The literatures of stateless nations
Der Weg
by Francesca Rhydderch

There are several ways to define small cultures and their languages, all of them equally pragmatic: phrases such as minority cultures, lesser-spoken languages, and diasporic identities are easy enough to come by. Stateless nations, by contrast, is a dismal term, defining the culture not by the cohesive elements that help it to survive in the face of globalization, but by what it lacks – the one thing that would make it feel whole: citizenship, or statehood. If you flick through a few dictionaries, the picture becomes even bleaker, for several of them define 'stateless' as being 'without nationality'. Even in my native country, Wales, that's a double negative too far.

I've edited a number of issues of Transcript since 2009, and I've tried each time to avoid an unquestioning sense of kinship with my fellow 'minority cultures' or 'nations without nationality'. Often, I have been more interested in what defines us as distinct from each other rather than the token exoticism that seems to be the best fate we can hope for in the face of our larger and more powerful neighbours. This time it was different: reading through the contents of this issue, I was struck by the connections between these extracts; between, for example, Sami poet Niillas Holmberg's 'young' poems dedicated to an 'old' place, and Romany author Ilona Ferkova's muscular prose, for example. Personal resonances came through for me in some of the pieces: Helim Yusiv's Kurdish memoir about his experiences as a six-year-old boy, leaving the world of the mother tongue for the first time and finding himself in a fog of miscomprehension, was – considering the specific, repressive circumstances he is talking about – surprisingly familiar in the emotions that it evoked. His description of his response as a young boy to the shifting of his world on its axis as his mother tongue gave way to another language is lyrical in its pain: 'Then something small burned in his heart, and then it smelled of some death. He sensed empathy and sorrow in his spirit, and heard the song of a bird that has been killed. Voices turned into smoke rising into the sky. That child who has just turned six, and sunk into astonishment ... it was me; and that city was Amoude... That unforgettable smell was the aroma emanating from the ban imposed on my mother tongue.' I was similarly touched by Irish poet Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh's ironic, defiant lament 'Buntús Cainte', which ventriloquizes those who see the inability to understand Irish Gaelic as either the norm and or of no consequence: 'But isn't it great to hear the Irish/ – such lovely sounds –/ – such rich-sounding sounds –/ – such sounds, meaningless silky silly syllables. / English, there are no words for you.' All the power of the stanza lies in that final line, which re-positions the Gaelic speaker at the heart of the poem and throws incomprehension back in the face of the English language. Again, this was a personal reminder of what links us, the stateless nations of the world, despite our differences. One of those connections is the split sense of self that emerges when our own language comes into engagement or confrontation with the language of the state or dominant culture.

It also seemed to me, reading about the development of Basque literature over the last quarter of a century, for example, and the tentative steps that are being taken by Romany writers to become a fully-fledged literary community, that in all of the cultures featured here there is not only a common will to survive, but a stubborn bubbling-up of creativity that is somehow connected to that will to survive and perhaps exists because of it. What is clear is that even 'small', vulnerable languages, such as Sami, have a significant, serious literary output.

There is one emerging, potentially perplexing, new character in this literary landscape, though: the bilingual or even trilingual writer who creates in both the dominant language(s) and in their mother tongue. For Helim Yusiv, this was a positive choice, as he switched from writing in Arabic to producing literary works in his mother tongue, Kurdish, which while it limits his readership in many ways, perhaps makes it a more dedicated one. In Wales, this is a relatively new phenomenon, which seems to be travelling in the opposite direction: first-language Welsh speakers are choosing to create in English as well as Welsh. This recent trend is radically breaking down the traditional boundaries between Welsh- and English-language literature in Wales, and I wonder what the consequences will be in the long term for writing in Welsh.

But Transcript is about the present, about what is out there now: poetry in Sami, Galician, Catalan and Irish Gaelic; prose translated from Catalan, Welsh, Kurdish, Basque and Romany; and introductions by experts in the field on the literatures of these countries. This issue will be launched at a workshop organized by Literature Across Frontiers in Istanbul this month (January 2011): 'Writing, Translating and Publishing in Minority Languages in the Euro-Mediterranean Region'. Several of the contributors will be present to celebrate the launch, and to hear these disparate voices sing together to create, if not a harmonious whole (that state of being without a state, remember, sits on our shoulders like a black dog), then at least an alignment of common interests and aspirations – a sense, for once, of critical mass: a statement of survival.

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