The Power of Fiction and Poetry: Multi-lingual Workshops and Readings at the Centre for British Studies

The audience was riveted in spite of the hot weather, when Alys Conran read at the Centre for British Studies in June this year. Gesa Stedman, quoting from her students’ notes, gives an account of the event, discusses the power of fiction, and announces an exciting new mutilingual event in this post.

35°C. Summer. Not the kind of weather which is most suitable for a reading. But on 25 June 2019, more than 35 people flocked to the Centre for British Studies to hear Alys Conran, the award-winning Welsh writer, read from her two novels, Pigeon and Dignity – the latter had just been published days before the event.

In a reasonably cool and darkened room, the audience was treated to a lively discussion and intense reading by this versatile and engaging bilingual writer whose books have so far been published in English and then translated into Welsh. The discussion covered a wide range of topics, from violence to dysfunctional families, de-industrialised North Wales to the experience of the Raj, or, more recently, of war in Afghanistan. Alys Conran further talked about language and how language can create a sense of belonging but also, how its absence lack can lead to emotional hardness. Both Pigeon – Welsh novel of the year in 2017 – and Dignity engage with these issues, albeit in very different ways. While Pigeon concentrates on two children and how they negotiate their lives in a bilingual environment, Dignity jumps backwards and forwards between the early and the late 20th century/21st century, compares life in a coastal resort – possibly in Wales – and in British-ruled India. Multiple perspectives and different voices are one of the hallmarks of Conran’s skilful writing. The power of the young boy called Pigeon and his voice is perhaps not quite matched by the mother and daughter narrative which is foregrounded in Dignity. But Conran catches the results of class prejudice, emotional abuse, gender imbalance and colonial violence very well. She also spoke interestingly about the biographical connection to Welsh children of the Raj, who were often quite suddenly catapulted back to the mother country, of whose grey and shadowy existence they had only been dimply aware in India. More importantly, she informed the audience about her whish to write something about contemporary Britain, its divisions, the felt as well as repressed violence, the deprivation which also has an impact in Wales, but is certainly not an exclusively Welsh topic.

Her move from the small Welsh publisher Parthian Books to a large global conglomerate, namely Hachette (under the imprint of Weidenfeld & Nicolson), supports this kind of thematic move, perhaps in order not to be pinholed as a ‘regional’ writer?

Alys Conran’s warm personality, lucidity, her willingness to probe a topic and acknowledge its multifacetted nature was evident throughout the evening. Here are two student participants’ reactions to the atmospheric event:

… I entered the room. I was a bit early. Again I was surprised! This time by the small number of chairs and people. Is this going to be that small, I talked to myself. I waited for some minutes. More and more people came. Lots of new faces! Most of them belonged to people who passed their university years a long time ago. Wow! It must have been advertised well. I was impressed by the setting: the read armchairs and the standing lamp made the room seem very reading-friendly. I liked Alys. I liked her voice. I liked the way she read and talked about her experience of writing the books. … (Najmeh Doostdar)

I could not see Alys’s face when she was reading. I closed my eyes, with her words and voice pounding in my chest. Mind-blowing. The hybrid of English and Welsh amazed by by the fact how languages mingle with each other. (Qian Li)

The same qualities of the author were evident in the creative writing workshop which parts of the audience – the Centre’s MA students – had enjoyed earlier. Here are some voices of participants who were delighted to be taught by such a talented author and creative writing lecturer who normally teaches at the University of Bangor:

I had a great time and felt lucky and privileged to participate and attend the workshop and the public reading session! Alys Conran is a truly magical, very inspiring person and creative writing lecturer. … Thank you for this opportunity! (Alina Berezhnaya)

Creative writing, along with creative anything really is something I’ve somewhat locked away in my life in the service of “practicality”. As I mature, I find that this compartmentalisation is absurd. When I write, be it academically or creatively, I feel the same sense of joy. This joy was felt intensely at this workshop … led by such a gifted writer and instructor like Alys Conran. (Talyor Hebert)

The secret to unlocking this joy of creativity and writing is explained by another participant:

One object – that’s all Alyse gave all of us as a starting point. It was amazing how everyone in the class had so much to say about a random object placed in front of them. (Trisha Mandal)

And to end with a final eye-witness account:

Not only was Alys extremely supportive and made me feel at home, but she also demonstrated different writing techniques that can help one avoid writing blocks. Now, I always have her “words box” method whenever my pen stops writing. I also started paying more attention to everyday objects surrounding me wherever I am – be it a pen, a stone, or my keys. Because these are a rich source of inspiration hidden from our untrained eye. The mere touch of an object that stores some memories and emotions can provide you with numerous ideas, thoughts and perspectives. The hardest part for me was writing from that object’s perspective … but in the end, I felt it was feasible if you only have more practice. Thus, we ended up writing multiple-perspective narratives starting with a dry, objective description. It felt extremely productive and I feel I can still hear Alys’ voice whenever I’m holding my pen and paper. (Evelina Bazaeva)

If you are interested in multi-lingual writing, join the The Literary Field Kaleidoscope team next Tuesday for another exciting event featuring not only Welsh writing, but also other indigenous languages from the British Isles, namely Irish and Gaelic.

Tuesday, 25 November, 5pm


Poetry performance and discussion with Ivor ap Glyn (Wales), Irish writer and performer Ciara Ní É, and Scottish performance poet Marcas Mac an Tuairneir. It will be chaired by Literature Wales CEO Lleucu Siencyn with whom the evening was co-organised, with support from the British Council Wales.

All are welcome to attend the event at the Centre for British Studies, Mohrenstraße 60, 10117 Berlin, 1st floor, room 105.

The discussion will be in English, the poetry performances and readings in the respective languages of the poets.