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.
I’m imagining my writer’s room; the one I want to tell you about is not the one I have now. It’s a space so obstinately familiar, its quiddity suspended in time. There are two small suitcases stacked on top of the bookcase. Masonic suitcases you would call them. I’ve had them forever, from where I don’t know, but their contents are stiff competition for the scrap books and the notebooks that pile up beside them year on year. I call them ‘the archive’ – full of writing projects in the making, past writing projects, clippings, oddments, observations, sayings, just all the interesting stuff of life that must be collected, saved and stored. And all of it stowed quite randomly – disparate and disconnected pieces of ephemera awaiting order; fragments of my life and of yours. It’s a habit.
The room has a painting, well several, but the most compelling is the painting of Ma that dad did in 1958. Catherine Alice in ochre and greys getting a little bit chipped and crispy but her presence is huge in the room; almost so huge that sometimes I can’t get on.
What is in order are the books. I think the academic in me groups the books for reference and research rather than in the higgledy piggledy way books might end up on shelves. Probably the start of the ordering began with the entire output of a nation’s writing in the year 2005 when I chaired the panel of judges for Welsh Book of the Year. The good, the great and the bad all gifted in one. They are there, stacked in their discrete section. Before that boxed library arrived things were more ad hoc. Just a smattering of Welsh titles, a significant few that pointed to one question nagging at me about writing in Wales: Caradog Pritchard’s One Moonlit Night; an edition of Planet that happened to have a black man on the cover and of course, Leonora’s Dat’s Life and John Williams’ Bloody Valentine. Looking into that room again I see I’ve been reading Caribbean. There’s poetry, history, maps, cards, postcards, pictures and the books, some spread out onto the floor. Earl Lovelace’s Salt, Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women, Tiffany Yanique, Merle Collins – yes I remember, we were all there at the Bocas Lit Festival 2010; back then before Marlon won the Booker and Tiffany left for the States. I felt rich for being amongst them in Trinidad, all thanks to Sugar and Slate. Another regional chunk of literature pushed its way onto the shelves.
The room smells of damp – Welsh damp, largely on account of the fact that it is at the top of the house where the heating wears thin and on account of the old Boccara rug – equally as thin, a left over from the Africa days. I’d be lucky if I could tell you the room looked out over the Llandudno sea or that the back window faced towards those craggy, dark and special mountains. It doesn’t. But I know both are there and on a good day I will smell them in the air.
Is it a time or a place, a memory or a construction?
In exile, on the fringe of things, I can add what I like to that room. I’ve put more on the shelves. I keep my eye on things Welsh from afar and place new books there ready for my return. Dad’s journal is there, his hand written script and the heavy responsibility of the dossier of his papers, jottings, drawings and annotations. Packed up. A set of his half-finished stories that will need my attention one day. Archived for now. There’s a project in the making about the African Institute of Colwyn Bay – a drama in four parts that I’m thinking up and a slim volume on soapmakers of the world, in evolution. Soap? (my sister’s idea). Projects begun, halted and in waiting. I’m sure I will borrow from the Australian scape things about songlines and river trails, about land and love of country, about perspective and distance, place and displacement. From here at my pop-up desk, in this half-baked Hoffice that’s make-do enough I think about my writer’s room. Can you be a Welsh writer if you’re not in your homeland? If you can’t smell the place and put your hands in the soil? If your eye-witness is virtual and your observation so full of nostalgia?
For now the room to write is lost, a loss. This room is full of other business: temporary business, scribbles, musings and short scripts like this as time permits, prompted by the vague semblance of my writer’s room.