It’s Reading Wales 2023 and so of course I’m reading the book everyone read for the challenge last year! (I was holding out for an affordable print copy and gave up and bought an e-book at the end of March 2022). Lots of people loved this memoir of a woman of mixed heritage growing up in North Wales and I was determined to get round to it, so here I am, having done so! This book was first published in 2002 and then with a revised preface in 2006.

Charlotte Williams – “Sugar & Slate”

(21 March 2022, e-book)

They were little acts of resistance; small gestures of defiance from a very limited repertoire. How would we have known how to organise for resistance? We were far too isolated and in any case the pressure to conform kept a firm grip on any spontaneous acts of rebellion.

Charlotte grew up in North Wales, her and her four sisters very much the only people of colour in their small town, their mum a proud, strong Welsh woman, their father from Guyana but living a lot of the time in various countries in Africa, returning to Guyana in his old age. We end up in Guyana with Charlotte and her husband in the latter part of the book, her White husband fitting in in some ways better than her.

The narrative is not linear and straightforward, but you can follow it, and we return, like Narnia’s Wood Between Worlds, to an interstitial Trinidadian airport where Charlotte waits for a flight to Guyana and interacts with a Rastafarian from Slough in an Africa t-shirt who is setting off to become a tomato farmer.

We get the story of Charlotte’s father, a notable artist who is however not around much, and her strong mother, and the marvellous interval when both parents are in Africa negotiating the end of their marriage and the girls run deliciously wild, though without the theoretical framework to use that wildness for much effect apart from upsetting their neighbours.

We also learn about different aspects of Black Wales – the boys from the Congo buried near the missionary college they attended, the notable African independence politicians and thinkers who also gathered at the college, the Black community in Cardiff that goes back 150 years and gives Charlotte’s friends some slightly envied roots, the links between Guyana and a town in Wales, both centred on aluminium smelting and its raw materials. I also didn’t know that the Cardiff riots of 1919 triggered an upsurge in insurrections and Black consciousness in the Caribbean.

Moving between Wales, Africa and the Caribbean and South America, Charlotte charts how she feels and is seen in each place and mulls on identity and belonging, allowing space for no conclusions to be reached. She intersperses her narrative with her own poems and others’ and excerpts from her father’s books and historic books about the missionary centre, etc., giving a kaleidoscopic picture that is effective and moving.

This was Book 1 read for Reading Wales 2023, hopefully I will get “How Green Was My Valley” read soon.

An interesting Bookish Beck synchronicity (I allow these over a couple of books as I don’t read as many at the same time as she does), in this book, Charlotte is drawn to the shape of a Guyanese woman’s square shoulders and bottom shape, realising they match hers, and in “Windward Family“, Alexis Keir realises that his “small head” is just the head size and shape of his people in Saint Vincent.