dimecres, de febrer 09, 2005

Transitions (English / Welsh)

Welsh culture and language have always been a part of my life, ever since my early adolescence. More than twenty years ago now, as a wee lad of 12, I began my formal study of the Welsh language. Two years later, in 1987, I had my first article ever published, in the Welsh language. It was called "Bwrw ati ar ei ben hun," meaning "Going at it on his own," in reference to my having studied, and in two years, fairly well mastered written Welsh. It was published in Dolen the Welsh language section of Ninnau. It is a matter of great personal pride for me that the first public statement I ever made to the world was not in English, my birth language, but in Welsh, the language of my soul. Ninnau is now the only "Welsh" paper in North America. Up until a few years ago it had a rival, the old and venerable Y Drych which began publishing in its first incarnation in Scranton, PA in the 1850's. Transitions happen not only to people, but their creations, and now Ninnau, barely 30 years old, has incorporated Y Drych.

Neither paper tho, in recent years, has really been Welsh, at least not in the 21st century meaning of the word, nor have they even been very strong in the Welsh language. Dolen the section I wrote my article for in 1987 disappeared a few years after my article was published when the editor returned to Wales to live, and no one else came to the fore to take his place. At least 2,500 people in the US are native Welsh speakers, and probably somewhere in the neighborgood of 20,000 people speak and write it reasonably well, but Ninnau's subscription base remains at a stagnant 3,000 people, which is amazingly pauce when you consider the millions of Americans of Welsh descent.

My relationship with Ninnau is even deeper tho than being a 21 year subscriber. For six and a half years, from 1995 to 2002, I wrote a column for Ninnau in English called Cyber-Cymru. In the beginning the World Wide Web was new, and I wrote about and reviewed websites that used the Welsh language. For a few of those years I even maintained my own website as a database of those which I had reviewed. Eventually I came to the decision that my efforts were no longer necessary. Welsh-language websites were easier and easier to find, and growing very quickly in number. In 1995 they were novel; by 2002 they were commonplace. Much to the chagrin of Arturo Roberts, the Argentine born published and Editor-in-Chief of the paper, I resigned my post and decommisioned my website.

Now, 21 years after I paid my first year's subscription to Ninnau, I am considering letting it lapse. I too have been going through a transition in relationship to my "Welshness." Chwarae teg, fair play that is, my Welshness is an American sort, moreoever, a Pennsylvania German-American-Welshness. Still, Ninnau has sort of become like a quaint old aunty who stopped living in the real world ages ago. Its pages are full of vignettes about elderly Welsh-mostly-Americans getting honored at decripit black tie affairs where they listen to old hymns plucked on pedal harms, and to their artieries hardening, and pictures of hoaky festivals where people who have never been to Wales, speak no Welsh, and only have a vague notion of what Wales is today. Fair play to some of the writers of Ninnau, some are Welsh born, speak some Welsh, or at least have travelled to Wales.

Moreover, I don't consider it a requisite to have done all the things I mention above to have a legitimate stake in Welshness. On the other hand, I think some basis in 21st century reality is necessary.

Sadly, in the popular notion that most Welsh-Americans have of Wales, it is still a forgotten colony of England full of dark houses with no central heat, coal mines, slate quarries, fundamentalist Christianity, hymn sings, tea, crushing poverty and a dross of ovines. In reality, most of these "icons" of Welshness are cloying anachronisms largely relegated to museums and the collective memory of octagenarians. Wales in 2005 is a modern industrialized nation of the Information Age which is building a nationwide network of fiber-optic cables bringing highspeed internet to anyone who wants it. It is a nascent nation-state well along the path of Devolution from the United Kingdom with the hopeful ultimate state of autonomy within the European Union. All the commercial coal mining, once the backbone of the Welsh economy, is now done in one pit, owned not by dark horsemen from England, but the miners, and the slate quarries are all but finished aside from one or two still chinking out enough slate for Red Dragon coasters or roof repairs here and there. It is country where the cultured are more likely to go to the new Opera House in Cardifff Bay than to a Cymanfa Ganu in some pokey chapel to hear strains of Cwm Rhondda. Religion itself is pretty much a goner in Wales, with chapels turning regularly into used car lots, pubs, or trendy boutiques.

Even the Welsh language, one of the most ancient in the world, is experiencing a steady and unremitting renaissance. Only 21 years ago when I began, it was believed that it would be all but dead by the beginning of the 21st century. As of the 2001 census, its numbers both in raw figures and in percentage of the population had grown for first time in a century, notably among the under 20's. Moreoever it's a modern and vital language, with a pop music scene, a club scene, complete education system, and an increased respect in the private and public sector. In other words, it ain't your grandmother's Cymru.

This is the Wales I have come to call my own, the one I criss-cross during the summer, visiting Neolithic ruins while listening to 21 year old hooch Gwenno Saunders on BBC-Cymru sing sultry techno ballads in the language of heaven, and this is the Wales nearly absent from Ninnau, and one, sadly few Americans really want to know about. There's something romantic in a sad little wet country struggling against an evil empire. It's success inspite of those odds makes it a little less alluring, ironically.

In the pages of Arturo Robert's Ninnau women still wear tall black hats and clog dance weekly. They eat scones and drink too much tea, and sing a lot of Calon Lân. It's not that there's anything wrong with these lovely icons of yesterday, it's only that they're just that, part of the past. I do firmly and devoutly believe in preserving, cherishing, and celebrating the past, but equally important is living in the hear and now. One can only parrot yesterday so many times before one is cute, quaint, on the path to toral irrelevance. More relevant to me these days are the new publications like Planet: the Welsh Internationalist and Cambria. It's a bit sad to say, but I think my association with Ninnau after 21 years is drawing to a close. If I do renew my subscription, it will only be out of a sense of nostalgia, pity, and guilt.