An Interview with Harrison Solow, by Brian y Tarw Llywd:
NOTE: This is a very long interview.
Americymru: Congratulations for being awarded the prestigious Pushcart Prize for your work entitled *Bendithion* - about Wales, Welshness, Lampeter and Welsh tenor Timothy Evans.
Harrison: Thank you.
Americymru: Being curious about what kind of writing would be chosen to receive such an award over 8,000 other entries required us to read the piece. Reading it was an amazing experience.
Harrison: Thank you again. But although there were about 8000 entries, mine was not the only one chosen. The Pushcart Prize is awarded for fiction, non-fiction and poetry and several writers in each category are given awards. It’s a great honour but not a solitary one. The editors of all literary journals and small presses in America are invited to submit to the Pushcart Press up to six pieces of what they consider to be the best writing they have published each year. The Editor, Bill Henderson, and his co-editors decide which pieces will be awarded and included in The Pushcart Prize Anthology. As for what kind of writing, that’s hard for me to answer. If you read the stories, essays and poems in the Anthology, you begin to get an idea. But the renowned editor of AGNI, Sven Birkerts, who (with his Senior Editor, William Pierce) submitted Bendithion for a Pushcart Prize, referred to my opening paragraph in an interview on NewPages: when he was asked to describe how he selects or rejects submissions to his magazine. Also, on the Pushcart website, http://www.pushcartprize.com, there is information about the selection process.
Americymru: There are several questions about this work that immediately come to mind. For instance, have you ever thought about a career in cultural anthropology, sociology or psychology?
Harrison: Very interesting questions. With regard to anthropology, although I have not ever considered it as a career, my current research includes literary anthropology about which I am reading avidly at the moment – particularly Victor Turner. There is a great crossover between literary and cultural studies and I am finding my research absorbing. I am about to launch (or re-launch) myself into Heidegger and his protégé, Gadamer, whose linguistic studies seem to buttress in theory what I have discovered empirically (and unintentionally).
Psychology? With deepest respect to those ethical and dedicated psychologists who are doing immense good for others, my own experience with psychologists/therapists, including former family members, is best described by excerpt from another story I wrote, called Mater Amabilis:
“She had always read the word therapist as “the rapist,” even before her profound odium for them was cemented by experience. Having seen, when she was at university, so many incompetent, smug and morally retarded fellow students take up the profession, if that is what it was misnamed these days, in order to manipulate and control the vulnerabilities of other people, she now avoided them as she would a disease.”
A close friend of mine, Janet Asimov (the widow of Isaac Asimov), an actual medical doctor – a psychiatrist for whom I have great respect, said once that no one needs a psychologist if s/he has one true friend. Again, this does not refer to any particular therapist/psychologist on Americymru or elsewhere. It refers to those acquaintances in my experience only and naturally that experience would have deterred me from such an occupation even if it had been appealing, which it wasn’t.
As for sociology, no. I read a lot of sociology. It forms a considerable section in my library. But I have never taken pleasure in the thought of being anything but an artist/illustrator, a lecturer, a writer and a nun. And a mother of course. Different category of “being.” I suppose “nun” is too. I don’t want to look at life through any single lens, which is why I prefer to enter into an experience and look at it, write about it, from the inside. The arts (as opposed to the humanities) into which category my kind of writing falls, offer the widest and, to my way of thinking, deepest perspective from which to view the world, one that necessitates both ingenuity and sophistication.
In the 1990s, I was “Poet Laureate” of an exceptional Think Tank in Berkeley called The Good Table. The label was a casual and affectionate one and referred to my role, which, in addition to being an intellectual participant, was to render lyrically each monthly session for presentation at the next. Most of us were faculty members at UC Berkeley and several were real laureates - Nobel Laureates in physics, mathematics and other sciences, but many were from the arts outside academia. We had notable guests as well – from an enormous variety of disciplines, fields, and vocations. I used to think then, as I think now, that there is no greater pleasure on earth than to sit as we did on soft evenings, in an enclosed garden at the back of a Berkeley bookstore, like “still dancers under the moon” (to quote Robert Creeley who was one of our most engaging guests) at a table laden with beautiful food, and discuss a single topic from myriad points of view with these graceful exceptional minds. No, I could never confine myself to any one lens – my interests and background are too diverse and my temperament too galactic – and it is just too glorious to experience them all.
I have considerable admiration for those who have the talent and dedication to focus through a single lens on a particular area of expertise. I know many people with such ability – all over the world. I just had a discussion about this with the two departmental colleagues at the university at which I taught most recently who are actual scholars. These men are specialists and when I see the results of their meticulous research, all I can do is celebrate it. I would collapse in boredom or die of claustrophobia if I had to do it but I love reading their work. I love their sheer excellence. But it would be a prison sentence for me to be chained to one topic my whole life, whereas for them it is passionate absorption.
I don’t like to know about things. I like to know things. That is my passionate absorption. This is a pretty long way of saying no to your question - but having been educated by philosophers, Jesuits, lawyers and rabbis, it’s difficult for me to answer anything without qualification.
Americymru: What was your childhood like? Where did you grow up? What can you tell us about your family of origin?
Harrison: My childhood: Multicultural long before that became a cause célèbre. Stable. Cerebral. Magical. Very innocent and very interesting, to me. It was a world of juxtapositions and contradictions and great, great beauty. Multi-cultural, because almost every one of my 14 (in total) parents’ brothers and sisters married a person of a different ethnic background. Their children, my first cousins, were almost all racially mixed. It was a fascinating environment in which to grow up.
The stability came from my parents’ love, first and foremost and my little brother’s; the grand Latinate illogical constancy of pre Vatican II Catholic Church; the fact that the neighbourhood I lived in was largely populated by hundreds of my aunties, uncles, cousins of many degrees and my grandparents; and the august supremacy (in my mind at least) of the Oakland Public Library.
Cerebral because that was my natural propensity, greatly aided by my mother having taught me to read when I was three, which opened the door not only to imaginative experience and the early rumination of hundreds of books (literally) but also gave me an arsenal of other thoughts, other minds when I went to school (and to my after-school Catechism classes) against which to measure everything I learned. I loved every minute of elementary school and used to weep inconsolably every year when summer vacation came. I also adored catechism not for its wacky and capricious dogma, which was easily dismissible for someone like me, but for the sheer intellectual glory of it all.
This is one of those juxtapositions of which I spoke earlier: I would leave my second grade class, where we were reading textbooks with content like “See Spot run. Run, Spot, run...” and walk down the road to my classes at St. Anthony’s Church where I would pick up my Baltimore Catechism and deconstruct The Lord’s Prayer. Or the nature of culpability. The exegesis of the Lord’s Prayer is four pages long. This for seven and eight year olds! Here is a very small excerpt on only one question in the section of the nature of sin: question, answer and commentary:
56. Q. How many things are necessary to make a sin mortal?
A. To make a sin mortal three things are necessary: a grievous matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will.
"Grievous matter." To steal is a sin. Now, if you steal only a pin the act of stealing in that case could not be a mortal sin, because the "matter," namely, the stealing of an ordinary pin, is not grievous. But suppose it was a diamond pin of great value, then it would surely be "grievous matter." "Sufficient reflection," that is, you must know what you are doing at the time you do it. For example, suppose while you stole the diamond pin you thought you were stealing a pin with a small piece of glass, of little value, you would not have sufficient reflection and would not commit a mortal sin till you found out that what you had stolen was a valuable diamond; if you continued to keep it after learning your mistake, you would surely commit a mortal sin. “Full Consent.” Suppose you were shooting at a target and accidentally killed a man: you would not have the sin of murder, because you did not will or wish to kill a man. Therefore three things are necessary that your act may be a mortal sin:
1. The act you do must be bad, and sufficiently important;
2. You must reflect that you are doing it, and know that it is wrong;
3. You must do it freely, deliberately, and willfully.
I thought this was marvellous stuff. Not because it was religious indoctrination but because it was ethics and exegesis and philosophy, because it presupposed that we were responsible if immature human beings with brains and reflective capacity. And, I suppose, because after “See Spot run” it was a glorious adventure into a lexicon that would stand me in good stead for the rest of my life. It also made me a pain in the neck as a student. I have a William F. Buckley streak that doesn’t go over all that well in less exacting institutions. But even at seven, I was able to see the nonsense in the catechism, a stance that was verified in my later catechetical studies. Not long ago, I wrote to a Catholic colleague:
“Venial derives from vena referring to Venus and refers to mostly sexual sins which were thought to be pardonable (how easy is it to tell these laws were constructed by men?). By the way, it is a mortal sin for women to entice men to sexual transgression but only a venial sin to actually transgress. So wearing provocative clothing gets you an eternity in hell, whereas rape gets you a pardon. Just in case you forgot that part of the catechism.”
This of course is grievously harmful if you take it seriously, but who could possibly give the premise any credence in the 21st century?
The great beauty I spoke of earlier came from the books I read, the thoughts I treasured, the home and family that nurtured me, and the gorgeous cities in which I lived. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area – Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda and San Francisco itself - in an era when they were all far more beautiful than they are now. Architecturally harmonious, filled with flowers, smog-free and slumless and so safe that at age 10 or 11 I would get up at four and take the bus to Fisherman’s Wharf (which was then a fisherman’s wharf and not the cheap revolting tacky tourist trap it has become) and watch the fishing boats come in. I’d talk to the fishermen, sketch the boats or the men hauling in their catches, then go have clam chowder for breakfast at a little café on the wharf that opened at 5am and take the bus back home. If you let a little girl do that now, you’d probably be arrested for child-endangerment or abuse. Different world.
As for my family of origin, most of them came from the Azores and Madeira to Hawaii. I had a genealogy done a few years ago and it appears that my mother is a descendent of Christopher Columbus’ wife and that we descend, matrilineally, from a long line of Bettencourts, a French lineage that began to intermarry with the Madeirans in the 16th Century.
Americymru: Can you think of any events that happened to you as a child or as a teen that you feel either were defining moments for who you became or which changed the course of your life?
Harrison: Yes, but this is getting to be an enormously long interview. To be very brief: The most influential events in childhood were:
A. Learning to read at age three.
B. Reading, when I was four, a book called Little John Little, which set the precedent for most decisions in my life and for the research I am doing now. The book disappeared when I was about five, then went out of print and was not to be found anywhere. I searched for it in bookshops and libraries across the country for decades. And then, one dusty summer afternoon, on a visit to Arkansas, my father spotted one in an antique shop, very kindly bought it and gave it to me. This was about 45 years after I first read it. One of the better literary moments in my life.
C. Being moved into the sixth grade with (11 and 12 year olds) when I was just under 8. I stayed in the third grade for math and geography and art and music etc. but did all language arts with the sixth-graders. That began a pattern of “relief in isolation” that has persisted to this day.
D. Entering the convent when I was seventeen. That certainly was life changing and again for reasons of philosophy, silence and other, private internal development, not for reasons of religion.
Americymru: In the article on you in the Academi List of Writers http://www.literaturewales.org/writers-of-wales/i/130324/ there is the following statement: "Harrison’s research is centred in the literary hinterland between fiction and non-fiction where, she says, 'no word equals its referent and the meaning of what is approximated in words lies in their shadow'." What did you mean by this and can you give us an example?
Harrison: I meant two things: The first is simply and obviously that no symbol is equivalent to that which it represents. This is so obvious as to be unworthy of mention except for the fact of the symbol itself. The language. But more profoundly, the incommensurability between the commonality that language/place/culture confers and individual language-less perception. An example? Well, “anyone lived in a pretty how town with up so floating many bells down” comes to mind instantly (e.e. cummings). Ulysses (Joyce). Something as simple as Basil Fawlty saying to Sybil as she walks out the door, “Drive carefully, dear.” Quickly (and unnecessarily) followed, sotto voce, by “Don’t drive over any mines or anything.” None of these mean much when deconstructed textually. What they refer to is not definition but instinct, the instinct of signification – even of sound, as Saussure said. “A linguistic system is a series of differences of sounds combined with a series of differences of ideas,” is perhaps his most well known sentence. But Saussure also said that the "The connection between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary."
So “no word equals its referent” because there is more than words at play in the conveyance of signification. There is also us. We.
In an exceptionally refreshing and challenging letter to the editor in The American Scholar (January, 2007), entitled “Getting it All Wrong”, Brian Boyd, a professor of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand writes:
“Not everything in human lives is culture. There is also biology. Human senses, emotions, and thought existed before language, and as a consequence of biological evolution. Though deeply inflected by language, they are not the product of language. Language, on the contrary, is a product of them: if creatures had not evolved to sense, feel, and think, none would ever have evolved to speak. In his presidential address to the 2004 MLA convention, the distinguished critic Robert Scholes offered an overview of the problems and prospects for literary studies. When another critic, Harold Fromm, challenged him in a letter in PMLA for ignoring biology, Scholes answered: “Yes, we were natural for eons before we were cultural . . . but so what? We are cultural now, and culture is the domain of the humanities.” We were natural? Have we ceased to be so? Why do Scholes, Menand, and the MLA see culture as ousting nature rather than as enriching it?”
The reason that “Harrison finds a spiritual home here in Wales”, as one BBC Radio interviewer put it, is that I find my Welsh friends to be natural. Natural communicators, natural emoters, natural thinkers. They use more than language to convey meaning and those unarticulated elements live in the shadow of words, which is often where the most profound communication takes place. But (having evolved out of a more primeval ability to communicate wordlessly) one needs the language in order to “not use” it. Elements have to exist before there is a “between”.
(And as an aside I take great exception to the colossal myopia that can produce a statement like “culture is the domain of the humanities”. I don’t know where people get the chutzpah to make these categorical pronouncements in public.)
The second is that my experience (and Einstein’s experience by the way) has taught me that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” That is one of the reasons I have found my best place as a writer, as a pilgrim, as a relative-scholar in that hinterland between fiction and non-fiction.
Americymru: Might you be inclined to elucidate, perhaps by example, your statement about your work: "It is fiction because I make things up in order to accurately convey what really happens. It is non-fiction because its messages are verifiable. It is obfuscatory, in tribute to the splendour of Welsh storytelling, the hallmark of which is said to be the indistinguishable blend of fact and fantasy".
Harrison: I’m quoting Jan Morris here - with “the indistinguishable blend of fact and fantasy.” But that blend is not only emblematic of Welsh storytelling – it is at the heart of my writing.
My literary life began as the Western World's did - with oral stories and fables, and then moved on to tales of daily life and very quickly thereafter to Lives of the Saints and the rigours of the Baltimore Catechism, as I have said, at a very young age, all of which inculcated a deep affinity with imaginary heavens and hells and the rich portent with which earthly life was endowed: Biblical parables, medieval pedagogy, Arthurian quests, Bunyanesque allegory, Chaucerian pilgrimages and Apologias of all kinds. This literature comes naturally to me. Or rather, as it was clearly imposed on me, it was not a resisted imposition and comes naturally to me now. I'm not fond of overly academic approaches to it - "overly" meaning the triumph of theory over art. And all of these literatures are both fiction and non-fiction; depending on which side of belief you live. The Welsh, with their Mabinogion and highly allegorical literary history, have no problem with this apparent dichotomy.
I’ve spent a lot of time in what can appear to others to be fictive worlds, “closed-to-the-public” worlds: convents, Hassidic communities, the very tightly guarded world(s) of Hollywood, NASA and JPL. Monasteries, astronauts associations, the clans and tribes from which my families came, lonely insular communities in the backwoods of Canada, girls’ schools, private clubs and green rooms, the hermetic enclosures of the famous. Even our house in Malibu was closed off from the world by ten foot high walls with locked gates, no windows on the side of the house that faced those gates (the opposite side of the house was all glass – 20 feet high and overlooking the Pacific Ocean) - and then, of course, Welsh-speaking Wales. All closed worlds. Nothing significant within these worlds can be adequately portrayed by an outsider. These are cultures to which you have to belong in order to understand, in order to verify the messages you think you are being given – and because the codes and secrets, values and rituals, attitudes and assessments of these enclosures are not available to the outsider, when outsiders write about them, they inevitably get them wrong.
In fact, I can say that without exception, every single time a journalist or a writer from the outside has written about my husband, my friends, me or an event in which any of us were involved, it has been wrong. Either something in it was erroneous, or it was largely erroneous. A case in point: A couple of years ago two academics approached my husband with an article they had written about the inception and origin of one of his television shows. They asked if he would look it over for them and correct any errors. Now this article was ready to go to press – to Oxford University Press, to be specific. They had done their “research” as they called it.
My husband was stunned when he read it. Not only did their research consist of talking to people who were never involved in any aspect of the inception or origin of what they were writing about (my husband is the only person left on planet earth who was not only there but absolutely fundamental to and absolutely in charge of the entire show) but the books they read were nonsense books written by other people who weren’t there. There were not just a few mistakes in the article - it was a horrendous parade of misinformation from beginning to end. Herb worked on it for days- and not only did they never thank him, never send him a copy of the finished article or even acknowledge that the last draft bore little resemblance to the first (he has all their correspondence and all their “work”) but they argued with him about the facts as he was correcting it! These are people who teach other people, who perpetuate myths without calling them myths and consider themselves not only non-fiction but also responsible scholarly writers!
Just recently, the New York Times (of all publications) attached an absolutely bizarre authoritative weight to two people in yet another article on Star Trek in a matter of authenticating a particular prop on the show. One of them was my husband, the Head of the Desilu Studios and Executive in Charge of Production of Star Trek who hired the person who built that particular prop and supervised the building of it. The other of the "authorities" quoted was a person who was a gas station attendant – just out of high school at the time - where Herb filled up his car. One day, when Herb pulled into the gas station on the way home from the studio, he started talking to the young man and discovered that he was looking for work. Herb thought he was a nice kid, he looked good (for the screen) and kindly gave him the opportunity to be an extra on the show. Decades later, The NYT quotes this extra (who was pumping gas when the prop was built) - and they quote Herb – in juxtaposition – as equal voices in authenticating the origin, materials, builder and location of this piece of memorabilia. How insane is that? This is what happens when people get infected by the Star Trek virus. I really feel like drowning them all. (In the case of the NYT it was the editor not the writer who should have known better, but it’s always somebody.)
Hence the necessity to go “inside”. Hence the necessity of the lexicon, the terminology, the language of cultural discourse. Carol Trosset makes this point exceptionally clear in her extraordinary (and actual non-fiction) book, Welshness Performed. You cannot learn a culture from the outside. You can learn some things about it. But you run the danger of not knowing who or what is genuine or significant and looking like (if not being) an idiot.
Dorian Llywelyn, a Welsh-born, Welsh-speaking Welshman, and a Cambridge-educated Jesuit priest who teaches at Loyola in California, wrote a stunning book which elucidates the perception of Welsh writers from the sixth to the twentieth century that Wales is a holy place; and states that the connection of language to culture, politics, nationality, religion and literature cannot be underestimated. Dr./Fr. Llywelyn’s book is called Sacred Space, Chosen People and is a text to which I have the most profound affinity. Anyone who is interested in Wales and Welshness would find this book a treasure.
Fiction, of course, does not bear the responsibility for a factual account, though, in my experience, it tends to tell the truth more clearly. Fiction is often defined as writing (about) or describing something that does not exist - but what does that mean? What I write about may not exist or have existed for you but it does or did exist for me. It may be fiction to you but not to me. Or vice versa. It is relative literature. Referential literature. Liminal literature. Lyric literature.
In his article in The Harvard Theological Review, (Vol. 86, No. 3. (Jul., 1993), pp. 293-307) entitled “Lyric Autobiography: John Donne's "Holy Sonnets" Frederick J. Ruf says, "The lyric, by contrast, is characteristically spoken without distance or survey, but personally of private moments (fears, hopes, desires, visions) to which the voice is intimately related. The lyric voice is vulnerable and struggling, or, perhaps, passionate and assertive. The lyric vision is often incomplete. It moves and changes. Rather than a survey of people and events from without, it is a voice speaking from within."
I write, then, lyrically, to interpret an experience, to open a door, to sit at a beautiful table with my readers and talk about something, in which, from opposite ends of a process, we have both decided to invest our time. And I hope that they will come to the table with their physics and geology, Latin and quilting, and choreography, calculus, French and philosophy (and much more) and do the same for me. What they cannot do, and what academics tend to do when they are not good academics, is to tell the writer/creator what has been written/created and how it was done. (Here’s a little secret: we already know that. We actually do it. As opposed to talking about it.)
I was reading an interview with Wolfgang Iser by Richard van Oort last week in Anthropoetics III, The Use of Fiction in Literary and Generative Anthropology ( no.2, Fall 1997 / Winter 1998) in which Dr. Iser said:
“The old dichotomy between fiction and reality implies that there is a stance outside either, which would allow us to designate one particular instance as fiction and the other one as reality. This is logically impossible. There is no such transcendental stance, which allows us to come up with these predicates. We can only say something about fiction by way of its manifestation and its use.”
Of course Iser is talking about reader-response theory with which, in its more extreme interpretations, I am at some variance. But the statement above can be applied to the writer, not just the reader. Here is an example of this:
Because I have such a difficult time portraying the Wales I know and the person Timothy is (to me), I have had to attempt portraits in different forms. Bendithion is literary non-fiction, so it is said. But there are a few fictionalised elements in it – the interview at the Sosban Fach actually took place in two sessions. It did not suit the cohesiveness of the narrative, or the purpose of it (which was to convey the Welshness that those ladies conveyed to me) to insist on including the 24 hours between the first conversation and the second. Also, the names of the ladies were changed. That’s about it. But not, strictly 100% chronological fact as it happened. Non-fiction, according to current publishing criteria and editorial policy, nonetheless.
But I didn’t feel that I had adequately portrayed the odd, mystical connection between Timothy and me in that rendition, so I wrote a “story” – a piece of fiction, as it purports to be, narratively, allegorically, entitled “The Postmaster’s Song” (published by Cinnamon Press, it was one of ten winning entries in an international fiction competition). In it I changed my name and Timothy’s and Alun’s (if you have not read Bendithion, Alun is Timothy’s best friend who worked in the post office with him for 20+ years). I introduced elements of what people call “magical realism” in this story and I imposed an omniscient narrator. I made myself younger than he and single instead of married in the story to emphasise the nature of this delicate relationship – to demonstrate that it would remain the same chivalrous mystical friendship whether I was young and single or older and married. I felt that the nature of this innocent bond would be thrown into greater relief when there were no social obstacles to any other sort of connection. I changed the orientation of a building in town and I compressed time. When the first draft was done I gave it to Alun to read and when he finished, he looked at me, puzzled.
“What?” I said, responding to his look.
“I thought you said it was fiction,” he answered.
Now, in that story, there is a magical boy, an allegorical pregnancy, light that carries sound and a host of other things that would prompt any reader to render the verdict of “fiction”. But not in Wales. Not Alun, not Timothy, who nodded rather complacently and said “Well, you got it all right, didn’t you?” Not my Welsh friends for whom “magical realism” is another word for daily life, and not me. It is perfectly shiningly clear that the “fiction” piece I wrote is the more accurate of the two. Not because Bendithion does not tell the truth – it does. But it was written for Americans – outsiders - by an outsider, for when I wrote it, I had not yet begun to learn Welsh.
I wrote The Postmaster’s Song to satisfy myself. I also wrote it for Timothy and for all my Welsh friends. It was addressed to them, in Welsh terms, with Welsh references, in Welsh inflected English. If accuracy is a virtue in a portrait, then it would be sensible to label The Postmaster’s Song non-fiction as well. These are all arbitrary categories.
Still, I didn’t think that either of the two pieces portrayed enough of what I see from the inside, so I began to write a series of poems called Postal Codes. One of them is so revelatory about Timothy that when I gave it to him to read and said, “Don’t worry – I won’t send it out for publication,” he said – “Why not? People won’t understand what it means.” I said I thought some people might. And then he said, “Well if they really understand it, it won’t make any difference anyway, would it?” Meaning of course (in his own inimitable way) that any outsider reading it would not understand anything specific and therefore no secret would be inappropriately revealed and anyone who did understand it would be in possession of the secrets anyway.
And so, it is form that interests me now. It is interpretation, expression, the difference between a chi and a ti - the hinterland where truth and fiction meet in a literary genre, in a belief system, in a ritual, in an intellectual endeavour, in the very definition of relative truth.
Intrinsic, then, to this belief is that “no word equals its referent, and that the meaning of what is approximated in words lies in the shadow.” There is a meaning in any experience described within a book that cannot possibly be in the book. Nowhere have I seen this personified, indeed, living, except in Wales.
Americymru: Your attempted interview with the ladies at The Sosban Fach resulted in some possible theories about their Welshness. Have your experiences outside of the restaurant confirmed any of these hypotheses, or do you think that other factors were in play that day?
Harrison: All of those hypotheses have been confirmed – over and over. The only difference is that then, not being a Welsh speaker, I didn’t understand the reasons behind them. I do now.
Americymru: Did you ever get Timothy to America? Has his music become more available?
Harrison: I changed my mind about bringing Timothy to America – or rather Timothy changed my mind - one of the consequences of learning Welsh. He was right about where he belongs. And why. His voice thunders across the oceans anyway. You don’t need to see him in order to hear him. And if you do, then you are warmly welcome to come to Wales! His CDs are available on amazon – on iTunes – from the Sain website and no doubt many other places. He’s in the middle of recording a new album right now. Not long ago, I did a little work on it with him and his lovely sister, Meryl, who takes care of his career in Wales, and from what I have seen and heard, it’s going to be another spectacular recording.
Americymru: You are obviously familiar with the concept of *hiraeth*. It would appear that Timothy's singing touches that in the Welsh (and likely other Celts as well) and your article speaks eloquently to that in describing the experience of hearing him sing. Were you aware of that?
Harrison: I was, yes. I don’t know how or why, but sometimes things happen before they happen, if you know what I mean. I was touched with and by hiraeth before I knew what it was.
Americymru: You start *Bendithion *with a Star Trek reference, and then we note that you have authored a book and co-authored another (under a different name) about Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry. Would you tell us about the books, and what inspired these efforts? What is your relationship to science fiction? Is there something in particular here?
Harrison: When Star Trek first aired, I was in the convent and didn’t see it. Years later, my children began to watch it in syndication. At that time, I was a special projects editor for the University of California Press. My particular expertise was developmental editing or, as it turned out, translating English to English (scholarly and sometimes unintelligible English into literary English). The Senior Editor at the press was quite taken with my writing and as he was just setting up a series called Portraits of the American Genius, he asked if I would be willing to write a book on some aspect of 20th Century American culture that really had an impact on people. I started to think about what that might be – and then I thought of science fiction which I happened to know quite a bit about at the time – and this television show my children were watching. I sat down and watched it with them and discovered some very profound ideas in these episodes. When I researched it further, I discovered an immense fan base, an entire submerged world of adherents, with a distinct canon and a philosophy, which was almost a spiritual protocol to many, complete with deities, distinct and binding commandments, codes of conduct, ritual, and a path to moral/spiritual gain.
So I suggested to the press that I do a book on the phenomenon and they were very unenthusiastic about it. “We don’t do television” was the general reaction. But I made a presentation about vision and philosophy and ideas and science fiction. (I must interject some background here to say that one long and arctic winter in Canada when my children were young, I began an intense course of reading and critical study of science fiction on my own and then with some guidance from one of the first professors ever to teach it at university level in Canada.) Back to UC Press - I read them some excerpts from some of the scripts, and the upshot is that they decided to take a leap into the unknown, I was contracted to write a “portrait” and I went down to Hollywood, to Paramount Pictures to talk to Gene Roddenberry, the producer of Star Trek.
The part of my life that followed that, and preceded Wales is so complex and such a long story that I just have to skip over most of it here. Briefly, I spent a great deal of time (on and off) for about two years, staying with the Roddenberrys, became acquainted (and sometimes friends) with some of the best science fiction writers in the world and some of the most well known actors in the world. I then went on to work on projects related to Star Trek the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine and on to other projects in Hollywood.
The book was published, with a foreword by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, a dear friend with whom I maintained an almost 20 year correspondence, who sadly died last year and ended up becoming one of the two best selling University of California publications of all time (to that date), the other one being Carlos Castaneda’s Teachings of Don Juan. Simon and Schuster bought the North American rights for paperback and Harper Collins UK bought the English language worldwide rights. I went on a book tour which lasted about three years, managed by a publicist the Press hired to deal with the popularity of the book (all the while entering new fields of writing and production and a huge variety of other projects in Hollywood).
About halfway through that tour, through mutual friends, I met Herbert F. Solow, the Head of Desilu Studios – the man who hired Gene Roddenberry, critically revised the original Star Trek concept that Gene pitched to him, sold it to NBC, hired everyone, made the pilot, and spearheaded the show. We had an extraordinary reaction to one another – an almost instant internal marriage and we married legally not long after.
I moved to Malibu and entered another whole new life on a whole different level. If I listed our neighbours, it would sound like the credits of a very interesting movie or television special. I doubt if there is anyone on that list that most Americans haven’t seen. Places like film studios and events like the premiers and launch parties and the Academy Awards became part of my daily life instead of the occasional forays into them I had had in the previous two years. Herb’s friends became mine, mine became his (some we had had in common and not known it) and suddenly we were in the centre of an extremely eclectic group of directors and philosophers, surgeons and actors, lawyers and physicists, art directors and academics, astronauts, chefs, dancers, designers, composers, screenwriters, playwrights, poets, authors, astronomers, producers musicians and fans. Reminiscent of my old “Good Table” but expanded and daily and more high-powered. Herb had just finished a book and I was still in the middle of my appearance schedule so we travelled together (doing “bookend” lectures) and separately to speak to various audiences all over the country. We then began consulting on various Hollywood projects and we wrote a book together. There is so much more to this story and I’d love to say more but it is just too long and complex to relate here.
What I don’t feel that I am properly conveying is that after my two sons were born, they were central to everything I am relating in this interview. Those are not the questions you are asking, but it would be a very false picture to relegate them to the periphery. They are part of every breath I take and happen to be two of the most interesting people I have ever met anywhere. Also, speaking of language, we share a private, highly metaphoric vocabulary created by the years we lived together in relative cultural seclusion in Canada and elsewhere.
Americymru: Back to Wales: You are a California girl: What got you into Wales? Where did this all start and how?
Harrison: What got me into Wales was a memory. I had been here before but not to West Wales. After Herb and I finished our book tours, I finally had the leisure and the means to do something I always wanted to do - a research doctorate. My sons were grown up and had finished university and were beginning what turned out to be illustrious careers for each of them - so I talked it over with them and Herb and decided to go ahead. Very few people of our friends actually believed we were going to do it – and when we got here, few of the people we know in Lampeter (outside our friends) believed that we had actually done it. I think they thought we made it up ( our life back in California). I know one woman in my department did. [And by the way, the phrase “California girl” is also an “insider’s” cultural reference. We both come from California, from about the same era and I understand perfectly what you mean by it. Women younger – or from other parts of the country or the world might perceive it very differently, whereas I experience it as linguistic comfort.] Anyway, I applied to several universities, and was accepted at several – but this one was in the most beautiful and appealing area to me.
How is a different story.
Americymru: What have been the most important personal discoveries you have made about the Welsh in the time you have spent there?
Harrison: I can’t speak about “The Welsh” – I can only speak about “the Welsh people that I know” and most of them are in if not from Ceredigion. With that caveat, the most important personal discovery I have made is this:
Language is everything. The way the Welsh-speakers feel about their language is everything to them. It isn’t just “an issue” – it’s a vital part of every breath they take. It is native, primordial. It holds the secrets of disappearance, finds its way into the ancient history, sings the songs of this land. It was here before English and it will be here after it. That is the feeling and the message and the melody I hear from all of my Welsh-speaking friends.
A “first-language Welsh-speaking Welsh person” is a different lives in a different world from a “first-language English-speaking Welsh person” and both are entirely different from a “first language English speakers” in foreign countries, like England, for example. Again, I would refer people to Welshness Performed and Sacred Space, Chosen People. You can’t have an authentic cultural experience in Welsh-speaking Wales without speaking Welsh. You can’t have an authentic cultural experience in France without speaking French. You can think that you have, but you haven’t. You can have a great time –you can understand a lot about the other but you can’t transcend the distance between I and Thou without a common language. My experience in Wales before I learned to speak Welsh was delightful, heady, and enlightening in many ways. But all those feelings were attached to an external experience of Welshness that disappeared after learning Welsh. Even at the level of fluency that I have reached, which isn’t all that “rhugl”, my entire world picture has changed.
Americymru: Given what you have experienced and learned after having spent time with the Welsh, what do you think that they little realize about themselves that you consider speaks volumes about the Welsh character?
Harrison: I don’t think that the expression “having spent time with the Welsh” exactly describes my experience. It is a matter of degree of course, but if you ask any of the people I have grown to love and treasure in my years here, I think they would tell you that visitors “spend time” with them. I’m not a visitor. I am an inhabitant of this little world now. But to answer your question, I think they realize pretty much everything about themselves. I mean, they have televisions. They know the rest of the world isn’t Wales. But they know what Wales is and who they are. As Jan Morris says, in A Matter of Wales,
“The Welsh have survived as a nation chiefly by cunning and reserve...they play for time, they fence, they scout out the situation, but they do not commit themselves. Those sweet smiles are sweet, but they are well under control. It is performance that greets you, polished and long practiced, played on a deceptively cosy stage set with brass pokers by the fire...” (Jan Morris, The Matter of Wales)
What really takes my breath away is the children. I remember the first year we were here, the week before Christmas when the shops stayed open late for one night of the year (until 7 p.m.!) and the whole town was alight with lights– and the local fire engine, which has seen better days and is about the size of our SUV, decked out with wreaths and real live holly, drove flocks of children up and down the minute, abbreviated length of the one main street in the town, while the others, excitedly but patiently waited their turns, queuing in front of the pub, chewing on all manner of sweets handed out to them by the local shopkeepers. Looking at those children and returning their ecstatic waves, I tried to imagine a Los Angeles child of any age in this bliss, and failed utterly. Also, the children at the local eisteddfodau astound me with their talent.
And one incident in particular never fails to bring a lump to the throat when I remember it. I was driving along a one-lane road with a friend when a teacher with a trail of children, obviously on a nature walk, waved to us. When we pulled over, the children – all around three or four rushed up to the car, anxious to tell what they had seen. My arm was outside the window – and a little girl of with eyes like stars patted it until I turned my attention to her. She put her face as close to mine as she could and whispered in a voice filled with astonishment, joy, wonder, “I found a flower.” I guess I didn’t react as swiftly or in as satisfying a manner as she had expected, because she came even a little closer and whispered with even greater portent. “A blue flower.” It occupied her, this discovery. Joy inhabited her. The children don’t realise what they are missing in the outer world and how lucky they are to be missing it. The adults do. And if you’re from an American city, like I am, you could probably count twenty things in the previous paragraph that would never, could never, happen where you live.
Americymru: What are your future writing plans?
Harrison: I am under contract with Cinnamon Press for a book on Barbara Pym, which is just about two chapters away from being finished. It will be launched next year. I am writing a PhD dissertation (which I wish was two chapters away from being finished!) The dissertation will have to be edited for publication as a literary trade book, as soon as it is finished since it is already represented by my agent in New York. I’ve been invited to give a scholarly paper (and also a creative piece) at Cambridge at a conference in honour of their 800th Anniversary this September, so I am working on that. I’m also working on the poem sequence, Postal Codes, I mentioned before and an article about mythology in fandom and when all that is done, I’ll be starting a book of short stories based in Wales. Unless my agent has another suggestion. I made the mistake long ago of not listening to him when he wanted me to write something and I will never make that mistake again
Americymru: Any final message for the members of Americymru?
Harrison: Yes. Never ever ever let anyone or anything deter, deflect or prevent you from the protection, promotion and defence of Wales (English or Welsh Speaking Wales) as the separate, beautiful and mysterious nation it is. Anyone who tries to do so is a feckless thug - a person of limited perception, who knows, feels, sees and understands far less than you. Don’t be afraid of these people. Y gwir yn erbyn y byd.
And thank you, Brian for the stimulating questions. I appreciate Americymru’s interest in my work.
Causes Harrison Solow Supports
Lupus Foundation of America
Museum of Tolerance