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Bibliographical Information
Sugar and Slate
Charlotte Williams
ISBN: 9780954088101 (0954088107)Publication Date February 2002
Publisher: Planet, Aberystwyth
Format: Paperback, 209x150 mm, 200 pages Language: English Out of print Our Price: £6.95   
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The warm and sensitive autobiographical story of a Welsh-African mixed-race woman, whose unusual upbringing in both parent's homelands together with further travels to the Caribbean became a continuous quest for her identity.

Stori hunangofiannol llawn cynhesrwydd a synhwyrusrwydd am ferch o dras cymysg Cymreig ac Affricanaidd, y bu ei magwraeth anarferol mewn dwy wlad ynghyd â'i theithiau diweddarach i'r Caribî yn ymchwil parhaus am ei hunaniaeth.
Charlotte Williams is a woman of three worlds: Africa, the source of the slaves; Guyana, where the slaves slaved; and Wales. A woman of three worlds and none: “I was history-less.” With a Guyanese father and a white Welsh mother, brought up in “a small Welsh town” amongst “people with pale faces”, she was made aware that she was different and had to sort out who she was in a way that we with “wishy-washy faces” do not. This then is a part of her story.

It could have been an earnestly and soberly told story, but the writer brings qualities which transform it into a lively and living account. She has a sense of the comic and she is a story-teller. She tells sad stories, like that of early black faces in Wales and the Rev. William Hughes’s Congo Institute (later the African Institute) in Colwyn Bay. She gives funny accounts of the night her father’s manuscript novel flew away, sheet by precious sheet, to be retrieved by night-clothed family and neighbours, and the tale of the wedding of sister Janice to Billy Housley.

She also has the story-teller’s and the poet’s sense of language, of words and music. She can draw pictures in words, and is able to engage all the reader’s senses so that she/he sees, smells and hears with her. She is influenced by her gifted, author and painter, father (Denis Williams) and by the language and stories of the Welsh street. Refreshingly, all this comes out naturally, in prose and poems. She is too honest, her life has been too real, for her to pose.

A wide-ranging book then, the story of Charlotte Williams’s search for self which starts as a need for a model “image”. Her father suggests Lewis Carroll’s Alice, but later she decides that Dennis the Menace (of the Beano comic) has more of an immediate, mischievous relevance. A wise choice. Her search for self is wide: field trips in Africa and, later, a return to the Land of Her Father, Guyana, where she experiences the “expat life”.

All this travelling and searching, and then the slow realisation: “It was time to go home. To Wales.” Another land, she is aware, that has had its slaves, in the mines and quarries.

Autobiography, travel book, a search for self. The Welsh know about that complex feeling – hiraeth – and it is fully explored here in this engaging, sometimes sobering, always moving and entertaining book. It deserves to win an award – and it has. Sugar and Slate is the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year 2003.

John Spink

Footnote: a novel for young readers also deals with the Welsh black girl and her search for identity: Catherine Johnson’s The Last Welsh Summer (Pont Books).

It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgment should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.

Gellir defnyddio'r adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatâd Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.
Further Information:
Sugar and Slate
Charlotte Williams is half Welsh and half Guyanese by birth. Her book, Sugar and Slate, is a reflection of the strengths and conflicts that this heritage has bequeathed her. Charlotte's father arrived in Britain from Guyana on a scholarship, and became an acclaimed artist. Consumed by a rootlessness exacerbated by life in the UK, he moves to Africa, leaving his Welsh wife to drag herself and the children after him as he pursues a lifelong search for identity. It is the mother's strong Welsh identity that sustains the family as they move through a confusing array of climates and cultures. The colour, food, and heat of Africa are far removed from the wet slate grey towns of Wales, and this conflict of identities is a running theme throughout the book. As confused as her father about her identity, Charlotte Williams explores what it means to be Black and Welsh - and sometimes white - in Africa and Guyana. The story is intertwined with a history of slate, iron, Caribbean plantations, and the African slave trade. She explores a surprising offshoot of this trade - the church, and its role in bringing a group of young African boys to Wales to train as missionaries. As she relates their history, she empathises with the boys' role in Welsh society; their loneliness, their mixed identities, and the difficulties faced by Africans who stayed on to marry Welsh girls and raise families. Perceived as white or a 'Frostie' when she travels in later life to Guyana to further her search for self and re-establish links with her father, Charlotte Williams finds that she must reassess her relationship not only with her father but with her husband and with herself in the context of what proves, as she travels amongst both ex-pats and Guyanans, to be a surprisingly foreign society. The author finds a certain peace by the end of the book in the knowledge that 'to be mixed race is not to be half anything; mixed, but not mixed up'. A lively, well written and provocative book, Sugar and Slate succeeds both as travel writing and as a personal anthology.
Cyfnewidfa Lên Cymru/Wales Literature Exchange
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