writing across continents

Writing Across Continents: Wales and America

Sydney Whiteside explores the writing of Christina Thatcher and Zoë Brigley and their insights into the nature, culture and experience of living in both Wales and America. 

As an American who moved to Cardiff for university, it can sometimes feel like I’m caught between two worlds. On one side I have my balmy north Florida upbringing, the yellow school busses and beach days, Thanksgiving dinners and Friday night football games. On the other side sprawl the coastal paths of South Glamorgan, walks through Bute Park, kebabs on City Road. In just three years, Cardiff has become a second home to me.

As I expected when I made the transition, my position as an American shapes the way I experience Wales. Coming from a small town founded less than a century ago, I am still awed by eighteenth-century gravestones, still crane my neck to see the Victorian gargoyles on buildings I’ve walked past hundreds of times. I love catching a local train to a nearby town, still marvel at the steepness of seaside cliffs, and have a special appreciation for public services like the NHS. What I didn’t expect, however, were the ways in which the move to Wales would shape my understanding of America. Distancing myself from home both in time and geography has given me a new perspective on my home country, one both critical and appreciative. This distance, of stepping back in order to see things more clearly, is central to the work of Christina Thatcher and Zoë Brigley. Writing and living between Wales and America, both writers provide insight not just into the countries they grew up in, but to the ones they have chosen to make their homes.

Born in Pennsylvania, Christina Thatcher first came to Cardiff as a postgraduate student after winning a scholarship which required her to select a university and demonstrate why it would be the best place for her to live and study. As part of her application, she wrote: ‘I daydream about attending my first opera at the Wales Millennium Centre. I can see myself riding bareback and brazen along the beautiful Welsh coast… I have no doubt that the exploration of my heritage, the rich literary history of the country, and my own ability to immerse myself in the culture will provide a strong foundation on which to ground my own contemporary writing.’

Thatcher’s new collection How to Carry Fire, out now with Parthian, shows just how right she was. How to Carry Fire is the searing follow-up to Thatcher’s 2017 collection More than you were, a vibrant and haunting look at addiction, trauma, and family history that has its feet in both America and Wales. Flames are found everywhere: in homes, newspapers, salamanders, and heroin needles. Fires both devastate and cleanse, destroying while also clearing the way for new experiences, emotions, and relationships. Each poem is at once its own story and part of a larger journey towards understanding and articulating the experiences that inform our lives.

Originally from Caerphilly, Zoë Brigley lives in Ohio and works as an Assistant Professor at the Ohio State University. After publishing three books of poetry, The Secret in 2007, Conquest in 2012, and Hand & Skull in 2019, Brigley turned to nonfiction in her 2019 essay collection Notes from a Swing State. Brigley uses her intimate knowledge of both Wales and America to create a beautiful, complex book that blends the personal, the political, and the literary. With subject matter ranging from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Georgia O’Keefe to domestic violence and partner abuse, the diverse and poignant essays in Notes from a Swing State offer hope and guidance in erratic and disheartening times.

Thatcher’s How to Carry Fire begins in America with a piece about the burning down of her childhood home, something she has recently written about in a blog post for Poetry School. ‘Insurance Report’ communicates the feelings of loss, shock, and confusion immediately following the event through the blunt and emotionless questions of the insurance agents: ‘How many forks? / How many pairs of underwear? / How many items in the fridge?’. The poem explores the connections between objects and identity, memory and materiality, value and meaning. Later in the collection, ‘What the Newspapers Left Out’ describes the images of the fire only those who witnessed it would know: Thatcher’s mother saving the family dog, her father splayed on the lawn, the neighbours watching with wide eyes. In the final lines, Thatcher writes, ‘then that final call for me / from across the ocean: / Bring the fire with you. / Leave everything else behind.

When I asked Christina about the process of writing about the fire from Wales, she said, ‘I think writing this book from Wales has given me space to do this topic justice, to move emotions aside and think objectively about the burning (and building) of homes as well as the ways in which fire, both physically and metaphorically, has impacted my life.’

Zoë Brigley also explores the role of geography in accessing, describing, and experiencing memories of trauma. Notes from a Swing State opens with ‘Arches’, a winding account of a cross-country road trip to Arches National Park and the feelings evoked by the vast, jagged landscape of the American Midwest. Brigley writes honestly and generously about the reason for the journey, the miscarriage of two babies within a year of moving to America. The essay threads descriptions of ultrasound images and hospital pamphlets with red sandstone arches and sprawling valleys. When I asked Zoë about her transition to living in America, she answered openly about the experience, saying, ‘It made me question what I wanted from life – was I really destined to have children at all? – but America was a good place to explore that’. She also told me more about the road trip and her persistent gratitude for nature, saying, ‘It was a wonderful journey full of incredible sights. I suppose I fell in love with the land then. It sounds strange but from the many beautiful monuments I saw on the way I had a sense of moving beyond myself as if there was some greater purpose to everything that was happening.’

As the title suggests, the collection is largely informed by Brigley’s experiences living in Ohio, a regular swing state in US elections, during and shortly after the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. The book chronicles the fear and disorientation emerging out of Trump’s America. Though sparked by this dramatic social and political shift, however, this is not a book about Trump—it is a book about uncertainty, community, and the importance of standing up for one another when solidarity is the only option.

In ‘Fright House’, Brigley describes the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, relating the anxiety of the moment to the election just two years earlier. With Ohio set to vote in early November, Brigely uses the peculiar images and festivities of American Halloween to make larger statements about the daily horrors appearing on the news. Picturing America as the fright house, Brigley writes that ‘The haunted house is a dissimulation: it obscures the fact that America is the real haunted house, the site where anti-Semitic, misogynist, racist and far-right violence are occurring with frightening regularity.’

Wales features more concretely in the work of both writers as well. Many of the poems in Thatcher’s collection are devoted to the specificities of Welsh culture, history, and geography. ‘Touring Tenby with the Man I Will One Day Marry’ brims with personal and local history of the seaside town. In ‘Transport Decisions’, Thatcher crafts the image of ‘a happy American family: / shining like polished apples, / clean as Sunday clothes’ through the stories she tells a Cardiff cab driver. One of my favourite pieces in the collection is ‘Keeping Warm’, a gentle ode to the depth and beauty of Wales’s landscape and culture. In the poem, Thatcher imagines that ‘Wales is a small coat / with deep pockets’ that contain ‘steep climbs to fickle skies’, ‘blackbirds chirping sharply’, and ‘the sounds of singing’.

Of her favourite things about Wales, Christina said, ‘I have so many favourite things and the list is always growing! I love the dramatic landscapes; I’ve stood awed on beaches in Gower and Pembrokeshire, hiked up hills in Brecon and Snowdonia, watched puffins rise from Ynys Seiriol and gulls swoop over South Stack Lighthouse. I love how the light is always shifting here, how no matter when I visit Three Cliffs Bay it is always alive and changing… I love how Cardiff feels dynamic and cosmopolitan but also, at the same time, like a small and friendly town. I love the pet names my Welsh husband keeps for me: cariad, bach. Wales is my favourite place in the world and I, honestly, feel so lucky to call it my home.’

Though centrally located in America, Brigley’s collection is grounded in the land and literature of her native Wales. ‘A Song Like a Branch of Cherries’ gives a beautiful look into the life, letters, and poetry of Alun Lewis. Lines from a Gillian Clarke poem appear in ‘Motherhood *is* Valuable for the Creative Life’, a gentle and powerful meditation on the compatibility of motherhood and creative production. Sepia-tinted family photos of Maesteg and the Llynfi valley are interspersed with shots of the Moab Desert and museum artifacts in the centre insert of the book.

Drawing on both lived experience and the creative imagination, the essays in Notes from a Swing State are little pockets of wisdom—none more than a few pages long—that offer strategies for survival in times of fear and uncertainty. Writing with unwavering clarity and detail, Brigley captures the unique complexity of America and what it means to be ‘American’, celebrating the beauty of the country and the resilience of its people while fiercely interrogating the structures of control that allow instances of violence, racism, and misogyny to occur with increasing regularity and severity.

When I asked Zoë about her favourite things about America, she said, ‘One of the things that I most value in America is the people I have found who are radical in their politics and in their compassion and in their love. I have learned so much about communities around me in Ohio. What I have learned most of all is my own privilege as a cisgender, white woman and now an American citizen as well as a British one. I have tried to learn how to be the best ally that I can, and if I make mistakes, I try to make sure that they never happen again’. Zoë also told me the things she misses most about Wales: her family, friends, and the compassion of the valley communities. She finished by saying, ‘The other thing I miss about Wales is the coast and the sea. Ohio has Lake Erie of course, but there is nothing like Southerndown or Merthyr Mawr in any weather. I have been down by the mouth of the Ogmore River on blistering days when the sand burns your feet, and on days when the fog drifts in from the sea over the rocks. It is a place that makes my heart sing, and I will never stop going back there.’

Both Christina Thatcher’s How to Carry Fire and Zoë Brigley’s Notes from a Swing State are born of trans-Atlantic origins. Writing between Wales and America, though in opposite directions, Thatcher and Brigley speak of both countries with spellbinding precision and depth. As someone inhabiting a similar position, reading these works was both a joy and an inspiration. These poems and essays prove that home is a fluid and plural concept, one that we can define and redefine for ourselves. The two books are testaments to the creative possibilities of having roots in two different countries and to the perception and clarity that come from writing in the in-between.

 

Sydney Whiteside is a former University of Florida student who transferred to Cardiff University and graduated with a BA in English in 2019.