Bookcase Focus: An Interview with Siân Melangell Dafydd

Bookcase Focus: An Interview with Siân Melangell Dafydd

Wales Literature Exchange interviewed our Bookcase author Siân Melangell Dafydd, about her writing and her influences.
 

1. What first inspired you to be an author and where do your ideas come from?

I think all the novels I’ll ever write are already knocking around inside me, trying to find their right time, their right form. That their writing starts way before I set pen to paper. With Filò, I could go back to 1988 when Dad found some drafts of letters written by my grandmother to ex-Italian Prisoners of War (PoWs) in the Second World War. The contact had been lost but we traipsed across Europe in a caravan to find their families. This changed my family and my view of the world when I was 11. I’ve known for a long time that I would like to bring a similar improbable connection into a novel. I was fascinated also by the fact that these young men (or boys) would have spoken many very different dialects – not Italian. That they would have encountered families in Wales, maybe expecting them to speak English only to find that there was another native language – Welsh. So, much like my brother and I sometimes found when we’d meet each other in Italy rather than in Wales, authentic language of encounter can be messy and incorrect. But it does the job, in fact it does the job better than perfect language: it communicates. So I wanted my Italian and Welsh characters to both struggle and succeed to find a language between them. There’s body language and there are land-habits. Guido tells the tale of twelve men arriving in Glasgow from Egypt, then Wales. He understands plant life and its uses better than the Welsh do in some ways. This becomes the way he connects.

I always had an exaggerated, nightmarish response to the idea of war as a child. I couldn’t stand war museums for example, but I had to visit the story of war here – maybe that was the greatest personal challenge. But the thing is, one of the greatest pieces of advice ever given to me as a writer was that if you face a difficulty or question, maybe the answer is in the question itself (thank-you Michélle Roberts). Guido and his friends are storytellers. They recreate filò, the Solighese word meaning ‘gathering to tell stories’. In many ways, as I’ve seen in soldiers, they tell stories to avoid the atrocity of another, deeper story. They get together on the ship, in prisoner camps and then in cow sheds (sometimes illicitly) to entertain each other (and eventually their wider circle, some Welsh). Guido was avoiding the atrocity of the war as much as I was – that’s how I found the ‘answer in the problem’ and that’s how I found myself in Guido.

A last but very important influence beyond many family members in Italy needs mention. On a research visit to Pieve di Soligo, Italy, the hometown of Pietro Busetti, a PoW who worked at my grandmother’s farm, I was taken to peer through the wooden garden gate of the late poet, Andrea Zanzotto. That physical encounter, if I’m allowed to call it that, allowed me to admit to myself the importance of his work as a poet and his influence on my writing. I was especially drawn to his use of dialect and Italian in his work as well as how earthy and land aware he was as a writer. Filò is also the title of one of Zanzotto’s better known poems and is my way of joining in, in a larger story my own. Mythologies and the stories of others are important in my novel because we do, after all, repeat stories and enjoy the re-telling of them, like children do.

 

2. How would you describe your writing? I’d rather not… but I’ll send some words by reviewers

3. Which authors have influenced you the most? See above. Also, Valeria Luiselli, Han Kang, Olga Tokarczuk. Often, work in translation (while accepting, I’m sure that I’d mention slightly different writers on every day of the year).


4. In your opinion what are the biggest challenges that writers face today – and do you think these challenges have changed since you started writing?

I honestly started writing because I loved language for its musicality and oddity, not really engaging with how political language is. It took time for me to be called, in anger, to ask myself, how can I react with what I have? I’m not a lawyer, for example or agitator by profession. What can I do with this little art is a question I ask of myself regularly. Finding that place and having the guts to agitate is more than a challenge by now but a responsibility.


5. What are the hardest and easiest parts of being a writer?

Hardest – finding time as a new mother and someone who always, always took too much on. Easiest – rather than ‘what’, I’ll say ‘when’ it’s easiest – that is when I have the right balance of company of friends and writers who make it all worthwhile, silence (yoga) and time outdoors, and sustained time to get the pen to paper.


6. Which writer from Wales would you recommend to readers and why?

Llŷr Gwyn, for its lyrical quality and creative daring. I read his work and feel that I’ve been swept into a place of real quality in language, creative playfulness and human honesty.


Filò was selected to the Wales Literature Exchange 2020 Bookcase, our annual selection of recent Welsh literary works which we recommend for translation.

Watch Siân discuss the inspiration for Filò and hear her read an excerpt from it here

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