Siân Melangell Dafydd
Spitting Distance started in Serbia. Far from my milltir sgwâr (square mile), before I knew that I was writing it or gathering details for anything specific, I was at a literary festival called Kikinda Short (July 2011). Let me tell you a bit about this place first. Kikinda: beautiful name to say out loud. Streets lined with edible things, which pleased the raw-food forager in me and confused the hotel chef; a town with only one hotel back then, sulphur in its tap water, demons in its electrics and dead animals poking their heads out of the walls. We drank bowls of coffee, bullets of very, very strong alcohol and after the outdoor evening readings, hovered around börek all-night bakeries and went to bed with hair stinking of melted cheese, somehow only to sleep for two to three hours before starting again. The best thing about this festival is that they didn’t schedule our day like a school timetable, as many festivals do. We – 23 writers from 18 countries – were free.
This was like forced meditation. First, we didn’t know what to do with all that stillness. So much unplanned, unstructured, wasted, lost – panic – time. But there was also the heat, the lack of sleep and that thing which happens to the brain when it hears a buzz of multiple languages: silence. And in this silence, Spitting Distance in its early days.
Kikinda Short festival is also one that understands a particular kind of story performance. With 23 writers, 12 or 11 of us reading each night, it’s not possible to let each writer read a traditional ‘short story length story’, if you know what I mean. No BBC 2,000 word rule, but much, much shorter. What we were asked to submit – two stories of about 300 words – made us re-consider the form of the story entirely and by the time we got there, we all had ideas about the experiments and obstructions when dealing with the challenge given to us by the festival organisers. So the short-short form became essential for some, more poem, more extract, more anecdotal, more foreign – ultimately. Then we were translated. And then we heard each other. Just when we thought we understood the story and its possibilities, someone read something that was weird or new or not fashionable where we came from or different in its very creative DNA. The following day’s silence let us sit with echo of these stories. I still remember the procession of ants going up a tree in Australia – Evie Wyld’s story, Ulrike Almut Sandig’s world of clashes and juxtapositions and her German more musical than Italian. By now, I have Faruk Šehić’s novel, translated from the Bosnian, Quiet Flows the Una on my desk, in which he opens with:
Sometimes I’m not me. I’m Gargano. He, that other, is the real me: the one from the shadow, the one from the water. Blue, frail and helpless. Don’t ask me who I am because that scares me.
And I think – yes, he scared me out of my skin in Kikinda in 2011 because I didn’t realise how such a way-out-there story could come from bare, bare language like his, how the world was not at all what I thought it was. Kikinda Short made me think I didn’t know anything any more, and that was wonderful. I was speaking differently. I was seeking to shape story differently, and I was writing something hybrid, between the borders of genre.
Zoom forward a bit, and now I find myself teaching Creative Writing. I believe in writing in workshop, while we’re all there, not just workshopping completed work and talking shop about its process. I believe in playing with language because it’s playtime and that is our job. Play. The air changes. I don’t answer e-mails while my students do this; I do my own writing games. Weekly assignments are often short and I really do try to make sure the emails and other stuff don’t prevent me from doing the assignments myself. This leads to a very satisfying devotion of sieving through the ideas I thought I’d stored for later but in fact were almost forgotten. In getting to them. Even if in theory I’m working on a longer novel, there are also those catch-me-now-or-never ideas, oddities of language that only come to me when I’m committed to the relationship between observation, curiosity and getting it down. In 2015, I was invited back to Kikinda Short and realised that I already had samples of stories that fitted their word length. If festivals usually give writers a chance to present, this one also changed my practice.
Spitting Distance is a leakage between my teaching life and writing life, Wales and other worlds. It’s letting the creative process be porous.
A good part of the year, I live, for now, in Paris, where people I don’t know are living their 30 square metre lives behind walls and reinforced doors, secret codes and hidden courtyards. The Tale of More than Two Cities. It’s impossible to know my square metre. I am and always will be, as we say ‘merch ei milltir sgwâr’, a girl of her square metre, of home, of my patch (‘Point of Lay’) but Spitting Distance is reaching out to newer intimacies, maybe like the stranded whale in ‘Family Outing to see an Orca’.
I’ve only recently started talking to people about the stories that make Spitting Distance now that it’s moved from being an unconscious gathering of flocks of stories to a ‘project’. We talk about cultural divides like men spitting in the street, what different things it says or means in different places. About cuckoo spit. About running away from the city so that the milltir sgwâr is something that really can be known thoroughly. But Spitting Distance isn’t about any of those things, really. It’s a coming together, more than a measure of distance. Whatever binds it is a theme that I’m not robust enough to name but here is a selection of four.
Thanks should be given to Kikinda Short, Wales Arts International, my colleagues at the Comparative Literature Department of the The American University of Paris and my students.
Siân Melangell Dafydd is an author, poet, translator and yoga teacher. She is the author of the award-winning novel, Y Trydydd Peth, (2009 National Eisteddfod Literature Medal winner) and has published short stories and poetry in a variety of publications including The Best British Short Story 2014 and The Best British Poetry 2014. Siân is Professor of Creative Writing at the American University of Paris and is creating a Masters in Transnational Creative Writing for Bath Spa University, England. She is the co-editor of the literary magazines Taliesin and Y Neuadd and is currently translating some of the works of the Bengali Nobel Prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore into Welsh. She leads workshops on yoga and writing all over Europe. The four short pieces featured in the spring issue of The Lonely Crowd are all taken from a forthcoming collection called Spitting Distance.