I went to the first day of Cardiff’s second Fiction Fiesta – Saturday 18th May 2013.
Fiction Fiesta, they tell us, is:
An innovative programme of literary events celebrating international fiction and poetry in translation alongside home-grown talent.Here are my thoughts on the day. The morning sessions were more academic, discussion-led, while the afternoon sessions were primarily readings. I hope some of this translates, as it were.
I’ve been a student at Cardiff University since September. And this, shockingly, is the first time I’ve set foot in the main building.
The room we’re in – The Council Chamber - is a little more formal than the Humanities building – wooden panels and liver-spotted paintings of University-type men (no women) looking very official and Chancellorific. Tomorrow will be in Dempsey’s bar. They couldn’t book it for today.
There’s a stall being set up by Amy from Seren Books. Lots of lovely books. I would buy a lot of them, but I don’t think I’ll get away with it.
I buy a pre-publication copy of New Welsh Review issue 100, and donate some money to the charity we’re supporting today: Education For The Children, who support the poorest of children in Guatemala and other Central American countries.
Let the Fiesta commence!
I: The Translated Life of Rebecca Jones
At about twenty-past nine on this Saturday morning, after two weeks of trying to find some time to read her book, Angharad Price broke my heart.
I wanted to tell Angharad Price this, but she scarpered, straight after the morning session, which was a great shame, as I’d loved to have had the chance to do that awkward eavesdrop while she talks to someone of importance while I hover, hoping to get her attention.
Anyway, Angharad, in conversation wirh Jon Gower,was a very interesting. In speaking about her novel The Life of Rebecca Jones / O! Tyn Y Gorchudd , she was very self-deprecating or reticent about her ‘authorship’ – instead pointing out that the book was fact, and she’d just compiled the words. The eponymous Rebecca was Angharad’s great aunt. The book is the family history, through Rebecca’s eyes.
However, and this is a point Jon Gower made: Angharad as ‘historical compiler’ or ‘historical embellisher’ acts like a seamstress, stitching these disparate pieces of story together. A motif attached to title character, too.
The book is frequently described as being about a family where there are three blind brothers. What Price does best at, though, is to align the sympathies and pride of the readership with the narrator, the aforementioned Rebecca Jones, and to gain an interest into her world, and life.
That this understated character can have so buy reader buy-in, that so many readers will and have reacted as I did, with utter sadness, then it goes to prove that Angharad Price is not a storyteller, or a story thief, but a writer, using the foundations of reality and family to tell her story, her truth, of the life of Rebecca Jones. It’s Rebecca’s ‘autobiography’ – and therefore Angharad’s work.
Whether there is a veil in the way or not, it’s irrelevant. This book (Angharad said it isn’t a novel!) with its combination of deliberately simplistic and quotidian prose, elegant, almost spiritual passages about the river, and the poetry of englyn and hymns and longer poems, works so well. It takes in the whole of the Twentieth Century, and the history of farming in Wales, and makes it personal and compact rather than the expansive outside world. It takes Rebecca Jones, and makes her sing and love.
Angharad clearly adores her book. It took her the best part of 10 years to allow a translation into English:
‘I wanted to let it breathe in Welsh’
I think it was a very sensible decision. Having won at the Eisteddfod, the book was immediately published. In Welsh it quickly became canon, and the lack of a translation maintained that specialness. As an established welsh book, appreciated in English, as a work in translation, as a glimpse into a truly different culture and language.
There is a sense of inevitability when she talks about the success of the book. When translated, a parallel English / Cymraeg edition was published, and barely noticed. Lateran English-only edition it was published by a London-based press, and all of a sudden it is reviewed in national broadsheets and declared a masterpiece. Which it is.
II: Displacement and Childhood
The second panel at Fiction Fiesta saw the Argentinian short story-writer and journalist Inés Garland and Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon read from their work, and discuss it, with prompts from the chair - Fiesta patrón Richard Gwyn.
Garland, though prolific in her homeland, has just had her first story translated and published in English, by Senor Gwyn inthe 100th issue of New Welsh Review.
Halfon is also widely published in Spanish, but his first book to be translated into English so far is last years The Polish Boxer.
Halfon’s novel-ish-short story collection is the best thing I’ve read in the last six months, hands down. It is also the only thing I’ve read three times in the last six months. I did get to tell him this, thankfully. He didn’t run away screaming or call the police.
The panel talked about identity and versions, alternate selves: Halfon’s narrator in The Polish Boxer is a character called Eduardo Halfon, but is not the same person.
‘He smokes a lot. I smoke a little’
Garland too writes of a reality / fiction amalgam – her story 'A Perfect Queen' takes in an incident of her childhood, but she remembers it, deliberately unreliably, mixing fact with what it needs to work as a story.
Both writers, although from very different parts of the Americas, talked of the idea that in ‘Latin American’ writing, there is no dividing line of fact and fiction, only stories. Halfon makes the point that he wants the reader to feel like they are reading real events.
This is the writing of ‘a truth’, rather than ‘the truth’.
A question from the floor asks how South American Literature or Latin American Literature can be such a collective genre, almost, whilst European literature does not have the same catch-all generalisation / genrefication. Garland and Halfon admit their own difficulty in even obtaining each other’s work – that Guatemalan fiction is not available in Argentina, and vice versa. Spain is the melting pot where this work all meets, to be dispatched and consumed.
It is all too easy to compare everything with Márquez, with Borges, or Bolaño , and ignore that there can be other voices, lacking in magical realism or whatever else is ‘expected’ of a South American author
What neither mention, which is apparent to me, is that it is easier to pigeon-hole all Spanish language writing from South America as ‘South American Literature’. European fiction cannot really exist, in that we have too many different languages, the romance and Germanic and Slavic (...etc) roots of which all provide different textures and rhythms.
Whereas (lusophonic Brazil aside) Central and South America, ‘Latin’ America, are united by this linguistic consensus, by a collective consciousness of words. European fiction is too diverse and dispersed to ever have the same impact as English, North American or Latin American literature, purely because it lacks that unifying communal vocabulary.
One thing that united the panel, language and literary capability aside, is there sense of wanderlust, of displacement even. Perhaps this sense of travel and ennui at sitting still is the key to writing. Gwyn spent a long period vagabonding about Europe. Garland started as an au pair in London before heading for the continent, while Halfon moved from Guatemala to the USA and back to Guatemala. He is half-Jewish, and married to a Spaniard. He used a unique Spanish word, one that can almost be translated as an extreme form of displacement and unbelonging.
I think he should move to Cardiff. We could be friends. I don’t tell him that. He might take out a restraining order.
III. Potter versus Gower
Readings from poet Clare Potter and writer Jon Gower were the first serving of afternoon entertainment. Clare went first. As Jon said straight after.
‘Remind me never to try and follow Clare Potter’
She performed her poetry with such singsong gusto and humour and love for the subjects. Potter sings and almost raps, fusing Blackwood valley-girl with a New Orleans jazz twang that just captivates. I saw her do a similar set of poems in October, one of her first performances after taking some time off. Some six months later and she really is back. I'm a prose writer, but Potter really could make me turn...
Jon, freshly nominated for the Welsh Book of the Year award for his Wales at Water’s Edge read some of his work, and it was clear quite why he has been so highly regarded.
IV. Pick a Number
Tiffany Atkinson, albeit sore-of-throat, read some tricky poems. Tricksy as they made you laugh and then regret laughing and want to cry. Her traffic jam poem (the name of which escapes me) being the prime example of this phenomena. I've got to stop enjoying poems. I'll start writing them again if we're not careful.
Charles Boyle, a man of many nom-de-plumes, read from
his ‘Jack Robinson’s collection of micro-vignettes from London ,W12.,
Days and Nights in W12. Boyle read a
selected few, before engaging in a bout of ‘call out the page number’ which led
to unexpected storied being read.
V. Turks, a Scot, and a Welsh ex-vagabond.
Richard Gwyn and W.N. Herbert closed the day with tales of Turkey, and their recent translation project there, and read out some of the work they’d completed. Herbert read a piece he’d translated in Chinese, while Gwyn read some new poetry, prose poems being he’d not written for a while. Herbert finished, at 6pm prompt, with poems of dogs and other such amusement. We even got a poetic duet between Herbert and Potter.
Wine on the lawn, with up’n’coming superstar Joao Morais, and two of my fellow MA classmates. A train home accompanied by one of my tutors, and lots of ideas and inspirations. And confidence, and affirmations, about where my writing is going. I am also very annoyed to have to miss the Sunday session. Here’s to next year, anyway.