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Hireath is the Welsh word you didn't know you needed

On the podcast: Step aside hygge, there's a new non-English word in town and Pamela Petro has written a book about it.

In her memoir, The Long Field: Wales and the Presence of Absence, Pamela Petro unfurls the meaning of hireath — a Welsh word that encompasses nostalgia, homesickness, and longing — and dissects all that that the word has meant to her as a gay woman, a creative writer, a daughter, a traveler and more. The Long Field was chosen as a best travel book for 2021 by The Financial Times and The Telegraph.

Mentioned in this episode:

About our guest

Book cover: The Long Field by Pamela Petro, background is a landscape painting

Pamela Petro teaches in our MFA in Creative Writing program. Pamela is an author, artist, and educator living in Northampton, Massachusetts. She was recently made an honorary Fellow of the University of Wales, and has received both literary and visual arts residencies and fellowships from Grand Canyon National Park, the MacDowell Colony, the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word, and the Black Rock Arts Foundation. She went to Brown University as an undergrad, and to The University of Wales, Trinity St David, for her master’s degree in Word and Image Studies. She also studied at the Sorbonne, Paris I, and the Ecole du Louvre in Paris, France. She has spent years studying both French and Welsh, but can’t speak either one very well. Her writing includes Sitting Up With The Dead: A Storied Journey Through the American South, The Slow Breath of Stone: A Romanesque Love Story and Travels in an Old Tongue, along with essays, articles and comics.

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  • Transcript

    Georgia Sparling

    This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode, we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life. My name is Georgia Sparling, and my guest today is Pamela Petro. Pam teaches in our low residency MFA in Creative Writing program and is the author of four books. We're going to talk about her latest one today. It's called "The Long Field: A Memoir, Wales and the Presence of Absence." I'm so glad that you are on the show today, Pam. We've been trying to do this for a few years. Welcome!

    Pamela Petro

    Thank you, Georgia. I know we've been trying to get together and I'm really delighted to be here and honored that you asked me. Thanks so much.

    Georgia  

    I'm so excited to talk about this book, because I think it's one of those things that I never would have learned about if I hadn't read it. And so basically, the book is built around the concept of this Welsh word that I'm probably going to butcher here: hireath. How'd I do?

    Pamela 

    You did not butcher it at all.

    Georgia  

    [laughs] Aw, thanks. So by way of introduction as to what this word is, I was wondering if you would read a passage from the book where you kind of describe it?

    Pamela 

    "Two the world's nearly 7000 languages, their words that acknowledged the title tug, a long, empty space on the human soul. In Welsh, that word is hireath. And in Portuguese, it's saudade. To feel either is to be emotionally attuned to an acute presence of absence in your life. An intractable longing for someone or something, a home a culture, a language, a younger self, an old unrealized dream that you've left behind, or that's been taken away from you, or that hovers inexpressibly in the future, shimmering only in the imagination beyond mortal grasp. The objects hireath are the unattainable things that we sent, but can't have. The irretrievable ones beyond place or time that sadden, motivate, inspire, and mark us. Hireath is contraband from the wars, we always lose, wars against mortality, time and injustice." And Georgia, you went right to the nub of the book that was hireath. [laughs]

    Georgia  

    It was such a fascinating concept, and you kind of define it and redefine it throughout the book. But I'm curious, like, when did you first come across this word? And? And, yeah, and what was your reaction to it?

    Pamela 

    Right, okay. I talked about it in the book, I experienced hireath to without knowing I was experiencing it. But the first time I encountered it was on the campus of the University of Wales, when I was waiting for my boyfriend, and I saw it on a sign: hireath. In Wales, all signs, and any kind of posting you put up has to be bilingual. So this sign was in English and in Welsh, but this one word wasn't translated. And I asked him when he came and said, "Why wasn't this word translated?" And he said, Oh, "I don't know. I'm English." [laughs] But I remembered the word and then I came upon it decades later, defined in English as homesickness, or as longing or yearning. And I think I said at some point in the book, to call it hireath a longing is to say, "I kind of, sort of like my children." You don't get to the depths of it, of the feeling. You could call it homesickness if we really, really interrogate what "home" means. And I think home mans all different kinds of things to different kinds of people. And if you're out of your "home" place, or if you don't feel at home, that's beginning to get toward what hireath means. If you don't feel, if you can't occupy the present moment fully at feel at home in it, if part of you is lingering in the past or longing for the future, then you're beginning to feel hireath. And in my experience, I grew up in New Jersey, it was my home. New England became my home, but then I went to Wales and found a place I'd never been before where I felt most at home. And I think if you feel at home in a place that not your home, that's a sure recipe for hireath, and that's when I first felt it. When I went to grad school in Wales, I was there for a year, when I first arrived, I experienced this other word that Welsh has not translatable. And that is [inaudible], which is a sudden, when you go to a place, you've never been before, that you feel absolutely at home there, that encounter your soul's geography. And that's what happened to me in Wales. But then I was just there as an American student, I had to go home and in a year. [laughs] And I left. You bet I felt hireath. That was a long answer to a simple question.

    Georgia  

    [laughs] Not really. I mean, the word is really complex. But as you were talking about it, and as I was reading about it in the book, it just makes sense. It's like, you know, we have "nostalgia" in English, which, as you said, none of our English words are exactly what this Welsh word is. But I think everybody has felt that longing and that desire for a place that's home

    Pamela 

    Absolutely. Because I think there's someone I quote in the book, who says hireath is a very Welsh word, a unique Welsh experience because of Welsh history, of Welsh being colonized by England and on and on, but it's also a universal human experience. And I thought everybody can relate to that. Have you?

    Georgia  

    [laughs] Yeah. And probably even more now, in the past couple of years of the pandemic, I feel like that feeling is probably gotten even stronger for a lot of us.

    Pamela 

    Absolutely. It took me seven years to wright and nine years, and two more years to sell and edit. And it came out right in the middle of the pandemic, and that is appropriate.

    Georgia  

    Why did you, as an American, decide to write a book about this, like distinctly Welsh word?

    Pamela 

    That is a really good question. When I initially approached the idea back in 2012, of writing, I wanted to write a book about Wales. I wanted to introduce Wales to the states, to Americans, and I thought "hireath," a quintessential Welsh word, this longing for home, that a lot of Welsh people feel most when they're in Wales at home, because home was never the place that should have been. Home, there's this sense in Wales that the Welsh was cheated out of the history they deserved, because just as nation states were coming into their own in the early Middle Ages, they were conquered by England, and their language wasn't taken away, but it was made a second-rate language. It was not the language of official business. And it was outlawed as an official language for 400 years. That law was only effectively repealed in 1993. So, I wanted to show Wales and all its history and all the kind of both pain and glory of it through the word "hireath, and I didn't want to include myself. And I started working on this book, and sending it out to agents who routinely wrote me back and said, "Good idea. Americans don't care about Wales. Why aren't you in the book?" And I didn't want to go into the book.

    Georgia  

    Why is that? How come you wanted to just keep yourself out of it?

    Pamela 

    I don't know. I think I just didn't want to write about myself. I wanted to write about Wales. And I didn't want to, you know, when you're writing memoir, that "I, I, I" present, you kind of get sick of yourself. I thought this could be a gift of Wales to the states, to Americans, and I didn't want to get in the way. And then, well, there's a long story, but it finally got through my thick skull that I wrote a book about absence, about the absence of what should have been, the absence of the past, the absence of childhood, of home, of the future you think you're headed to, all of that, of God.  was writing a book about absence, and I was absent from the book. And I realized that the things I was writing about in Wales affected me too. I was writing about the absence of a future that you expected and wanted to have, by writing about The Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 in Wales, when Margaret Thatcher's government essentially crushed the miners’ union. There had been a way of life in the south Wales Valleys, especially before that, people for generations worked in the mines that and that was their income and their profession, their vocation. After that strike, it was gone. There were no mines, no coal mines left in Wales. And that killed a future, that killed self-esteem, the way of life of people. And I realized something in my life chimes with that: the expectation of the future. And it was a train wreck I had been in, a train wreck in which I was nearly killed in 1987. And I thought this is very different circumstance, but I'm going to give the personal version of the professional, enormous disaster of the minor strike and what happens in Wales, and all over Britain. It will chime in my life with this train wreck experience. And so the book eventually became [inaudible] of the loss of language in Wales, and what it's like to speak a minority language. I graded that in another chapter with what with my life is as a gay woman, what it's like to practice the minority way of loving. So everything that I look at through the lens of hireath in Wales matches something in my life. And that's how I finally successfully read the book. And as the book goes on, it opens out beyond me personally, to this more universal human experience of the unknowable megalith of Wales that were built 5000 years ago, in the stone age. We can't know what they mean. And I've put that into a chapter of trying to know your parents, and they're just one generation separated from us. Their early lives were before we were born. We were absent from those. They're absent from us. We can't ever know the mysteries of our parents, either. In that sense, humans and stone relate to each other. So that's kind of how the book unfolds and how hireath became the key to it.

    Georgia  

    I love how you incorporated Welsh literature and how Welsh people have viewed hireath throughout the years. I think at one point, you said some people consider it like a universal affliction. But you really seem to see it as a positive. Like, why is it a good thing that we experience this? Like, what use is it to us?

    Pamela 

    That is a great question, Georgia. Thanks for asking that. In Wales. I think a lot of people see hireath as a negative. It's that sentiment, that sentimentality, that always draws us back in time to the past that has been and never was, this image of the Wales that should have been, and that renders the present incident. Like you spend all your time thinking about the past, you're not occupying the present, you're not preparing for the future. And so a lot of people see it as the kind of albatross around Wales's neck. But I see it very differently. You're right. I acknowledge that and I think that's absolutely a valid way of seeing it. But also, if there's an absence in your life, there's a hole. There's something that needs to be filled. And when humans approach an absence, they always have to fill it, and we fill it with imagination, we fill it with creativity. And I see hireath not as an event, or an emotion that exists in and of itself, I see it as part of an equation, like a kind of chemical reaction. There's loss, therefore, there's absence, therefore, there's longing. Therefore, there's the need to fill any and replace that absence with something new, and I see it as the generation of creativity. I think it's the kind of genius spark at the heart of Welsh culture, and maybe all creativity, that, there's a wonderful set of wonder tales in Wales called the Mabinogion. And they were written down in the early Middle Ages, but they're centuries older than that. They come out of this Celtic path and these marvels happen. There's this one story where four friends go and sit on a magic mound. It's an actual place. It's an actual hill that you can go sit on today, not far from the A 40 highway. In the story, they experience wounds are marvels. And what happens is, a mist falls, a heavy mist and there's a thunderclap and lightning. And when the mist rises, everything they've ever known in their lives, that gave them a lot of coherence or meaning is gone. All the animals, all their friends, all the buildings, there's nothing else but the Earth itself. And, to me, that's the original hireath story, the loss of culture and language when Wales was occupied by England. But it's rendered as a story, an imagined tale. And Wales has been doing that ever since. Compensating imaginatively for what's not there. And I think that it's the heart of the culture to me, I think it's a good thing that we do that. With the megalith, with the dolmens and the standing stone, all of those have stories attached. We don't know why they were put there, so we invent reasons, we invent stories. There are standing stones that unfold the nights of full moons, they say, go down to the sea and dance together on the beach. I love that. But then there are also scientists, and an archaeologist to fill that huge, long space of unknowing with theories about them. So, it provokes both folk, creativity, literature, and scientific inquiry. All of that comes from the not knowing of hireath.

    Georgia  

    And you talk about in the book, different kinds of hireath, and one of them is like the creative life or being. Is that necessary? Can you be an artist without hireath? Can you be a writer without it? [laughs]

    Pamela 

    [laughs] What a good question. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say you can, because every book I've written has been an answer to a question. I wrote a book about storytellers in the south and I was born in the north, but I've always wanted to understand the south. It's a place that I don't know, it was a mystery to me. Why are there so many stories? What's the motivation? How did those stories grow out of different regions in the American South? It's always an question, so the book became a quest to answer those questions. I think when you ask a question, it's because you don't know something. It's because there's an absence. So in a way, hireath is that motivation, behind almost everything. What's beyond the blank page? What's beyond the blank canvas? What's inside this block of marble that I'm going to carve? It's a always not knowing and a discovering, an asset to be filled. The title of the book, "The Long Field," relates to hireath, that one etymology of the word, hire-ath, is literally named here: long ice field. So a poet friend of mine in Wales, [inaudible], told me this, and I thought, "What?! What does that have to do with this thing? And I realized, a long field is that which separates you from what's on the other side, and it's in that long field, I think, that we make our discoveries and plant those seeds of creation. So I think that becomes the central metaphor for the book.

    Georgia  

    Definitely. And this is sort of an aside, but I was looking up the word just to see kind of where it appears in the world. And Google has this like, usage viewer thing. [laughs] And it shows that hireath has like steadily grown in usage from maybe 1920. And then around 1980, there's a bump, and then around the 2000s and beyond, it just like shoots up, which I mean, it's still like, point 0.000009% or something. [laughs] But it's just interesting that the usage of the word has grown exponentially in the past 20-30 years. I think [inaudible] has something to do with that. Mm hmm. I think presence on the Internet has probably really increased the people's knowledge of it. But also, at the beginning of the 20th century, you talked about that, there was a whole, not a literary movement, but there were a lot of writers who embraced the experience of hireath. In both English and Welsh, hireath is always an [inaudible], like something is better than something else, like childhood is better than adulthood, the rural Wales is better than industrial or urban Wales. I mean, it was a kind of going back to the past, to the child to your childhood, and they all kind of enforce those dichotomies. And I think hireath was very popular at the time. I was curious, too, if like, in recent years, with like, hygge, and other non-English words that describe things that we all know are true, but we didn't necessarily have a word for it ourselves, if that kind of exploring those concepts has made it more popular, brought it more into people's conscience.

    Pamela 

    I think that's very true. I have a book called Lost in Translation that picks out different words like pica, I never know how to pronounce that. If I sit in it, [inaudible] both meaning the same thing of longing words that can't be translated, I think there's become a fascination with that, that don't translate directly into English.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, there's a few words, I studied Chinese for a while and lived there in China, and there's some words I just want to say, in certain situations, but no one will know what I'm saying. [laughs] But it's frustrating too, because I'm like, there's a word that actually is perfect here, but you won't understand me.

    Pamela 

    You won't understand me if I use it.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, so then I have hireath for not being able to say that word. [laughs]

    Pamela 

    [laughs] I love that. What's so cool about that is that I think these words that are unique, the different languages, give a real insight into the experience, it's the kind of experience behind the creation of that language. Like in Welsh, there is no verb for "to have." Like in English, you would say "I have a car." And you couldn't say anything simpler. It's taken for granted because it means "I possess the car. My car is nobody else's car." And in Welsh, you have to say, [speaks in Welsh], "There is a car with me." That is a completely different assumption about the world, I think. You're in a relationship with this car, the car has agency, the car can leave you, you might leave the car. It's a much more tentative sense ownership. And I think that really does come from the worldview of a country that lost its sovereignty. Whereas in England right next door, that was the beginning of the English Empire taking over Wales. Yeah, trying to have everything. Yeah, so I hold these clues to the experience, I think.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, definitely. Switching gears a little bit, so you're one of our Creative Writing instructors at our low residency program. How do you incorporate some of these concepts of hireath is into your teaching and into how you mentor other authors?

    Pamela 

    Oh, these are great questions! I find, like we've been talking about, hireath is very Welsh, but it's also universal. And I find that it's a wonderful writing prompt. When I'm working with students, and we do an in-class writing, in fact, I teach this one class called Indoor Outdoor Writing: The Inspiration and Imperative of Place. And it's not about how to how to write about different places, or travel writing, it's about how the idea of bringing places into your writing can help shape character, it can help create meaning, it can inform the plot or the narrative. So, in that course, I used to give this prompt. I stopped, but I think I might give it again. I asked students, "If I asked you to go to a place in your mind that you can't be at right now, you can't go to this place, it's separate from you, where do you go?" And I explained, what hireath is, this kind of presence of absence. And I asked them to write about that place. It's amazing, the depth of response. It just shows that this is a really universal sentiment, or universal emotion or experience that we feel. I was on a book tour in, in Britain, promoting "The Long Field." And I asked people in the audience of the readings I was giving, "Do you feel hireath for a place? And if so, where?" And this one woman stood up and said, "I feel hireath for Iceland." And she said, "I feel hireath for who Iceland allows me to be, for the person I can be there that I can't be here." And that was such a great response that I'm going to incorporate that into my next writing prompts about hireath for my Lesley students. Who are you in these different places that allow you to be somebody else? Who is that person? Not just where is that place. I think that's a really interesting idea.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, it definitely is. I know we're running short on time. So many technical difficulties. But what are you working on next? Or do you get a little bit of a breather? I mean, after having worked on one book for seven years. [laughs]

    Pamela 

    [laughs] Yeah. It's funny, I finished the book, and I thought I'd be so happy. And I felt like I had worked on this book so long, it became like my buddy. [laughs] Like a living, changing organism that I was caring for. And when I finished it, I was breath. It was almost like, I had this beautiful butterfly that I put in a case and put a pin in. It was awful. So I had to get over that. And then I did. And then I was happy that I finished it. And then I discovered that promoting a book these days is a full-time job. The book came out on in September and I spent through the end of the year almost exclusively working on promoting the book. So I haven't focused too much on the next project. But my name, my last name, Petro, means stone in Greek. And I'm thinking that I'm going to investigate. And I also do some visual art and I have created this series of petrographs where I've been digging rocks up out of the sea or a river and taking them to the darkroom, painting them with liquid photo emulsion, exposing them to a negative and printing a regular silver gelatin photo right on the rock, and then putting them back where I found them and watching the images disappear, which kind of like speeds up mortality. It freaks people out. But I think I'd want to do something with that. And intersperse my petrograph with rock art around the world. Everything from graffiti to 40,000-year-old cave paintings, and kind of filter it all through the name I've been given: a stone, and why are marks on stone are so important to us. Just something along those lines

    Georgia  

    That sounds fascinating. And like you get to travel some more for that too.

    Pamela 

    You bet. I'll have to go to Hungary. My name is Hungarian.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, that sounds awesome. The book is currently only published in the UK. Is that right? Is it going to get a US release?

    Pamela 

    It's published by Little Toller Books in the UK. You can get it in the United States through bookdepository.com, which is a website that sells international titles and doesn't charge shipping for them, which is a real boon to know about. It is under consideration to be to be brought out in the states, but I don't know about that yet.

    Georgia  

    But yeah, it is available. And it's definitely worth picking up. I feel like a book about Wales, I mean, it's not just a book about Wales. It's really a book about your life, about your experiences in America, your experiences as an expat. It's very relatable, I thought.

    Pamela 

    Thank you. Yeah. Like you said, they're all different kinds of hireath and they all have stories. There's queer hireath, there's the hireath of technology, the hireath of home, hireath of transgender people and people searching for God. There's so many different aspects to it. And that takes me so many different places.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, definitely. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

    Pamela 

    Thank you, Georgia. I've enjoyed every minute of it. And I thank you for having me.

    Georgia  

    And that's our episode for today. Thank you so much for listening. For more information on Pamela Petro, head over to our show notes. I've included a link to The Long Field which is available on Book Depository, and a link to Pam's website where you can learn about her other books and projects. As always, we would love it if you would leave us a nice review on Apple podcasts, Spotify or anywhere else you can sing our praises, and we'll be back in your feed in two weeks.