On being Welsh

I went looking for reviews of a book I picked up from the library yesterday, and boy, do I regret it. The book in question is The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley, and the problem was the protagonist’s name. See, the protagonist’s name is Welsh: Myfanwy Thomas. I don’t think you could get much more Welsh unless you had a guy called Evan Evans or something. Now, the author screwed up to begin with, because he decided he didn’t like the way ‘Myfanwy’ is actually pronounced. He wanted it to rhyme with ‘Tiffany’. So that’s what he has his character say, on the first page. That’s… actually annoying enough to me that I’m considering dropping the book without even opening it, but that’s not really the thing.

The thing was, going to look at reviews and finding a whole bunch where the reviewers are just so amused by this weird name. One of them said they constantly read it as ‘my fanny’. Some of them couldn’t spell it, even with it right there in front of them on the book or, even without the book, on the blurb on the very page they were reviewing on.

I remember as a kid asking my mum or dad why I didn’t have a Welsh name, since my mother’s all about being Welsh and proud. The answer I got was, “We thought other kids would make fun of you.” But there I was growing up with a strong Welsh identity in England, so although I’m assured by English people that this doesn’t happen, I was nonetheless bullied for that anyway. And the school sucked at dealing with it: a boy said ‘nigger’ to a friend in the playground, and the whole school got a half hour lecture about cultural sensitivity; I was bullied to tears, called Taffy and thief, on and on, and it was ignored. Inappropriate suggestions about me and sheep were also made, very graphically, from when I was eleven on up, but that wasn’t harassment of any kind.

I didn’t read a book by an author people recognised as Welsh until I was twenty-one (it was Margiad Evans’ Country Dance). In the introduction, Caitrin Collier wrote this:

I grew up in Wales in the 1950s and 60s, yet [Margiad Evans’] work was never mentioned at my school or local library. Whenever I asked the eternal question ‘What should I read next?’ I was directed towards Russian, English, American, German and French novelists. I discovered a few — a precious few — Welsh authors for myself, which only added weight to my teachers’s pronouncement that ‘people like you (translate as South Wales valley born) don’t write’.

That was my experience, too, though granted in England in the 90s and 00s. It mirrors stuff I’ve read about the experience of many more widely recognised minorities — people of colour, the queer community, women, people of non-dominant religions… Some of the discussions I’ve had about figuring out identity, about language — specifically, not speaking your ‘own’ language, or being encouraged not to — and fitting in all chimed with this issue for me.

I pointed out to a couple of these reviewers what kind of cultural issues they were trampling on. But nobody gives a shit, it’s ‘only’ Wales, it’s just a personal sob story about a name that isn’t even mine. (The fact that I don’t have a Welsh name because of exactly these issues doesn’t seem to mean anything.)

“Go and find your own place to tell these stories,” someone said to me, when I brought up that issue of identifying with those issues of other minority groups. “People will listen to you because you’re privileged, and they won’t listen to us. By talking about it here, you’re taking away the attention we need for our issues.”

I can understand why they wanted to keep the boundaries of their space clear, but I wonder why on earth they thought anyone would listen to me? I’m still looking for that mythical place where people will. Half the time, I find myself wondering if I’ve got anything interesting to say at all, but every now and then, someone else reaches back and says, yeah, I felt this too. So I’m not quite alone.

9 thoughts on “On being Welsh

  1. These very heartfelt and valid points echo my irritation at other people’s insensitivity (except when it comes to themselves, and then we mustn’t ruffle their feathers). My childhood was spent in Hong Kong, where I didn’t know quite how I fitted in as an English child born to Anglo-Indians and living in a predominantly Chinese environment. When we moved back to England I was routinely called Hongkongese and Chinky, despite not looking remotely Chinese.

    Then I suppose I put it down to simple cultural ignorance (I’m talking the late 50s here). Nowadays you’d think with being part of the global village things would be different, but people retreat into their cultural enclaves just as much.

    I do empathise a bit though I can’t feel your feelings of hurt. We made some effort to learn Welsh when we moved here ten years ago — I can sometimes follow the gist but am very far from fluent — but was shocked at the attitudes of some few English-speaking Welsh nationals below the Landsker line who had nothing but contempt for the Welsh language. It’s hard to forgive wilful ignorance.

    • I try to always be sensitive to this stuff, growing up with it thrown in my face as it was. It does shock me when people really couldn’t care less.

      To be honest, that attitude comes directly out of English attempts to kill the Welsh language (like the ‘Welsh Not’ and the Blue Books, etc, etc). It’s because of that that Welsh speakers were considered ignorant, didn’t teach the language to their children, etc. I seem to remember someone telling me my grampy didn’t speak English until he was in secondary school, and yet he never taught my dad Welsh at all.

      • Please don’t lump all the English together, the ignorant with the enlightened, the Little Englanders with those who believe in cultural diversity. Much lasting cultural damage was done in the past and there are still many language fascists around who would perpetuate Welsh-Not even now; I disown them utterly.

  2. I totally get this. I’m sorry some people don’t recognize their micro aggressive stances or think about how that affects the victims of these ‘minor’ things,” we’re not insensitive to ‘real racism’ he was just kidding don’t be so sensitive since it’s a joke”. Ugh I always hate when people say stupid stuff.

  3. I am not Welsh and enjoyed ‘The Rook’ but your frustration makes sense especially given your experiences. I’m glad you are Welsh voice and representative out there for others

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