- Keith Morris
Francesca Rhydderch was born in Aberystwyth.
Following completion of a PhD on Virginia Woolf and Kate Roberts in 1998, Francesca took up the post of Editorial Assistant at Planet: The Welsh Internationalist, and became Associate Editor of the magazine in 1999.
In 2002 she was appointed Editor of New Welsh Review.
Her debut novel, The Rice Paper Diaries, was longlisted for the Authors' Club Best First Novel Award and won the Wales Book of the Year Fiction Prize 2014.
She was also shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2014.
Other recent projects include a play in Welsh, Cyfaill, which was shortlisted in several categories for the Theatre Critics Wales Awards 2014, including Best Playwright (Welsh-language).
The Welsh novelist Francesca Rhydderch is fascinated by the narratives coiled within historical secrets. This was a realization she arrived at whilst, when researching her great aunt’s wartime experiences, she came across a series of mysteriously empty envelopes.
Those empty envelopes were what inspired me to start writing fiction in the first place. The first discovery I made was that the gaps left by family secrets can be the most fertile territory for the imagination.
“All those uncorroborated facts and unknown states of mind” she realised, “are the spaces where fiction is made.”
As editor of the journals Planet and the New Welsh Review for over a decade, Rhydderch has long been a fixture on Wales’s literary scene. But in 2014, she started to make a name for herself as an author, with the publication of the award-winning historical novel The Rice Paper Diaries, based on the imagined contents of those mysterious envelopes.
Those editorial years of, as she puts it, “watching other writers at work” proved highly useful. The experience helped add discipline and rigour to her writing. But, Rhydderch explains that it was the onset of motherhood that truly catalyzed her literary ambitions, marking “the point at which I got quite serious about writing and the discipline of writing."” That discipline came to show in The Rice Paper Diaries, a novel inspired by the internment of her great-aunt in a Japanese civilian camp in Hong Kong.
Rhydderch explains that she had always thought that there was ripe fictional material in her family history:
All I knew was what my mum had told me and that was that my great aunt had been a prisoner of war out in Japan for five years. I thought there's a story here that I'd like to learn a little bit more about. My great aunt never spoke about her experiences. She survived the war, came back and settled in London and lived a long and happy life. But she never said anything about what happened to her. So when I started researching I had absolutely nothing to go on … I realised that my great aunt had been held in Hong Kong, not in one of the camps in Japan. I then started doing some library research and historical research to try and piece these things together. I didn't have in my mind that I was going to write a novel about this, I was just trying to find out what happened. At the time I was supposed to be working on another book of fiction, but it kept going off in this direction and I just couldn't stop it. (Western Mail, 2013)
This is where the empty envelopes come in. “They were empty, every single one of them.” Rhydderch reports, “She was an avid stamp collector, and although she evidently destroyed letters that she felt were private, she kept the envelopes for their attractive, gilded stamps.” The novel can be read as an elaborate attempt to feel her way into those envelopes, and animate the lost thoughts they contained.
Set primarily in Hong Kong before and during the Japanese invasion, the novel follows the fictional Elsa Jones and her family from their privileged place in pre-war Hong Kong society, through internment, to their post-war troubles back home in Wales. It is a wide-ranging and ambitious historical novel that takes in themes such as race relations, the bittersweet nature of the expat experience, and the after-effects of incarceration. A subtle storyteller, Rhydderch allows the narrative and the hidden secrets underneath to unfold naturally and in an understated way.
The novel begins in 1996 in a London nursing home, but very quickly jumps back in time to Hong Kong in 1940, just prior to the Japanese invasion. There are four different narrators, so we see events from different perspectives. Elsa, her husband Tommy and their new daughter Mari are interned in a prisoner of war camp, and we glimpse events from their view. The actual occupation by the Japanese is described through the eyes of their Chinese nanny Lin while the hardships of the internment itself are described through Tommy's eyes. The book’s epigraph from Kica Kolbe reads, “If every departure from the native land is a small death, then every return is a resurrection.” But the Jones’s move back to Wales is fraught with problems. Following the war, the novel explores the tragedies and joys of returning home to Wales, and Mari narrates their traumatic experiences.
The jumps between viewpoints are challenging, and help to capture the disorientation of the period. Some of the abrupt jumps mean that there is little linking disparate sections and ideas, but Rhydderch’s own comments on her prose might help us grasp her project: “Novels have their own internal emotional logic, which is more important than any exact replica of the past.”
In 2014 Rhydderch was nominated for the BBC National Short Story award for the 'The Taxidermist's Daughter', a tale inspired by a visit to Aberystwyth Museum, focusing on the daughter of a taxidermist in a small seaside resort soon after the First World War. She has also recently written for the theatre, and her Welsh-language play Cyfaill, exploring one of the most turbulent periods in the life of the celebrated Welsh author Kate Roberts as she strives to come to terms with her husband's untimely death, her mounting debts and her attempt to re-discover her creativity. The play was shortlisted in several categories for the Theatre Critics Wales Awards 2014, including Best Playwright (Welsh-language).