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Seeing Dahl through a Welsh lens

A tale of unexpected outreach transforming national literary engagement and participation.

Cardiff research directly shaped the strategy and vision of Literature Wales, the national company for literary promotion, sparking a transformation of the organisation’s outreach model, which was innovatively implemented for the 2016 Roald Dahl centenary celebrations and fully embedded in the company’s mission.

Innovative analysis of Dahl’s fiction for both children and adults revealed the complex, formative mark of Wales on the author’s imagination and the Welsh lenses through which he treated issues of class, diversity, inclusivity and social justice.

Inspired by these insights, Literature Wales succeeded in increasing national literary engagement during the ‘Roald Dahl 100’ centenary year, achieving ten times the participation of its centenary celebrations for Dylan Thomas two years before.

Revealing a Welsh Dahl: the research

[A] complete revelation . . . Each of these essays changed my reading . . . I gained an enhanced understanding of the overarching significance of cross-class and cross-cultural relationships in [Dahl’s] work.
Jeni Williams Gwales

Published on the centenary of Dahl’s birth in Llandaff, Wales, Roald Dahl: Wales of the Unexpected (University of Wales Press) maps for the first time the lasting significance and pervasive influence of Wales in Dahl’s life and work.

Reading the breadth of Dahl’s literary output whole, this collection of essays – edited by Damian Walford Davies, with chapters also contributed by Cardiff colleagues Tomos Owen, Siwan Rosser, Carrie Smith and Heather Worthington – identifies the Welsh lenses through which Dahl viewed the world and explores the author’s hybrid cultural identities.

Magic book

The research brings Dahl back to Wales, revealing the following:

  • How his outlook and principles – national and international – were shaped by particular Welsh communities, geographies, culture and history
  • How his linguistic innovations are indebted to Welsh environments and experiences.
  • The place of the South Wales industrial experience in his fiction
  • His promotion of the marginalised and underprivileged as part of a Wales-based, inclusive social vision, and his complex acts of resistance in the face of dominant cultures

In accomplishing this, the collection gives a new status and new meanings to Dahl’s fiction for children, offering a revelatory examination of the manuscripts. This multi-faceted study acknowledges place-based and culturally nuanced readings, identifying also the uncanny nature of Dahl in Welsh-language translations.

The centenary year: devolving Dahl

Cardiff research drove the radical repositioning of Literature Wales, from an organisation that had largely delivered activities for a privileged audience to a company that, out of principle and in tune with Dahl’s values, worked through a new engagement model to reach a significantly larger and broader demographic, responding positively to the public arts funding climate.

The significant public and civic celebration of ‘Roald Dahl 100’ in 2016 allowed Literature Wales to put this once-in-a-generation transformation into practice. During Damian Walford Davies’s tenure as Chair (2012–18), Literature Wales devised an imaginative outreach delivery model fit to drive higher engagement and reach across diverse communities.

Recognising the influence of Welsh places, people and experiences on Dahl’s work, Literature Wales, in partnership with the Wales Millennium Centre and the Roald Dahl Estate, invoked the key themes revealed by the Cardiff research to secure Welsh Government support and Major Events funding. Literature Wales’s game-changing Invent Your Event programme connected with more than 43,000 people through 183 individual events. Taking an artist- and participant-led approach, the company engaged the nation in reading and multi-genre creative writing – improving confidence, communication, literacy, creativity and problem solving. Moreover, its work with disadvantaged families and under-served groups was recognised through an Arts & Business Award.

The difference of Dahl: strategy, delivery, improving lives

Deep and lasting, the change to Literature Wales’s engagement model was embedded across the company’s operations after 2016.

Encouraging communities to devise and deliver content themselves, and pursuing that most Dahlesque of ambitions – engaging the most marginalised in our communities and doing so through play, not patronage – Literature Wales continues to be inspired by what Cardiff research revealed in Dahl’s work as it:

  • takes – and seeks – literature among new audiences in unexpected locations
  • diversifies partnerships outside the arts
  • places imaginative writing at the heart of every agenda, including wellbeing and employment
  • breaks down distinctions between fiction for children and for adults
  • gives a voice to future generations through Bardd Plant Cymru (Wales’s Children’s Poet) and through the creation of the role of Young People’s Laureate Wales

From its new Wales Book of the Year Children’s Literature Award category to unleashing the creative potential of diverse ‘unheard’ groups (like those facing end-of-life conditions and homelessness), Literature Wales, inspired by a Welsh Dahl, is now playing a fitting national role in accelerating the power of literature to improve lives and deliver tangible wellbeing outcomes.

Child reading book

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