A Swansea to Quebec round trip isn’t easily undertaken in three days. It’s a long slog. And when you throw in a transfer at New York’s JFK – an airport so extensive that full-length trains clatter through its middle, separated from the chattering, marching, panicking passengers only by panes of glass – it becomes slightly stressful. So, I’ll admit to feeling a little apprehensive about the journey, especially having never ventured half way so far before. But I’d been invited. And by PEN International, no less, having been shortlisted for their New Voices Award. It was all so exciting, so glamorous – though I’m sure I looked anything but glamorous when I finally stepped off the plane in Quebec into dank, almost Welsh-wet night air.
The miniature metropolis contained within the city walls was as pretty as everyone had promised it would be. I didn’t have much chance to explore its interlocking streets, though, as the two full days I spent in Canada were packed with panel events and meetings and, of course, the announcement of the New Voices award winner at a beautiful theatre called – rather romantically I thought – the Palais Montcalm.
Now, I had always assumed – and wrongly, it transpires – that prize-winners were taken aside and whispered to beforehand; given the nod; told, so that they could steal a minute or ten to gather their thoughts, stitch together a speech. Perhaps that’s why I was so relaxed as I walked onstage, both my stockings spectacularly torn (still not glamorous, then), with my two fellow shortlistees to an introduction, in French, by Yann Martel – a friendly, approachable man, incidentally, who was vastly encouraging of three new young writers. I hadn’t won. No one had whispered anything to me. I was at least glad I’d escaped having to speak in front of such an impressive, three-tiered crowd.
It didn’t quite turn out that way.
In actuality, what followed was a blurry mishmash of events during which Yann Martel announced me (my school-French helped me identify myself as “the ski instructor from a country with no snow”), handed me an improbably heavy glass award, shook my hand, and invited me to give that thoroughly unplanned speech. Now, famous authors, esteemed journalists and PEN delegates plucked from all across the planet were waiting for me to say something writerly and profound.
Somehow, I managed coherence. At least, the lovely girls from the PEN office in London assured me I did at dinner the next day, as they recited my words back to me, prompting me to remember what I had completely forgotten in the immediate aftermath. The sentiment was honest, so perhaps that helped my eloquence. What I wanted to thank PEN and the New Voices Award for was this – reminding me, in the grandest terms, that what I do has worth!
I have made no secret of the fact that I’ve always found it difficult to present myself to the world as a writer. If asked what I do, I mumble through a list of my other, less important jobs – the jobs I have worked to support me in doing this one – but still I can’t manage to say “I am a writer”. I couldn’t even utter the words at immigration, when a handsome New Yorker with one of those crime-drama accents enquired as to why I was in transit to Canada, all alone, for only a few days. And perhaps that’s because the pursuit is so often trivialised. Growing up, as I did, on an ex-industrialised crag of the South Wales coast, I was surrounded by generations for whom becoming a writer had never seemed a real option. It was a far-off idea. A dream, pinned up on the childhood wall with all the other hopeless delusions – footballer, ballerina, astronaut – and forgotten.
“A writer?” “Good luck!” “Almost as bad as wanting to act.” “What about a real job?” We’re all guilty of making these kind of off-hand remarks, I’m sure, in everyday life. They’re not intended maliciously. But at some point, it becomes easier not to mention the ‘writing thing’ than to begin again to defend it.
What PEN reminded me last week is that I shouldn’t need to. I am never going to be as brave as those journalists and novelists spoken about at the Congress. I am never going to risk my life for a story. But that does not detract from the importance of my pursuit. To paraphrase Yann Martel – a century without stories is a lost century. And isn’t that true? What does our history, our society, our future become without the stories that prop them up?
So I should say thank you again to PEN International, for reminding me that the need to write, that instinct we have as writers to immerse ourselves in story, is anything but trivial. Stories, the telling of them, have created the code upon which our civilisation is built – it’s as huge and as simple as that. Thank you, PEN, for honouring it. And thank you, too, for my very lovely award. It has pride of place on my mantelpiece, where I can polish it, and force visitors to admire it, and remember how vindicated I felt on that stage in Quebec City … Vindicated, and anything but trivial.