A brief introduction and a few shared thoughts on my book choice for Reading Wales 2022
“…the African thing hung about me like a Welsh Not, a heavy encumbrance on my soul; a Not-identity; an awkward reminder of what I was or what I wasn’t.”
Published by Planet Books in 2002, Charlotte Williams’s Wales Book of the Year-winning autobiographical ‘novel’ has long been lauded by readers and critics alike as an important work responsible for expanding interest in multicultural Wales and furthering our understanding of the nation’s long history of difference and diversity.
Following the author’s appointment by the Welsh Government to lead a new working group to advise on and improve the teaching of themes relating to Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities and experiences across all parts of the school curriculum, it seemed like now may be the ideal time to select this engaging book as the official title of Dewithon 2022.
Sugar and Slate is the story of a mixed-race woman growing up in a small town on the coast of North Wales. The daughter of a white, Welsh-speaking mother and a black, Guyanese father, the book explores her complex identity issues as she travels between Wales, Africa and the Caribbean – before finally returning to her Welsh birthland.
In this memoir-cum-fictional tale of being “half home,” Williams shares with us her geographical, racial and cultural dislocation as a Black Briton by means of a sort of hybrid narrative consisting of prose, poetry and letters. We (and by we, I mean in this instance the people of Wales) are encouraged to question our cynefin – a Welsh word which loosely translates as ‘habitat’ or ‘place’, but also expresses a sense that all human interactions are powerfully influenced and determined by both personal and shared experiences – as she recalls the “polite racism” and ‘outsider’ status of her youth.
As one of the only black people amongst a throng of white faces, she relocates to Guyana as an adult, only to realise she is neither truly Guyanese nor Welsh. Indeed, she concludes that “to be mixed race is not to be half of anything; mixed but not mixed up,” and on the advice of her father, returns to find her “own Wales” – with which she has “a symmetry” that cannot be found elsewhere.
Filled with warmth and humour, Sugar and Slate tempts us to question what it is to belong to Wales by drawing parallels between Welshness and blackness. The narrator refers to “poor old mixed-up Wales” and reflects on her life as an Afro-Caribbean Welsh woman, living in a nation that so often seems unsure of itself.
Williams offers here a unique view of Wales’s complex victim/oppressor position within British history, and I feel sure it will appeal to a wide range of readers, regardless of ethnicity or origin.
“It occurred to me that if I wasn’t going to be claimed by either country then I would have to do the claiming myself. It would be up to me, and if I was going to adopt the country that seemed so reluctant to adopt me, I had to make some sense of myself within it.”
I obtained my second-hand copy of this book via Blackwell’s online marketplace. It was published by Planet in 2002. The cover image is from Asafo: African flags of the Fante by Peter Adler and Nicholas Barnard (Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1992).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Professor Charlotte Williams OBE, Chair of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Communities, Contributions and Cynefin in the New Curriculum Working Group is Honorary Professor at the School of History, Philosophy and Social Sciences at Bangor University; Honorary Fellow at University of South Wales and former Associate Dean and Professor of Social work at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. In 2007, she was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for services to ethnic minorities and equal opportunities in Wales.
Please feel free to share your thoughts on Sugar and Slate.
Categories: Reading Wales