I think I fell in love with them. The old clichés around writing in two languages. I think that I may have thought too much… “Your first language is for feeling, the second is for thinking.” Is it really this binary? “Ah, you know, you’re a different person in every language, that’s the problem.” Am I? “It’s hard enough to mature a writing voice in one language, let alone two.”
I have been writing in Welsh for almost 20 years. I started because I didn’t see the women around me represented in Welsh literature. They lived their lives in rural Wales, steeped in their culture and language, but were largely absent from the books I read and their invisibility stung me.
I decided that I would be the first girl in our family to go to university and decided to read English. Why? Because I was obsessed with Victorian novelists, and because I saw them as a way to gain a different perspective. Tellingly, however, I also took a Welsh Diploma reading list with me and went through it. I still don’t know exactly why, but I think maybe it has something to do with love or guilt, curiosity or a sense of duty? Or maybe a combination of all four.
Back home, I started writing the women in my life in books; I used landscape and dialects to foster a sense of place so that language, geography and culture were inextricably linked. I explored ideas around tradition, heritage, memory, cultural preservation and the natural world.
When you write in a minority language, there is also the feeling that you are also registering a culture, a literary vocation if you will. You have one of the oldest bodies of literature in Europe to draw on, there are folk tales and ghost stories, there are the rules of writing to revel in and rebel.
At school we are taught cynghanedd, the ancient Welsh poetic system with strict meter of internal rhyme which means that poetry should resonate with sounds. Every Sunday night we listened to the radio as Talwrn Y Beirdd aired, and two competing teams of poets vied to become famous and infamous for their use of the language. Cynghanedd seeped into my prose, making me rewrite things that didn’t “sound good” out loud. The old trope of Welsh being “singing” being perhaps the least irritating and probably the most accurate.
And as I wrote more and more, there was the freedom to write anything and everything in Welsh. Culturally, it is very common for a poet to write soap operas and plays and for a novelist to write for children as well as adults. A writer is a writer in Wales. There was also the pleasure of pushing the boundaries, of trying to rejuvenate an old literary tradition. Every once in a while, over the years, someone would ask me why I didn’t write in English and I would quote the old cliches, or perhaps, more accurately, hide behind them. After all, it’s human nature to stay where you’re comfortable, but then something changed…
Maybe it had something to do with a certain birthday. The loss of two beloved grandmothers, but I felt a change. I think it was again something to do with invisibility. Writing in a minority language comes with a level of invisibility. Come on, name a Scottish Gaelic writer? One in Welsh? Simply put, it’s a choice English-language Welsh writers don’t have to make. And that is not easy.
Here comes the guilt again. Love. Curiosity and a sense of duty. Being bilingual is always going to be tricky when there is such a power imbalance between your two languages. Ask the Catalan writers, the Gaelics, the Basque novelists and the Breton poets. It’s always going to be political, but it also kind of allows you to look back, look outward, and take your seat at the table.
There are so few Welsh language writers who also write in English, some for political reasons, some for artistic reasons, some for practical reasons, but for me it seems important to broaden what people think as Welsh writers and to make some space for those who write in both languages. The strength of Wales has always been the diversity of its people, whether linguistic, political, racial or cultural, and it is only by hearing more of them that we can dispel some of the tropes and stereotypes that persist around Wales and Welsh.
The drift began after visiting a small rural town in Ceredigion and hearing a man speaking Welsh with a distinctive accent. I found out he was Syrian and had brought his family from Aleppo to Wales. With no preconceptions about the value of learning Welsh, he had done it, as a natural step to feeling more at home. To connect it to the place, the landscape and the people. Soon, interviews of Syrian children were popping up all over the news, all chatting in Welsh and the ease with which the two seemingly different cultures had assimilated was striking.
I started to look at Syrian folklore, in order to find our common stories, the common threads of our humanity and I discovered that the first stories of mermaids came from Syria. Growing up near the sea, the first stories my grandmothers told me were about the women of the sea and suddenly I saw a way to bring the two cultures together in a story that explored our common humanity, our stories shared, the tragedy of war and colonization and the resulting generational trauma.
It’s a novel about cultures on the brink for different reasons and a novel about my two languages and the tension between them. Writing is, after all, born of tension.
As for these clichés, like all clichés, they are reductive and simplistic. When one is bilingual, a certain kind of drift occurs. An in and out, a fusion and a separation, and when cultures and languages move in and out of each other’s orbits, that’s where stories happen.
Drift is published today by Doubleday