Wednesday, August 08, 2012

How do you identify as a writer?

At Easter I was at a conference at Salford University on writing and the small presses, and Professor of English Lucie Armitt, who'd invited me to speak, asked me if I identified as a Welsh writer. For a moment I felt stumped. Did I or didn't I?  It's one of those questions that have me floundering, and feeling that there aren't enough words, or the right words, to tackle this whole issue in a single conversation. I answered that no, I didn't identify as a 'Welsh writer': my Welsh background does of course strongly influence my outlook, and therefore of course how I write, but there are other strong influences - not least my education in English Literature and the many long years I've lived in England, as well as my father's Irishness, and the fact that some of my ancestors were quite probably from Eastern Europe and that others may have been black slaves. I've therefore never really identified strongly with any particular nationality - I always refuse to fill in those sections on questionnaires, and national pride usually gives me the creeps - and of course all of this affects who I feel I am as a writer. Writing to me is a state without boundaries: and realising this makes me realise also that this is why I write.

And then the other day on her blog the writer Nuala Ni Chonchuir called me 'the English writer Elizabeth Baines.' It's fair enough: I live in England and have done so for many years, I've mainly been published by English publishers, and, perhaps because writing to me is this universal place beyond geographic boundaries, I tend not to name locations in my writing, and they're probably taken as consistently English although some are Welsh. But, I tell you, the phrase really shocked me. I found myself thinking: Me? English? But I'm Welsh by birth; by parentage I'm  half-Welsh, half-Irish! And don't I write against the English canon? English? Me? That, I discovered, is how I feel after all these years of Anglicisation - my Welsh grandmother's punishment in school for speaking Welsh, my own inability to cope in a Welsh-speaking school, the way that, by the time I was a ten-year-old in England no one would have guessed from my accent that I hadn't been born there, the way I felt English - indeed, identified as English - at a Welsh university. No, I was far more shocked, in the end, to be called an English writer than to be asked if I identified as a Welsh one. Maybe I'm not as impartial as I've thought...


Vanessa Gebbie said...

It is interesting, isn't it - the establishment's insistence on a boundary within which one is a Welsh writer, and outside of which one isn't.
Questions might be asked, such as, Do you live in Wales? Were you born in Wales? Are you Welsh speaking? To which, for this writer, the replies would be negative... and yet, please god, do not make me English.
Do not make me the same nationality as the man who said to me only a fortnight ago with a snide laugh, when he heard I was going to north Wales - 'Take those bloody stupid road signs down - there is no need for them, they are a joke.'
It was a joy to sit on the prom in Criccieth and listen to a group of young women, no more than teenagers, nattering in a language that is older arguably, than English. Great to go back to Dolgellau, where I went to school, and see there is no longer a road sign to Dolgelley, which never really existed except in some roadsignmaker's manual.
That stupid bloke was a throw-back to English colonialism. I do not understand his language at the most important level there is.

But similarly, please, Welsh establishment, do not invent boundaries. Look at the make up of the population of Wales today, certainly in the valleys, where my family come from, and you will find English blood (whatever mongrel blood that be), Irish blood, Italian, Jewish, and on and on and on.

All Welsh.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Very well said, V!

BRIDGET said...

As second generation Irish, the question of identity is a preoccupation, a process of self questioning and sometimes a challenge to others (ever heard the term 'Plastic Paddy'?) Part of the legacy of being a child of a cousin once said, a foot in two countries & a place in neither.
I often wondered if part of the problem could be attributed to officialdom's need for exclusive labels - a sense of self doesn't always fit so neatly into boxes. Is the American linguistic ability to claim a wider heritage (American Irish, American Korean etc etc)easier to live with?

Elizabeth Baines said...

That's brilliant, Bridget: 'a foot in two countries & a place in neither'!