Sugar and Slate

When interviewed for the meettheauthor.com website, Charlotte Williams concluded by saying that ‘there are different ways of being Welsh’. This idea is one of the central themes of her memoir Sugar and Slate. Williams’s Welshness, as a mixed raced woman, daughter of a white Welsh-speaking mother and a black father from Guayana, growing up in North Wales is very different form the kind of Welshness we are presented with in, for example, The Life of Rebecca Jones, where the feeling of belonging is based on Rebecca’s ancestors who had been living in the valley for a thousand years.

Williams’ identity is much more fragmented, which is reflected in the form of the book. It is divided into three parts: Africa, Guayana and Wales, although the individual parts do not describe exclusively the time spent in each place. Moreover, the book itself is made up of various kinds of genres: from a straightforward narration, through poems, songs and letters to newspaper cutouts.

The story is narrated from the lounge of the Piarco Airport in Trinidad. The choice of setting – an in-between space ‘between somewhere and elsewhere’ mirrors Williams’ feeling of hybridity and non-belonging. In the airport she strikes a conversation with Patrick – the rasta-man, as he is referred to, who catches her eye because he is wearing a t-shirt with a map of Africa in it, which sets her off wondering what ‘his Africa is like’.

Coming from the only coloured family in her area, with no black role models available to her, Charlotte Williams defines herself through non-identity – not being white and Welsh enough – and as a result grows up thinking that she is somehow ‘half’, ‘not-whole’ and ‘mixed up’. There are also social pressures concerning her appearance, as she ‘represents her people everywhere’. The book group, however, thought that her feeling of ugliness, caused by not being able to reach Euro-centric standards of beauty, has to do with not only her race, but also gender; had the book been written by a mixed-raced man, it is much more likely that he would not have been as self-conscious about his body.

In search for her authentic identity, Williams travels to her father’s native Guayana only to find out that what she has been looking for isn’t there. Yet again, not being familiar with the local culture, she feels out of place, and, finding herself among, on the one hand, English ex-patriots and, on the other hand, local community in which colourism is still an issue after a history of colonisation, this time she feels too Welsh and too white.

Interestingly, Williams draws a connection between Welshness and blackness. and goes on to suggest that ‘every Welshman is a black man at heart’. The blackness here refers to more than the colour of one’s skin. It symbolizes being victim to linguistic and cultural oppression, marginal position as well as economic exploitation.

Sugar and Slate, however, isn’t merely Williams’ memoir. It is hardly surprising that as an academic and a social scientist, she sets her personal story in a wider context of black history in Wales. Her journey from Wales to Africa, Guyana and back to Wales is interspersed with stories of black presence in Wales, which for the most part have remained invisible. They form Williams’ ‘elmina’ – a collective historical event, which ‘diaspora people’ invent to define their presence in inherited country. On the other hand, the book reveals the role Wales played in the slave trade of the British Empire. While the power relation between Wales and England are often seen as parallel to those of Negro slaves and plantation owners, Williams shows that this view is a simplistic one. She gives the example of Richard Pennant, a slave owner, who used the fortune from his slave plantations in Jamaica to develop the slate industry in North Wales and fund the building of the Penrhyn Castle. As Williams puts it: ‘out of the profits of slave labour of one empire, he built another on near-slave labour’.

Dissatisfied with not finding what was looking for in Guayana, Charlotte Williams returns to Wales, which she decides to claim as her home because ‘neither country would claim her’. Her Wales, however, is not the country of rugby players, black hats and choirs, but ‘it has to do with the twist in the dragon’s tail’. She gives up on trying to ‘find her roots’ and decides to create her identity. As she tells Patrick on leaving him, for people like them, their home is their story and it’s ‘a good place to be’.

Griffri

Christopher Meredith’s Shifts, was recently chosen as the Greatest Welsh novel by Welsh Arts Review. However, the book of our February meeting was his second novel Griffri.

Griffri is a historical novel set in the twelfth century, although not a historical novel in a traditional sense, as the book  does not contain any dates.

The book is an autobiography of Griffri, a poet and storyteller ‘the keeper of memory’, to Morgan, the prince of Gwynllwg and later his brother Iorwerth. Griffri’s story spans fourty years and the narrative is framed by his retelling of the story to Idnereth, a Cistercian monk. The first part of the book depicts the twelfth-century Gwent as a violent contact zone due to the frequent invasions of the Anglo-Normans and shows the power struggle between the Welsh princes themselves as well as the members of Morgan’s family. The second part of the story is Griffri’s attempt to make sense of the events in hindsight.

Some critics see the choice of the setting – Meredith’s birthplace, Gwent – as crucial, and interpret the novel as his attempt to repossess the history of the area as essentially Welsh. Nevertheless, although some of the characters are real figures, the preface states that ‘all of the people in this story are fictional, including the ones that really existed’.

As well as being an autobiography of a poet, Griffri examines the role of memory and storytelling in creating identity both of individuals and nations. While memory is shown to be inaccurate and unstable – Griffri cannot remember whether he ‘remembers the story or remembers the remembering’ – in order to belong, to know ‘who’s us’ making sense of the past and imposing order on the memory, re-making it into a coherent narrative, is a necessary element in creating a nation’s history.