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An interview with Sion Tomos Owen: The Valley, The City And The Village Project

Feb 2017

An interview with Sion Tomos Owen: The Valley, The City And The Village Project

Sion Tomos Owen was born and raised first language Welsh in the Rhondda Valley, He has a string of awards and accolades attached to his name – Tudor Bevan Bursary Award in 2007, runner up in the Terry Hetherington Young Writers Competition in 2014 and 2013 for short fiction, Young Writer’s Prize in the Planet Essay Competition 2013 and much more. He wears multiple hats that of a poet, fiction writer, essayist, short story writer and illustrator in his debut collection Cawl. We became friends at the end of the conversation. Here is a snippet of our conversation:

  • Could you tell us a little bit of the place you come from? Is it city/countryside/ and how has that influenced your writing?

My place has massively influenced me and my writing and I have also acknowledged it with a thank you in my book. The place Rhondda is a former coal mining valley, only 10 miles long with 60,000 people living there. It can’t be considered rural, but the valleys which had an influx of migrants and immigrants. Originally there used to be a few farms, I grew up in one but now it’s mostly terrace houses at the bottom of the valley, and surrounded by mountains. I present a television series about my valley titled ‘Pobol y Rhondda’ meaning ‘People of the Rhondda’. The second series will come out end of March.

My book Cawl is a little different as I couldn’t focus on one thing there are so many different elements. There is poetry about my valley in the book one in particular which is a re-tell of the famous Rhondda poets – so he did it from the turn of the century to the middle of the century and I did it from the 50s to now. There are two essays both about politics one about the valleys and the other one is about Wales in general. There is also short stories which are predominantly based in Rhondaa, and there are the cartoons, and personal experiences like the birth of my daughter from my side, a male perspective. So all that influence comes from within that 10 mile radius.

  • How did you begin your writing journey, at what age, how did it all start?

The first thing I remember writing is poetry about 10 years of age, though I have always drawn. I remember I went on a rugby tour to Ireland and I took a book to write poems about the trip. One side is blank paper the other side is lines, so I drew on one side and on the other side I would write a poem about the rugby match. That is my youngest memory of writing. After that I took part in many competitions, in a small press, Welsh language magazine and they would have competitions every month and from then on I just kept writing and writing and I didn’t know I was an essayist until I won an essay competition, I always thought what I wrote was a story but I couldn’t find a place to fit it in and so I put it in that essay competition and it won!

  • So you wear multiple hats – that of an essayist, poet, prose writer, could you tell me if there is a difference between these mediums?

I try to do as many things as possible. I sing and play guitar as well. Its just that whatever takes my fancy. If there is a way of telling a certain story and I can’t say it in that form I say it in a different form. Like Bob Dylan says “I write a song, and if I can’t find a tune it is a poem.” It’s the same with me. For example I thought I would write a story about my daughter being born, I couldn’t quite get it, but I thought it will be written better as a comic and later and another piece I had written, which was one piece and then I edited it so much it ended up being a poem! They just morph into one another –like I used the lyrics of a  song from a band and built it into a different poem. I just feel that some things need to be told differently and can’t be told in one form so you have to have the ability to be tuning into something else.

  • You are writing in multiple languages – in Welsh, Bangla, English, how do you go about doing your research in Bangla.

We will be writing the Bangla one, the three Indian authors will be coming to us in the second half of the year at Wales  during the Hay Literature festival and they will be doing events around Wales. I think we are doing one on each of our hometowns. And then they will have their interpretation of Wales along with what we will write. For us it is so difficult to write about India now, because there is too much to say. We started doing it and we thought we will write a little bit on train and to be honest actually, for all of us, we have written a little bit about movement almost all the things we have written about has been on the train or in the car. It’s because India is constantly moving and there  are so many elements, influences, smells, tastes, it’s such an onslaught.

  • Who is that one writer/poet that has influenced your thought process? What aspect of his/her writing attracted you?

There were many influences. Especially different poets. There was Bob Dylan, Roger McGough’s, some Welsh writers – Menna Elfyn. I was actually lucky because when I went to university Menna was my lecturer. Even though most of my poetry is in English, we would discuss it in Welsh because she is a Welsh language poet. I love the Russian story writers Anton Chekov, Nabokov but also magical realism one of my favourite writers – Karem, Garcia Marquez’s Love in the time of Cholera is probably one of my favorites (mine too). As I grew older the library of Wales opened and I started reading more and more Welsh writers in my mid- 20s. There are two book cases in my parent’s house – one was full of my father’s art works and lots of books about India because I practice transcendental meditation and so lots of books about yogis like Maharishi, which is a very important part of my creative process. The other book shelf is about classic Welsh stories from my mother’s side so there was a big mix. So when I was growing up I actually didn’t like reading – but about the age of 10 I read Dahl’s Matilda, and then I just kept reading everything. And so I would spend loads of time in the library. The aspect in Dahl’s writing felt like he was writing for me compared to the books which we were made to read in school which where childish books not specifically for children more like climbing levels and then I found this specific book Matilda which was quite a thick book and I read it in four days and from there on I read all the Dahls followed it up with young fiction, Steven King at 12 and Love in the time of Cholera at 14 and so influence came from everywhere!

  • Do you write anything about spirituality?

I have tried but I can’t convey it. I did start an essay however it didn’t translate to what I wanted. That is so strange because that is the base of my creativity but I can’t actually write about it.

  • Do you see yourself become like the graphic novelist Neil Gaiman?

I didn’t discover him until after I finished the book. But since then Wella Eisner, Martin Olson for satire. The forgotten path which is a graphic novel about a boat going into all the places that Buddha went which is exactly what I was trying to write when we came here. We have done a little bit of graphic short story telling about the trip. But I don’t really know how to categorize it. My hope with this (Cawl) was that it would feel like an anthology written by one author because there are so many different elements.


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