Tapestry

Can you belong to a place you've never been before?

Pamela Petro has visited Wales 27 times in the past 36 years. She explains her unexpected connection to the place through the Welsh notion of hiraeth — an untranslatable Welsh word.

Pamela Petro was not born in Wales, but she feels a strong connection to it

Pentre Ifan dolmen in the Preseli Hills, in Northern Pembrokeshire, Wales, with Carn Ingli—the Hill of Angels—and Cardigan Bay in the background. (Pamela Petro)

Hiraeth is a Welsh word with no direct English translation. It suggests longing and homesickness, but that doesn't quite capture it.

For Pamela Petro, it's a sense of incompleteness that's always making you feel unfulfilled in the present. Her memoir The Long Field: Wales and the Presence of Absence explores her connection to Wales through the lens of hiraeth.

Petro was not born in Wales, but she sees home as both the place we live and the place we flourish best. Here's part of her conversation with Tapestry's Mary Hynes. 

How would you begin to define hiraeth? 

It's one of those words that's famously untranslatable. And there's no cognate in English, only in Portuguese, out of the nearly 7000 languages in the world. In Portugal it's saudade. 

Both suggest, in English, words like longing, homesickness, nostalgia. But none of those are quite right. I like to think of it as a recognition that the present can be emptied out, that there's a presence of absence in your life. 

In the present moment, you are perhaps longing for something from the past or from the future — or both at the same time. 

That could be a home or place that you've left or is no longer accessible, or family, or people in the past, or something you're striving towards, towards God whom you feel disconnected from, or that one place that allows you to be a version of yourself that you can't connect with again. So it's that sense of incompleteness that's always making you feel unfulfilled in the present. 

You've written a book which is also kind of a love letter to Wales, and you've approached this through the lens of hiraeth. Why are Wales and this kind of almost mystical, sweet, sad longing so connected with one another? 

Going back in history, at the time the nation states were coalescing and forming a national identity, Wales was conquered by its much more powerful neighbour to the east — England. So as it's coming into history, its identity is being hollowed out rather than forged. 

So even the name Wales by which we know this place, is an "othering" is a negation. Wales, the word itself, comes from Anglo-Saxon and it means the home of the others — the place of the others who are not us. So the world knows Wales as a negative. But we don't realize that in Wales itself, the word Cymru is the name of Wales, and that means home of us, home of fellow countrymen. But we don't use that term on the world stage. So it's no surprise to me that Wales has given us this word hiraeth.

Author Pamela Petro at St David’s Head, in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where she's directing the Dylan Thomas International Summer School in creative writing. (Submitted by Pamela Petro)

You were not born in Wales. You grew up in New Jersey, but you've taken many, many journeys to the country over the years. I'm trying to get at this almost mystical bond you have with this country, which is not the place where you're from. Did you feel it the first time you stepped on Welsh soil? Or did it take a while for the country to work its way into your bones and into your soul? 

It wasn't instant, but your question brings up another word called cynefin and cynefin in Welsh can mean several things, one of which is how a sheep passes on to her lamb the exact part of the mountain that's hers. So a sense of a very deep animal instinct of home. 

But it can also mean the sudden awareness that you belong to a place that you've never been before. And I learned this word much later after I'd first been to Wales, but that described my experience. 

I grew up in New Jersey and in a very built environment, houses and housing estates, and shopping malls, and roads. I didn't feel I interacted with the land in any way. And I sensed that was missing. I used to dig in the garden looking for the past. 

But when I got to Wales, the horizon was distant, and you can actually see the discrete elements of the landscape almost like the legend on a map coming together: Where the glaciers scooped out a lake, how the river created the valley. These elements gave me a sense of deep time, and I could see home as a product of the Earth rather than my species' inhabitation of the Earth. 

I loved it. It changed my life. It changed my perspective. It made me feel like a speck in deep time. But part of a whole and the odd thing that you say, like the mystical thing, is that this landscape was something I'd held in my mind's eye since I was a kid. 

I am in between the place I live permanently and the place I flourish best. And that's an uncomfortable spot sometimes.- Pamela Petro

When I got to Wales, the Welsh landscape matched that view I'd had in my mind's eye, so for the first time in my life, what I saw in front of my eyes matched up with what I was seeing in my imagination. And I experienced cynefin, this kind of coming together of the inner self and the outer perception. And I still get chills. 

So you've written that the intensity of this feeling taught you something really interesting about this idea of home. That home isn't so much a place as it is a spectrum. Tell me what you mean, home as a spectrum? 

When you think about it, home as a point on a map is just the beginning of the idea of home. I left my home that I'd always known in New Jersey to go to Wales. I never felt at home, particularly in New Jersey. I went to a place I'd never been before and felt at home for the first time. 

Then, after a year and a half, I had to leave to go home, to the place I didn't feel at home. So I think of home as a spectrum, of something that isn't immobile, but moves as we grow, as we move through the Earth, as we move through time, is something very malleable. 

Home is defined in several ways, one of which is the place one lives and another the place where one flourishes best. And I feel that by having two homes in a sense.

I am in between the place I live permanently and the place I flourish best. And that's an uncomfortable spot sometimes. But it's also the most creative spot, and I think we're always imagining then, and yearning. That's the place of hiraeth.

I did a reading tour for The Long Field and at one reading, this elderly woman stood up and said, "I just wanted to tell you that I'm Welsh myself, and I know a lot of Welsh people, who are not Welsh in their hearts but Pamela, you're Welsh in your heart."

I burst into tears. It was so heartfelt and I thought, "Yes, maybe I am," but I will stick with being more than American and less than Welsh and wanting to be in that place in between — in the middle of the place I flourish best and the place I live permanently. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Produced and written by Kent Hoffman.

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