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|Volume 11 |Issue 48| December 07, 2012 ||
Connecting Through Languages
"My grandmother's generation were beaten in school for speaking Welsh,” shared British poet Gillian Clarke, as she sat on a stage in front of hundreds of Bangladeshis at last month's Hay Festival Dhaka. “If my grandmother was heard speaking Welsh in school, a stick was put around her neck and the child wearing that stick at the end of the day was beaten. It was a clever trick to incite the child with the stick, called a 'Welsh not', to report on other children to escape the beating,” she explained.
Gillian Clarke was born in Cardiff in 1937 into a Welsh-speaking family but did not learn to speak her mother tongue until well into her twenties. In an exclusive interview with the Star, Clarke said, “My mother's generation were allowed to speak Welsh but my mother felt humiliated by the landlord and those above her in society. There was an attitude against Welsh. I'm not sure if people are aware that Wales was the world's first British colony. Scotland was joined with the United Kingdom by a treaty, by an agreement, but Wales was defeated and taken. It never really had the same power, status or rights that other parts did. They saw the Welsh language in those days as holding the Welsh people back.”
“Welsh now has official status because, I think, of the power of the Welsh Language Movement, and mostly that was powered by the young. I'm proud to say my father was one of the earliest members of that. The movement was just so strong that the British government did not dare to deny it,” said the UK's National Poet of Wales.
Bangladeshi poets Syed Shamsul Haq and Kaiser Haq share a Hay Festival Dhaka stage with Gillian Clarke. Photo: Palash Khan
When asked how she came to be a successful poet in English instead of Welsh, she explained, “My father tried to speak to me in Welsh when my mother wasn't around but my mother refused to ever address a sentence to me in Welsh. My mother had decided she had been poor and Welsh-speaking, you know, a country girl with no things, and she saw her future as leaving Wales.”
“I wrote poems in English because my mother taught me nursery rhymes and read me stories in English. My head was absolutely stuffed with all the terrifically powerful stories and rhymes that there are for children in the English language that are just about beyond compare. Then I began to read independently very early, at four or five, all in English; therefore my entire poetic imagination was formed in English.” She added, “Being defined as a poet is for others to do. I just thought I wrote poetry, so I never thought of it but I must admit, I think I've got it written in my passport.”
On her first trip to Bangladesh, Clarke said she was struck with how sensory and sensuous the experience was. “I observe and notice things,” she said, describing her journey from her home to the airport to Abu Dhabi's airport to Dhaka in poetic speech.
“To see the Dhaka take on the Hay uniform, oh well! In Hay-on-Wye [the UK's original site for the Hay Festival], everybody's in a t-shirt, it's not elegant at all. But here, the saris, and almost everybody is wearing a sari, it's beautiful. The uniform for Hay, this gorgeous sari with pinks and purples in it, I was stunned by that. I felt they just looked so elegant and so beautiful. We're such a stuffy old lot in Britain with our sensible clothes. Even when we're in our party best we don't look like a slum dweller does in a sari. I thought that when I was in Mumbai; stepping out of a slum, a woman with long yellow chiffon or silk scarf trailing and a little girl with perfectly plaited hair in a school uniform holding her hand. How on earth does a mother in a slum get her kid like that? It certainly doesn't happen in Britain, British kids are scruffy and mothers don't get them off to school in a perfect shape all the time. So the elegance and grace of India and Bangladesh is just absolutely outstanding.” She added, speaking like a true poet again, “It's like seeing beautiful birds and suddenly you think almost everyone one of these people is a beauty. It's not the same as in England or Germany where you see all these pasty faces. Everyone is beautiful to look at here.”
“Wales is a tiny country, under three million people, and yet Bangladeshis were able to parallel our situation with theirs,” said Clarke, who learnt a great deal about Bangladesh's history during her visit. “What has struck me while I was on stage was that so many people were interested in Welsh and in Wales! Like they knew that Welsh was connected to Sanskrit and were able to set several examples of that. English people don't even know that, some English don't even know people in Wales speak Welsh. This place has a great open mind and the questions I've had were remarkable.”
When asked what she thought of the comparison between the language struggles Bangladesh and Wales have in common, she said, “[Bangladeshis] were actually murdered, slaughtered and killed. There was violence against Wales but it was more against socialism. There are Welsh heroes who have died but it was for social freedoms like the right to vote. So we've had the fight but not suffered the same violence that this sub-continent has.”
Having seen the small protest that took place outside Hay Festival Dhaka this year, Clarke shared, “I really can understand the protesters but one of the things I loved about the concert one night was that there wasn't a word of English. I loved it. The Bangla language is strong so they needn't worry about who comes. The fact is that we've come, you've told me that, I know it and I take it away and am more understanding of the situation. Whereas if we hadn't come, I wouldn't know [about the importance of Bangla]. I would be ignorant and I think it's important that I'm not ignorant.”
Clarke has taken part in every Hay Festival in the UK except for one and attended international Hays in recent years. She compared her experience in Spain with that of Bangladesh. “For me, this Hay in Dhaka has worked far better than the several I've been to in Spain where they don't speak English. We didn't have a common language but here, although English is a threat to the world's languages, at the same time, it is a thread that draws us together, which surely redeems it of its colonial past because it's so damn useful now.”