Covers of Welsh books against a green and white background.

Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

Wales is a small country with a giant heart. Its literature stretches back, in Cymraeg – the Welsh language – to the fifth century, the poets Taliesin and Aneirin, and the story cycle we know as The Mabinogion. Welsh writing in English also has a long and proud tradition in which Dylan, RS and Gwyn are by no means the only Thomases. 

The historian Dai Smith (more historians later) put it best when he said: "Wales is a young country not afraid to remember what it might yet become". These works – some famous classics, some becoming recognised as such, and others that will be in the future – give a flavour of who we are and where we have come from, and what it means to be Welsh today.  

Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country by Jan Morris (1982) 

Jan Morris, who died last year at the age of 94, was admired worldwide for her magisterial three volume history of the British Empire, Pax Brittanica, her enviable oeuvre of classic books about place, and (as James) breaking the story of Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest in 1953. But she left readers in no doubt where her heart lay: in the "top left-hand corner" of Wales. The Matter of Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country is a love letter to Jan country, and a reminder that we were blessed to count her as one of our own.

The Country and the City by Raymond Williams (1973) 

Born the son of a railway worker in the Black Mountains village of Pandy on the Wales-England border, when Raymond Williams went up to Cambridge University he found depictions of rural life in literature did not match his experience. In The Country and the City, the cultural critic brings his unique genius to bear on the ways in which novels construct our understanding of place, and introduces two signature concepts: "structure of feeling" and "knowable communities". In Williams’ centenary year, revisiting a classic body of work that all but invented cultural studies remains as vital and pleasurable as ever. 

Sugar and Slate by Charlotte Williams (2002)

Daughter of a white Welsh-speaking mother and a black Guyanese father, Sugar and Slate is Charlotte Williams’ moving memoir, and a profound, complex meditation on what it means to belong. Professor Williams’ intelligent, sensitive grappling with her mixed identity deserves a much wider readership. Currently charged by Welsh Government with the task of pioneering work to ensure Wales’ school curriculum is rich with opportunities for pupils to understand the difference and diversity on which the nation has been built, Williams could do far worse than to recommend her own book.

American Interior by Gruff Rhys (2015) 

Much more than an accompaniment to Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys’ 2014 album, app and film of the same name, American Interior has a subtitle that summarises this adventure quest better than I ever could: The quixotic journey of John Evans, his search for a lost tribe and how, fuelled by fantasy and (possibly) booze, he accidentally annexed a third of North America. A distant ancestor of the singer, Evans left Wales in the 1790s in search of a legendary tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans supposedly descended from Prince Madog. A whimsical tragicomedy for the ages.

The Testimony of Taliesin Jones by Rhidian Brook (2014)

Wales still haunts some dark corners of the popular imagination as a country of austere Nonconformism, a land according to a tongue-in-cheek Gwyn Thomas where "the only concession to gaiety is a striped shroud". This famous quip, with its mustard seed of truth, might be a century out of date, but the empty, repurposed and boarded up chapels that litter many parts of the Welsh landscape conceal many a community of steadfast faith and quiet hopes for revival. Rhidian Brook’s multi-award winning debut is a tale of one boy’s sincere search for God amid the aftermath of his parents’ divorce.

Together Stronger: The Rise of Welsh Football’s Golden Generation by Chris Wathan (2016)

Another stereotype about Wales that’s been largely exploded in recent years is our supposed obsession with rugby. While a big chunk of the three million population are glued to the telly or half cut in the streets of Cardiff on a Six Nations day (read Owen Sheers’ brilliant Calon for more on that), football is actually the country’s favourite sport. But our national team had to wait an agonising 58 years between the fabled 1958 World Cup and the unexpected run to the semi-final(!) of Euro 2016. Wathan’s book is a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at how we did it.

The Story of Wales by Jon Gower (2012)

Wales, it is often remarked, is a nation of historians. Indeed, one of R.S. Thomas’ most famous poems claimed "There is no present in Wales, / And no future; / There is only the past". While the recent rise in independentist sentiment suggests this is wildly untrue, some of our best books have indeed been histories. Honourable mentions must always go to John Davies’ comprehensive A History of Wales, and Gwyn Alf Williams’ searching When Was Wales?, but if you’re starting at the beginning, there’s no better guide than the polymath from Pwll and self-confessed "professional Welshman" Jon Gower.

Fresh Apples by Rachel Trezise (2005)

The title story of Rachel Trezise’s prize-winning collection Fresh Apples was lifted from Kurt Cobain’s diary and transplanted into the Rhondda valley in south Wales. Trezise is a rock’n’roll writer whose short fiction packs an often gut-wrenching punch, irreverence and wit. Trezise was already the only living writer in the Library of Wales, and later this year these slices of working class life are getting a reissue as part of Parthian Modern, a series celebrating that great little indie publisher’s contribution to Welsh literature over the last thirty years. A must-read if you want a glimpse of Wales today.

Pigeon by Alys Conran (2016)

Another modern Welsh classic from the Parthian stable (or should that be loft?) is Pigeon by Alys Conran. Winning the Wales Book of the Year in 2017, the novel was the first in history to be simultaneously published in English and Welsh, with Kate Northey’s adaptation interacting with Conran’s dual-language narrative in a kind of literary game across the two versions (it’s Pijin, in case you were wondering). Set in a north Wales slate town, this is a story about the grim and grimmer things you half-forget as you’re trying to grow up, and the slowly complicating friendships you remember. 

I, Eric Ngalle by Eric Ngalle Charles (2019)

Eric Ngalle Charles is a poet and performer who first came to Wales on the National Express bus from London Heathrow to Swansea via Cardiff. How he got to Heathrow is the subject of this intense and gripping migration memoir. The book encompasses witchcraft and a family feud in Charles’ native Cameroon, a human trafficking scam that leaves the author destitute on the mean streets of Moscow, and – finally and thankfully – a new life in the country called Cymru he has come to call his home. A brutal, beautiful reminder that not all Welsh people were born here.

Dylan Moore is Editor of the welsh agenda and a Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow. His debut novel, Many Rivers to Cross (Three Impostors) is published on 5 April.

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