An Interview with Pamela Petro
- By Sally Shivnan
- August 29, 2023
The memoirist talks Wales, untranslatable words, and castle walls that feel like sandpaper.
Pamela Petro grew up in New Jersey but never found a home until she stumbled upon Wales. Her arrival was accidental; she’d learned about a unique graduate program there in word-and-image studies snuggled in a small town amid sheep-dotted hills. Her previous books include Travels in an Old Tongue, in which she practices Welsh on a world tour. But her love for Wales bursts into full bloom in her recent memoir, The Long Field, now published in the U.S. after being released in the U.K., where it was a finalist for Wales Book of the Year. It weaves together stories of Wales with tales from Petro’s own life, exploring challenges and triumphs in both Welsh culture and in the author’s personal journey.
What is the title The Long Field all about?
That’s a real tip-of-the-iceberg question! The “long field” is a literal meaning of the “untranslatable” Welsh word hiraeth (HERE-eyeth), which gives a name to that hollowness you feel when you long for something or someone out of reach in the past, future, or even your imagination — when you become aware of the presence of absence. You can hop, skip, jump across a short field; a long one separates you from that which you love on the other side. It embodies the emotion of separation. I fell in love with the Welsh landscape before I made friends in Wales or started learning Welsh, so it feels right to embed the title of my book — this book that took nine years to write, amidst a constant welter of doubt and rejections — right into the beautiful, wet, green Welsh ground.
The book opens with another “untranslatable” Welsh word: cynefin. Can you talk a bit about your experience of cynefin?
I went to Wales as a grad student without knowing a thing about it. In New Jersey, I never had a sense of my place in the landscape, which was obscured by the houses, shopping malls, and highways of suburbia. Nor did I have a sense of history — even though I dug in my mother’s flowerbed looking for traces of it! — because the Native American past had been wiped away. When I got to Wales, I found everything I’d been seeking: distant views from treeless hilltops that showed me how the earth had been knitted together over eons. Ancient remnants — the Stone Age megaliths — that anchored me in the human past. I’d found what writer Josephine Hart calls “the soul’s geography” in a place I’d never been before but instantly felt at home [in]. That feeling, in Welsh, is called cynefin (rhymes with “Kevin”: kin-EV-in). What a delight that the Welsh language has a word for my experience! The thing was, though, that the place where I felt at home wasn’t my home, and I eventually had to return to the States. That’s when I first felt the pangs of hiraeth. I wasn’t just missing Wales — I was missing the person the Welsh landscape had allowed me to be.
The Long Field is about a lot more than you and Wales. Can you say something about how the book works?
In the book, I make the point that hiraeth is at once uniquely Welsh and a universal human experience. To illustrate this truth, the book braids hiraeth tales from my life — as a gay woman, as the survivor of a terrible Amtrak crash, as the daughter of a parent with dementia — with the essential hiraeth stories of Wales. I talk about traditional hiraeth of place and home, but also look at it in radical new ways, from queer hiraeth to hiraeth triggered by technology, immigration, and politics. Along the way, hiraeth morphs from deep longing to a creative response to loss and longing that I see as the genius of Welsh culture — maybe the springboard to all creativity.
You’ve spent so much time in Wales and know the place about as well as an American probably can. What would you tell someone who was thinking about visiting it?
Once I’d have said, “Bring an umbrella!” though climate change has brought more sun and drought to Wales, for good and ill. If you’re interested in Wales and climate change, try Tom Bullough’s magnificent new book, Sarn Helen. And if you’re interested in queer Wales, read Mike Parker’s wonderful memoir, On the Red Hill. If you visit, go beyond all the castles (many built by Edward I in the 13th century as a show of English power) to find places like Pentre Ifan, my favorite 5,500-year-old megalith in the Preseli Hills. Best of all, walk. Wales is the only country whose entire coastline is inscribed with a walking trail, the Wales Coast Path. It’s 870 miles, all of it offering stunning views and conversation with fellow hikers. So, grab your hiking boots and set off!
In your memoir, you mention the 12-day creative writing program (where you teach each summer) in which Americans experience the “spirit of place” that is its theme. This course is one of your enduring connections to Wales — how has it grown to have that importance for you?
The Dylan Thomas Summer School is one of the joys of my life. It hosts around 15 Americans each year in late May/early June, welcoming writers of all stripes, from undergrads to 80-year-olds. The difference about our program, as my co-director Dominic Williams says, is that “students aren’t just writers in the classroom and tourists in the countryside, they’re always writers.” We take people into the landscape — to castles, down mines, to gardens and megaliths and writers’ homes — and they write onsite. If you forget what grade of sandpaper the castle wall felt like, you can walk over and touch it as a reminder. That changes the experience utterly for me and the students. They’re inspired by immediacy and immersion, and I’m inspired watching others learn to love the place I love. There is no greater thrill.
Sally Shivnan is the author of the short-story collection Piranhas & Quicksand & Love. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the Georgia Review, Antioch Review, Glimmer Train, and other journals, and her travel writing has been featured in anthologies including Best American Travel Writing, as well as in the Washington Post, Miami Herald, Nature Conservancy Magazine, and many other publications. She teaches at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).