Two Continents Back to Back

In a world that so often pushes for monochromatic, binary categorization, Charlotte Williams’ memoir, Sugar and Slate, asks us to linger in the liminal and delight in the undefined.

The daughter of a white Welsh-speaking mother and a black father from Guyana, Williams’ pursuit of a greater understanding of her identity takes her on a journey that ricochets between continents. Told in a narrative mode that manipulates form and leaps through time, Williams explores how we reappraise racial history, forge multifaceted identities and come to be at home in contradiction.

First published in 2002, Sugar and Slate will be republished into the Black Britain: Writing Back series in October 2023.

Five Dials spoke to Charlotte Williams at her home in Wales.

FIVE DIALS: Sugar and Slate defies traditional genre categorization, blending personal memoir, poetry and historical research. In a way, its formal boundary crossings echo your own heritage. How did you come to this form?

CHARLOTTE WILLIAMS: I didn’t want it to be a linear story about me because it was a much bigger project than that. I was addressing an experience of Wales. I wanted to demonstrate Wales’s interconnections across the transatlantic, to show how Wales is connected to Africa and to the Caribbean.

I separated the structure of the book into three sections: one that focuses on Africa, one on Guyana and one on Wales – but when I’m in the Africa bit, I’m also talking about Wales, and when I’m in the Wales bit, I’m also talking about Guyana and Africa. I was trying to show a boundary crossing and a connectedness, and a sense of mixedness.

FD: I love the poems in your memoir. Had you ever written poetry before?

CW: Thank you. Not really, not seriously. It came to me that you can say a lot in a short form. You can create echoes of things that are in the text in a very concentrated way. I wouldn’t ever suggest that I’m a poet of any kind, but I think poetry’s like singing: everybody can have a go. It’s a lovely form.

FD: It’s a very introspective narrative and a deeply personal one. How did it feel to write in that intimate mode? Was it emotionally challenging?

CW: That’s such an interesting question because, when I wrote it, I always thought of it as a political project. I was going to use the personal in a very political way, so I thought of course it’s not a story of my life and everything I’ve done. I selected episodes with the intention of demonstrating something more than the personal, representing an experience that I hoped would resonate with others.

But now, after time has passed, and I read Sugar and Slate aloud, I do find it more emotionally challenging than I did back then! It might be age, but when I was younger, I was very connected with the politics of the book. As I’ve gotten older, I’m beginning to be more connected with the life story, and the personal, and the more intimate elements of it. At the time, I don’t think I found it emotionally challenging. I was fired up to have my say!

FD: How was Sugar and Slate received by your family?

CW: They were all very positive because when you’re writing about family (and anybody who’s written anything autobiographical will realise this), your story’s your story. Other people in your family will have different ways of seeing something, even the same event. So, you need to care about them when you’re writing. And I think I did.

I remember my sister Eve saying, ‘It was like we’d all sat down and put the cinecamera on.’ We used to have family photo slides, and we’d all sit down on a Sunday and look at these slides – some pictures of Africa, and pictures of when we were children. She said it felt like I’d put the slides up and we were all looking at them.

I remember showing some pages of the book to my younger sister Bea while I was still writing and she said, ‘You should be a little bit more cross than you are!’ I said, ‘Well, that’s how it came out, and that’s how it seems to me.’

FD: I was fascinated by the historical details you reveal about Wales: one of the first interracial marriages in Britain took place in Dolgellau in 1768, and Cardiff was the site of Britain’s first major race riots in 1919. How and where did you find those buried black histories? Were they hard to unearth? And do you think Wales’s relationship with its black history has changed since Sugar and Slate was first published in 2002?

CW: I think it’s fair to say that these histories were not apparent; they weren’t particularly in the public domain. Some of them are only just emerging now.

It started with the fact that I live very close to Penrhyn Castle, which isn’t a real castle; it’s a big stately home. I became aware that the landowner had developed his wealth through what he called his ‘West India interests’, which was plantation slavery, and his localized interests, which were slate quarries. Even in his own time, he was despised and pilloried for his treatment of the Bethesda slate quarry workers who were ‘near slaves’ in the sense of their economic instability.

So, I knew this piece of local history and, I also knew a story about a school of African boys, which was right in my town, dating back to 1890. The school was an experiment: instead of white missionaries going out to missions in Africa, they brought these African boys back to Wales to be educated. There were similar academies in Europe, but nobody knew about these boys from the Congo who came to my village all those years ago. I grew up knowing about them because my father had been interested. My mother had said, ‘There used to be a college here. Black fellows used to come to this college.’

The school was an experiment: instead of white missionaries going out to missions in Africa, they brought these African boys back to Wales to be educated.

So, I knew that piece of history, and I started from there and then built out. Of course, these histories are hidden in our localities all over Wales. I began to search around, and to think not only about the boys from Congo and about John Ystumllyn, who was a gardener, and was in one of the first mixed-race marriages dating back to 1768. I began to ask not only about black people in Welsh history, but also the way we were represented in Welsh literature and culture and songs. People began to say, ‘Do you know about this poem?’ or ‘Do you know about the reference in this song?’ You could see that ideas about black people were culturally embedded. I decided that I would weave those into Sugar and Slate because they give us presence. That sense of ‘I belong here, and I’m from here, because there’s a history of people like me in this area.’

After Sugar and Slate was published there was a bit of interest in black Welsh history, but it went quiet until much more recently, when now there’s been a deep interrogation of black history in Wales. I’m very proud to say our government has been very forthright about wanting to bring that to the fore, as a part of Welsh history, and to ensure that all children in schools are conversant with those histories.

You asked me what had changed; things have changed considerably, in terms of wider public recognition. These aren’t just local stories anymore. These are what we call ‘stori Cymru’: Wales’s stories, stories about Wales and the social, economic and cultural benefits that have accrued from these interactions with the world. I’m proud of that too.

I began to ask not only about black people in Welsh history, but also the way we were represented in Welsh literature and culture and songs.

FD: The book gives us a nuanced exploration of nested, intersecting oppressions: a racially marginalized community within a community which is itself marginalized in Britain. Could you talk about the relationship between the white Welsh and black Welsh populations?

CW: Wales is often called one of the first internal colonies of empire. The idea is that Welsh people lost their language, and their culture, and their ways of being and knowing through English oppression.

Now, historians tell us it was much more complex than that, but that is the structure of feeling in Wales. That’s, as Raymond Williams says, how the Welsh think. We have this history of oppression by the Anglo-Saxons and that aligns us with the oppression of others. The assumption is that the Welsh are aligned with black oppression. To a certain extent, that holds true. Wales has always been very internationalist in its outlook, and there is an empathy with other oppressed groups. The Welsh understand what it’s like to be robbed of your language and culture, and that came to the fore very critically at the end of the twentieth century.

This is what you’d hear the minister talking about when he stood up in the chapel on Sunday: how important Welsh language is, and being robbed of that language. However, part of my academic project was to deconstruct that assumption. I spent a lot of time saying, ‘Yes, that’s a myth of nation.’ When you actually dissect it, you can see how Wales has benefited from the oppression of black people, through the missionaries following the colonial trails, the assumption of colonialism, and so on and so forth. I always thought it was both a myth that needed deconstructing – which I do in Sugar and Slate – and also a very important way into discussions about race inequality and the experience of being black.

So, as I come to the contemporary moment: yes, we do have fascism and racism in Wales. We’ve got a lot of ignorance, just like anywhere else. However, if you look at the national sentiment, if you look at the literature, the poetry, the songs, the ambition of Wales is to be much more egalitarian. In that way, that alignment is a very nice thing to work with.

FD: In the memoir, you describe how your father, the artist, archaeologist and author Denis Williams, links his three respective marriages with his three creative ‘epochs’: ‘There was the Africa project and the discovery of himself with Ma. There was his post-independence return to his own land with Toni the English nurse and now there was a return to his true self, to his soil and to his ancestry with Jenny.’ Could you talk about the way that relationships are complicated, or indeed ended, by the transformation of one partner? How can romantic relationships exist across change and difference?

CW: I was fortunate enough, back in 1998, to go to Guyana, and I interviewed my father. In that discussion, that’s how he described his transitions – not that he wanted to leave Ma or Toni behind, but that he linked them to his own creative energy. I do recognize that. It’s not only about geographical distance, but the way in which you can become distanced from somebody you love because you’re thinking of your own ambitions about belonging and connection. The focus has changed, and he described it like that; as a kind of realization of himself.

Hazel Carby has a book, Imperial Intimacies, which I’ve come to a love a lot, because she has a Welsh mother and a Jamaican father. She talks about how we’ve understood colonial connections economically, in terms of social structure, but these marriages, these connections, produce intimate relationships between continents, and it’s interesting to think about the ways in which people either sustain their relationships over time and distance, or become estranged.

One of my favourite quotes (if you’re allowed a favourite quote from your own book!) is me peeping through the slats of the wooden partition when I’m a little girl and seeing my Ma and Dad sleeping in the afternoon. I described the scene as ‘two continents back to back’ because I’m suddenly seeing that there are two traditions, two continents: Europe and Africa.

Many couples resolve and move with the sway and transitions of time and stay together but you can also see how others can drift apart. That is a theme in the book, because that’s what we experienced with our parents.

FD: In his 1963 novel Other Leopards, your father writes about two characters, Lionel and Lobo: ‘Lionel is the one constrained by Western logic, caught up in a way of thinking and presentation of himself that is not naturally his, by history or by spirit. Lobo on the other hand is free, wild, authentic.’ At the end of Sugar and Slate, you write, ‘Lobo is necessarily mixed.’ Could you expand on that idea?

CW: My father did an interesting job of writing about that schism. The constraint he felt as an artist, of Eurocentric thinking, and Eurocentric influences on his education and who he was. He felt that he had to break free. Then he describes this more authentic, primitive sense of self, where you’re more connected to your origins. I thought that was a great way – maybe a little bit of a binary way – of putting it but an easy way to understand the split in one’s psychology.

I was trying to relate it to my contemporary experience, which is that the authentic self becomes the self that is mixed, that has integrated that schism. The past and the present, borrowing from all the cultures that make up your experience: bits of Welsh language that have been handed down, the places you have been. All of those influences you integrate into your sense of authentic self. Identities as becoming, rather than something that is just given.

FD: A scene in the liminal space of Piarco Airport, Trinidad, is woven through the narrative of Sugar and Slate. How does waiting and the passage of time function in your memoir? And how does this transitional space relate to your own heritage?

CW: That was a deliberate element of the writing of the book, because I didn’t want it to be ‘either/or’. I wanted to keep that sense of the liminal space throughout. One of the best ways to illustrate that was just by sitting in an airport, in that no man’s land, non-space, without citizenship, without a sense of belonging to place. You sense people passing both ways, the flow of people across territories. Another dimension of it is that nations are a relatively modern construction. Before, you didn’t have to necessarily say, ‘That’s my land’ or ‘I belong there.’ The borders were more fluid.

I’m talking about a book that I wrote twenty years ago. You always want your writing to endure. People like you tell me that a lot of what I had to say then remains relevant to today. I think it’s my mechanisms, like the airport motif, that allow it to remain relevant, because I’m talking about processes rather than my own individual experience. I’m trying to present processes that happen to people; transitions, being between places, those bigger themes, themes that are bigger than all of us.