologies such as the Dai Smith-edited Library of Wales Story volumes 1 and 2 (Parthian, 2014) have helped create a canon of short fiction from Wales over the last hundred years or so, and new collections such as New Welsh Short Stories, edited by Francesca Rhydderch and Penny Thomas (Seren, 2015) have contributed to the impression that the story of Welsh short fiction does not rest in the past. What this collection does is step on even further, and points toward a vibrant future for the craft in what are turbulent times.
The stories in Renegade Wales are funny, poignant, thrilling, and are, in one way or another, deeply political. They are political because we live in hyper-political times, and any literature that speaks of something human now will speak in a political context.
Wales, it can be argued, is the birthplace of modern democracy (the Chartists’ march on Newport in 1839 changed the course of the movement toward universal suffrage), and the radical working-class sentiments of a nation are found throughout these stories. In Methyr Tydfil the Labour Party was born. In the mining valleys of South Wales the colliers’ communities paid collectively for the foundation of public libraries, great halls of knowledge that brought to the working-classes of Wales the writings of the world’s great thinkers – Shakespeare, Marx, Tagore. Libraries Give Us Power it said above the doors. Wales is not just a land of storytellers, it is a land of books, a land of readers. These stories you hold in your hand now stand for a continuation of this attitude – the belief that literature, art, and culture are indelibly linked to society and to the betterment of all.
But the joy of literature, indicative in these enclosed stories, is that such noble ambitions need not be delivered straight, dryly, or without the spit and fire of adventure, and can be displayed with great style, humour, and creative ambition. Inside Renegade Wales are some of Wales’ finest writers – a generation of artists carving out their own spaces. Together, they speak of an exciting movement in Welsh literature, one that has a place on the world stage. These writers speak of the diverse cultures, geographies, and ideas that make up the nation, but they also speak of the wider human experience. They are powerful voices, and they each sing of social justice, of rebellion, of radicalism, even if they do it in a variety of ways, from a variety of perspectives. This is a collection of stories that could rattle the foundations of any establishment.
Here we have work from confident voices at the top of their game, writers laid heavy with prestigious awards. There are Wales Book of the Year Winners (the highest literary accolade in the country), a Dylan Thomas Prize winner (which has the largest purse for writers under forty anywhere in the world), a BAFTA Cymru winner, winners of the Somerset Maugham Prize, a winner of the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, a winner of the PEN International New Voices Award, and names from longlists and shortlists too frequent to list.
The collection came about from a series of commissions, made by John Lavin during his time as books editor at Wales Arts Review, and were published to great acclaim separately throughout 2015. They were sought to test the temperature of the literary scene, to see if this new generation could write with as much fire in the belly about their country as the generations before, and to see if these writers were ones that wanted to change the world. We were not disappointed. This is their first grouping, curated for this international showcase of work, and edited by me. It has been a great honour to return to them, to see how these brilliant writers have predicted a world fighting hard against shrinkage – the narrowing of minds, the regression from liberalism to a paranoid, fear-mongering conservatism. But they are stories of hope, even when they are stories of anger, and they draw upon ancient myth, old tropes, and reliable structures to explore ideas that are bitingly relevant not just to the world we live in now, but to the world we hope to win back from dark powers.
What this anthology represents, is the simple notion of the moment, of the window into a life, and how that literary trick can have profound reverberations for a reader. In here is a world. It is Welsh, it is of Wales, but it tells of characters and dramas and comedies that will be recognisable to anybody who has a hunger to gorge on the smells and sounds of the world. And the politics? It is in the very fabric of the pages, in the white space between the letters – they are in the air that the characters breathe, and the tornadoes that summon each metaphor. I’ve been proud and honoured to edit this book and to work with these writers. I hope it will bring similar feelings to its readers.
Renegade Wales is not currently available in the UK, but is available in India from Bee Books of Kolkata.