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I was invited to the London Book Fair to speak about the difficulties facing non-metropolitan writing, and how these issues might be connected to Brexit, because my novel Pigeon epitomises some the difficulties of marginalisation facing ‘non-metropolitan’ writing.
Pigeon is set on a post-industrial hillside in north-west Wales and tells the story of a boy called Pigeon who is dispossessed of his home and language. Near the beginning of the book I write that ‘Day-to-day Pigeon drags his feet around his pebble-dashed kingdom. Non-descript. Gloomy. At the wrong end of nowhere. Perhaps.’ And that perhaps is essential in a story about a place seen as marginal from outside, but absolutely at its own centre. Despite writing Pigeon in English, I aimed for the Welsh language to be a presence throughout, for readers to be conscious of the complex linguistic and cultural experiences it narrates. Pigeon has garnered attention for how it makes Welsh dialogue vivid to non-Welsh speaking readers. I am assured now by reviewers and readers that the Welsh, rather than a barrier, is one of the book’s pleasures, whether you speak it or not. Indeed for non-Welsh speaking readers, I intended Pigeon as an invitation to witness and understand.
It was made clear to me by various people in the industry that I shouldn’t pursue such a Welsh theme, should avoid using so much Welsh, as my novel would present a marketing challenge. For a universal story, I should look to more universally relevant places. This notion, that some viewpoints are broader, more universal than others, and that the metropolitan has a breadth unavailable to the rural, is interesting. I write this whilst speeding away from London on a high speed train back to Wales, and send it instantly at the click of a button, so the notion of a clear geographic separation between the metropolitan and non-metropolitan is pretty defunct. There is a danger of slipping into easy dichotomies like this, between us and them, metropolitan and non-metropolitan, when the metropolitan viewpoint dominates way beyond the metropolis, percolates up country roads and down fibre optic cables, through all kinds of media of which books are only one.
‘Metropolitan’ seems to carry connotations of cosmopolitanism, globalism, progress, to imply an urban life that transcends national boundaries and reaches to an urban, globalised community. Rurality, by contrast, seems, in the metropolitan view, to connote such notions as naturalness, innocence and the past, and also an essentialised, pure kind of cultural identity.
In the UK, the city has been, for so long now, unable to acknowledge the complicated, fascinating, lives that people live in rural areas, which are most-often post or neo-industrial, technological or mechanised, rather than unchanging, or simply pleasant places to holiday in. Stereotypes, as post-colonial scholars like Bhabha have noted, contain an aspect of anxiety. The way the metropolis holds to bland, timeless stereotypes of rurality may indicate a fear of acknowledging that metropolitan lives and affluent cities were built not through the natural resources of an unchanging and predictable green and pleasant land, but through wealth brought from abroad by first colonial expansion and then commercial exploitation, in a globalised world which we fail really to morally contemplate. The inability of the metropolis to digest its colonial history, to acknowledge the sometimes unsavoury sources of its wealth, are in this way directly connected to the stereotypes against which we, in Wales, or Cumbria, or the Highlands, struggle.
If there is anger in parts of the UK because people feel that their culture is under threat, perhaps what manifests as an anxiety about immigration is really displaced anger about the negation of non-metropolitan lives and cultures? It is not simply that the metropolis is unable to respond or hear rural voices. It is worse than this: in many parts of the country the rural voice is entirely silenced even for itself. Rural areas, immersed in a stereotype of themselves in which the only positive direction is backwards – toward an essentialised green and pleasant myth – vote for a return to this greatness. The metropolitan culture’s own failure to acknowledge this blindspot about rurality has taken it, unwillingly, kicking and screaming, out of Europe and further from its sense of itself as cosmopolitan, internationalist, and universal.
One of the tremendous things about having an independent publishing scene in Wales, in both English and Welsh, is that we do have access to a meaningful literary dialogue about ourselves. As long as devastating cuts to the Welsh Books Council are avoided, we are not entirely dependent on the British media or commercial publishing industry to define what we are, what we can say, or what we should be. This makes for some highly interesting writing. And it is the very particularity of this writing which can make it universal. Welsh writers, from Caradog Pritchard to Caryl Lewis and Thomas Morris, have a breadth that comes through attending steadfastly to their own backyard, just as Lawrence, Steinbeck or Faulkner did.
In Wales, it’s been noted that the areas in which the Welsh language is at its strongest tended to vote to remain in Europe in June 2016. This speaks to the ways in which sophisticated and contemporary notions of rurality, developed through our Welsh language media and literary culture, do not see a contradiction between the rural and such notions as multi-lingualism and multi-culturalism.
Alys Conran’s novel Pigeon (Parthian Books, 2016), is shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize. Pigeon is the first novel to be published simultaneously in English (original) and Welsh (translation). Her short fiction has been placed in the Bristol Short Story Prize, The Manchester Fiction Prize and The Bath Short Story Prize. She also writes poetry, short-fiction, non-fiction, creative essays and literary translations from Welsh, Catalan and Spanish. Having spent several years living in Edinburgh and Barcelona, she now lectures in Creative Writing at Bangor, where she is originally from. She was recently British Council writer in residence with an Inuit delegation to Wales.
You can view the original event listing for Translation from Outside the Metropolis here.
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