The Hay Festival is always a-buzz with celebrities from around the UK and further afield, but this year’s programme features a strong Welsh contingent, nurturing Welsh literary talent through the Writers at Work scheme, and providing a platform for cultural celebration and debate, from politics to poetry and everything in between.
The Writers at Work programme provides opportunities for 20 Welsh writers to meet publishers, agents and authors, to gain an insight into the global publishing industry and receive advice and encouragement from leading literary figures, funded by Arts Council Wales. I chatted to Louise Walsh, a novelist from Cardiff who is completing the programme for a third time this year. She explained that, whilst the first year was inspiring and encouraging, she also found it quite overwhelming, and it wasn’t until the second year, when they had more workshops and opportunities to write, that she felt able to settle down and learn something from the experience. She is now working on her third novel, set against the backdrop of the 1984 miners’ strike in Wales.
Samantha O’Rourke, a playwright who recently moved to North Wales, described how surreal it is to meet so many famous writers in the flesh, including household names such as Ian McEwan and Simon Armitage. She is currently working on a commission for the Everyman Playhouse in Liverpool, exploring the realities of life for teenage girls who must learn how to form their own identity in a world full of misogyny and peer pressure.
Eric Ngalle Charles, another of the Writers at Work who is originally from Cameroon, described the highlight of his week so far: performing in front of 800 school children, and the intense silence that met him when he finished his performance, knowing that the event was also being streamed out to schools around the UK. His own one-man play ‘The Last Ritual’ was performed for the first time on Monday night, exploring themes of family life, identity and witchcraft, based on his experience of being forced to leave Cameroon as a teenager. He is a talented storyteller, and will be publishing his memoir later this year.
Image: Eric Ngalle Charles being interviewed by Owen Sheers at the Hay Festival 2018
There are a number of Writers at Work events throughout the week, providing opportunities for anyone to come along and hear their work for free. I attended one of the first events on Saturday, and it was a pleasure to hear from Louise Walsh, who read a hilarious subplot extract from her new novel, about Welsh miners plotting to steal Stonehenge, and Emily Vanderploeg, whose poetry explores her own Canadian and Hungarian heritage.
Another highlight of the weekend was the first ever Hay Festival Poetry Slam, featuring two enigmatic Welsh writers: Sophie McKeand, who performed her surreal poem ‘Rebel Sun’, and Rufus Mufasa, whose energetic and powerful performance was inspired by a recent trip to Finland. I also enjoyed attending the screening of a film ‘Diary of the Last Man’, inspired by the poetry of Porthcawl based poet Robert Minhinnick, which captures his deep connection to the landscape.
There was also an interesting academic panel discussion on the subject ‘Wales after Brexit’, chaired by Leanne Wood. I was hoping that this would be a positive debate, but there was an overwhelming sense of despair and an undercurrent of perplexity, as the panellists revealed their collective bias in favour of a remain vote. The discussion might have been more engaging with someone to represent a strong pro-Brexit viewpoint, though it may well be that there are relatively few academics in Wales who would argue from that perspective.
Jasmine Donahaye did make an excellent point, suggesting that the arts in post-Brexit Wales will be just as vulnerable as at any time, and urging us to fight for culture as something relevant on its own merit, that should not always have to justify itself in economic or financial terms. Influential organisations and events like the Hay Festival must surely have their own part to play in this.
The festival continues until Sunday 3rd June, featuring plenty of Welsh writers and events.
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