Fflur Dafydd’s third novel Twenty Thousand Saints is a black-comedy thriller that’s been put forward for The People’s Book Prize voted for by the public. I peek inside the life and inspirations of this prolific young writer.
Being named Emerging Writer of the Year at the Hay Festival last summer and then being put forward for The People’s Book Prize would make most people put their feet up with a rightful air of content smugness. Yet her passion for writing keeps Fflur driven; her impressive repertoire includes journalism, singing and song-writing, screen-writing, poetry and plays – just to name a few! She had her first literary work Y Gwir Am Gelwydd (The Truth About Lies) published at the age of 20; in 2006 she was awarded the Eisteddfod’s prestigious Prose Medal for her second novel Atyniad (Attraction), she is a lecturer of creative writing in Swansea University and a successful singer-songwriter with the band Y Barf (The Beard…don’t ask!).
So, how did she achieve so much at such a young age? “Well, I suppose I’m what you would call an Eisteddfod-geek!”, she laughs. Fflur believes that we’re immensely lucky in Wales as the Eisteddfod offers a platform for the budding writer and then gives them the courage to leap forward to create art works that are separate from it. This is just what Fflur’s done; Twenty Thousand Saints is her first novel not written for a competition, marking her break from the comforting embrace of the Eisteddfod.
The novel – exploring Welsh language and identity
The novel charts Fflur’s steps into the unknown, into her first experience of writing creatively in the English language. She reflects on both the difficulties and benefits of this decision: “Having studied English as a subject, from my BA through to a PhD, I felt it was more of an academic language, colder, more exact somehow.” Simultaneously though, this also became its strength: “I resisted putting so much of myself in the text, and while Welsh may be for me the language of emotion and impulse, English became the language of innovation and exploration.”
Interestingly although this is an English language novel, Welsh peppers the text throughout and is a dominant undercurrent. What struck me as I read Twenty Thousand Saints was the subtle fusion of languages; you become aware that the characters are talking to each other in Welsh even though the written dialogue is in English. Surprisingly, this doesn’t create an awkward written style or a jarring tension as two languages are forced to merge. Instead, the languages flow into each other with ease, mirroring the way in which Welsh and English co-exist within Wales.
Nerys Evans, Plaid Cymru’s AM, explained the importance of acknowledging this duel-identity: “Twenty Thousand Saints reflects the way devolution has perhaps encouraged us to embrace both parts of our identity within Wales, and use the English language to communicate our identities more fully to the outside world.” Becoming comfortable with this duel-identity can be a difficult process, as Fflur said:
“I live both a Welsh language and English language reality from day-to-day, and I wished to communicate the predicament of trying to belong both to the majority culture and the minority culture at the same time.”
Through the characters Deian and Viv, Fflur explores this struggle with language and identity. After the sinister disappearance of his mother Deian leaves his childhood home of Bardsey Island, as a result he is left with an insecure sense of identity that is intensified by the loss of his Welsh language. He returns to Bardsey in adulthood, as an English-speaking archaeologist, and the novel charts his painful journey towards rediscovery.
While Viv, a political activist-turned-nun, leaves mainland Wales for Bardsey Island; a place of solitude and contemplation with a large self-sufficient Welsh speaking community. Viv was an active member in the devolution campaign of 1979 but following the bitter disappointment of the NO vote refuses to return to mainland Wales, to a country that refuses to exist. Towards the end of the novel Viv’s friends convince her to go to Cardiff, to see how Wales has developed since devolution in 1997. Standing in front of the National Assembly of Wales in Cardiff Bay Viv realises that Wales itself is becoming an island, severing itself from the dominance of its English neighbour.
Fflur explores the complexities of spirituality, loss, sexuality, politics and love, with an astute and humorous insight into human nature. I became engrossed in the lives of her cast of characters and the intensity of the thriller grasped me with its mounting tension. It was her experience of being a writer in residency on Bardsey Island that allowed her to create such an intense atmosphere: “On the island emotions are deeper, more keenly felt, and its reality is double-edged; on the one hand people are afforded the space and solitude they crave, but they are also incarcerated by the sea and deprived from mainland joys.”
For me, one of the novel’s great successes is the careful balance it strikes; it celebrates Welsh culture and identity but never slips into sentimentality. When I put this to Fflur she responded with her typical modesty: “Maybe that’s because I’m not a very sentimental person!”, she laughed. Then added:
“I tend to find that the wonder of Wales manifests itself in all sorts of strange, weird, dark places and I think that loving your country, internally and externally, has as much to do with acknowledging its flaws and weaknesses as much as its beauty.”