And… another year has flown by, almost, with 2023 just around the corner, on my part of the globe at least. Aside from being occupied with family life and Russia’s abhorrent attack on Ukraine (my father’s wife is Ukrainian), my professional focus this year was on place writing and a 16-week floristry course I completed. The latter I took for the sequel to Coffee Spills & Songs I’m working on. Readers of my book will know that protagonist Carys is considering a career change and she follows through in the sequel, A Rose for Bethan, by accepting a job offer from Mrs Meads’ son Paul to come and work in his garden centre. The third instalment of the trilogy will see her moving to Wales and (probably) start a flower shop there. I was actually inspired to do some basic floristry training by the historical novelist Helen Steadman, whom I briefly studied with at MMU. Helen trained as a herbalist for her first novel Widdershins, and later as a blacksmith for her third novel The Running Wolf.
Of course, Carys moving to Wales and following in her sister Cadi’s footsteps is a plotline inspired by my interest in place writing, a topic I’ve explored more in-depth this past year.
For starters, I joined Yasmin Chopin’s fortnightly, online Place Writing discussion group that centred on non-fiction texts with a strong sense of place. Yasmin researches memorial benches for her Ph.D. in Place Writing at MMU and she runs a place-writing newsletter that is free to join!
Then, in the first week of March, I responded to a call for papers for the Women Talk Place Symposium. I was delighted to hear my paper on marginalised language was accepted for the online day on September 2 and would be part of the ‘Language and Belonging’ panel session, alongside Emma Dawson Varughese and Sue Allan.
A brief recap
During the seminar, I talked about negative attitudes towards Welsh and Sami, about being a speaker of a marginalised, minority language myself (Frisian), and how stigmatisation made me abandon my Frisian roots and not pass the language on to my children. They speak Dutch without the sing-song Frisian accent that is so often mocked, which was my sole objective for not speaking my mother tongue to them. However, after I came to understand the role stigmatisation by non-Frisian speakers had played in my decision to stop speaking Frisian (my mother once asked me: ‘why don’t you speak Frisian anymore? We are losing our language’), I had a change of heart and gradually re-embraced my roots. But of course, my kids’ understanding of Frisian is very limited now, and they always reply to me in Dutch. Should they ever have kids themselves, it’s unlikely they’ll speak Frisian to them. Ultimately, this is how negative attitudes toward a minority language can result in its extinction. My regret about my choices are reflected in the following passage of my novel Coffee Spills & Songs, in a scene where Carys looks at her late father’s paintings.
He painted Brecon Cathedral often and sold quite a few of them too. His stock phrase ‘I’m a Brecon boy,’ still echoes through my head now and again. He was a very proud Cymro. At every family gathering, he’d get on his hobby horse and start a discussion about Saunders Lewis. I still see him in my mind: perched on someone’s sofa, elbows on his knees, his fingers wrapped around some dainty plate, while raving about Lewis’s Tynged yr Iaith lecture and guzzling slices of Bara Brith. […] Still, at home he was very serious about what it meant to be Welsh. Dark thunderbolts danced in his eyes whenever he spoke about the English who had beaten children for speaking Cymraeg amongst themselves in schoolyards. Dad always spoke Welsh to us, but we mostly answered him in English, especially as we got older. Recalling this now, I feel a stab of regret because I know it hurt him. (p. 82/83).
There are so many marginalised minority languages in the world, but for my twenty-minute presentation, I chose to talk about the Sami and Welsh (besides Frisian). Obviously, my negative experiences as a speaker of a minority language are nothing compared to those (or those of the Ukrainian and other persecuted people) .
There are 9 different variations of the Sami language and in the film Sami Blood Skolt Sami is spoken, of which there are only 500 (!) speakers left.
Director and screenwriter, Amanda Kernell, who has a Swedish mother and a Sami father, wrote and directed the film. Sami Blood is set in Sweden in the 1930s and gives great insight into the Sami’s way of life, and what being colonised does to people. Early on in the film, the 14 y/o protagonist Elle-Marja is forced to strip naked in front of other children. She’s photographed, and a Swedish doctor measures her face and head because it was thought that Sami children had smaller brains than Swedish children and were, therefore, less bright. In Sweden and Norway, the Sami languages were forbidden in schools. In Norway, even the traditional Sami chants, called “yoiks”, were illegal for almost 200 years.
In the film, Elle-Marja is told by her mother to speak Sami, but when Elle-Marja, speaks Sami to her sister in class, her Swedish teacher overhears and hits Elle-Marja on the fingers with a stick.
When you look at the treatment of minority groups by colonizers, you will notice that very similar measures were installed to stigmatise them and to rob them of their cultural identities. The example of not being allowed to speak Sami in class is reminiscent of the Welsh Not sign that Welsh children had to wear if they were caught speaking Welsh amongst themselves in class.
‘A child caught speaking Welsh would be required to wear a rope around her/his neck with a piece of wood attached with ‘WN’ or ‘Welsh Not’ inscribed upon it. That child was only allowed to pass on the stigma if they caught another child speaking Welsh. At the end of lessons, the child left wearing the Welsh Not would be punished.’ (Madoc-Jones, Iolo. (P. 217). “Linguistic Sensitivity, Indigenous Peoples and the Mental Health System in Wales.” International Journal of Mental Health Nursing (2004) 13, pp.216-224. Web).
This measure of banning the Welsh language from schools and punishing children for speaking it, was a result of the conclusion of the notorious 1847 Report into the state of Education in Wales, that said:
”[t]he Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of its people. It is not easy to over-estimate its evil effects.” (qtd. in Madoc-Jones 217).
But in Sweden, things went even further. In 1922, Sweden founded The State Institute for Racial Biology, which purpose was to categorise ethnic groups. They had an invasive Sami research programme, which among other things included compulsory sterilization of some Sami women, until 1975. In the film Sami Blood, Elle-Marja ends up abandoning her Sami roots and as a viewer you totally see why.
As for Welsh, even today, there is still reason for debate, it seems, and it centres on the accent:
Welsh proud of ‘unpopular’ accent: (BBC NEWS | Wales | Welsh proud of ‘unpopular’ accent)
‘Welsh accents are among the least popular in the UK, according to a BBC poll.’
Leanne Wood told to ‘moderate’ Rhondda Welsh accent: (Leanne Wood told to ‘moderate’ Rhondda Welsh accent – BBC News)
Personally, I think people should accept a language as it comes, including lilts and accents. Why should we all have to sound the same? If I had learnt this earlier, my children would have been raised bilingually, like myself, my siblings and my parents.
Now, for all my talk about minority languages, the irony that I write in English doesn’t escape me. In fact, my only published pieces this year were on being an exophonic writer. Maybe that’s because Frisian leans more towards English than it does to Dutch, but I never learnt to properly write in Frisian. Children in Friesland only get half an hour of Frisian a week in primary school and in secondary school it’s not taught at all, I believe. Maybe that’s why I turned to English, as I did get loads of English lessons in school. But I’m pleased that I can write about what interests me and reach a wider audience in English. And I think that when it comes to representing minority and marginalised places and cultures in literature, place writers, travel writers and translators can play important roles.
In fact, the challenges a writer can face when writing characters who are marginalised by language, and whose identity with place is crucial to their development on the page is the last topic I broached during my presentation:
When you write about place, spare a thought for the people who have built and inhabited it. Are you aware of marginalised communities in the places you write about? It’s especially important to remember that there is attitude that revives and attitude that destructs. And that what you write may be internalised by others and reach households.
Ask yourself how you define other cultures or regional minorities. Do research, so you don’t misrepresent people, And ask yourself how you define your own identity and culture. What feelings are attached to your sense of identity?
It’s also interesting to examine how minority writers write about themselves, especially as some topics may be difficult to approach, such as stereotypes (especially when they’re true).
In his novel Popular Music from Vittula, Mikael Niemi writes about characters who grow up in Pajala, a small town in the Tornedalen region in Sweden, where people speak Swedish, Finnish and the minority language Meänkieli, which means ‘our language.’
Niemi was born and bred there himself and he writes about home and what he observed there, which is men on the dole, who turn to the bottle, and poverty-stricken women, who breed like bunnies.
But Niemie does show the whole picture, so as a reader you understand why it’s bleak and you don’t judge.
HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!