When Natasha Ashghar was sworn in – the first woman of colour to become a Member of the Senedd – it was more cause for shame than celebration. Underrepresentation blights the lives of people from minority ethnic backgrounds in Wales – and literature is no exception.

In an excellent article for issue 232 of Planet magazine, Professor Charlotte Williams pointed out that of over 50 titles in the Library of Wales series – its stated aim to ‘bring back into play the voices and actions of the human experience that has made us, in all our complexity, a Welsh people’ – just one, 'Dat’s Love and Other Stories' by Leonora Brito, is by a woman of colour.

But things are beginning to change. In April Literature Wales announced the names of a dozen writers of colour selected for a professional development programme that Williams says is ‘an important example of positive action hopefully producing positive outcomes’.

But she also warns: "We all know how nations can co-opt, adopt or manage minorities in order to appear modern – or as part of their modernising projects, so I would say recognition needs to be balanced with redistribution... it is not about the visuals but about structural inequalities and power."

Representation is just one of a complex set of issues that Williams feels the writers in this cohort need to be supported to grapple with.

In another development, this week sees Writers Mosaic host an online event, New Cross Cultural Voices in Wales, featuring Williams together with Cameroonian-born Welsh writer Eric Ngalle Charles. They will talk with the organisation’s founding editor Gabriel Gbadamosi.

Run by a team of Royal Literary Fund fellows, Gbadamosi says there are three parts to the work of Writers Mosaic: a ‘shop window’ to showcase under-represented and under-promoted writers; a ‘workshop’ to train writers of colour as editors; and a ‘storeroom’ – a database of writers who might otherwise stay below the radar of what he describes as the ‘white, university educated intelligentsia’ who have for centuries acted as gatekeepers to literary success.

Gbadamosi claims we are living through a fourth golden age of English language literature: "First, there was the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, Shakespeare et al. Then the Romantics, that revolution in thought and feeling. And then Modernism, when anything became possible in terms of form, and content too."


Of our own golden age, he says: "Since the Second World War and the growth of multicultural society, we have Kashmiri novelists, Jamaican poets, Zimbabwean essayists, Tamils, Latin Americans, all writing in English in their own way," says Gbadamosi, who lives in south London.

"My son tells me the street slang now isn’t Jamaican, it’s Arabic – they’re all saying MashAllah now."

It is within this multicultural context that the writer has recently developed an interest in Wales. This week’s event focuses on empathy – a concept Gbadamosi thinks has particular resonance here.

He cites National Poet of Wales’ Ifor ap Glyn’s poem ‘Cymru DEC Appeal’, which imagines a tsunami affecting Indonesia happening in Wales, and also recalls the work of one of ap Glyn’s predecessors, Gwyneth Lewis, exploring trade routes across the Bay of Biscay that connected Wales with the rest of the world in antiquity.

It is heartening to hear Gbadamosi – a Londoner of Irish-Nigerian heritage – talking about his early understanding of contemporary Wales as "reforming itself with global vision, rather than thinking of itself as pushed into a peninsula, a race apart".

Part of this reformation has been down to what Charlotte Williams calls ‘new settlement’ writing. Eric Ngalle Charles has been a leading figure in this with the establishment of Hafan Books – set up with Dr Tom Cheesman to publish the work of refugees and asylum seekers – and his own migration memoir, ‘I, Eric Ngalle’, detailing his experience of human trafficking and a journey from Cameroon to Wales via Russia.

But Williams is keen to draw a distinction between ‘homegrown’ and ‘new settler’ perspectives.

"I don't want anyone running away with the idea that we are all new settlers or depicting multiculturalism in Wales as a product of refugee settlement – add on, us/them binaries aren’t helpful."

She reminds me that her own memoir, 'Sugar and Slate', which won the Wales Book of the Year in 2003, was "an explicit challenge to constructions of Welsh identity that suggested such a binary and I sought to make much more complex that triad so deeply embedded in the national literature – land, language, lineage – all of which are contestable".

She emphasises the importance of solidarities and parallels across race – it should not be left entirely to writers of colour to depict multicultural Wales. But she suspects many white Welsh writers "don't feel competent… because they lack experiential immersion" and says: "The trouble with empathy is that it is often misguided – it can mask critical differences in power and position."

Eric Ngalle Charles’ work grapples with land, language and lineage in writing that is transnational in nature. He calls it "a bridge-building project, between Wales and Cameroon". His poetry crosses borders with the ease of a migratory bird. Even in conversation, his frame of reference takes in Shakespeare, Keats, Wilfred Owen, Hedd Wyn and Horatio Clare’s ‘A Single Swallow’ as well as "the gods of literature who guided me – George NGwane, Mbella Sone Dipoko, Mbua Ndoko and Bate Besong".

Charles has contributed to Writers’ Mosaic an essay on ‘hiraeth’ – the supposedly untranslatable Welsh word that equates perfectly to ‘erzolizoli’ in his native Bakweri. This is a writer who embodies a bridge between two proud cultures that have both suffered marginalisation within the nation states of which they are a part.

It is poignant that in discussing the importance of empathy all three writers mention Grahame Davies’ ‘Rough Guide’. Narrated by a ‘Wandering Welshman’, the poem explores how the Welsh psyche identifies with marginalised peoples – Breton, Maori, Navajo, Cajun or black.

And remaking Welsh identity through transnational solidarity has never felt more important than right now, in the light of Davies’ most affecting line: "Jewish everywhere / except, of course in Israel / There I’m Palestinian".

‘Empathy, and the new cross-cultural voices in Wales’ will be broadcast on May 25 at 8pm. To register for free visit fane.co.uk/writers-mosaic-empathy#book