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Infinite Diversity in New Scottish Writing

Suhayl Saadi

A Bibliography is given at the end of the document.

Infinite diversity in new Scottish Writing is an infinite subject, so I’m going to make some general points re. identity and writing, and then I’ll narrow it down to the subject of specifically Cultural Diversity in Scottish writing and just what ‘Scottish writing’ might be today and what it might become tomorrow. Some of what I’m going to say might seem very obvious, but I think that one of the writer’s roles in society is to point out the obvious; that the sky turns from blue to black, and back again.

Simplistically, I perceive three dynamics:

  1. Scottish writers gazing out and drawing on so-called ‘other’ societies or literary traditions and incorporating something of these into their own writing. What I call, ‘looking out’.
  2. Writers who hail from other cultures bringing something of their or their ancestors’ experiences with them and those experiences exerting themselves, either consciously or otherwise, in fresh contexts in their writing. I call this, ‘moving in’.
  3. Writers who dig deep into that which they perceive as being their own, indigenous Scottish culture(s) and who, in doing so, are able to hit the bedrock, as it were. This is what I refer to as, ‘digging deep’.

By these processes – looking out, moving in, digging deep – writing becomes indigenised. It becomes perceived as mainstream. That which, in literary terms, was seen as being ‘outside’ or substratum becomes internalised, manifest.

This has been going on for centuries, from the Druids and the Celtic poets to Michael Scot, the thirteenth century Scottish scholar who lived in Toledo and at the Normano-German-Arab Sicilian court of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, where he translated Aristotle, Averroes and Avicenna from the Arabic into Latin. Margaret Anne Doody states that the internationally respected C17th. French humanist Protestant scholar, Claude de Saumaise (‘Salmasius’)

"traces a clear line of transmission for the European novel. It stemmed ultimately from the Persians, came to Asia Minor (and thence to the classical world), then traveled with the Arabs to Spain, and thence spread through the whole of Europe. It is thus a truly Eastern form of literature. To which all Europeans are to some extent latecomers…" 1

According to Cerulli who, in 1949, published a study in the Vatican City, Dante was almost certainly familiar with the Islamic eschatological story, Il Libro Della Scala (The Book of the Scale). The book was translated from Arabic into Castillian by Ibrahim al-Faquim, a Jewish doctor. It was then translated into Latin as Liber Scalae Machometi. Cerulli has noted and recorded not only the general analogies in structure and narrative between this originally Islamic eschatological work and the Divine Comedy; but also analogies in points of detail. The book was known and read in Italy for several centuries, and it was available in three European languages. 2 Likewise, the work of Boccaccio owes much to Arab/Persian fiction; his Decameron draws upon Eastern literature, such as the Fables of Bidpai and Sindbad the Philosopher. Again, Sicily was a pivotal island for all of this to-ing-and-fro-ing between Greek, Islamic and ‘northern’ cultures. Cervantes, in Don Quijote, explicitly draws

"a line of transmission, suggesting that Western fiction has a Moorish and Arab origin, and, like sacred scripture itself, comes to us from the East. In chapter nine, the translating Moor reads, translates and sometimes indeed interprets what is supposedly the book itself, the narrative about ‘Don Quijote’, which is written in Arabic by the Moor Cide Hamete Benengeli. Literature about, or by Moors was closely related to the development of prose fiction in Spain." 3

The Sufic Illuminism of another Scottish philosopher, Duns Scotus and the Arabo-Persian-influenced writings of Dante, Boccaccio and Cervantes take us to the brink of the Eighteenth Century.

The Age of Enlightenment also marked the onset of a particular kind of blindness, referred to by Doody in her True Story of the Novel, when she attributes the rise of what she calls, ‘Prescriptive Realism’ partly to

"a general repugnance, a ‘natural’ aversion especially among the insular and provincial – if colonizing – English, to that which is ‘Oriental’. The New Novel would define itself as home-grown, Aryan. The Novel is an inheritor of the epic of Homer – that much is admissible, for ‘Homer’ is naturalized, and already stands among our cultural claims to superiority."

But Homer is deemed ‘primitive’, ‘mere’ folk-culture, and does not meet the needs of high culture as a support to imperial greatness. Homer is replaced as an icon by Shakespeare. Doody goes on:

"Shakespeare is what the novelists must try (usually, they are told, in vain) to emulate… the English performed a wonderful trick in persuading themselves that ‘The Rise of the Novel’ took place in England in the eighteenth century. They eliminated the predecessors once so fully acknowledged, along with transmissions outlined by Salmasius and Huet. Such historians had made the foreignness of fiction too visible. That foreignness at the root must be cut off. Only realistic novels could be viewed as literature… The Novel becomes fully domestic, shutting out aliens… it is almost a definition of the kind of "Novel" meant in The Rise of the Novel that we must meet no Muslim characters. If there are Muslim characters, this is not a novel. Western fiction from Boccaccio to Scudery had had Muslim characters…" 4

Burns, Scott and RLS were perhaps only partly aware of the elements in their work which Gibbon (the author of Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights, as well as of A Scots Quair) would have referred to as "the essential foreign-ness" which was present in much Scottish writing. According to Andrew Lincoln, Walter Scott’s writing exhibits "an identity crisis engendered by the experience of empire… His Scottish identity was inextricably linked to the experience of dispossession". In Scott’s novel, Guy Mannering, the gypsies become custodians of the Scottish folk tradition, blurring the distinction between native and settler. In this novel, Scott encapsulates the Othello complex,

"an acute sense of the ‘otherness of the Self’; the discovery of his own… reflection in the shadow of colonised man." 5

Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scot’s Quair deals with the furrow, the seed of north-east central Scotland, yet his lyrical style, his interweaving of romantic love with historico-political events and with deeper, mythic themes renders to his writing a profound universality. He also penned a cycle of short stories called Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights in which he explores ideas relating to the very roots of civilisation. For part of the book, Gibbon uses a polyglot narrator, Sergei Lubow, possibly in an attempt to subvert orientalist cliches in the heterogeneous city that was, and is, Cairo. In the other half, his filter is a medieval Nestorian Christian bishop. The cycle is crammed to the gunnels with local characters. Gibbon, of course, spent a decade in the armed forces in the Middle East between the world wars, a time of flux and incipient apocalypse. The irony of a crofter’s son being part of a colonialist occupying army in the cradle of western civilisation cannot have been lost on Gibbon. Some of the stories border on the magic realist, while others are plainly fantastic. Gibbon was captivated by mythology and by the diffusionist theory of civilisation and his fascination with the flow of time and with transcending reality led him also into the field of science fiction.

Thus, what we might think of as ‘Indigenous Scottish Writing’ (much like indigenous Scottish people) is actually, by its very nature, of heterogeneous origin.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Scotland – and particularly Glasgow – has been a melting-pot; of religions, ethnicities and, of course, class. All of this liminality did stimulate creativity, but it took its time in coming through and in some respects, it never came through, at all. In the 1930’s, the writer Edward Scouller observed that there were "so many Glasgows" that to get it all into one book would have been impossible.

Jonathan Raban, in ‘Soft City’, says:

"The arrival of the immigrant propels him into abstractions and the contemplation of his own internal state of mind. It is a source of transformations and distortions of scale." 6

Lennox Kerr, author of ‘Glenshiels’, in the 1930’s, decried the view:

"… that literature is national, and that a nation [is composed of] men and women with a common heritage, a common culture and a common ideology which comes to them all by their common nationality. Therefore, the Duke of Buccleuch and Willie Gallacher, the Communist MP, are brothers under the skin… This, of course, is nonsense." 7

But Edward Scouller disagreed, saying:

"I would seriously question whether the Scoto-Irish navvy in Glasgow has more in common with the polish stockyard labourer in Chicago than with his parish priest or even with the Duke of Montrose. Perhaps he ought to have, but a realist artist is more concerned with "is" than "ought"… even if the one world-wide classless state should be achieved, those differences will be valid material for the artist." 8

And according to Catherine Carswell:

"One can never write till one stands outside." 9

The debate as to whether or not literature is national has been a fierce one and has lasted many decades and today perhaps it is as topical as ever (though I feel in a more positive way than before), but it’s essentially a surface dialectic.

In Archie Hind’s ‘The Dear Green Place’, Mat Craig’s "feeling of self-division" and his sense that "Writers are always other people" would seem familiar today to writers from Minority Ethnic backgrounds, as would Moira Burgess’s statement that

"… however well the working-class author writes about his or her own milieu, the result is going to be read mainly by middle-class people, who, by definition, won’t understand." 10

Following Hind’s novel, there has been a river of books written from supposedly ‘working-class’ perspectives but dilemmas of identity, appropriation and exploitation refuse to go away. In 1987, Craig stated that:

"… for all Scottish writers, as for few English writers until recently, the issue of language has an overwhelming significance that sets their writing quite different problems perhaps from those posed to the English writer. Few Scottish writers are not bilingual and few have not experimented in writing in two of the country’s languages. The language of literature for every Scottish writer, is a matter of choice, and those choices form an integral part of the act of writing." 11

Perhaps all creativity stems from a fundamental identity crisis, or at least, from a deep-seated sense of paradox. Economic, ethnic and class structures may affect the manifestation of this, but they are not the primary causes of it.

In digging deep and refusing to acknowledge arbitrary boundaries, writers such as Gibbon, MacDermaid, Gunn, White, Gray, Elphinstone, etc. have been able to draw out mythologies and themes which are universal in their fundamentals and yet infinitely diverse in their execution. It’s very Jungian, very Sufi – and that’s appropriate, because dreams, meditation and creative writing are closely linked to the extent that, in its initial outpouring, at least, creative writing may be said to be a kind of ‘dreaming awake’. The focus might vary, but the picture is the same. Scottish writing (and all writing) is universal, no matter from which direction one approaches it. It issues, broken and bleeding, from the same bedrock.

The interesting things about Scottish writing – and especially so, at this moment on the threshold of the Twenty-first Century – are the grey areas. If there is any salvation in politics, art and science, it’ll be through grey areas, regions of slippage. In cultural terms, this process can occur through any of the three dynamics I’ve just outlined; looking out, moving in, digging deep. The big bust-ups which have occurred in the literary world in the past, derive, in part, from a denial that the liminal in literature can be approached from any direction. That is why the diversity is potentially infinite. Boundary conditions may apply, but they are extremely malleable. When confronted by the infamous blank page, there are an infinite number of possibilities in terms of what one might attempt to write. Whenever we put pen to paper (or pixel to glass screen), we are engaging in a liminal process and no matter what our conscious aims might be, no matter how carefully-planned our literary project, the entirety of our selves must pour into the piece of writing. Writing is a jondo act. Memory is held in the nerves and muscles – maybe even ancestral memories. It’s beyond the rational, beyond even thought. The writer’s consciousness of that which they create must not exceed their ability to create it. The problems, the arguments, have arisen when an inflexible version of the scientific method has been applied to forms which by their very natures, are non-rational. This includes the concept of ‘identity’. The debate about whether or not Scottish writing is ‘exciting’ is a necessary one (and is necessarily subjective – but that’s in the nature of the beast). For every literary trend or movement in this country, there has been a counter-trend, even if the counter-trends have been less well-known, over the years. Certain themes have been dealt with more adroitly during certain periods than in others, but I would submit that elements of it have always been exciting; it’s just that the particular interface with truth which literature attempts to delineate, may alter.

The rich seam of writing by Irish and by Scots Irish writers is so important that it cannot be dealt with (and given any justice) in this talk. I believe Argyle Publishing are soon to bring out a book on the subject. There are Scottish writers of Welsh origin (like A.L Kennedy and Sian Preece, for example) and also writers from various other European countries (like Michel Faber, who is described by the Scottish Arts Council as ‘Scottish by formation’).

Among would-be (or ‘could-have-been’) writers from Minority Ethnic backgrounds, class and ethnic identities are interwoven, so that many of the attitudes adopted are actually due to economics but are perceived as being specific attributes of the ethnic group. For example, my perception is that many young men of South Asian origin in Glasgow today would not consider working in the Arts; this has nothing to do with religion or ‘culture’ but everything to do with economics and the classic ‘immigrant’ path, from inner-city to suburb, from manual worker to small business-person to pillar of the community. Most of the people came from poor villages in Pakistan or India and now their male children are still perceived as the primary breadwinners and so it’s understandable that they would seek careers in the relatively well-paid professions or in business. Art functions at the level of paradox; it implies rebellion. It tends to chomp at the bit of the status quo and is therefore perceived as dangerous by the beneficiaries of the state – which is why they try and buy it. By a strange twist, it seems more acceptable for girls from these communities to enter the Arts (or at least, the ‘para-arts’). Aside from Urdu poetry which, being deemed essentially safe, seems exempt and which (at least in Glasgow) is largely the preserve of the first generation of Asians, the Arts as a whole are viewed as largely feminine, largely ‘White’ territory and thus, as somewhat self-exposing and shameful (‘White’, that is, in its narrowest, racial sense and not in the transfiguring sense which is something quite different). Anecdotally, I think that this mixture of defensive machismo and a nouveaux riche obsession with conformity and sensate materialism is just beginning to erode, thanks to the success of ‘cross-over’ music and to the visibility (and irony) of entities like Goodness Gracious Me! and East Is East; as well as to grass-roots projects such as the Pollokshields Writers’ Group and the Soul Food Theatre Project; activity in one art-form has generally triggered activity in other art-forms and all of these phenomena are indicators of a growing self-confidence among the British South Asian communities. However, it is no accident, I believe, that much of the hitherto published fiction and poetry from Scottish writers of South Asian origin has been by women.

I think that in the next few years, we will see a steady emergence of writers from Minority Ethnic backgrounds – not because of some ‘damned cosmopolitan’ fashion nor because of a superficial fascination with that which is seen as ‘exotic’ but because of a physical indigenisation of the writers, themselves. We are dealing with people who have never known anything other than a multicultural society (and I’m talking here about Scottish writers from both Majority and Minority Ethnic groups). Scotland has actually always been a polyglot – but today perhaps it is simply that it is more visibly so. Notwithstanding the dumbing-down effect of a commercial globalisation, led and driven by aggressive capitalism, with almost instantaneous communication, everyone is impelled to examine their own identity. It ceases to seem irrelevant, and this can serve to undermine the casual assumptions of dominance which underpinned institutions such as the British Empire, etc. and which still underpin the attitudes of some in the literary world, not just in relation to an individual writer’s ethnic origin, but also in relation to the type of writing, eg. in fiction, a narrowly-defined naturalism being regarded as the paragon. In a way, it’s a kind of collective identity crisis. Scots are a minority ethnic group within Britain. The English are a Minority Ethnic group in Scotland. We are all Minority Ethnic communities in the world. However, as writers and as people, we are not defined merely by our ethnic origins. Exactly which of the three dynamics I mentioned at the start this ‘new’ writing will take, is difficult to say; perhaps it will be melange of all three. In my experience, writing from the South Asian subcontinent, for example, does not seem to have influenced the poetry or short fiction produced by ‘second’ and ‘third’ generation British Asian writers. The prevailing style seems to be naturalistic in prose and lyric in poetry. Perhaps they are currently in a phase of finding their voices, but there is no doubt that the dominance of the naturalistic style of writing in the middle English-speaking world has had its effect on the material coming from these writers. I postulate that as the writers become more confident in their work, they will exhaust (the already pretty much exhausted) reservoirs of social realism and will begin to ‘look out’ and simultaneously, to ‘dig deep’ and it will at that point that South Asian literature will become a good deal more influential on these Scottish writers than it is at present. There will be nothing to stop them drawing on other traditions/mythologies as well – indeed, they will have to do so; at some level, they will have to break apart and become conscious exiles. However, if one were able accurately to predict a particular form which writing will take, then it wouldn’t be worth the writers’ while doing the writing. It would be a wholly pointless literature.

There are a range of ‘Scottish Asian’ voices, all of which are determined by regional, gender and social class factors. To characterise it, one might say that like many Glaswegian voices, it consists of short, staccato phrases and an almost breathless cadence but with flecks of Punjabi scattered through its fabric. In fictional terms, Glasgow (and the world?) could be viewed as a city of people, either broken or else on the make. When you’re ‘on the make’, you have no time for reflection, for mirrors, and you fill your life instead with the glittering delusions of materialism. Without reflection, there can be no art. In the words of Flannery O’Connor, "the peculiar crossroads where time, place and eternity somehow meet" 12 cannot be attained. I think that the fictional exploration of the demotic of Scots Asian in all its fullness, has yet to be tackled. It carries an inherent, but still potential, poetry. Perhaps the technique of using English narrative with Scottish dialogue/interior monologue might be at least an initial way of evincing these levels of existence, of penetrating the tarmac consciousness, of entering the ‘Unthank’ of Pollokshields.

  1. David Daiches, in the portrait of his father, the Rabbi, draws a distinction between integration and synthesis. 13 This book is a paean to cultural pluralism. We leap through worlds, not between them; they are not separate, but exist within one another, and one lives them all, constantly. And whether one likes it, or not, one’s writing will express this.
  2. Alexander Trocchi, believed that all boundaries were essentially utilitarian and should be abandoned once they had ceased to be useful. Trocchi felt that he constantly "…fluttered like a moth against the glass curtain of polite disbelief." 14 Striving for metaphysical affinities, as opposed to adhering to some kind of a tribal view of literature, can help to foster a creative tension, or perhaps Daiches’s "tight-rope".
  3. The Dvina Remains, by Eugenie Fraser, a Russian Scottish writer, demonstrates the massive displacement of peoples and the structural changes to the land occasioned by the Russian Revolution and by WW2 – which resonates in the Partition of India and interestingly, Fraser spent the War years in British India.
  4. John Burrowes’s novel, Incomers (Mainstream Publishing, 1987). This novel draws an interesting parallel between the Children of Israel and the Muslims of India, journeying to the ‘promised land’ of Pakistan. There are constant Biblical references in the book. Glasgow pubs are referred to as being governed by a mixture of Calvinism and the Corporation. Burrowes makes the distinction between Punjabi and Urdu, i.e. Asians are not treated as a homogenous group. He presents a fascinating picture of life in the Gorbals in the 1950’s. He draws an interesting parallel also between caste and class. Incomers is as much anthropological document as fictional narrative – indeed, I feel Burrowes is at his strongest when he’s being documentary. BUT he uses phrases like, ‘the Eastern mind’ and ‘the Western mind’ which are unhelpful, inaccurate or archaic. These are ‘said’ by the narrator and not by an character – in fact, the novel is narrator-heavy. There are also no expletives, whatsoever! He seems obsessed with arranged marriage. The voice is sometimes confusing – just whose head are we in at a certain point? I feel Incomers is a valiant, interesting attempt to delineate a changing ethnic and architectural landscape, but as whole, it fails to satisfy.
  5. Leila (Polygon, 1995), by Robin Jenkins, on the other hand, is a good read. It deals with the role of Scots, and of Britain, in the fields of Empire/expat. culture/neo-colonialism. ‘Mixed’ relationships are explored with candour. The ‘White Man’s Burden’ is seen to be an empty receptacle. It’s set in the ‘Fifties and revolves around a Scottish man, living on the fictional island of ‘Savua’ who has an affair with a half-Scottish politician, Leila. Savua sounds suspiciously like Brunei, with its fantastically rich sultan, its oil, its Chinese/Malay/ ‘Aboriginal’ ethnic composition and its aristocratic British Resident. Jenkins expertly constructs his main character, Andrew Sandilands, from a tension between a Calvinistic upbringing and a somewhat dissolute, ‘cocktail expat.’ lifestyle. Jenkins draws on, and makes reference to a vast array of literary and philosophical forebears: Austen, Orwell, Tom Paine, Graham Greene, Conrad… (Incidentally, the word, Leila, in Arabic, means, ‘Night Dance’ and together with the zambras and other forms of ‘felagmengu’, the music of the ‘displaced peasants’, the leilas moved to Spain where eventually they transmuted into certain forms of ‘flamenco’. An appropriate name, then, for a woman of half-Scottish, half-Savuan extraction. Jenkins is careful not to fall into the trap of hip-easy stereotypes. The metaphor of golf is an interesting one: re. the Sultan, "Golfers were accustomed to accept their mistakes and try again." (cf. Robert Bruce legend). If cricket was the sport of colonialism, then surely golf is the pastime of neo-colonialism. Savua is a strange country of pacifists and ex-head-hunters.)
  6. Michael Mail’s story, Neighbours’ Return (from Shorts 2: The Macallan/Scotland on Sunday Short Story Collection, ed. By Candia McWilliam), which won the Macallan/Scotland-on-Sunday Competition last year is set in a Polish village at the close of WW2. With skillful restraint, Mail deals with the theme of the Holocaust. Issues of identity become issues of life and death; Mail’s family are of Jewish Russian origin, and for many centuries, Europe, of course, has been the dark continent of pogrom and internal crusade – indelible scars which demand expression.
  7. Trumpet (Picador,1999), by Jackie Kay, a novel which won the Guardian Fiction Prize: Kay is a writer whose works crosses boundaries of gender and ethnicity in several directions at once. The use, throughout the novel, of short sentences seems to be a particularly ‘urban Scottish’ thing, perhaps reflecting speech-patterns but in the context of this novel, perhaps also reflecting the short, breathless bursts of trumpet jazz. It also heightens the sense of dislocation inherent in the theme of the book. From the vantage-point of a childhood in postwar Glasgow, Kay illustrates (among other things) a terrible, overt racism and its effects on three different people. Things are not rosy in the ‘dear green place’. But then, they never were.
  8. Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides (Canongate, 1998), by Kevin MacNeil, who holds the first Iain Crichton Smith Fellowship: ‘Young Chinese and Scottish’ is a poem which has recently has been translated into Italian. MacNeil is a poet intensely aware of his Gaelic-ness and of his Scottish-ness and of his Zen but who is equally passionate about the ironies and inclusiveness of all of these overlapping identities. The influence of Japanese poetry on Scottish writing deserves a talk all of its own.
  9. Ghost Dancing, by Susan Castillo (from Chapman 95, 2000): A writer who is originally from the American South and who also has links with (apart from Scotland) Portugal. The story, Ghost Dancing concerns a Ghost Shirt, a Native American woman and a Scottish woman who is a museum curator. Interesting piece about the appropriation and thence, the domination of one culture by another. The Scottish museum curator is outwitted and is shamed into wisdom. This is quite a different dynamic from Daiches’s "synthesis" and harks back to the awkward positions epitomised in Guy Mannering and Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights but the writer has a far greater awareness of the issues than did those earlier authors. At one point, the Native American woman, who is called Lorna (and who chooses to address the Scottish museum curator as, "Mac") comments: "So that’s why you don’t sound like you’re from Glasgow." She looks at me pityingly. "That’s what they did to kids on my reservation… they didn’t let us talk Cherokee. They said speaking English was the way to get ahead." When ‘Mac’ shows Lorna a stuffed Native American woman in the basement, Lorna (at the height of her shock and rage) turns to ‘Mac’ (whose real name is Crichton-Shaw) and says: "How in hell would you feel if you went to a museum and saw a stuffed Highlander?" In this story, Castillo has evinced a similar dilemma to those written about earlier by Scott and Gibbon. Dilemma leads to irony and this seems to be a particularly creative tension in Scottish writing.
  10. Out Vile Jelly by Nasim Marie Jaffry (from Chapman 95, 2000): Set in UCLA, it seems to have nothing to do with ethnicity. But then we meet the fencing optometrist whose great-great-grandfather had been born in Aberdeen and who makes a point of saying this. We see a Chinese woman with a bandage over her left eye, a small, thin man in Bombay, sandbagged and terrified, his retinas detached. When the central character in the story has her retinas "zapped" by a clean, white laser-beam, she exclaims, "I can’t see! It’s all black! Everything’s black!" Clearly, there’s a lot more going on here than just an exposition of the claustrophobic neuroticism of modern life.
  11. Gerrie Fellowes is a New Zealand-English-Scottish writer whose book, The Powerlines, is being published this month (May 2000) by Polygon. Her work emanates from the land and the sea, and is both prose and poetry. She’s a writer who is deeply aware of issues of cultural appropriation. Her poem, Tableau (from Chapman 95, 2000) explores the possession of a Scottish ancestry in places far-removed from the Moor-ish hills of Arrochar.
  12. Raymond Soltysek is an award-winning writer of German-Polish/English background who was born and brought up in west central Scotland. His collection, Occasional Demons is to be published by Neil Wilson Publishing this autumn (2000). Soltysek tackles all the facets of human life; his realist prose is uncompromising and honed; some of his work deals with the position of men in a changing Scottish society. His stories hit you like bullets – but silver ones, perhaps. His writing is perceptive and sensitive and like Kelman he is adept at writing from within, as well as from outwith character.
  13. The Translator by Leila Aboulela (Polygon, 1999): This is a novel which is set in the ‘Nineties and concerns a Sudanese woman, Sammar, who is living in Aberdeen and working as a translator and who has a relationship with Rae, an older Scottish academic who is an ‘expert’ on Islamic Studies. This book is one of the very few novels written in English and published by an author of ‘eastern’ origin in the West which deals with Islam and with Muslim characters in an adult, non-caricatured way. The language is skillful, the insights of the main character, genuinely novel. I’m not surprised it was long-listed for the Orange Prize. Aboulela was born and brought up in Sudan, and only moved to first London and then Scotland, in her mid-twenties. The juxtaposition between Aberdeen and Khartoum is highly effective, with all its resonances of General Gordon, the Mahdi, ancient Nubia and the Blue and White Niles. I wondered whether the sure-footedness of the writing and the strength of the main character perhaps might derive from a sense of strength which the author seems to have in her own identity as a Muslim, African, Arabic-speaking woman in Aberdeen.
  14. Maya Chowdhry is an artist whose work spans several different media in an attempt to explore the interfaces between gender, ethnicity, etc. Her poem, Birth Certificate (from The Crazy Jig, Polygon, 1992), deals in an overt manner with issues of self-identity.
  15. Kamal Sangha’s Straight to the Heart was published in New Writing Scotland 15 (1997, Association for Scottish Literary Studies) and is a totally unpretentious tale of a young boy whose brother has been murdered by racists, and it delineates the implosion of a family in which such a thing has happened.

Now I would like to mention a ‘grassroots’ project, the Pollokshields Writers’ Group, which I had the privilege to set up and run with the help of a Millennium Commission Award.

What were my reasons for setting it up? When I started writing, about ten years ago, there seemed to be no Black writers in Glasgow; actually, I there were a few, but I had no way of knowing that, nor any way of knowing how to go about knowing it. I felt that a similar writer who was beginning to try to write now, ought to be able to leap that hurdle more adroitly than I, and so I set it up, partly as a way of ‘seeding’ a network and also for a sense of solidarity. Why is that important? I grew up in Glasgow in the 1970’s, when racism in all social classes was totally naked and untrammeled. This can lead to a real sense of alienation and a fragmentation of the personality, with all the negative consequences stemming thereof. In the words of the song by The Verve: I can be a million different people from one day to the next… It’s important to combat that process, to centre oneself. There’s no doubt that for me, writing was (and is) a way of doing that. It’s a lot more than that – it has to be, to lift itself, "by the bootlaces" (to quote Hind) 15, from the merely psychotherapeutic, into major art and then beyond that, into the ‘high emptiness’ to which Kenneth White refers or the naked Sufic unity of Rumi. There was a real need for a group like this, and the response has been phenomenal.

Funding was obtained from the Lottery-distributing Millennium Commission, via the Glasgow New Opportunities Millennium Fund (through Community Service Volunteers) to set up and run the group for six months.

Thirty people expressed the desire to come; I had to set a limit; a pool of sixteen come regularly (about twelve every week) and the distribution of ethnicity is as follows:

  • 50% of South Asian origin
  • 50% of combined African-Caribbean, Irish, Scots Gaelic, English and Ethnic Majority Scots origin.

The age distribution ranges from 17 to 70’s, but most are in their 20’s and 30’s.

85% are women.

Some didactic work and free-writing techniques were employed during the first few sessions but now the writers’ work takes up most of the time.

Guest-writers have come to the group, including Valerie Thornton (on poetry) and Chris Dolan (on film and TV writing).

The writers’ reasons for coming consisted of mostly "to improve my writing skills" and also, "to meet with other writers" and "to know whether or not I can do this". Most said that they were interested in writing prose fiction, yet most of the material brought in has been poetry. During the sessions the issue was raised of creating a space for themes such as racism and feminism to be discussed as pertaining to the work brought in.

Most of the material has been in Standard English and only recently have there been one or two pieces which have had in some Punjabi dialogue but as yet, no interior monologue in languages other than standard English.

Future plans include:

  1. A substantial amount of the group’s work will appear in the forthcoming issue of Nomad magazine (published by Survivors’ Poetry Scotland).
  2. I involved a Community Artist, Jane Thakoordin, in the group’s work for three months. I wanted to allow the group to evince the links between text and visual art. Some of the people who had brought nothing in created a lot of visual art during these sessions. The group are having an exhibition, Face-to-Face: Different Visions, Common Voices, to be launched in June 2000 at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow and subsequently also at Pollokshields Library.
  3. Arts Development Funding has been obtained from Glasgow City Council to allow the group to run on for another six months.
  4. Possible future developments include: Joint readings; a publication; more guest writers, including Jackie Kay, Sanjeev Kohli (of Goodness Gracious Me!) and Elizabeth Reader ( a lecturer in Creative Writing and a specialist in Feminist Writing; I see this group as a mechanism for scattering seedlings into the mainstream, into the manifest future of Scottish writing.

Some examples of work from the Pollokshields Writing Group 16

  1. The Farmer. This poem is a searing comment, well-written, concerning patriarchy in rural Punjabi communities.
  2. Extract from Doors. This story concerns a Sikh door-to-door salesman who shaves off his hair and beard in the toilet of a railway carriage. Sheila Puri is a writer who has had work published in New Writing Scotland and broadcast on the BBC’s Storyline programme. This story dovetails with John Burrowes’s Incomers but is told with far greater power and credibility and with absolutely no sentimentality.
  3. Pauline Brown’s story about the arm-less policeman, The Resoluteness of Desire is almost Caribbean magic realist in the underplayed bizarrity of its narrative and in the vivid intensity of its imagery, but it turns out to be fact, not fiction. Or is this the author’s nod to Jorge Luis Borges?
  4. Janet Cooms’s poem set in Venice, Miracles is about waking on water. Venice has always been a place of miracles, of unreality; the city itself is a monument to the impossible. It has also been the ‘Samarkand of Europe’, an epitomy of the process which has underlain the development of fiction.
  5. Martin MacIntyre’s Faces of a Uist Girl. Written in Scots Gaelic and in English, it illustrates changing identities – Scots Gaelic/ Western Isles with the influence of a successful, dynamic Irish culture in a modern context.
  6. Rings by Stewart Mercer is a poem which brings to the fore the Buddhist influence again – an influence which has been a powerful one in Scottish literature and art in the second half of the Twentieth Century (cf. Iain Hamilton-Finlay, Alan Spence and Kevin MacNeil).

The role of the Literature Development Officer has been and continues to be, pivotal, along with those of the Ethnic Services Librarian and the Cultural Diversity Arts Development Officer.

New Writing Scotland’s role in this whole process has been immensely positive (through its championing of Gaelic and Scots and of new writers generally, like Sheila Puri, Kamal Sangha, Leila Aboulela and others) and I would applaud New Writing Scotland’s stance of maximum inclusiveness. It has a high-profile amongst writers from Minority Ethnic communities who have been writing predominantly in English.

Kevin MacNeil and Alec Finlay (of Morning Star Publishers) are central figures in the Wish I Was Here project. This is a ground-breaking project which will be drawing on the rich heterogeneity of Scottish writing and which (in keeping with that publisher’s vision of art in its broadest interpretation) will comprise an educational pack for schools and colleges, workshops, a mobile exhibition, a book and a CD. It’s to be launched at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

As part of the Threads in the Tartan festival, there will be an exhibition, Connecting Cultures, at the Lighthouse which will have a literary input as well as a specific design theme, so that work by artists from various ‘disciplines’ who hail from ten minority ethnic groups within Scotland will be exhibited; these have been drawn from Jewish, Irish, Italian, American, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, African-Caribbean, Chinese and Polish backgrounds.

The Soul Food Theatre Project, set up by the experienced actor and movement specialist Farooq Khan and drawing on the skills of Glasgow’s Fablevision and Leeds’s Red Ladder Theatre Co., works with teenagers in Glasgow and has already produced one performance, last month, at the Ramshorn Theatre in Glasgow.

I think that in fifty years’ time, when we (or ‘people like us’) will be surveying the development of literature and the arts in Scotland over the course of the early 21st. Century, these projects, together with the work of New Writing Scotland and of ice-breaking authors such as Jackie Kay, Leila Aboulela, Sheila Puri and others will be seen as extremely important in the development of new, old voices in Scottish writing.

One could construct almost any argument about writing, and one would probably not be wrong. The only argument which, I feel, would be inaccurate would be the one which views Scottish writing as being defined by some boundary or other, rather than by the immensity of the imagination. The more one tries to hem it in, the more one cannot fail to notice connections and micro and macro syntheses. Identity, and the ‘identity’ of writing are intimately tied up with the actual process of writing; neither will be trammeled.

The use of language in physicality which is writing offers a multiplicity of different perspectives. This dynamic is impossible to repress or suppress and this is something to be welcomed. Kennedy and Gioia state that

"for a writer, the gift of words is ‘the right inheritance’, even if those words are, for an immigrant poet, sometimes in a different language from that of one’s parents… the debate between ethnicity and universality has echoed among American writers of every racial and religious minority. There is, ultimately, no one correct answer to the questions of identity, for individual artists need the freedom to pursue their own imaginative vision. But considering the issues of ethnicity does help a poet think through the artist’s sometimes conflicting responsibilities between group and personal identity. Even in poets who have pursued their individual vision, we often see how unmistakably they write from their racial, social, cultural background. We inherit our bodies as well as our cultures. Our body represents our genetic inheritance that goes back to the beginning of time." 17

I’d like to leave you with a thought:

We – all of us – are cosmopolitan. Whether we like it or not, whether we define ourselves as that, or not, every one of us, as writers, as people, arise from shifting, mixed contexts. Our art is both a reflection of this and an extension of it. Order is inherent everywhere, even in chaos. ‘Worlds within worlds’ mirrors the structure of our minds; the mind is thought to work like a series of overlapping fields, one part flowing through another to produce the unified and yet almost infinitely diverse phenomenon known as thought. The mind functions as an almost infinite series of mirrors; in this context, the search for self-definition, the need to read oneself, is the ultimate thought. Indeed, it is beyond thought. Writing is a crucial part of this quest. In the Beginning, there was the Word…

The dumbing-down of everything leads eventually to the death of the Word and the over-arching predominance of reactive sensation. Too often, as we wallow parasitically in our gutter, we have ceased to gaze at the stars and instead are content with a street-lamp or two.

The very act of writing is a cosmopolitan act. The moment something is written down, it has become part of an ordered universe and has the potential to go anywhere and to exist, far into the future. Its contexts will change, and the interaction between Word and context will be infinitely diverse. Scottish writing is moving towards an edge of sorts – I’m not sure whether or not it will cross that edge; if it does, then I think it will become even more diverse than it has been in the recent past; but this will only happen if it’s given the oxygen which will allow writers who wish to pursue that blade, the means to do so. I would like to give the last word to Margaret Anne Doody. She is referring specifically to the novel form, but really, her comments would apply more generally:

"What my sort of interpretation of the genre itself, of the novel as Novel, does not allow is our making narrow definitions of the genre and shutting out half of the prose fiction of the world. My reading will also not allow national and temporal boundaries to be the perdurable affairs they are often imagined to be. Like Herodotus, I wish to show that Asia and Africa were (and are) in contact with Europe, and to assure us that our literary history depends on a mixture, an interchange of all of these – with, it must now be added, the Americas, Pacific Islands, New Zealand, Australia and so forth. The history of the Novel is never pure. The stories told by the Novel are not ‘pure’. They are stories of mixture and variety, of boundary-crossing and changing. The Novel itself is not ‘pure’ and refuses ever to pretend to be so. It rejoices in a rich muddy messiness that is the ultimate despair of Fascismus. No kind of literature has ever said more fully or firmly that there is life before death." 18


1, 3, 4, 18 Doody, M.A., 1998. The True Story of the Novel. Fontana Press.

2 Ahmad, A., 1975. A History of Islamic Sicily. Edinburgh University Press.

5 Lincoln, A., 1999. Scott’s ‘Guy Mannering’: The Limits and Limitations of Anglo-British Identity (in Scottish Literary Journal, June 1999), Association for Scottish Literary Studies.

6, 7, 8, 9, 10 Burgess, M., 1998. Imagine a City. Argyle Publishing.

11 Cairns, C., (ed.), 1987. The History of Scottish Literature, Vol. 4: The Twentieth Century. Aberdeen University Press.

12 O’Connor, F., Mystery and Manners. Faber and Faber, 1972.

13 Daiches, D., 1997. Two Worlds/Promised Lands, Canongate Classics.

14 Scott, A. M., 1991. Alexander Trocchi: The Making of the Monster. Polygon.

15 Hind, A., 1985. The Dear Green Place. Corgi.

16 All these pieces (with the exception of The Resoluteness of Desire, which, to date, remains unpublished) appear in Nomad 8 magazine, published by Survivors’ Poetry Scotland, June 2000.

17 Kennedy, X.J. and Gioia, D., 1995. Literature (6th Edition). Harper Collins.



Copyright © Suhayl Saadi 2000


Last updated 23 August 2010.