I am one of the (relatively) few American academics specializing in the English-language literature of Wales, sometimes referred to as Anglo-Welsh literature. The term that most of us working in the field use is Welsh writing in English, to distinguish the writing from the much older yet still thriving tradition of Welsh-language literature and to avoid being limited by the colonial connotations of anything following “Anglo” and a hyphen. As I travel to conduct and present research, the most frequent questions I am asked are not about the research itself, but about how I came to be interested in Wales at all. These questions move beyond the kind of friendly interest one takes in other people’s careers and often approach something closer to bewilderment. Both in the US and UK—and especially, as it turns out, within Wales itself—I am asked questions like “How on earth did you wind up in Wales?” and “What is an American doing studying Welsh literature?” These are put to me by academics and non-academics alike, and they are often immediately followed by, “What’s the connection?” The implication, of course, is that there must be some family association or unusual circumstance that led me to Welsh studies. But as much as I’d like to claim that I’ve traced my genealogy to the small Welsh village of a distant ancestor or that my great-grandfather left the Welsh valleys and came to America to find work, there is no such romantic connection. Westover is a very English name, and the only family connection I have to Wales is my second cousin Brian, also an American of English descent, who owns and operates a hostel in the Snowdonia National Park.
The easy rejoinder to these questions, and the one I’m sometimes tempted to offer, is Why not Wales? Really, why should it seem weird? No one would blink if I went to London to study the Bloomsbury Group. It’s okay to like Virginia Woolf just because, you know, she’s awesome and stuff. But not Welsh literature, it seems. Having answered the question so many times, I admit to having tried out a few tall tales to see how reactions would differ. I once told an archivist at the National Library in Aberystwyth that my ancestors were from Merthyr and were converted to Mormonism by Captain Dan Jones—a famous missionary who translated the Book of Mormon into Welsh—and that they immigrated to Utah and founded the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. She was completely satisfied and even pulled a first edition of the Welsh Book of Mormon from the archives, for which I still feel guilty (but not too guilty since it was a beautiful book). The real answer to the question of Why Wales? (and the one I usually give, I promise) is much simpler than people expect it to be: I was exposed to the writing of several writers from Wales, and I felt a pull. I didn’t know what Welsh writing in English was or how it did and didn’t fit into my puerile, monolithic idea of British literature. But I knew that this work was at least as good and often better than the work I was reading in my official “British literature” courses and that the more I read, the greater the pull became. That story is not as exotic, but it has the benefit of being true.
Here is a slightly more detailed version: I was an undergraduate at BYU, where the Welsh poet Leslie Norris was poet-in-residence. Although I was never able to take a class from him (they were always full; my brother, now an English professor at the same school, was luckier), I went to his readings and studied his poems and stories. I didn’t understand them, but I wanted to. They upset me. They seemed to be about boys running around Welsh villages, but there was an anxiety running beneath the lines, something disquieting. It was around this same time that I discovered a novel called A Toy Epic by a writer named Emyr Humphreys. I could swear I found it in the university library, but I have just checked online, and it isn’t there, so unless they’ve since pulled it from the stacks, I don’t know how I got hold of it. In fact, it really does seem amazing to me now since of all Humphreys’s works, A Toy Epic is the novel that was thought to be too Welsh for American tastes and, as a result, never found an American publisher. It isn’t an easy book for an American to find, as the students who take my Welsh literature seminar will tell you. (Wait, this will be even better than the Tabernacle Choir story! The miraculous journey of A Toy Epic onto American soil and into my hands!) A Toy Epic was very strange. There were multiple boy narrators with strange names like Iorwerth and Albie, and there was nothing to mark where one stopped speaking and another began. And there were words and whole sentences of dialogue written in a language that I could only assume was Welsh. Despite this (maybe because of this) I couldn’t put the book down. Here was a boy, like me, who grew up in an intensely religious environment and was struggling to define himself against those inherited ideologies, and here was another boy who, like me, had always done well in school but had not yet managed to find a subject he cared about. Here were boys skipping class and discovering God and sex and politics and hurting each other and growing to love each other despite their differences. I now understand that the boys in A Toy Epic are representative of different Welsh social, economic, and cultural positions between the two World Wars, and that the novel is also a border novel that traces complex interpersonal and linguistic relationships along Offa’s Dyke. (Note to the editors of The Longman Anthology of British Literature: there is a border between England and Wales despite your claim, in your entry on Dylan Thomas, that Wales “is wholly contained within the borders of England.”) At the time, however, I only knew that the book was wonderful.
In 2000 I began a studio-academic MA/MFA program at McNeese State in Louisiana. It was that year, in a course with the brilliant John Wood, that I was introduced to the poetry of R. S. Thomas (who died that same year and whose centenary is this year).
Thomas’s work was nothing like that of Leslie Norris. It began with drooling hill farmers slogging through mud and ended with experimental poems about God. He seemed to hate the very English language that he used in his own poems, and I couldn’t decide whether he loved or loathed the Welsh people. I was confused by someone who could seem so misanthropic on one page and then, on another, turn out one of the most beautiful love poems I had ever read. As someone who had been raised to believe in an anthropomorphic, loving deity, I was also captivated by depictions of a God who was distant, who demanded blood and sacrifice, and who refused to be pinned down by human concepts. And as a poet myself, concerned with learning the craft, I was intrigued because Thomas was doing things with form and metaphor that I had never encountered. In his late work especially, he was breaking lines at unexpected places in a way that always kept me engaged. Thomas’s work became the subject of my MA thesis, and when that didn’t satisfy me, I set about looking for someone who could supervise a Ph.D. It quickly became clear that the scholars who could direct my research were all in Wales. This would probably still be the case, but that is changing.
I don’t mean to paint myself as the lone wolf (dragon?) of North American Welsh studies. There were others there before me, and we are growing in number. We meet every two years with scholars from the UK at the conference of the North American Association for the Study of Welsh Culture and History (NAASWCH). Those living in the UK meet annually at the Annual Conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English (AWWE). There is also a journal devoted to scholarly work in the field. First called “Welsh Writing in English” and then “Almanac,” it is now called the International Journal of Welsh writing in English. For those interested in a history of the literature and critical approaches to some of its prominent authors, I recommend as a starting point the book Welsh Writing in English, edited by M. Wynn Thomas. But most important of all is, of course, the literature itself. A good place to begin is the wonderful Library of Wales series, published by Parthian.