By Kathryn Tann

26 April 2021 - 14:31

Two people browsing in Hay-on-Wye bookstore

Crown copyright (2021) Wales

Writer Kathryn Tann reviews the Welsh literature scene through the lens of the British Council Literature Seminar and makes some suggestions for where to start exploring contemporary Welsh prose and poetry, in English or Welsh.

Dynamic, bilingual, internationally-engaged – and often overlooked. Wales has a busy and evolving literature scene which the rest of the UK – and those further afield – would do well to take note of. 

In March 2021, the British Council held its annual Literature Seminar in Germany – though this year there were two major differences. For the first time in its 37 year history, the seminar was held online; and for the first time ever it was entirely Wales-focused, with two Welsh authors jointly chairing the programme of events – Niall Griffiths and Francesca Rhydderch.

When Rebecca Gould, British Council and Elena Schmitz, Literature Wales first started talking about the literature seminar and this year’s Wales focus, the thing they immediately agreed on was the need to present fresh perspectives on Wales and Welshness. Questions of post-colonialism, decolonisation and equity, and how these themes influenced contemporary Welsh writing, were paramount in their minds. 

The result was ‘We Are Wales: Disparate Voices, Landscapes and Stories’, a unique and broad insight into the literary talent, activity and potential within publishing in Wales today. And not only for the German audience, but for the many viewers back home in Wales, the rest of the UK, and further afield, who were able to attend the online events.

Wales has long been known for its tradition of creativity, poetry, story and song – and in today’s landscape of large-scale publishing and literature, it can certainly hold its own. There’s much more to be found beyond Dylan Thomas, the most exciting of which is happening right now.

Wales is home to a plethora of independent publishers and presses

Wales is home to plenty of renowned and talented writers – Griffiths and Rhydderch being among them – but also to a plethora of independent publishers and presses. Among the largest English-language publishers are Seren Books who began in 1981 and are the creators of Poetry Wales Magazine; and Parthian Books who are soon approaching 30 years of publishing. Also operating vibrant lists are Honno, a women’s press established in 1986, and Firefly – a blossoming children’s publisher. Alongside these are long-established bilingual and Welsh-language publishers including Graffeg and Gwasg Gomer. Part of the familiar landscape are also a number of respected magazines and journals, such as the New Welsh Review (who also publish short books and ebooks) and Planet Magazine.

New and rapidly growing ventures caught the attention during the online showcase of Welsh literature. Lumin Press, for instance, are a new small press and curational collective based in Cardiff, who name themselves a radical publisher interested in sharing experimental work through zines, pamplets, artist books and their Lumin Journal. Where I’m Coming From is another rising force in the south-Wales arts scene, a ‘community-focused open mic collective featuring underrepresented writers from Wales and Beyond.’ Through various projects, collaborations, workshops and events – even through the pandemic – these fresh voices have been making real and necessary change in the literary landscape in Wales. 

Supporting the literary arts in Wales are also increasingly popular online publications, including Wales Arts Review, whose founding editor Gary Raymond curated a Welsh arts ‘extravaganza’ for one of the seminar’s evening events. Also discussed was the ambitious Nation.Cymru – a news platform committed to developing a much-needed English-language national news service for Wales. 

Behind all these busy and dynamic organisations, however, is the talent and hard work of individual writers, editors, organisers and artists. 

Fascinating cross-section of the voices being published in Wales now

Chairing the ‘We Are Wales’ Literature Seminar were Francesca Rhydderch and Niall Griffiths – both experienced authors, and both previous winners of Wales Book of the Year. They also invited four established writers from across Wales: Charlotte Williams OBE, Manon Steffan Ross, Zoë Brigley and Richard Gwyn. In addition, six newer writers – rising stars in the Welsh literature scene – were showcased during the events: Alex Wharton, Hanan Issa, Richard Owain Roberts, Joao Morais, Ifan Morgan Jones and Eluned Gramich.

The programme was a fascinating cross-section of the kinds of voices being published in Wales right now – but it was also just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout fiction, non-fiction, poetry and journalism, in Welsh, English, and in translation, there is a wealth of brilliant work being created and encouraged. 

The 2021 ‘We Are Wales’ Literature Seminar ended with a panel who were asked the question, ‘What now?’ But in the time allotted, it was impossible to answer. Wales, like the rest of the UK, is currently embarking on a long and vigorous process of reflection and change. Part of this is re-assessing what it means to be Welsh, an opening of doors and ideas, and a conscious diversifying of the stories being told and printed. 

Throughout the seminar, discussions were had about Wales’ colonial past and conscience, about the importance of translated literature and cultural exchange, about Welsh identity and independence and about the value of language and bilingualism. What became strikingly clear by the closing remarks was that the literary scene in Wales has produced great things – but is capable of even more. New energy is surfacing in exciting ways, and through some really talented individuals. 

There is an appetite for change and an eagerness for what’s to come next in this small but vibrant country – an eagerness which should be observed by those across the border.

Ten books to start a journey into modern Welsh literature

Here’s Kathryn's list of ten books to look out for – including some featured during the seminar – for anyone who wants to start discovering modern Welsh literature:

The Rice Paper Diaries by Francesca Rhydderch (Seren, 2013)

Winner of Wales Book of the Year, English Language Fiction 2014. 

‘The Rice Paper Diaries is a stylish debut. Rhydderch writes beautifully, each sentence elegantly honed’  – Suzy Ceulan Hughes, New Welsh Review

Just So You Know: Essays of Experience edited by Hanan Issa, Durre Shahwar and Özgür Uyanık (Parthian, 2020)

'This probing, honest and illuminating collection of essays is of course very timely but it’s also one of the best books published in Wales in many a moon.' – Jon Gower, Nation.Cymru

My Body Can House Two Hearts by Hanan Issa (Burning Eye, 2019)

‘This unique collection shows that Welsh, Arabic and English flow side by side and sometimes share the same waters… It reminds us that “love’s a lake and the world is thirsty”.’ – Mererid Hopwood

Llyfr Glas Nebo [The Blue Book of Nebo] by Manon Steffan Ros (Y Lolfa, Welsh Language, 2018) 

Winner of the 2018 National Eisteddfod Prose Medal and Winner of the 2019 Llyfr y Flwyddyn (Wales Book of the Year)

‘A novel that you can read in one sitting, and probably will, telling the instantly-absorbing tale of a one-parent family... the truth is revealed slowly in a way that keeps you on tenterhooks.’ – Ifan Morgan Jones

Pigeon by Alys Conran (Parthian, 2017, also available in Welsh as Pijin)

Winner of Wales Book of the Year 2017 and Shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize 2017.

‘…might have been authored by Faulkner… pitch-perfect.’ – Omar Sabbagh, New Welsh Review

Hummingbird by Tristan Hughes (Parthian, 2018)

Winner of the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards 2018

'…lean, lyrical...beautifully nuanced and utterly touching' – Claire Allfree, Daily Mail

Small by Natalie Ann Holborow (Parthian, 2020)

‘Any woman will tell you that loving our bodies is a challenge, but Small reminds us that if women could, we would set this whole place on fire.’ – Zoë Brigley

Filò by Sian Melangell Dafydd (Gwasg Gomer, Welsh Language, 2020)

'After reading this novel, I felt better in my soul. It is a beautiful novel: beautiful in its style, and even more beautiful in its love of humanity.' – Aled Jones Williams, O'r Pedwar Gwynt

Riverwise: Meditations on Afon Teifi by Jack Smylie Wild (Parthian, 2021)

‘What a lovely book, written about one of Wales’s most beautiful rivers. An intimate glimpse in prose and poetry by a man with a profound understanding of his subject. Read and enjoy, I certainly did.’ – Iolo Williams.

Daydreams and Jellybeans by Alex Wharton (Firefly Press, 2021)

‘Daydreams and Jellybeans reveals a world rich with nature, colour and warmth. Words and images combine to create an assured and confident debut collection that will be enjoyed by children and adults alike.’ – Matt Goodfellow


Writer Kathryn Tann

Kathryn Tann