On Welsh Nationalism - An Interview With Meredith Efken
Posted in: Guest Articles
AmeriCymru: Hi Meredith and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. To begin with can you tell us a little about your Welsh roots?
Meredith: I am... (counts on fingers) 5th generation Welsh-American. My great-great grandfather was a coal miner from the Aberdare area in Glamorgan, and he and my great-great grandma came to America in the 1870’s I believe, and ended up in What Cheer, Iowa, which was a coal mining town with a substantial Welsh immigrant population.
Being Welsh was always something my mom’s side of the family was quite proud of. My mom gave me a Welsh first name and always told me how much she loved the Welsh culture of music. She was a piano teacher, and I play piano and sing, so I guess I got a good dose of Welsh genes! She also said that the few times she had heard spoken Welsh, she loved it and thought it was so beautiful. So I always wanted to learn it, from the time I was little. It seems the language died out in our family pretty quick after arriving in America, though, so now that I’m a Dysgwr Cymraeg, it’s the first Welsh being spoken in our family in maybe a century!
AmeriCymru: You wrote an article for Nation Cymru in response to a recent editorial which appeared on the site. It seems almost redundant to ask, but, why do you think that it is important for the global Welsh to see Wales celebrate its history and heritage?
Meredith: Well, in terms of the opinion article I was replying to, Welsh history should be important for the global Welsh because that’s the point of divergence for many of us. I’m here, I exist here, in America, because of events that happened in Welsh history. So when people like the man who wrote the opinion I replied to says that celebrating and studying Welsh history is looking backwards and is unproductive, it’s a kind of erasure of all of us who are here because of that history.
And beyond that, something I didn’t really bring up in that article is the fact that at least here in America, white people tend to think that being white IS being American. Everybody else gets a hyphenated heritage. Chinese-American. Mexican-American, African-American, etc. So non-white people get categorized twice—first by their skin color, and then by their cultural heritage. A 5th generation Asian person is still considered Asian-American, while a 5th generation white person like me is just “American.”
Some scholars think that some of this racial bias could be challenged by getting white Americans to become more aware of their own cultural heritage and how different the various regions in Europe are. Instead of us finding our ethnic identity in the color of our skin, which can contribute to racism and ultimately even white supremacy, the idea is that we rediscover the mix of diverse cultures that both bring us together and set us apart as distinct.
I’m German, English, Walloon Belgian, and Welsh, and probably a smattering of other cultures I haven’t traced back yet. Some of my ancestors rode in on the Mayflower and signed the Mayflower Compact. Others didn’t arrive here until the early 20th century. How did that mix of cultures shape my family and its history? What impact has it had on who I am?
What does it mean to have both English and Welsh heritage, given the often-contentious history between the two countries? How do I feel about my German heritage in light of two world wars? And why is it that I feel so much more connection to my Welsh great-grandma, but not as much to my Walloon great-grandpa who married her? Is it because of my mother’s pride in our Welsh heritage combined with not really knowing as much about what it meant to be a Walloon? My great-grandpa was killed as a young father in an accident. Perhaps if he had lived, he could have passed down more about Belgian culture to my grandma and my mother. What does all this say about how cultural identity is formed—or lost?
And how does all of this affect who I am as an American? I’m not saying that pondering these kind of questions will fix racism in America. If only it were that easy. But I do think that when we start exploring the mix of cultures in our backgrounds, it may be able to help us stop thinking in terms of a skin tone equating “American.”
To bring that back around to Welsh heritage in particular, there are a lot of people with Welsh heritage who either don’t even know it or have no idea what it means. So to move away from a skin-tone based identity, we need to know and understand how diverse these European cultures that we come from really are. That’s not so hard with a dominant culture such as German or English. But it’s easy to overlook lesser-known cultures such as Welsh or Walloon. Global Welsh need to be able to connect with Welsh culture and history in order to better understand how they have impacted our own unique families and personal identity.
AmeriCymru: It seems to me, after reading the editorial that the author makes some valid points but his distinction between 'forward' and 'backward' looking nationalisms is tenuous to say the least. Is it possible to celebrate your nation's heritage without reference to its culture or its past?
Meredith: I think the answer to that is in the word “heritage” itself: Something that is handed down-- from the past. How can you celebrate something that was handed down to you from the past without referencing that past? It’s nonsensical.
Honestly, I think we see the problems of that with American culture and history. There’s a lot that we celebrate as Americans without really understanding where it came from, or we celebrate it with a warped understanding of how it came to be. I’m thinking about things like how we’ve mythologized Thanksgiving (and a bunch of other holidays), or how we say we value “boot strap independence” without understanding the vital role community life played (and still plays) in our very survival as a nation. Losing our understanding of our past makes us less empathetic and honestly less efficient, less just, less healthy as a society.
One of my high school history teachers had that quote across the top of the chalkboard all year: “Those who don’t learn from the past are destined to repeat it.” That’s always resonated with me. I think we have to look backwards, not just to avoid repeating mistakes, but also to gain perspective, context, and a bit of wisdom. Otherwise, I don’t know how we move forward in a way that is just and productive for as many of our fellow humans as possible.
AmeriCymru: Nationalist movements which exist solely to celebrate their history and heritage are easily distinguishable from others whose main goal is to foment hatred of 'foreign' cultures. Would you agree?
Meredith: Definitely. However, I think that healthy nationalist movements can go deeper than just “celebration” which implies happy, positive emotions. Shouldn’t the goal really be to have as full an understanding of that culture as possible?
A focus solely on celebration forces us to gloss over or ignore the darker moments and the failures and downfalls of that culture—things we should mourn and wrestle with, instead of celebrate. If we forget those dark moments, we risk creating a culture of pride and a belief in our own superiority and infallibility. And that will lead to harmful nationalism or ethnocentrism.
And going in the other direction, there are points in a culture’s past where great harm was done to us. Or maybe the damage is currently being done. Oppression, injustice, inequality—these leave impacts on a culture for centuries. And they create emotions that we have to wrestle with, emotions that are often not socially acceptable. How do you express anger about the pain caused by systemic injustice or exploitation in a way that won’t be taken as hatred toward the oppressor? How do you make sure you don’t allow your justifiable anger to morph into something destructive?
When we only allow celebration of culture, we force people to ignore those darker emotions and not deal with them constructively. Wounds will only fester and rot that way.
So I would suggest that a truly nationalist movement needs to be as honest a movement as possible—allowing for celebration as well as mourning, pride as well as humility, joy as well as anger. It needs to be firmly committed to exploring the complexity of that national experience in a way that promotes healing and greater justice instead of hatred or a sense of superiority.
The only way to do that is as full and honest an understanding and appreciation for that culture’s history as possible.
AmeriCymru: You are currently learning Welsh. How are things progressing? What can you tell us about your experience so far?
Meredith: I’m studying Welsh through the Americymraeg course here that John Good teaches. I started with the very first term back in May of 2013, just 3 months after my mother died. The timing on that was total coincidence, but I definitely feel like my language study is a tribute to her.
I’m in the Intermediate level, and I love my classmates and my teacher so much. A lot of times, I feel like I’m not progressing as fast as I wish I was. Most of that is due to me not studying as much as I need to. I think a lot of adult learners—of anything—struggle with that because of the demands on our time and the fact that our brains are not going to absorb language with the ease of a young child.
But then there’s little things that remind me of how much I really have learned and how far I’ve come. Like when I can understand most of a tweet in Welsh or respond in Welsh on a FB comment without looking any words up. Or when I’m able to hold a 30 minute conversation, no matter how halting, with my study buddy, Susan. Those moments are exhilarating!
I listen to Radio Cymru on a radio app on my phone. The speed is too fast for me to keep up with, but I can tell when they’re giving the weather report, and I know when it’s sunny in Wrexham. And sometimes there are words that I know that I know, but I can’t recall fast enough. But still—five years ago, I wouldn’t have known any words at all!
So I think for me at least, the key to learning Welsh is to be as consistent as possible and take opportunities to practice and push myself, but also be kind to myself and focus more on how far I’ve come instead of how much I should be doing.
I really want to do a long language intensive in Wales. I think an immersion experience would be amazing. But I am incredibly, profoundly grateful for our Welsh course—it’s helping me fulfill a lifelong dream, and I love every minute of it.
AmeriCymru: You are also a writer. Care to tell us a little about your 'Empire Alchemy' (link) series?
Meredith: Gladly! I’ve been a published novelist since 2005, and I write mostly fantasy these days—both for adults and young adults. Currently, I’m working on book 4 of a steampunk fantasy series set in an alternate Victorian world where everyone is obsessed with the theater. My characters are young theater apprentices who end up using their art to confront an increasingly unjust empire and fan the flames of a revolution. I was inspired by the “Velvet Revolution” of the Czech Republic where theaters were instrumental to that non-violent change of power, and the series explores the tension between a desire for justice and a commitment to non-violence.
My protagonist’s love interest is Welsh and speaks Welsh (I call it Cymric in this world). It’s not the focus of this story, but where I can, I enjoy working tributes to Wales in any of my books.
I’m also working on a non-fantasy pastiche of a very well-known series, and I’ve made my version of the narrator Welsh. I’m being a bit coy about this because I’m not ready to announce it yet, but I’m having an absolute blast and can’t wait to go public with it.
Link: My amazon author page: amazon.com/author/
AmeriCymru: Together with Susan Floyd you have founded the Texas Welsh Society . I know your first meetup was on the 11th. How did it go? What are the society's goals or mission?
Meredith: I met Susan a little over a year ago when I discovered she is also an Americymraeg student and lives in Austin. We’ve become great friends, and we try to get together once a week to practice speaking Welsh and just encourage each other with our studies.
We noticed that there didn’t seem to be a lot for active Welsh culture groups in Texas, so this year we decided to form a Welsh society.
We want the Texas Welsh Society to be an advocate for Welsh culture and serve as a point of connection for people with an interest in Wales. TWS is non-political and focused on building connections and friendships as well as providing resources and learning opportunities. We like the idea of reaching out beyond Texas as well to find ways to support and be allies for the people of Wales.
We just had our first meetup on the 11th, and we plan to hold monthly meetups the 2nd Sunday of each month. Once we build some consistency there, we hope to expand to other events and projects. We have a ton of ideas, and we hope that as our group grows, we’ll have lots going on.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Meredith: Just that I’m so very grateful to be a part of the the global Welsh community, and I think it’s a pretty special group of people. Cymru am byth!
Diolch Meredith!! Superb interview. And pob lwc with your Welsh studies and with the Texas Welsh Society.