Tuesday, 19 April 2011

GUEST BLOG: Review by Eluned Gramich of The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell and A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth

The Culture Show recently declared twelve novelists as the ‘Best Newcomers of 2011’. It was particularly gratifying to see a Welsh woman writer, Deborah Kay Davies, among those shortlisted. But the two novels under review here give a flavour of the diversity of the Culture Show’s list. They could hardly be more different. One is a contemporary, dark comedy by a young female writer; the other a moving historical novel, spanning the twentieth century, by a retired male politician and first-time novelist.

The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell (Phoenix) turns on the life of a retired travel-guide writer, Feliks Zukhovski, who has committed his life to the Communist cause. In the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union and having sold his precious Guide to Eastern Europe, Feliks’ life takes a series of emotional and traumatic turns, forcing him to address buried memories and revisit long-lost relatives and once-loved-ones. The upheavals of the year lead him to reassess his life and his ill-defined values: “Normally, I do not inquire into people’s lives. I prefer to discuss ideas”, he claims. The novel is ambitious, the prose fluent and sparse at moments of great emotional charge, the protagonist tenderly portrayed, but its ambition is its downfall. Jim Powell should have heeded the advice that his character, Feliks, takes so long to learn: that people are more important than ideas. In exploring the political map of Europe between the 1930s and the 1990s, Powell risks reducing his beautifully crafted characters to political types. There are also historical inaccuracies in the novel; it is impossible, for instance, for a Polish family in 1939 to have been able to foresee the scale of the Holocaust, when the full meaning of the event was not apparent until the late 1950s.

Although there is an implausible East German neo-Nazi character, who turns out to be Feliks’ hitherto unknown daughter, most of the cast is made up of French Resistance fighters and Polish immigrants.Why is it that historical novelists have a tendency to choose their main characters solely from the winning side?

The protagonist of Jenn Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy (Arcadia Books) sits irrevocably on the losing side of things; morbidly obese Annie is constantly making social faux-pas with regard to her neighbours, spectacularly failing the goals she has set herself in hilarious ways. Aided by self-help guides for single women, Annie moves into her new home in mysterious circumstances. It is clear that there is something not quite right with the deluded Annie from the first chapter, but the patience and the control with which Ashworth manages to increase this unease about Annie sets the novel apart as a striking exercise in psychological realism. This is the kind of book which makes a reader laugh in public places; and also wince in embarrassment, fearing to read the next line. It is a study of social anxiety, of being alone in a strange neighbourhood; single, and starting out again. Indeed, both novels focus on individuals who are starting again at different times in their lives. Yet, strangely, it is the witty voice of a young writer which denies the possibility of self-improvement, bringing Annie’s attempts to a close with a violent and unexpected climax. In contrast, the warmth and understated humour of Jim Powell’s narrative tempers tragedy, offering a sliver of hope despite all the misfortunes. Despite their differences, both these novelists deserve to belong to the Culture Show’s best twelve.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Roland Mathias Prize 2011

Bleary-eyed from a drive back from Brecon after attending the Roland Mathias award, which has just been made to poet Ruth Bidgood for Time Being (Seren). Octogenarian Ruth was a popular choice with the audience, not only for her dignity, but also as the local contender. Her local square mile: its landscape, deep history, its here and now - minutely known and loved - is the subject of Time Being, from which she read, introducing almost every poem unassumingly as "little". Not a little is the sum she takes home: £3000, although strangely no cheque was presented to her tonight, but only a map of Brecon. I rather think that Ruth, living in nearby Llanwrtyd Wells, was the most likely of the nominees to make practical use of such a map!

The evening plus earlier poetry readings commencing at the unlitfriendly hour of 4.30pm, had an audience of 80 plus, and was extremely well organised: a model award ceremony, which cannot be down to BBC involvement alone but to unpaid, kind hours put in by committee members and judges (including Chris Meredith and Catherine Merriman, also of this parish and not too far away Abergavenny, respectively). No wonder the prize will be a major player in the revamped 2012 Book of the Year Award. Becoming annual, the RM Prize will in future go to the poetry category of the bigger award, effectively becoming part of a shortlist of three for the overall winner across all categories of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. And the poetry prize ceremony remains in Brecon: a coup for literary Wales beyond Cardiff.

Fittingly for its last year in its current form, the shortlist reflected every corner of its remit: short fiction, poetry, history and literary criticism, the latter two being bundled into M Wynn Thomas' In the Shadow of the Pulpit: Welsh Writers and Welsh Nonconformity (UWP). Prof Thomas disarmed the audience by describing his own book as "the cuckoo in the [shortlist's] nest" and "an academic book with modest pretensions to general interest" before arresting us with images from his book. These included renovated contemporary chapels seen as "cross-dressing", and as having become as "incomprehensibe" as Easter Island statues to a new literary generation. These twentieth-century writers, according to Prof Thomas, inherited the fallout of writers from Caradoc Evans onwards who reacted with fury against nonconformism, but do not understand (until they read this book, at least) the vitriol of that reaction.

Huw Lawrence was the only newcomer to this prize, with his debut book, story collection Always the Love of Someone (Alcemi), a meditation on all aspects of love from the romantic to the everyday grind and getting on with it.

Having made a moving tribute to Roland Mathias, the founder of the prize (and of this magazine in its earliest incarnation), MC Sam Adams praised the work of the shortlist's second poet, Oliver Reynolds as "cerebral, witty and human". Stealing a march on the others by reading one of Mathias' poems, Oliver also touched on his own collection Hodge's subjects of colonialism, "Quba" [sic], monumentalism and Cardiff's old Empire pool (I've swum there!).

Ruth Bidgood's poems are fond of images of scars in the landscape, healed over into "smooth hills" where the original rupture is forgotten. This, her twelfth collection may be the pinnacle of a career spanning over forty years. Whichever view you take, this year's Roland Mathias prize ensures that Ruth Bidgood isn't forgotten. Full details

Literature Wales Writers’ Bursaries

Glad to see that bursaries for authors will continue to feature as part of the brand new Literature Wales (formerly Academi) remit. Also that they have opened up eligibility to the authors (text rather than image) of graphic novels, with awards being offered in this category to Carol Swain for the wonderfully named, Gast, and to Huw Aeron for his retelling of the ancient Welsh epic poem Y Gododdin.

The eight successful novelists working in English are: Robert Minhinnick, working on Limestone Man, a follow up to his 2007 novel Sea Holly. Susie Wild, Cynan Jones, Lorraine Jenkin, Tia Jones, Angharad Penrhyn Jones, Julia Crompton (writing as Julia Forster), and Romy Wood. Rachel Trezise will use the time/money to work on her new collection of short stories.

Emily Hinshelwood has secured a travel grant to journey on the Heart of Wales Line, researching climate change in Wales for her new poetry collection.

New Writers’ Bursaries have been awarded to: Jonathan Edwards, Richard Roberts, Angharad Penrhyn Jones, Karl Drinkwater, Huw Aaron and Mari Lisa.

The Welsh-language recipients are Gwyneth Lewis, Meic Stephens, Arwel Vittle, Aled Jones-Williams, Tudur Hallam, Alan Llwyd and Mari Lisa.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

GUEST BLOG: West Papua by Nia Davies

Outside a West London pub, Serogo repeated my name. I’ve been asked about it many times before but I’ve never got this reaction: “Ah Wales – freedom fighters!”

I had just watched fellow West Papuan and opposition leader in exile Benny Wenda speak and sing the story of his country – of the torture, murder and rape of his people and the trashing of his green and sacred mountain land by the Indonesian military. These two men are true freedom fighters – fighting through voice and song for the freedom of the Papuans whose 40-year colonial oppression has to be one of the most outrageously unreported ongoing atrocities of this century and the last.

Having been denied a fair democratic choice to opt for their freedom from Indonesian rule, West Papuans have been bombed for their land, tortured and imprisoned for raising their flag and murdered for singing of freedom or opposing the Indonesian government.

And all this remains largely unknown in the West – or anywhere else for that matter – even in another small green hilly land of long time freedom fighters inching its way ever closer to political and cultural autonomy and dignity. Serogo knew my name, but does the land of my name and the people of these islands more generally know his?

Well perhaps slowly people are taking notice. You can take even further notice by visiting Wenda’s Free West Papua website, or by reading the wonderful Wild – by Jay Griffiths who hosted the evening alongside the filmmaker Dominic Brown. Brown’s film, bravely shot in the never-before-filmed camps of the underground Papuan resistance movement, is available here.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Peter Finch to leave Academi

Peter Finch today announced that he will be leaving Academi literature agency exactly one month hence. He stated,

“On 5th June, 2011 I will stand down as Chief Executive. I intend to continue my work as a creative writer. My role at the head of the newly established Literature Wales will be filled by my deputy, Lleucu Siencyn, while the Board seeks to make a new appointment by the end of the year. As Acting Chief Executive, Lleucu will oversee the completion of the work I have already begun with the merging of Yr Academi Gymreig and [writers’ residential centre] Ty Newydd to form a new dynamic force for readers, writers and writing in Wales.”

We wish Peter all the best of luck in his new role. We also thank him for all his hard work, leadership and passion at Academi, which has done so much to support and lobby writers’ causes. I have mainly been involved with those of Academi’s schemes which aim to compensate for the lack of resources available to publishers: mentoring and bursaries. These, the Book of the Year award, together with the intensive residential courses and retreats available at Ty Newydd, as well as the latter’s new role as Translators House, are all essential services to authors which I hope will remain at the heart of Literature Wales’ remit.

We are very pleased that Peter will contribute to the magazine a new biennial column on Wales’ book scene, starting in the autumn issue, published on 1 September.