Alys Conran on writing Peigeon
‘Look up pigeon in your good field guide, if you have one,’ says Simon Barnes in The Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion. ‘You will probably find that the pigeon does not exist.’ I felt that about many of the children I knew growing up. Their stories pecked around in the background, unheard. The child whose mother left his hair uncombed every time after the nit treatment, little black bugs paralysed in his mousy locks. The girl who regularly had cigarette burns on her china- white hands. The faltering teenager who told what was done to her at youth club, and was disbelieved. There are a lot of pigeons in Wales.
In my twenties, moving my temporary bird box of a life between cities in the UK and abroad, where a nice unobtrusive dash of ethnicity was for the most part a badge of honour in artistic and creative circles, I felt a bit of a pigeon too. And it was ‘as if pigeons were an embarrassment to birdwatchers – as if pigeons were an embarrassment to proper birds,’ because Welshness, especially the liminal, obtrusive, politically urgent blend of it I’m made of, didn’t seem quite appropriate.
But, as the bad birdwatcher puts it, ‘Pigeons, however, exist... Try telling them they’re not proper birds.’ And so, in my shy young adulthood, the pigeon in me shimmered greyly, its feathers tinged with green and purple, like slate.
The pigeon my book’s named for is a young boy, shoulders delicate as eggshells. Almost as soon as I started writing he wandered across the page in a vagabond, alternately lively and listless way, and he caused trouble always, sticking strawberry chewing gum to the high, white ceiling of my flat on Meadow Place in Edinburgh, or scratching his name onto the perspex window of Barcelona’s Línia 4 Metro carriage as I made my way home from work. I didn’t find a place to put him for ages. But he was a genie not happy to wander his way back into his pigeonhole, so he eventually trespassed onto some uncategorised pages of writing, made friends with a haunted young girl called Iola, who competed despite herself for the role of protagonist, and made a novel that’s both a battleground and a love story. Iola has a great love for Pigeon. When I think of him, I ache.
When I think of my novel with his name, I cower. It’s been a painful process. Pigeon was born of the conflict between the language of my pen and its subject – the Welsh heartland I was writing myself back to. The book wouldn’t exist without that essential untranslated heart and the related guilt which bleeds across its pages. There I was, a homing bird, trying to find a way back, but betraying Home – word by (cooing) word, by writing in English.
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