Huw Williams reviews ‘Wales Unchained’ by Daniel G. Williams.
Review: Wales Unchained – Daniel G. Williams
This UWP publication is the latest in a series of rich and provocative contributions from the Swansea Professor. This summer it has provided the backdrop to a stimulating debate between himself and Simon Brooks, author of the previously reviewed Pam Na Fu Cymru. The book provides a powerful if indirect challenge to Brooks’ critique of progressive politics, and its capacity to buttress the Welsh language and Welsh nationalism. They are two very different texts, and if Brooks tears up one’s mental picture of the Welsh radical tradition with swingeing cuts and thrusts, reading Wales Unchained is akin to a series of fizzing explosions in one’s head. Lucid commentaries and insights around the question of Welsh identity flow thick and fast. Both books achieve what good academic work ought to: they leave you with a fresh appreciation and new perception of the subject matter. Wales will never seem the same again.
Williams presents us with a collection of comparative essays that takes Welsh and American literary figures as its main focus. In discussing ideas of Welsh identity through concepts such as race, class, ethnicity, language and gender he endeavours to bring our attention to the ‘diversity and complexities of Welshness’ and unchain us from our hackneyed self-perceptions of ourselves as a people. Part of this process unfolds through allowing us a glimpse of ourselves from stateside, in particular the American response to Dylan Thomas.
More broadly, and more politically, he situates his writing as a response to both the “assimilationist” tendencies of Dai Smith’s writing that have worked to marginalise a ‘still-living Welsh language culture’, and latter day attempts to envisage a ‘post-national’ Wales. This more recent tendency rejects the possibility of Welsh nation-state in place of ‘a partially autonomous Wales that has a liberating effect for all its people’ – as proposed by the historian Chris Williams.
Whilst challenging and criticizing such perspectives is his primary purpose, Williams asserts there is reason to be wary of the possible homogenizing and discriminating effects of the nationalist project. In this respect he provides implicit and explicit criticisms against a narrowly defined account of cultural Welsh nationalism that can create boundaries. It is his aim to elicit the possibility of a multicultural, multiethnic Welsh nationalism that is able to sustain its linguistic and cultural particularity whilst remaining dynamic, tolerant and open.
In turning to literature and the ‘testimony of art’ he shows us how Welsh identity has perpetually been in such a state of flux during the ‘American century’ and is open to negotiation in the future. In so doing he demonstrates that – for better and for worse – we inhabit a far more complex and variegated culture than is often recognized. The writing of Rhys Davies and literary representations of boxing expose racial tensions behind our internationalist veneer, whilst Williams’ account of Bevan and Paul Robeson shows this same attraction to internationalism amongst Welsh historians elides the more ethnic elements of Robeson’s thought – and his admiration for the Welsh culture and language, still prevalent in interwar South Wales.
In the most contemporary chapter, Gwyneth Lewis and Menna Elfyn’s poetry serves to suggest how a forward-thinking bilingualism can both conserve and promote Welsh language and culture in a dynamic, transnational manner. This is accompanied, however, by an anxious recognition that bilingualism may be a stepping stone to a monolingual, Anglicised Wales, and this is where the tensions with some of Brooks’ more conservative tendencies are less profound. Imagining a multicultural, autonomous Wales where the Welsh language takes pride of place entails the same move that Brooks covets, namely the establishment of English and Welsh as the languages of our civic identity – and a bilingualism that entails the ownership of both languages by the many and not the few.
However, Williams presents a less obvious target for critics of Welsh nationalism and the Welsh language, because his vision explicitly embraces the progressive left and so recourse to the accusations of narrow-mindedness and solipsism is forestalled. In this respect, it is no surprise that the ‘Welsh European’ and New Left figurehead, Raymond Williams, is the primary source of inspiration (warning: the chapter on Williams needs to be read in the morning with a strong cup of coffee, as Williams shifts gear from the original and engaging to a weighty and robust defence of Pandy’s finest against his scholarly critics).
In engaging with the critique of Raymond Williams by Black British critics, Daniel Williams alludes to a famous study by Paul Gilroy to suggest that ‘mutual lines of communication and solidarity may emerge’ from the realisation that if ‘there ain’t no black in the Union Jack, Wales ain’t there either’. And indeed, both Williams’ and Brooks’ concerns about the place of Welsh culture and language have been interestingly reflected in Benjamin Zephanaiah’s thoroughly engaging account of his time at this year’s National Eisteddfod
Zephanaiah was excited and enthralled, to the point that he advocated teaching elements of Welsh across the UK – yet even he ultimately implies a view of Welsh culture as one minority amongst many in a British Anglophone Civic society. He does not perceive the difference between such a vision, and a Welsh bilingual civic identity that is itself home to a different kind of multiculturalism.
In his final chapter, Daniel Williams suggests that British ‘multiculturalism’ will always place Welsh culture in a ‘defensive’ position, as an ethnic minority culture fighting for its existence within the British melting pot (which homogenises differences) or the ‘salad bowl’ (in which other identities are allowed to maintain their difference within an Anglophone civic space). In his dialogues with Simon Brooks, Williams asked us to consider a more fundamental question: what’s the make-up of the ‘bowl’ or ‘pot’ itself?
His suggestion is that while Britishness can easily incorporate a Welshness defined in ‘racial’ or ‘ethnic’ terms, as an ingredient in the pot, it has a problem when ‘Wales’ itself is the crucible of difference in which a multiplicity of hyphenated Welshnesses (Black-Welsh, Jewish-Welsh etc.) might co-exist. For this multiplicity to flourish we must be emancipated from the bonds of Britishness. ‘Wales Unchained’ can therefore be read as an attempt at offering a basis for a ‘cultural nationalist’ project for the twenty-first century: a project less engaged in defending a cultural past, but in articulating a distinctive Welsh multiculturalism – built on a bilingual base – for the future.