NWR Issue 118

Citizen Thinker Ed

The New Welsh Writing Awards, established by ourselves to promote long-form creative prose forms in a programme of rotating categories, completed its fourth year this summer. Previous incarnations have focussed on nature and travel writing, the memoir and the novella. This year we celebrated the essay collection, a form which Prof Tony Brown, in his recent blog for us about his edition of The Dragon Has Two Tongues by Glyn Jones, describes as not having ‘very deep roots in Wales – at least not in English’ (Welsh-language essayists I rate include TH Parry-Williams and Twm Morys). Our writing prize sought to address this imbalance, and sought unpublished books that marry literary rigour with personal voice and docu-journalism. I didn’t want collected memoir pieces, nor book projects divided into chapters, nor academic titles with a bog of notes underfoot, and I did not solicit cobbled-together diary entries, blogs or columns with no ballast.

The Awards of 2018 also aimed to replenish the dearth of female essay collection writers in Wales, whom I had hoped might be inspired by the roll call, in my Call for Entries and video recommendations, of such writers as Eula Biss in Notes from No Man’s Land, and Annie Dillard, Rebecca Solnit and Jenny Diski. This year we achieved the first, but not the second (gender reconfiguration), since, for the first time since the prize was inaugurated, early June saw an all-male shortlist. At our shortlist event at Aberystwyth Arts Centre bookshop, editor Janet Thomas of Firefly and publicist Helena Earnshaw told me they thought the reason women writers were slow to take up essays, or at least why their potential publishers are, is that the work of my half of the population is perceived to be less ‘weighty’; not so ‘academic’ and ‘rigorous’. Are you up for a challenge, ladies (those born to the gender, those achieving it and those with it thrust upon them, alike)? Can you hold a candle to Robert Minhinnick and John Barnie?

This year’s shortlist chaps may be male but they are certainly fascinating. Their work encompasses carefully woven themes of time, history, architecture and communal acts of art and making, in Alex Diggins’ work. In Nicholas Murray’s, powerful recollected imaginative visions of Liverpool are explored, especially the novels of James Hanley and Terence Davies’ films. In the essays of Ed Garland, a ‘sound map of Wales’ is created, where he demonstrates, with personal anguish, how literature can bring comfort and clarification to those with hearing difficulties. Extracts from these shortlisted essays are published here, alongside the three I ranked as highly commended. Those featured Bridget Blankely looking at the impact of mining on a family’s identity through generations, and in particular the differences between the Valleys and Nottinghamshire coalfields in terms of retrospective loyalty and affection for the industry. Also, Katya Johnson’s account of how Herculean efforts to preserve art reflect the value we place on it rather than any innate indestructible property. And finally, the healing power of real and imagined bridges and wild creatures in Troubles-torn Derry, in Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s piece. These essays are all about the endurance or malleability of different qualities: of memory, devotion, healing, national myths and belief in reconciliation.

Here is my adjudication for the winner of New Welsh Writing Awards 2018 Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection, ‘Fiction as a Hearing Aid’ by Ed Garland, and extracted here as ‘They Can Be Heard’. ‘Fiction as a Hearing Aid’ is different in form, voice, and narrative from the [other two shortlisted] collections… and delightfully unique in its concern for the literature of Wales and its strongly evoked and felt Aberystwyth setting…. Ed describes precisely, in his first essay, his own hearing loss and interference connected to severe tinnitus, and how fiction helped him learn how to change ‘the emotional response to… physical injury’. He began to imagine, and write about, a ‘sound map of Wales’ currently ranging ‘from Lewis Jones’ Rhondda valley in the south, to the west coast and valleys of Cynan Jones, up to Brenda Chamberlain’s Ynys Enlli.’ Seeking in particular ‘moments of enhanced listening’ and ‘revelations of the ear in which sound is shown to exert emotional pressure’, he finds ‘geographic, social, psychological and emotional energy’ carried through sound throughout our fiction, past and present. In Niall Griffiths’ novel Grits, a low-flying jet has a ‘social and psychological charge’. In Cynan Jones’ The Dig, sound, loss and violence are inextricably linked.
Meanwhile, Ed Garland’s second essay explores how, having ‘misplaced the will to live’ and facing his twenty-third job, as court usher, where discontent is audible, he turns from music as a means to silence his harmful thoughts and first of all becomes a ‘voracious reader… blast[ing] the words through my head at high speed and top volume.’ Only later does he discover that space, time and silence are essential for actually listening in reading and thereby accessing the emotional connections and experiences of characters, which is the true reward of fiction. Ed Garland’s intelligent, rigorous, personal, humorous and compelling presentation of words as soundscape made ‘Fiction as a Hearing Aid’ rise to the top of our shortlist.

The hallmark of a good essayist was coined by Eula Biss, mentioned earlier but in her first collection, On Immunity: An Inoculation: ‘He or she should ‘be a citizen thinker’, she says, and I think this is especially apt for the Welsh context in which we run both our magazine, our book imprint and these writing awards. This is a place where nationhood and communal ties help build a writerly community and a sense of responsibility among both readers and writers towards where we live, as well as making us acutely aware of those British and global issues that affect, reflect and challenge our values, which include tolerance of and support for difference. Our winner, Ed Garland, who we celebrate above all [here], deserves the label ‘citizen thinker’.


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