Richard Gwyn presents Cities and Memories at FIL 2016
After the resounding success of FIL 2015 which had the participation of the United Kingdom as guest of honour, this year Trilce publishing house along with the British Council in Mexico have brought as part of the program the presentation of the bilingual anthology “Cities and Memories” of Welsh author Richard Gwyn. We talked to the poet, novelist and translator about his new book, his literary influences and his immense affinity with Latin American culture.
BY LILIANA PADILLA
Richard Gwyn is a Welsh writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. After studying anthropology at the London School of Economics, he started traveling widely across Europe, living in Greece and Spain and working as a fisherman and farmer. These experiences “on the road” would influence his literary style and the themes of his work. Gwyn not only narrates his adventures as a traveller, but also his battle for life after being diagnosed with a hepatic disease that made him require a liver transplant to survive, being one of his main concerns the ways on which language and culture influence our understanding of illness. His work is characterized by leaving aside grand narratives on the search for a more fleeting and fragmentary representation of the world, which has consolidated him as one of the most fascinating voices in the UK’s contemporary literature.
He currently works as professor and translator and he is director of the MA program in creative writing at the Cardiff University, focusing on recent years on translating poetry and short stories from Latin American authors. Furthermore, he has been invited to several literary festivals in Spain, Nicaragua, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico.
Where do your interest and affinity for Latin America come from?
This wasn’t really my decision, you know? Like being a writer. I learned Spanish because I had a Spanish girlfriend, and she didn’t speak English, so I had to learn Spanish. I can’t learn languages in school. To me, learning a language is something you can do only by immersing yourself in the culture.
When I was young I started reading Latin American authors, particularly Borges and the Argentinian poet Juan Gelman. I met Gelman about 5 years ago, and we got totally drunk together. Juan was my hero in my twenties and my thirties and to meet him, and suddenly I’m not a groupie, I’m an author as well, is interesting.
This is my forth visit to Mexico. I was invited to FIL for the first time in 2011 for The Vagabond’s Breakfast which is a memoir and I also spent three months here in 2014, travelling as Cultural Ambassador for the Arts Council of Wales, they gave me money to travel in Latin America. Not for the anthology, but simply so that I could write some ideas about contemporary Latin America. So I was very fortunate that the University that I work at gave me the time to do that. And also I spent three months in Chile, two months in Colombia and Argentina, which is a country I probably know best, so I didn’t spend so much time there.
What made you become a writer? Who are your literary influences?
My main literary influences are Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. My first wife’s uncle, she died in 1988, was Italian poet Michele Rinchetti, and he was a friend of Italo. At that time, I was living in Greece, so I could have come over to Italy and spoken to him, because I really wanted to meet him, but I didn’t do it, and it is something I regret.
Regarding what made me become a writer, I simply couldn’t do anything else. I wasn’t good at anything else. At seven years old, I just knew that writing helped me feel more like myself. And yes, of course, I could have done other things. I could have been a doctor, a scientist, an academic, a literary critic of something, but the only thing that really interested me when I was young was literature, drugs, and sex.
During my university years, I went to see my tutor and he said to me: “Richard, you’re never going be an anthropologist, you’re a poet, and you’re also out of your mind. So, why are you here?”.
And that’s when you decided to go out and explore the world. Can you explain us a little about your creation process? To what extent your personal experiences relate to your work?
I’m going to quote García Márquez: everything that I write has happened to me. So, I don’t discriminate between fiction and non-fiction. It’s simply my perception of what’s happened to me.
The head of my department at my University in Cardiff spoke to me after the publication of The Vagabond’s Breakfast. He said: “I really liked your book, apart from the fictional parts.” I said: “were they fictional parts?”, and he answered: “Oh yes, obviously”, cause he didn’t want to believe that it had really happened. And I thought that’s so strange, how can anyone think like that?
We are living our lives, and if we are writers, we make shit up. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that it happened. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t, but surely a professor of literature should know that it doesn’t matter. The only important thing is how good the writing is.
Is it difficult to be a writer at the times that we live in?
I never lived in another time, but it’s possible. I think it’s difficult to be anything at this moment. I never thought that being a writer is something special. That being able to put words together is a gift or anything; it’s just the way it is. I hate the elevation of the artist. I’m the same as a fisherman or a construction worker, I have my craft. My master on this is Borges, because Borges never cared for what people thought of him. He just did his job, and so do I.
I thought what you said earlier was really interesting, about the concept of national identities as being something constructed.
Of course identity is constructed, but it’s more than that. Identity is multidimensional; we don’t have only one identity. I’m not sure what I feel, there are aspects of being Welsh that I really like, and it gives me kind of a warm, cosy feeling. I don’t have a particular affinity with Welsh literature, I never had. There are writers I like, even Dylan Thomas, but not especially. The best Welsh writer from the 20th century was a guy called David Jones, who was a poet, and was an absolutely fantastic poet. He was a friend of T.S. Elliot, he was a very damaged man, he was in the trenches in the First World War. He was very damaged by this experience. It’s reflected in his writing, that sense of damage. And he only wrote three books, but T.S. Elliot really like him.
And Raymond Williams is another Welsh poet and writer I like a lot. I also like contemporary Welsh writers. It’s very interesting, I’ll tell you something: younger writers than me, writers in their thirties and forties, are beginning to write about the nature, the ground, farming and basic agriculture things. Tristan Hughes, Tom Bullough, they all write about the earth, about the land, rural life. Why is this happening? It’s a concern about the ecology, about our land, and for Welsh people the land is very important, because most of us come from agricultural communities, and we inhabit a very beautiful landscape which we don’t want to sell to multinational corporations. It’s ours and we protect it.
Are there any books that you have recently read and liked?
Yes, I really liked the American writer, Rebecca Solnit. Especially a book of hers called A field guide to getting lost (2006).