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Internal Exile

July 22, 1990|MARIANNE WIGGINS

In February, 1989, Marianne Wiggins became, to use a phrase Moscow once favored for those it banished to Siberia, an internal exile--from literary London to pastoral Wales. The American-born author of two warmly reviewed books of fiction had just published her most ambitious effort yet, the novel "John Dollar." But Wiggins was married to the Indian-born novelist Salman Rushdie, whose new novel, "The Satanic Verses," had brought an Iranian death sentence down on his head. Already emigres, the two writers became true exiles when they went into hiding in Wales, that little country so regularly and so wrongly counted among the English-speaking peoples.

The pages that follow were written two months later and may be read as a meditation by, on and from an exile. Since then, Wiggins and Rushdie have left Wales. Wiggins has returned to London where, still married to Rushdie but no longer in hiding with him, she is at work on a historical novel about the Bill of Rights.

WE WERE ON the lam in Wales, running through the Black Mountains like unarmed smugglers from the righteous with their guns. Everywhere we went, there were slate tombstones, upright shadows on the hills. In the towns, there were slate houses, plastered-over slate walls with slate roofs. There was darkness, dead as coal, behind the windows of the houses. There were ravens in the fields and on the roads. English words from a Welsh poet seemed to sit on the horizon like an advertisement for the land: "This sad distracted abstract of my woe."

The mountains wore a beard of snow, even as the pussy willows in the valleys bloomed. Pussy-willow trees in Wales are called goat willows, I found out, because goats like to eat their leaves. Only the male trees, with their yellow catkins, are called pussy willows. Where we'd found a hide-out for a while, there was a male goat-willow tree in bloom that I looked onto from my window. I cut some of its branches for a jar that I placed in the window in the kitchen of the house, but then the catkins, turning golden, made me sneeze. I learned about the goat name for the tree from a book called "Trees of Britain" that I'd found on the bookshelf in the kitchen next to cookbooks and some novels by Alistair MacLean.

That's how I knew about the catkins, but I didn't know what catkin meant. I looked it up in the dictionary that I always travel with. Anyone who knows me knows that I can't spell. I have to keep a dictionary within reach even for something as simple as writing a letter. There are times when I can't spell sincerely. At home, where we used to live, I had a dictionary in each room. Now I have a single one and a good thing, too--the people who are with us now depend on it for Scrabble. A catkin, I can tell you, is an inflorescence. I depend on books for meaning. I depend on them for definition. A catkin is a thing defined as "a reduced flower of either sex."

Following the definition of catkin in my dictionary, there was the advice: "See ament ." I didn't feel like seeing ament . Instead, I watched the thaw of snow across the tops of the mountains. The Welsh say that when there's snow on the mountains, it's an indication there'll be more. I learned that from a book about Welsh legends. Eventually I did see ament , and its definition was "another word for catkin. " Its second definition, ament II , was "Noun. Psychiatry . A mentally deficient person."

Next to the houses built of plastered-over slate along the roads, the houses with dark windows, there were hedgerows, yews and daffodils. No kitchen gardens grew. A kitchen garden--chamomile, dill, parsley, carrots, rue--is an English affectation; in Wales, the land around a house is purely land, no frippery, no spices. The potato did not root in Wales until a century post-Raleigh, and even in the middle of the 18th Century at the Aberystwyth market, potatoes were as expensive as the local cheese. Oats were what the Welsh ate then, in a porridge they called bwdram . Cawl , a vegetable hot pot with potatoes and a bit of bacon or a sheep joint added to it, is the traditional dish in Wales. Sheep are the common stock. Walking up a hill one morning, I found a sheep skull, embedded in the earth beside a corkscrew holly. Sheep were everywhere. We laughed sometimes and called the scenery the Big Sheep.

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