EDITORIAL Gwen Davies

NWR Issue 102

Testimony

This winter edition focuses on Africa, Denbighshire, politics and testimony. Scholastique Mukasonga’s story, ‘Mourning’, is drawn from the author’s experience of escaping the 1994 Rwandan massacres of the Tutsi people, in which Mukasonga lost twenty-six family members including her mother. ‘Mourning’ is accompanied by an illustration which captures the protagonist’s compulsion, partly because she had not actually witnessed the slaughter, to grieve over slain African relatives in Parisian strangers’ funerals:

She realised, though, that the long walks she liked to take around the streets were constantly leading her to churches and that she always hoped to see a black or grey hearse parked outside. Which happened several times. When it did, an irresistible force made her go into the church and join the mourners. She knew where to sit. Behind a pillar, but always with a clear view of the coffin.


Suzy Ceulan Hughes first came across Mukasonga’s work on translating testimonies from survivors of the Rwandan massacre for the human rights organisation, African Rights. Her translation of this story, from the French, is the first in English and is the first ever translation of Mukasonga’s work to be published in the world, excluding Ireland.

NWR 102 continues its themes of both Africa and testimony in ‘Stand Up, John Rowlands’. Here, John Barnie writes about the peculiarly Welsh brand of insecure bully that was explorer Henry Morton Stanley. Originally John Rowlands, he was an illegitimate Welsh-speaking St Asaph [Denbighshire] Workhouse boy who reinvented himself. Barnie shows how Stanley’s class-driven bad behavior was most marked during his ill-fated attempt to relieve Emin Pasha in Equatoria, now the Republic of South Sudan, and how he subsequently attempted to pre-empt and suppress the journals of the expedition’s white survivors in order to rescue his reputation:

Rowlands/Stanley is ‘in a frantic state, stamping up and down the deck’ of a steamboat ironically named Peace, as witnessed by another officer, James S Jameson, who wrote up the incident in his journal. Turning to the Zanzibari porters who are watching from the riverbank, Stanley tells them in Kiswahili not to obey them anymore, adding that ‘if Lieutenant Stairs or Jephson issued any orders to them, or dared to lift a hand, they were to tie them up to trees.’


Denbighshire teacher and novelist Caroline Ross considers both global and home-grown political issues in her piece on theatre, ‘Bradley Manning & The Life of Brians’. Drawing on her own memories of hand-to-mouth late-70s Newcastle touring company Live Theatre, Ross controversially questions whether austerity may yet prove beneficial to political theatre: ‘Bloated in terms of management yet terribly thin in terms of product, theatre needs to realise that rather than being a victim of a right-wing agenda to slash funding to theatre, it has done much to destroy itself and its value. It has decided to be comfortable.’ Emphasising that she doesn’t wish to tar National Theatre Wales with this brush, Ross moves on to review NTW’s award-winning play, The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning. This intensely political play, staged at Edinburgh Festival in the same month (August) that saw Manning’s imprisonment for leaking US state secrets via Wikileaks, dramatises how a Pembrokeshire teenager became a global fall-guy. With further dramatic timing, in the play’s opening week at the Festival, its creator, Tim Price, was awarded the inaugural James Tait Black Prize for Drama and announced that part of his £10,000 prize would go to the Manning defence fund.

Flicking her scourge at privilege in education, Ross also condemns theatres whose programmes carry adverts for public schools: ‘Private school pupils, hugely advantaged by the excellent teaching and directing of drama in their schools, are not only dominating our government, but our stages and screens as well.’ In this issue’s third opinion column, Flintshire girl Gee Williams picks up the baton of educational advantage, choosing as her unlikely model Jesus College, Oxford. She puts Coleg Iesu’s relative class-blindness down to the college’s Welsh-hued USP, tracing this back to 1571, when ‘the Welsh settled the heart of Elizabethan Oxford… three hundred years before Patagonia could be found on any map,’ and notes, ‘how in the bit of Oxford that Wales made, sons of the poor – subsistence farmers from the north, miners from the south – came “up”.’

The walls of Denbigh Seilam may be crumbling, but may they prop up my metaphor for one last paragraph. I am delighted here to publish Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s heart-stopping ‘Madder’. This is one of the first poems to come out of a project led by Rob Mimpriss, that pays tribute to detainees of Denbigh mental asylum one hundred years ago. Caradog Prichard’s mother was one of these, and ‘Madder’ echoes back to his masterpiece novel, Un
Nos Ola Leuad. It is also imbued with detail of natural dyes gleaned from Wynne-Rhydderch’s Leverhulme textile residency at the National Wool Museum. The North Wales Mental Research Project involved a group of writers (including Gee Williams) researching the experiences of the Seilam’s residents as well as interviewing clinicians and academics at Ysbyty Gwynedd, Bangor. Which brings us home, out of Africa (and Denbighshire), to this issue’s theme of testimony. Writers may not always have borne witness physically, but they can see (if they are any good), and even better, they can tell. Wynne-Rhydderch is a poet who works oral testimony, historical events and characters, using the true detail of craft to perfect the dramatic monologue. This story, of a Seilam doctor turned patient, tells it well:

One night my hands turned blue
by the light of the moon.
I added madder to sloe gin,
prescribed it to anyone still howling
at that hour.


       


previous editorial: Aurora Irrealis
next editorial: Snow Geese



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