New Welsh Review

Gwen Davies reviews Y Gymru ‘Ddu’ a’r Ddalen ‘Wen’: Aralledd ac Amlddiwylliannedd mewn Ffuglen Gymreig, er 1990 by Lisa Sheppard

Lisa Sheppard

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Gwen Davies stakes a claim for fiction in the creation of empathy, that missing life-skill in those at risk of mental health breakdown and lawbreaking, and argues that the Welsh government has stalled since commitments made in its 2004 policy reviews, to promote fiction’s role in our country’s cultural, social and economic development. The Welsh Books Council should not cower behind apparently more ‘relevant’ funding priorities such as health or education when it comes, as it will, to defending cuts in allocations to books and literature



Y Gymru ‘Ddu’ a’r Ddalen ‘Wen’: Aralledd ac Amlddiwylliannedd mewn Ffuglen Gymreig, er 1990 (‘Black’ Wales and the Blank Slate: Otherness and Multiculturalism in the Fiction of Wales since 1990) in the series Y Meddwl a’r Dychymyg Cymreig (Welsh Thought and Imagination), by Lisa Sheppard, published by University of Wales Press. Translations are by the reviewer, Gwen Davies, but sociological and literary theoretical terms have not been translated since they originate in English.

Like some late-adopter feminist who suddenly clicks with the #MeToo campaign, or a reluctant Welsh learner who moans on about feeling alienated by hearing Welsh, I have come late to post-colonial criticism. I have drawn on excuses similar, perhaps, to those of these latter groups: it’s too serious and it makes my brain hurt; I avoided literary theory at uni and I’m not starting now; it’s not applicable to the way I read and enjoy literature, I feel excluded by its intrinsic jargon.

But having read Y Gymru ‘Ddu‘, I reckon I now understand the theory and, indeed, already think in those terms. I even recognised its open, multi-faceted underpinnings in the book I turned to next, the deceptively straightforward coffee-table book, Wales in One Hundred Objects/Cymru Mewn Cant Gwrthrych. The author, Andrew Green’s, introduction summarises his non-hierarchical and anti-monolithic approach to objects and the heritage institutions that house them (I translate from the Welsh-language version):


I’m happy to defend my choices {of the one hundred} and my interpretation of them but every person will have their own choice… since every object provokes a very different reaction in each one of us. This book will have achieved one of its objectives if it draws the reader to think about those things that they believe should best represent Wales and its history.

Sheppard’s introduction to Y Gymru ‘Ddu’ hinges on the Brexit referendum campaign and Nigel Farage’s endorsement of a poster of Middle-Eastern refugees at the Slovenia–Croatia border, which, with its slogan, ‘we must take back control of our borders’, set Westerners against and above ‘them’, ‘the other’ and the ‘unknown’. She goes on to develop this idea of ‘otherness’, drawing first on feminist but then post-colonial theory. These ideas are applied both to Wales and England but also to communities within Wales, including non-Welsh and Welsh-speaking people, as well as multi-ethnic areas across the country and migrants of different types in various states of exile. The first chapter looks at how the idea of Wales as a multicultural nation has been distorted in the lens of UK media representations, and credits Daniel G William’s analysis of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. Philosopher Hegel’s theory of the ‘master-slave dialectic’ is key, especially its incorporation into postcolonialism, as well as the 1952 book that inspired this one’s title, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Ideas of how the self and the other depend on each other are presented in an explanation of how one group may disregard or mistreat the other. Kirsti Bohata’s Postcolonialism Revisited (2004) is also a crucial text in its application to Wales of Fanon’s attribution of feelings of inferiority and dependency among Black peoples, in part, to Hegel’s theory. Bohata also warns against the danger of ‘hierarchical victimology’ and emphasises (in an echo of those theorists that reject the position of Wales as a potentially post-colonial nation) the notion that groups may feel dominant or inferior in relation to each other in different situations.


Fiction from Wales is better suited than sociological or political writing to the job of challenging binary and static definitions of identity… it currently reflects myriad cultures, languages and localities. Fiction… is best suited to envision a more inclusive, tolerant place.

In translating the title of this book, I did realise how my creative emphasis on the English idiom ‘clean slate’ failed to convey the antonyms of the original, literally a ‘black country’ and a ‘white page’ but hoped that its emphasis on a new creative space reflected the book’s drive to resist opposites. Y Gymru ‘Ddu’ is an analysis that challenges binary choice, informed as it especially by the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir about the assumed characteristics of dominant (male) and subordinate (female) groups. De Beauvoir defines how the dominant group has the exclusive right to react, change, shape and have a dynamic relationship with the world, while the subordinate ‘other’ is deemed to possess a homogenous, unchanging set of characteristics which is defined by the first group. Throughout Y Gymru ‘Ddu’, I believe that too much attention is given to the work of Charlotte Williams, but Sheppard generously observes a distinction between a dualistic tendency in Williams the academic and the more open, subtle attitudes presented in her autobiographical novel, Sugar and Slate. This observation leads into the premise of this book, that fiction from Wales is better suited than sociological or political writing to the job of challenging binary and static definitions of identity and that it currently reflects myriad cultures, languages and localities. Fiction, Sheppard argues, is best suited to envision a more inclusive, tolerant place. That is a political argument to which I will return in my conclusion. Sheppard performs another political act through her healing approach of critiquing Welsh-language and English fiction from Wales alongside each other, discovering that these different readerships (although they are often one readership, the Welsh-medium one, to which we will also return) are presented with similar themes and become open to empathising with characters from both milieux.

To return to the clean slate or blank page of the title, Y Gymru ‘Ddu’ goes on to look at fiction authors such as Trezza Azzopardi, Joe Dunthorne and Angharad Price through the prism of postcolonialism, most specifically using the idea of the hybrid (two cultures, previously existing in a binary relationship, fuse into one different animal) and Homi Bhabha’s ‘Third Space’ of synergy, which allows room for multiple co-existing identities and emphasises the positive potential for renewal and creativity. This synergetic space is Sheppard’s ‘clean slate’. Its most striking fictional representation in the literature analysed is Rachel Trezise’s notion within In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl, that the people of the Rhondda Valley might have been better off had their home been flooded, Tryweryn-style, for a reservoir for English city-dwellers. Of course Trezise’s image is tongue-in-cheek, and Sheppard is perhaps guilty in places, while she does emphasise the humour of most of her subjects, in making over-literal interpretations of sardonic voices such as those of Trezise and Dunthorne.

The chapter on migrants and exile is especially interesting, particularly when the author compares Azzopardi’s novel, The Hiding Place, about a Maltese family that has migrated to Cardiff for economic reasons with the family in Gifted by Nikita Lalwani, which is of Indian intellectual origin and moved to south Wales for aspirational educational motives. Her writing about how, for such characters, change haunts places of origin and relocation, resonates, and is amplified by Edward Said’s work on the new sensibility that emerges within the exile:

Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that – to borrow a phrase from music – is contrapuntal.
Edward Said, Reflections on Exile

Another fascinating section is that on Mihangel Morgan’s novella, Pan Oeddwn Fachgen, in its discussion both of gender identity, the south-east Wales dialect Gwenhwyseg of the narrative and the author’s own coining of the term ‘cadi’ (from the north Wales term ‘cadiffan’) as a positive spin on ‘queer’. In an echo of the running joke in the TV sitcom, Derry Girls, in which the one boy character attending the girls’ school is only ever and consistently mocked for being English, Sheppard underlines the double otherness of Morgan’s transvestite protagonist: ‘The fact that the boy speaks Welsh attracts more unwelcome attention than his alternative sexual identity’.

Discussion of Welsh-language fiction here is highly sophisticated, especially in terms of the use of switch-coding (where English or Welsh phrases are used within dialogue or interior monologue of the opposite language) in the fiction of Catrin Dafydd and Chris Meredith. However, it is notable that in Chapter 4, on ‘language and otherness’, inadequate significance is attached to the fact that the authors of the English-language novels covered in this section are Welsh speakers. Similarly, the author’s argument that readership of the Welsh- and English-language novels of Wales should be more integrated, is flagged up early and permeates the whole discussion but is not analysed until the very last chapter. It is only here that the idea of the Welsh-language reader being privileged by her ability to read in both-language cultures (one which Catrin Dafydd explores) is acknowledged. Disappointingly, this structural problem with her laudable mission for her book, is skated over by Sheppard. She does not explore in any great depth other bilingual authors and their publication history, such as Fflur Dafydd or Alys Conran, nor the importance of translation, nor the role of English-language cultural magazines such as New Welsh Review in bridging cultures with reviews, criticism, translations and subtitled prose multimedia trailers.


shout the social relevance of fiction from the rooftops

I recently attended a meeting with the Welsh Books Council’s CEO, Helgard Krausse, in which she warned, with a sense of resignation, of further public funding cuts and noted the difficulty of competing against other Welsh government priorities such as health and education. The WBC need look no further than Y Gymru ‘Ddu’ for arguments to shout the social relevance of fiction from the rooftops. What is Said’s ‘contrapuntal’ sensibility but a definition of empathy, the missing life-skill in those at risk of mental health breakdown and lawbreaking? She quotes from the 2004 report into Welsh writing in English of the Assembly’s own Committee for Culture, Welsh and Sports but it seems we are again in danger of reinventing the wheel: ‘Promoting these texts is an important strand in developing Wales, not only in terms of cultural but also socially and economically.’ Politicians have often sought to set different parts of Wales and our language communities against each other, benefitting, for example, from the stereotype that multicultural communities only exist in south Wales or that rural Wales is a traditional monolith of Welsh and intolerance to incomers of all stripes. The author must be frustrated that Dignity, Alys Conran’s portrait of an Indian family and a Cambro-Indian woman in Colwyn Bay (forthcoming in April and reviewed in our next e-edition), will be published too late for inclusion here. But Lisa Sheppard braves the disapproval her arguments may attract from those fearing her approach might undermine Welsh national identity:

The portrayal of otherness to be found in these texts… has the potential to create a national identity that is open and inclusive. Through adopting the method of reading between languages, we can read and interpret the nation anew, in Welsh, in English, and perhaps in a variety of other languages.



Gwen Davies is editor of New Welsh Review and judge of the New Welsh Writing Awards. Her latest translation is  the novella The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis (Honno).