Sunday Spotlight on Authors Writing in Languages Spoken by Few: Interview with Welsh Author Caryl Lewis

by Alexandra Büchler

Over three Sundays we will introduce kidlit authors writing in what is often described as ‘small’ languages, or, in a more academic way, ‘languages of limited diffusion’ or ‘less widely used languages’. ‘Small’ may be a useful and endearing shorthand, but it also suggests a hierarchy of significance. As the well-known Icelandic writer Sjón puts it: “There are no small languages, only languages spoken by few.” The languages in which the authors introduced here write — Basque, Maltese and Welsh — are spoken by no more than half a million people. The measure of their vitality is that they have survived in the shadow of a dominant language and have managed to gain the position of a co-official language in a bilingual country. But writing in a language not only spoken by few, but crucially, by few non-native speakers, is an obstacle when it comes to reaching an international readership. This is why we would like to highlight these three authors here in the hope that their lovely books for young readers will one day travel further. To kick this series off, Alexandra Büchler has been talking to Welsh author Caryl Lewis.

Caryl Lewis (1978) is a Welsh-language novelist, short story writer, author of books for children and screen writer. Three-times winner of the Wales Book of the Year, she came to prominence with her novel Martha, Jac a Sianco (2004) which, like most of her work, explores the lives of farming families in rural Wales. It was published in English translation as Martha, Jack and Shanco in 2007 by Parthian Books in translation by Gwen Davies and made into a successful feature film. Her novel Y Gemydd (2007) is published this year in English as The Jeweller by Honno Press. Caryl Lewis has also written extensively for cinema and television, notably adapting her novel for the film versionHer TV credits include the Welsh-language scripts of the internationally acclaimed bilingual crime series Y Gwyll / Hinterland and Craith / Hidden.

AB: You are a prolific writer and are mainly known as a writer of novels and of some quite famous Welsh TV crime series. Where does the writing for children and young readers fit in this wide spectrum of genres you cover?

CL: I have always loved writing for children and young people but I also love being a novelist and a screenwriter. I think it’s important to understand the cultural and economic significance of writing in a minority language. Economically, it would be impossible to make a living writing solely for children or producing only novels in Welsh and therefore, it is perfectly normal in Wales to write pretty much everything. It doesn’t speak of a lack of focus; it speaks of working within a very specific environment and overall, I think there are many positives of working that way. You are free to try out writing for different age groups and play with genres and ultimately, I think it makes you a more nimble writer who (hopefully!) finds out pretty quickly, what they really enjoy or don’t enjoy writing.

AB: What are your children’s books about and what ages are they for? Have you created any characters that have become household names?

CL: I have written some collections of stories. The kind of books you might dip into at bedtime. I have also translated the best folk stories from around the world into Welsh. My picture books tend to centre around feelings and nature. Sgleinio’r Lleuad (Polishing the Moon) is about two characters who live on the moon, and as children are too busy to look up, they decide to stop cleaning it, making the whole world go dark. Making the sun not know when to come up. Making the tides not know if they’re coming or going. Everything is alright in the end of course! Merch y Mel (Little Honey Bee) is a book about a girl who stops speaking, but after being introduced to her Grandmother’s bees begins to find her voice again.

AB: You live on a Welsh sheep farm – how does that influence your writing, choice of settings, situations and characters? Your TV series could not be darker and they are mostly set in rural areas, but what about your children’s books? After all, many Welsh children are familiar with farms and farm life.

CL: Yes. We live in a very rural location on the farm and it is a constant source of inspiration. We keep sheepdogs and bees and Welsh mountain ponies and chickens! Nature always find its way into my stories. I think that connectedness is very reassuring to children. The cycles of nature and how we can always make a new start. The screenwriting work has been dark! I have lived in the countryside all my life, and I know it’s not this bucolic paradise either. Nature can be spectacularly cruel. The TV work just reflects that.

AB: The dilemma bilingual writers face at some point is whether they should write for what may be perceived as a limited audience or address a readership in their second, major language. Have you yourself grappled with this question and what has determined your choice to write in Welsh?

CL: It has always been an ambition of mine to write in English. It has always also been incredibly important to me to make a contribution to the culture that has given me so much. I wanted young children to have books in their own language, books that reflected who they were but also books that spoke to them in their own dialect (Welsh has many dialects) I also wanted to take my time to develop and mature my voice. I think it takes years to be secure in your voice in ONE language! Let alone two! However, I have recently branched out a little and hopefully will have some exciting news to share very soon…

AB: We don’t really hear about Welsh-language ‘kidlit’ outside Wales. Why is that? The language barrier is surely not the key issue: your novels have been translated into English, though not the short stories.

CL: We have a lot of kidlit translated from English into Welsh but very few books are translated the other way around. Little Honey Bee however, is the translation of Merch Y Mel. I think the competition is incredibly fierce. I can understand why novels are more likely to be translated because of the sales figures. I think, in general, that short story collections sell less, so to translate those I suppose is seen as yet another barrier to their success.

AB: What, in your view, characterises the Welsh ‘kidlit’ scene and what would help to make it better known and relevant to readers in other languages,? How could it join the kidlit that’s increasingly translated into English?

CL: The kidlit scene in Wales is vibrant and strong. Great strides have been made recently in the YA sector. The grant system in Wales has allowed writers to write more sophisticated and longer works for tweens and teens which is great. You will never make much money from royalties in a minority language so any extra help is vital. The picture books are sophisticated and have a very European feel. There was a time, I think it’s true to say, not just in the Welsh culture, when writing for children was seen as ‘easy’ but that’s changed so much and because of that, the offer available is wonderful. It would be great to see samples of YA fiction translated into English and then into other languages. I think that it the next logical step…

AB: On the other hand, do you agree that Welsh-language kidlit publishing could benefit from translations into Welsh beyond the usual translations of English books? If so, why?

CL: I myself have translated stories into Welsh and compiled a book of stories from around the world. I think there is something inherent in bilingual people to be curious about other languages and to be open to learning about them. Historically, there were several series’ of books in Wales in the 70s and 80s bringing folk stories from other languages  into Welsh. They were very beautiful and I have many of them in my collection. I think that generally, we are naturally quite good at looking outwards. Now, more than ever though, it would be great to feel that connection with children’s writers in other countries and for children to feel that connectedness and shared humanity that all good kidlit brings.

Join us next week when we’ll be talking to Basque author Harkaitz Cano.

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