In her debut novel Neon Roses, Rachel Dawson takes readers on a journey through 1980s Wales, exploring themes of identity, activism, and family dynamics against the backdrop of the miners’ strike. John Evans spoke to the Cardiff-based author about it.
Neon Roses‘ origin story: Pride and politics in Wales
Set in the south Wales valleys, Cardiff, London, and Manchester, Rachel Dawson’s heartwarming and funny coming-of-age story Neon Roses follows the life-altering encounters of Eluned Hughes, a young woman whose world changes when the fundraising group Lesbians And Gays Support The Miners arrives in her village.
Inspired by the lesser-known history of the strike and the unlikely alliance formed between the LGBTQ+ community and the miners, Dawson, who is from Swansea and now lives in Cardiff, delves into the political and social landscape of the time. “In comprehensive school,” she recalls, “I learned a lot about Welsh history and Welsh socialist history, and yet we never covered this sort of odd, quirky little bit of Welsh political history. The film Pride [released in 2014] was the first time that I heard about it. I always thought it’d be a good idea for a story because there’s that lovely moment in the film where the Welsh dowdy housewife character cops off with one of the lesbians, and then they never returned to it!”
Setting the tone: how the music of the 80s shaped Dawson’s book
Through her characters, Eluned and June, Dawson portrays the resilience of both the mining and LGBTQ+ communities in Neon Roses, emphasising the importance of sticking together in the face of societal discrimination. “People in the south Wales valleys were very used to these socialist circles and are very used to having strong communities – and it’s the same with the LGBTQ+ community. You’ve got to stick together because ordinary society is often discriminatory towards you.”
The intertwining themes emerge organically as the story unfolds. Dawson’s intentions behind incorporating these themes, she says, is for “people to take away that being in a community is important. Whether that’s joining a union and being active in your union, or trying to foster local community around you. We need community in order to survive.”
As the story unfolds, Neon Roses highlights the significance of music in shaping personal experiences and the cultural backdrop of the 1980s. “I’ve always loved the 80s – and 80s music. My mum listened to a lot of pop and soul – Annie Lennox, Tina Turner.” Researching the character June, an artist and activist, Dawson delved into more marginal parts of the era’s punk scene. “I did some digging in some proper punk blogs for June – she isn’t just into the Clash and the Sex Pistols, she lives in Camden and she’s definitely going to more obscure gigs!”
Navigating personal and fictional experiences
Similarly, as a lesbian, working-class Welsh writer, Dawson draws from her own experiences and background to shape the characters and atmosphere of Neon Roses – and while she notes, “I’ve always known I was gay really, so my experience is quite different from Eluned,” the character’s journey contains elements of Dawson’s family members while depicting the evolution of self-identity and perception as a young person navigates their own lesbian experience. “Eluned, when she goes away and explores a bit more of her lesbian identity and then returns, sees it in quite a different light than when she was younger at the beginning of the book.
“I wanted to reflect on different types of the lesbian experience; to stress the links of friendship and comradeship between trans women and lesbians in the book, especially in the current circumstances,” the author adds, and by exploring the variety of perspectives, challenges, and joys within the lesbian community, Dawson’s narrative honours the complexities and nuances that exist in queer lives. However, portraying those experiences in an era-specific context required extensive research and firsthand accounts. Historical archives including the People’s History Museum and the Bishopsgate archives were supplemented by interviews with individuals who experienced the era firsthand.
“I did lots of face-to-face interviews with people in my family, and Lisa Power – who is amazing – about her experience of the 80s. Lisa was an absolute wealth of information – she lived in London at the time, and was one of the founders of Stonewall.”
National identity in Neon Roses
National identity is deeply woven into the fabric of Neon Roses: Dawson brings her own experiences of being Welsh into the narrative, infusing the novel with a genuine sense of place and culture. “There’s a lot of my experiences of being Welsh in it,” she acknowledges. A commitment to portraying Welsh characters as heroic and dignified is evident throughout the novel, again inspired by Pride. “I definitely wanted to write something where Welsh characters were heroic and dignified because that’s what I loved about the film. They weren’t just the comic relief – they were really inspiring characters.”
As a recent debut novelist, does Dawson have advice for authors looking to make that kind of breakthrough too? “Sounds cliché but keep going! Celebrate every little step of the way. And find a community of writers around you.” As to her next steps: “Definitely something queer! I’m writing something new about queer parenting, family, and community building, also set in Wales. I would definitely go back to historical fiction.”
Neon Roses is out now via John Murray Press.
words JOHN EVANS