Archive for Tachwedd, 2010

Like many of you I’m sure, I have, for the past few years, enjoyed following the BBC series:  ‘Who do You think You are?” where ‘celebs’ trace their family histories, learn about their heritages and then muse over their senses of ‘identity’ in light of what they uncover. We saw Julia Sawalha drinking goats’ milk with the ‘bedouin’ in Jordan, where her father’s family hail from; whilst Jeremy Irons travelled the length and breadth of Ireland searching for Irish roots to explain the sense of familiarity and ‘home’ he felt the first time he visited the emerald isle, despite his ‘quintessentially English’ upbringing.

Then, earlier this year, the television network NBC began broadcasting an American version based on the English series. The first ‘celeb’ to research her genealogy was Sarah Jessica Parker, who unveiled extremely American family connections, including family who were involved in the ‘Goldrush’ and also one of her kin who narrowly escaped being hung in Salem as a witch, thanks to the fact that the pertinent courts were disbanded just days before her case was due to be heard! Another notable ‘celeb’ was Brooke Shields, who discovered family connections to the Italian aristocracy, including one of her kin who was banker to the Vatican; she also uncovered family connections to the royal families of both England and France through Henry IV and Louis XIV.

Well, I hear you say, this is all very interesting but what relevance does this prattling have to the column’s topic of ‘Synfyfyrion llenyddol’ (‘Literary musings’)? Well, recently I was reading the annual report of the National Libraries of Wales and I came across a reference to ‘Who do you think you are?’ and the fact that this is a popular question these days, with those interested in genealogy and local history currently forming one of the most important categories of the library’s users. Indeed it is a popular past time and my father spends hours trawling the internet and on the phone to people from America and beyond in order to add branches to our own ‘family tree’. Whilst we were down in the library in Aberystwyth we saw old photographs of our family in the archives of the community newspaper ‘Nene’ and we were delighted! This got me to thinking about that pleasant feeling and how it might be harnessed to aid my career as an author; then I realised that the question of ‘who do you think you are’ (and the musings this elicits) are the foundation of several of my favourite books, including two of Alex Haley’s classics: ‘Roots: The Saga of an American family’ and its sequel ‘Queen: The story of an American family’. Indeed, as I pondered this idea, a whole genre unfolded before me, including possible songs for consideration as the soundtrack to the column, including: ‘Coward of the county’ (Kenny Rogers), ‘In the Ghetto’ (Elvis) and, even more tenuously perhaps: ‘Who are You?’ (The Who)!

I then began to unpick the reasons for the remarkable attraction of this ‘genre’ and I began researching and checking facts in order to base a column on it. I learned that it was actress Lisa Kudrow who had taken the initiative to produce an American version of the UK show, having been inspired by the original series when she was over in Ireland filming. There is a quote from her saying: “It’s those tiny, wierd little connections to the past that make the show so interesting.” Indeed, as I mull over this phenomena, I would offer similar explanations for our interest in genealogy:

  • The way that the lives of our families (and the families of the ‘celebs’) are interwoven with historical events of note (for example the witch trials of Salem)…
  • How this then lends emotion and a sense of reality to the history, because these people mean something to us: “These are my people” (to quote SJP)
  • And finally that wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey idea (to quote Dr Who) of the feeling that things are ‘in the blood’ (to quote Jeremy Irons) – the feeling of being ‘Connected’ (to quote Brooke Shields) who went so far as to conclude that the history of her kin may be partially responsible for her (previously unexplained) decision to study French literature and culture at University.

Now then, until very recently I would have tut tutted at the third point above. My academic training as a Sociologist would have led me to the conclusion that such ideas were nonsense and, apart from some particularly pertinent biological factors, it is largely our personal surroundings and immediate environmental factors which shape us into who we are; the things that we actually experience for ourselves. However, a few months ago I had a dream which could, despite the fact that I am not religious, be considered a ‘revelation’. Essentially, I met my Taid (grandfather), Glyn Edwards (previously conductor of the brass band for Rhosllannerchrugog), who died at least twenty years before I was born…I awoke and continued to feel that I had met him at last, and that he had so0mehow reached out in order to give me a message…(for more of this bizarre story read the short story: ‘Paradocs y Pili-pala arian’ on my website on the link below).

Anyway, back to the literature! Considering Welsh examples of the genre I would recommend two books in particular: ‘O Drelew i Drefach’ (Gwasg Gomer) by Marged Lloyd Jones and ‘The Pleasure Seekers’ (Bloomsbury) by Tishani Doshi. The first book tells the story of Ellen Davies, or ‘Nel fach y Bwcs’ (so nicknamed because her father was a bookseller) who was born in the Rhondda before moving to Patagonia with her family in 1870. ‘Nel’ was the mother-in-law of the author of the book and it is full of wonderful stories of the family, and the Welsh community generally, as they settled in the harsh prairielands of the colony. These stories include the friendships with the ‘Tuhuelche’ (native Indian peoples). Amongst my favourites are the tales of: the Tuhuelche gathering outside Llain-las, the family home, shouting for ‘Poco bara’ (a small amount of bread) which they had developed a taste for and were willing to trade horses for this ‘Welsh delicacy’; then the gift of a ‘poncho’ given to the family at a time of loss; and finally the fact that the Tuhuelche loved to listen to the Welsh community singing hymns, and they would stand outside their chapel in a row, swaying from side to side to the music, tapping their feet and laughing!

The second book, The Pleasure seekers, is a brand new publication by the poet Tishani Doshi from Madras, which tells the story of her parents, Babo and Siân (pseudonyms), and the weaving together of two very different cultures (Gujarati Jain and Welsh) as these two ‘pleasure seekers’ insist on continuing their romance and marrying, despite all efforts of intervention from their families. Again this book is full of lovely stories as we follow Babo and Siân from when they meet in their work canteen, through Babo’s period of protest in his Ba’s (grandmother’s) house in the village of Ganga Bazaar, where he went when his parents were trying to insist that he would not see Sian again, and then to their marriage and setting up home at the house-of-the-orange-and-black-gates in Madras, to raise a family of their own. Both books are ‘labours of love’ and very enjoyable to read, and I hope to write my own version some day (or several versions)…beginning maybe with the trials and tribulations of the Pinto-Edwards family!

I would like to thank Tishani Doshi for giving permission for us to use her photo. To read more of my work, including previous articles from the column, please go to my blog/ website: www.saralouisewheeler.wordpress.com  

This article was first written in Welsh and published in my column Synfyfyrion Llenyddol (literary musings) which appears in each issue of Y Clawdd, the Welsh-language community magazine for the Wrecsam area. It was published in October 2010 (Issue 141) and then posted here on the 21st of October 2010. I have translated it here so that everyone can enjoy it. / Cafodd yr erthygl yma ei gyhoeddi yn gyntaf yn fy ngholofn Synfyfyrion llenyddol sy’n ymddangos ym mhob cyfrol o Y Clawdd, papur bro ardal Wrecsam. Cafodd ei gyhoeddi ym mis Hydref 2010 (Rhifyn 141), ac yna ei postio yma ar y 21ain o fis Hydref 2010.  Yr wyf wedi ei cyfieithu fan hyn er mwyn i bawb cael ei fwynhau.

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