My thanks to Parthian Books for a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

Sugar and Slate, originally published in 2002, and now being republished by Parthian Books is academic and author Charlotte Williams’ memoir exploring her search for identity, belonging and home. Born to a White, Welsh mother, and Black Guyanese father, her mixed background meant feeling an outsider anywhere she went—in Africa (where her father worked for a time) and Guyana (where she lived for a time as an adult), she is thought of as too ‘white’ while in Wales, in the town in which she spent her childhood (Llandudno), being the only people of colour, she and her sisters were looked upon as something exotic, not those that belonged. While her childhood in Africa is largely carefree, the differences aren’t entirely away from her eye; back in Wales, there’s an urge to fit in, live as others do, followed by a rebellious phase; and later as an adult a more conscious effort at understanding her roots, through living in Guyana with her husband (who gets a chance to work there) and reconnecting with her father.

But Charlotte isn’t the only one in her family who struggles with this. Her father Denis Williams, author and artist, may have been born in Guyana but his education and thoughts make him very English leading to an unspoken internal struggle which he goes through for much of his life, between the two sides of his personality (the Western Lionel and the African Lobo as portrayed in his own book)—trying to break away from things Western, yet never quite being able to do so—at least not entirely. Her mother has a strong sense of belonging and roots in Wales, but in England (or later in Africa) she too is an outsider, never able to really fit. Amidst a life filled with movement (despite those periods of ‘settlement’ in one place or other), for Charlotte, it is her mother and movement itself which become home

It was movement that was home. Home was not a particular place for us in the very early years. Home was Ma.

Even when life becomes more settled, the search for ‘home’, a place to belong to continues, as also an attempt to understand and reconcile the two sides of herself. Lessons are learnt along the way, or things realised, for instance, her time in Guyana where she reconnects with her father showing her

… belonging can’t just be plucked off a tree like a juicy mango. History and attachment don’t just flow into your body like the deep breaths of warm air blowing across the black creek waters, that part of your identity can’t automatically fit you like the ‘I love Guyana’ tee-shirt you can buy anywhere on Main Street.

The difficulties, confusions and politics that lie at intersections of race and colour, the dynamics that affect relationships, all come to light, but ultimately there is also the realisation that behind all of these facades of colour and appearance, even culture, there might still be commonalities—common struggles, circumctances and problems which connect and which bind.

Alongside the exploration of identity and belonging at a personal level, Williams’ memoir is also about place. About Wales of course, north Wales more particularly where she grew up, and where she would return once again for it was home. We learn of of Welsh missionaries and their interactions with Africa and Guyana, of the early Blacks who came (or rather were brought) to Wales and for whom it became home, some of whom too struggled with homesickness and from being separated from their tribes, of the politics that went on to impact these lives when interracial marriages started to take place; and of the language politics that impacted Williams’ own relationship to Wales. Likewise, we get a glimpse of Guyana at the time, a society no longer colonised but dealing with numerous problems—poverty, lack of resources—and also as a result a newer form of colonisation through the expats and aid resources. (Having recently read something on the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean including Guyana, some of what she describes, places, culture and such were interesting to read about). The two seem so far apart, yet Williams finds how there is more shared than she first realises (not just the missionary history) as reflected in the book’s title—the exploitative sugar plantations in the latter and almost similarly exploitative slate industry in Wales.

This is a beautifully written memoir (combining prose and poetry and to a small extent art), which explores the complications and contradictions of identity and belonging, particularly for people of mixed backgrounds (but as one sees in her parents’ case, something that can equally be brought about by place and circumstances), but it is also a story of place and history, of the journeys we make to find ourselves, and of a realisation that there are deeper connections beneath the surface which bind more than we think.

(Edition reviewed: Kindle ARC; Parthian Books, 2023, 256pp)

This was a read for #Dewithon23, hosted by Paula at BookJotter


15 thoughts on “Book Review: Sugar and Slate (2002) by Charlotte Williams #Dewithon23

  1. I read this last year, Mallika, and share your admiration for it. Coincidentally, I discovered that an artist I love, Isabel Adonis, is Charlotte’s sister and has published her own memoir, called And. I’m going to look it out at the library.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is indeed; of course the focus is on Williams with her mixed background, but her parents themselves also experience this conflict in different ways — more so her father because f his upbringing and experience, all of it showing how in each of our cases, identity is never a simple thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An excellent review, you captured a lot more of it than I did. I love how we’ve done both our Dewithon reads side by side (I’ve just finished Valley this evening, so will be reviewing Sunday as planned).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you 🙂 Yes, that was a lovely coincidence since I only knew of the one we planned to read but not the other as well. I got my copy via NetGalley a few months after last year’s Dewithon so wasn’t able to read it in time either.
      I have some way to go yet, but fingers crossed, I should have mine up tomorrow as well.


  3. What a fascinating sounding book! An interesting exploration of that complicated question of finding what or where home is and no doubt for Charlotte Williams it’s an even more vexed question. I like the quote you used about belonging. A wonderful review with much to think about and I very much agree with your conclusion – what connects us is so much more than our differences.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very much so; to an extent I can connect with her being unable to quite fit anywhere–while I am Indian, may parents are from two different states/cultures (in fact three since my mom’s parents were from two different ones as well), so one never feels like one completely belongs to any of them. It is a book that gives one plenty to think about, and I liked that she brought out that point about connection which reflects in the title as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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