Book Diary: American Interior (Gruff Rhys)

I’m not a believer in fate, but I do love how it can often feel like a book arrives into my life at just the perfect moment for it to do so. Sometimes because it is exactly what you need to read at that time, and other times, just because you are grateful for it appearing when it does.

I was in the middle of reading Barkskins by Annie Proulx when American Interior came into my life and so it was that I ended up reading two books, back-to-back, which dealt with the colonisation of North America.  This is not a subject that would usually draw me to it.  When I started to think about that, it seemed curious that this subject hadn’t, and didn’t usually, interest me (more curious yet than the coincidence of both books coming into my life at the same time).  My grandparents lived 40 years of their lives in the USA and I spent every summer with them until I was 21.  My parents also lived there for 12 years and my sister was born in Washington DC.  I work in one of the most famous companies that the USA has ever created and I speak all day every day with people from all over North America.  Many of my colleagues and friends were born there also.  I can only think that I’ve just always felt so staunchly European that I have never thought to look to my right, only down and to the left.

I’m now really grateful for my awakened interest in this subject, and for the coming together of these two books in beautiful coincidence.  Each reading informed the other and I was able to get more from both books, thanks to this unintended twinning.

(How exactly I came across this book was pure silliness.  I was a teenager in the 90s and as such have always loved the Super Furry Animals and subsequently Gruff Rhys’ solo work.  The office where I work in Madrid is very international, almost no one who works here is from here, we have all ended up in Madrid for our various personal reasons, but mostly we were all born somewhere else.  There was an Italian boy who sat a couple of desks away from me who I found so incredibly beautiful that every time I looked at him, immediately the song, “Honey All Over” by Rhys would begin to play in my head.  So I began to listen to it on my headphones whilst I was working (just one technique I have for elevating myself when faced with eight hours of mundane office work).  Inevitably, I would get distracted and YouTube would continue without me and start to play things it thought I might be interested in.  It is in this way that I ended up listening to a recording of an interview with Rhys at the Hay Festival, talking about this very book (and accompanying album, film and app). Perhaps because I was so immersed in Barkskins at that moment, the story particularly caught my attention.  It was a moment: a coming together of a profound experience of art and an office crush).

The story behind the story of the the book is fabulous.  Rhys is a distant relative of John Evans (now known as a “Welsh Explorer”), who went to the USA in 1792 in search of a lost tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans who were said to have been sired by one Prince Madog, who in turn is said to have discovered America in 1170.  As if that weren’t fantastic enough, Rhys decided to follow in Evans’ footsteps on a psychogeographic tour of the USA, playing gigs, spreading the word about Evans’ story, visiting all the places Evans passed through and finally attempting to find his lost grave.  Along the way he made a film, and wrote the book and an album of songs.

Rhys is a new hero of mine, completely.  Together, his gentle way of retelling the story and his own story superimposed, were really moving.  It also gave me crazy ganas to go on an adventure, on an odyssey of my own.  And in fact Rhys had a final gift for me in that regard… at the end of the book there is an appendix featuring reproductions of some of the remaining fragments of John Evans’ original journal, and revealing that they actually reside, not in Wales, but here in Spain, in El Archivo de Indias in Sevilla.  So in a few weekends time I am going to make my own pilgrimage there to visit them (them being: the journals, Gruff and John).

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