Oct. 20, 2009
For IWP participant Fflur Dafydd, the Welsh language is in her blood
Why would a writer who grew up bilingual, with one language the most-spoken in the world and the other understood by only 700,000, choose to limit her audience by working primarily in the language spoken by the few rather than the many? For fiction writer and singer/songwriter Fflur Dafydd, a participant in the 2009 University of Iowa International Writing program the answer is simple: Welsh is in her blood.
(Fflur Dafydd is pronounced fleer DAH-fith.)
"I grew up with Welsh-language activists for parents," she said. "They were very much involved in the Welsh Language Society [see http://tiny.cc/YRdmI]. During the '60s and '70s there were many things that needed to be done. We didn't have bilingual road signs; we didn't have a proper Welsh Language Act; we didn't have Welsh television. So there was a real struggle at that time against English imperialism.
"Both my parents were imprisoned at different times for their acts. My father was imprisoned for six months when I was a baby for his role in a campaign where 12 people from the Welsh Language Society demolished a transmitting tower because there was no Welsh-language television channel. In the end we did triumph, and my parent's generation achieved quite a bit. We were able to have a bilingual education and we were able to reap the rewards of a new attitude toward bilingualism."
So when Dafydd writes and sings in Welsh, her motivations are both literary and political. "Any activism I do it through the work," she said. "The songs are not overtly political, but singing in Welsh is a political decision. I feel that I want to record only in Welsh, I feel that I have something to bring to the Welsh music scene because there are so few of us. I don't think the English language world needs my songs in English in the same way."
She has released three albums in Welsh and has performed in Ireland, Belgium, Croatia, Finland and the United States. [See http://www.myspace.com/fflurdafydd and http://www.fflurdafydd.com/ for more information on her work.]
And yet, because of the encouragement of her publishers and readers, Dafydd's recent writing has become available in English. Her second novel "Atyniad" ("Attraction") was awarded the prose medal at the 2006 National Eisteddfod -- a traditional Welsh competition for writers and musicians -- and is now available in her English "translation" as "20,000 Saints."
"It's been a very long journey for this story, and it has gone through several mutations, but the genesis of it was when I spent six weeks on Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli in Welsh) in 2002 as their first-ever writer in residence. It's quite remote. You have to get there by boat; there's not much electricity; there is a very small community living there; it is only two miles across.
"All sorts of different people are drawn there for different reasons. I found myself being the only artist on the island, but surrounded by people who were interested in a lot of the different aspects of the island -- the archeology, the bird-watching, people who go there for religious reasons. I found this rich tapestry of people and events, and also a real intensity. On one hand you are free and away from the world, but you are also incarcerated, and you can't leave the space. These tensions were a real gift for a writer. The story started with this canvas.
"I wrote a book that was quite abstract and fragmentary. A collection of different recollections of my experiences on the island, coupled with fictional characters and some real character, and there was real mingling of genres."
After winning the prose medal, her Welsh activist spirit convinced her that the book provided an opportunity to educate English-language readers about this iconic location in Wales where, according to myth, 20,000 saints must be buried because of all the religious pilgrims who died there.
"When I began writing it in English I realized that this kind of fragmentary rhythmic narrative that worked in Welsh perhaps didn't work as well in English because of the difference between the languages," she explains. "English is perhaps cooler and more exact, while Welsh was more passionate. What seemed poetic in Welsh seemed overindulgent in English. The kind of humor I have in Welsh is definitely different because I'm inside the culture -- I poke fun at things that Welsh speakers understand. In English I have a different register for the humor -- more understated. Writing in the two languages is like working with different tools. It's like having these two people inside you and they are influencing each other.
"That's when I decided to have a little bit of different agenda, and I saw it as a golden opportunity to talk about the Welsh language and what it's like to be a Welsh speaker, and to be in this small country and have the tensions of a small country. So the island in "20,000 Saints" becomes a microcosm of Wales, and how extreme we can get, but also how we interact with each other in creative ways. By the end of it I had a novel double in size with a completely different thread in terms of plot and the emotional development of the characters. It's been a very interesting and rewarding process."
The result led to her selection as the Oxfam Emerging Writer of the Year.
Her third novel, "Y Llyfgell" (The Library), winner of the 2009 David Owen Prize, the top fiction prize in Wales, in going through a similar process, in which the English version will not be so much a translation as a re-imagining in a different language, for different readers.
The library in the title is the Welsh National Library, an institution that is another source of national pride.
But she is not straying far from her roots: She is simultaneously writing a new collection of short stories in Welsh. "I feel very proud that of all the Celtic languages Welsh is the one that has flourished," she says. "The fact that I am able to live my daily life through the medium of Welsh -- most of the colleagues in my department at Swansea are Welsh-speakers, the people around me are Welsh speakers -- sometimes I forget that it is a minority language. Watching Welsh on television, sometimes you can forget. That for me is a blissful thing that occasionally you forget that not everyone speaks this language."
Dafydd, who teaches at the University of Wales at Swansea and also writes poetry and scripts for film and television, is the first writer to attend the IWP through a new partnership with the British Council's UK Writer-in-Residence Program.
Biographies of all the 2009 IWP writers are accessible at http://iwp.uiowa.edu/writers/index.html.
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