Why Not Wales? By Rebecca F. John

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By Rebecca F. John

‘The arts are fundamental to who we are and who we can be. Something would die in us if we weren’t able to tell those stories.’

These words are not my own. I have borrowed them from stalwart advocate of Welsh culture Michael Sheen, and here’s why. This sentiment is integral to why I decided, during a global pandemic, to found Aderyn Press – an independent publisher dedicated to spooky, historical, and speculative fiction, based proudly out of Wales.

The name (aderyn = bird, in Welsh) was not an accidental choice. The bird is indicative of flight, of growth, of freedom. It is my hope that Aderyn can offer writers the freedom to tell those stories which would simply burst out of them if left untold. But why do I, a Welsh writer and editor, feel the need to create this platform when there’s an enormous industry to be accessed in London and many other cities besides?

There are a hundred reasons. Not every author is well-suited to becoming part of that industry. Not every story, however well told, fits the mould of big publishing, and indies up and down the country do an incredible job of championing those stories: Blue Moose Books, Firefly, Parthian, The Stinging Fly, Salt. There are too many to mention, but having worked in independent publishing for some time, I know just how hard these presses battle to get their books into the hands of readers without the backing of wealthy investors, huge marketing budgets, or the support of large retailers. To join their ranks is a daunting prospect.

And yet… I could not resist the call.

There were multiple reports, during the pandemic, of books sales rising.

In July 2020, BBC News ran the caption, ‘Brits working from home during lockdown have turned to the comforts of […] a good book.’

In January of 2021, the Guardian reported that, ‘More than 200m print books were sold in the UK last year, the first time since 2012 that number has been exceeded.’

‘The arts are fundamental to who we are,’ Michael Sheen said, and our actions as a nation reflected that. Robbed of those freedoms we had taken for granted, we had returned to books, to stories, to imagining. We needed other worlds. How beautiful a response that was!

What I wouldn’t like to guess at, however, is how many of the books sold during that time were published by indie presses. With our shopping habits largely restricted to supermarket chains and Amazon, it’s reasonable to assume that most of that growth centred around a tiny percentage of the books published in 2020-21. Pound signs weren’t spinning in my eyes, then, when I decided to set up Aderyn Press.

What I knew, though, was that I had to enter that world of brave and inspiring indies, and particularly as a Welsh woman. Because if all our Welsh writers are forced to turn to London to make their livings, do we not risk sanitising those stories which are so integral to our national identity?

In so many ways, Welsh culture has been relegated to a status of inferiority in the UK population’s consciousness. I’m won’t speculate as to why in any depth. Perhaps it is because Wales has so long been governed by England. Perhaps it is a consequence of the erasure of the language. Perhaps it is the result of being a nation which once relied on heavy industry now finding itself in a post-industrial landscape. Whatever the cause, Wales’ smallness is all too often equated with a lack of ambition amongst its people, a lack of talent, a lack of greatness!

Just look at the jokes that still abound about the language.

If you were to ask a general reader to identify a famous Irish writer, they might rattle off a long list of historical and contemporary names: James Joyce, WB Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Edna O’Brien, Clare Keegan, Seamus Heaney, Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Lucy Caldwell. These writers are rightly lauded. Their names represent a country’s pride in its art, its voice.

If you were to ask a general reader to identify a famous Welsh writer, I’d place a heavy bet on them responding with only one name: Dylan Thomas. A keen reader of contemporary writing might also cite Owen Sheers or Cynan Jones. And it is true that Thomas, Sheers, and Jones’ work, too, represents Wales’ pride in its art and voice, but how many others are there? Where are the women? And why do the national presses seem so intent on overlooking them?

The question is all the more pertinent when you consider Ireland’s support for its writers. Caldwell was recently featured in The Irish Times with a wonderful in-depth interview. On ‘the idea that Northern Ireland is experiencing a literary awakening’, she is quoted as saying, “So it’s not that the writers haven’t always been there, it’s the sort of attention that gets paid to them. It’s like Anna Burns winning the Booker […] suddenly people realise there’s something there and they’re keen to read more.”

So, why not Wales?

Where are the features of Welsh writers in mainstream broadsheets?

Why shouldn’t the writers and stories created and published in Wales be celebrated as vociferously as those belonging to other devolved nations?

The best way to challenge this imbalance, it seemed to me, was to pour my passion into Aderyn and become part of the effort to demonstrate the quality, depth, and creativity of books which exist within the country, and which should be enjoyed by people within and without Wales’ borders.

That is not to say that Aderyn will publish only Welsh writers. The list for 2022 into 2023 includes Irish, English, and Welsh writers, and their stories are as diverse as they are. Belfast-born, Wales-based Elaine Canning’s novel, The Sandstone City, is narrated by recently-deceased Michael, who refuses to pass on until he can uncover the cause of his granddaughter’s trauma. In The Arrow Garden, Bath-based Andrew J King tells the story of two souls separated by time and geography, whose existences are inextricably linked. Fragments of a Woman, from Wirral-based Emma Venables, follows the lives of five women battling to survive the rise of national socialism in 1940s Germany. The commitment and love of each writer is apparent in every page of their prose, and they deserve review columns, good sales figures, and awards as much as those authors published by, say, Penguin Random House.

Aderyn’s vision and aims are many, but none can be achieved without readers willing to take a chance on the innovative, the speculative, the brave. Aderyn books have all this to offer, and I hope readers around the world will plunge into these invented worlds with me. There really is so much to discover. Something of imagination. Something of life. Those stories which keep something in us from dying.

(c) Rebecca F. John

You can find out more about Aderyn Press and its forthcoming titles at www.aderynpress.com. Follow Aderyn Press on Twitter: @AderynPress.

About The Empty Greatcoat by Rebecca F. John:

When Francis House enlists in the British Army in 1907, at the tender age of fifteen years and three months, he is not thinking about war. He imagines he simply wants to earn his stripes – to ease his traumatised father’s Boer War memories, or perhaps to please his favourite sister, Lily, with whom he has always dreamt of adventure.

But he soon discovers that simply becoming a soldier is not enough and, against the advice of his sergeant, he determines to seek out a real fight. Wading ashore at Gallipoli seven years later, Francis thinks he might just have found the site of his greatest opportunity. Here, he thinks, he might finally prove himself a man.

First, though, he must find his missing friend Berto.
He needs to say sorry. He cannot yet imagine the ghosts that might stand in his way.

Pre-order your copy online here.

About the author

Rebecca F. John was born in 1986, and grew up in Pwll, a small village on the south Wales coast. She holds a BA in English with Creative Writing and an MA in Creative Writing from Swansea University, as well as a PGCE PCET from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.
Her short stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4Extra. In 2015, her short story ‘The Glove Maker’s Numbers’ was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. She is the winner of the PEN International New Voices Award 2015, and the British participant of the 2016 Scritture Giovani project. In 2017, she was named on Hay Festival’s ‘The Hay 30’ list.
Her first short story collection, Clown’s Shoes, was published through Parthian in 2015.
Her first novel, The Haunting of Henry Twist, was published through Serpent’s Tail in July 2017. It was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award.
In 2022, she will publish her first children’s book, a middle-grade novel called The Shadow Order, with Firefly Press, as well as two adult novels, The Empty Greatcoat (Aderyn Press) and Fannie (Honno Press).
Rebecca lives in Swansea with her dogs, where she writes, reads, and walks to excess.
She is represented by Jenny Savill at Andrew Nurnberg Associates (children’s fiction) and Rukhsana Yasmin at The Good Literary Agency (adult fiction).

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