Emma Schofield takes a closer look at Welsh [Plural], a new collection of essays which promises to break down the clichés and binaries which have traditionally shaped our thinking about Wales and Welsh identity.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard as much about a non-fiction book before I’ve even received a copy. The hype surrounding Welsh [Plural] has been building for a while; mentions of it in conversations about the Welsh books that are going to shake up 2022, references made to it by editors and contributors alike in interviews and across social media, a growing sense that this would be a powerful contribution to our age-old debate about national identity in Wales. The colourful collection of essays that found its way through my letterbox a week or so ago does not disappoint.
The cover, based on the recycled patchwork of the Wrexham Tailor’s Quilt, is a nuanced reflection of the work it encases. In their brief introduction to the anthology, editors Darren Chetty Hanan Issa, Grug Muse and Iestyn Tyne describe the book as a ‘tailor’s quilt of stories, reimagining the Wales we live and see’. The contributions are thoughtful and reflective, but made personal by the honesty of the stories told by the contributors. Chetty’s own essay is an example of this approach, a poignant reflection on the removal of a pub sign in his hometown which seamlessly highlights why an engrained sense of casual racism has been, and still is, one of the biggest stumbling blocks in redefining Welsh identity. It can be too easy to shy away from these questions of race, to assert that racism has no place in contemporary Wales, to refuse to recognise and acknowledge it for the problem it really is. The truth is that Wales is no different than anywhere else; Wales may be a wonderful place, but it is not perfect and those flaws are, gently, revealed through a number of the essays in the anthology. Kandace Siobhan Walker also approaches the subject from a personal perspective in her essay, touching on how her own education has led her to understand that nature ‘belongs to whiteness, historically and imaginatively: as metal to be mined, trees to be felled’. Walker’s writing is particularly powerful, simply and beautifully worded. The rawness of her assertion that ‘I don’t make sense in Wales’ is continued throughout the collection in essays such as former Wales Arts Review associate editor Durre Shahwar’s reflection on the role of place in Welsh identity and Hanan Issa’s vibrant exploration of Muslim culture within modern Wales.
If the essays in Welsh [Plural] are a patchwork, they are beautifully sewn together. There is plenty of variety; lighter contributions such as Gary Raymond’s interactive guide to becoming a Welsh novelist, offer a satirical take on our perceptions of what it means to live and write in Wales. Meanwhile Andy Welch’s entertaining reflection on the pitfalls of attempting to use accents as a marker of national identity is a timely deconstruction of some of the stereotypes which have filtered, far too easily, into the way we define regional identities. More well-known names sit easily alongside contributions from writers and commentators who are currently emerging onto the literary scene in Wales. Author Niall Griffiths tackles political, as well as geographical, divides in his contribution, while Charlotte Williams uses her contribution to draw on her experience working to re-shape the Welsh curriculum, in a stirring exploration of the role of education in contemporary Wales. Experienced voices align comfortably next to voices which are newer, but no less powerful in what they have to offer to Welsh culture; Cerys Hafana’s call for change in the way we define Welsh folk music is a rallying assertion of all the reasons why contemporary Wales cannot, and should not, fear the spectre of tradition.
Ultimately, it is the energy in each of the contributions which really drives Welsh [Plural] forward. Despite the weight of the topics covered by the essays, the collection is not permitted to become bogged down in the past or a litany of ‘what if’ questions. Instead, the focus is on the here and now, the Wales in which we live in 2022 and, cover firmly asserts, the future of Wales. Welsh [Plural] does not dismiss the decades of discussion about Welsh identity which preceded it, but throws down a challenge to anyone still clinging to the idea that outdated notions of identity can still applied to contemporary Wales. It is a brave collection, one which clearly embodies the vision and passion of its four editors, but it is an anthology which was desperately needed. The future Wales needs diverse voices, it needs imagination, it needs challenges to traditional perceptions of identity, and it needs to ask the difficult questions. Welsh [Plural], we’ve been waiting for you.
Welsh [Plural] is available now from Repeater Books.
Emma Schofield is a writer and critic and Senior Editor for Wales Arts Review.