On a summer evening, in city heat, Glaswegian voices rose with warmth from the street to mingle with Gaelic voices
indoors. Catriona Lexy Campbell and Alison Lang, hosts and subjects of the ‘Gaelic Voices’ event, switched between Gaelic and English with a similar fluidity over the course of the evening, an intimate and relaxed dialogue that including readings from their works for the Lasag series, as well as discussions of the possibilities of Gaelic prose fiction and its unique relationship to the English language.
The Lasag series, published by Sandstone Press, is a collection of specially commissioned novellas aimed at young and learning Gaelic speakers. An average length of around 18,000 words, short chapters headed by brief English synopses, and glossarial footnotes define the form of the series, but each author has produced remarkably different works under these conditions. Both Alison and Catriona were struck by the different possibilities presented by the form.
The length and purpose of the novellas very much shaped Alison’s writing process. ‘It concentrates the mind,’ she said, ‘you really have to think about how you choose your words’. Alison learned Gaelic as an adult, and reflected on the process while writing, realising that she was most motivated while learning by the feeling of making progress with the language, something that is mapped onto her work by the quick and satisfying physical progress the reader can make through its short chapters and simple language. The repetition of a concentrated lexicon also aids the assimilation of her work, she believes, and provides readers and learners with the meaningful reward of recognising words they already know.
Catriona, in contrast to Alison, is a native Gaelic speaker, having learned and used the language from infancy. Unlike Alison’s relationship to Gaelic, which is tempered always by the careful learner’s formal awareness of tenses, cases, grammar and syntax – something that is, however, quite complimentary to Alison’s role as editor of the Lasag series – Catriona’s use of Gaelic in her prose is, she thinks, somewhat more instinctive. In this spirit, she very much welcomed the presence of a glossary in the text, as it allowed her to explore more obscure words and idiomatic phrases in a way that rewards the reader with a feeling of discovery rather than recognition.
Catriona also feels the bilingual nature of Lasag texts and readers presented her with unique opportunities: ‘I can play around with English speakers and Gaelic speakers,’ she remarked, a statement that is as applicable to the ways in which she constructs her plots as it is to the relationship she has with her readers. ‘I love a bit of farce,’ she admitted, and indeed farce seems a perfect genre for a didactic series aimed at those learning a language, since both the genre and the language-learning process are defined by moments of increasing and humorous confusion that are subsequently resolved by clarification and understanding.
The Lasag series spans a variety of plots and modes, however. Alison’s novella San Duthaich Uir (‘A New World’) follows the story of an immigrant family that moves from an unspecified country due an undisclosed threat, and details their differing experiences of exile thereafter. Catriona’s Cleasan a’ Bhaile Mhòir (‘Tricks in the Big City’) charts the experiences of an aspiring actress who moves to the metropolis, complimenting her dead-end restaurant job by hiring herself out as a personal actress for creating or resolving awkward situations. The series also includes Tim Armstrong’s Feur Buidhe An T-Samraidh, a novella documenting a band’s tour around the Midwest of the United States, Armstrong himself the writer of Gaelic’s first science fiction novel.
These plots are – perhaps intentionally – quite different from the highland traditions most associated with the Gaelic language, but both Alison and Catriona believe fervently that these traditions, while important to their culture, should define their writing no more than they define their modern lives. ‘I’d like to think Lasag confounds people’s expectations in this sense’, Alison commented, with Catriona later echoing her sentiment: ‘I personally have never felt limited to setting my work in a Gaelic place. If you can be clever about it, you can take your novel anywhere you want.’
It was this feeling of transgressing borders and boundaries, of opening up new spaces, then, which characterised the evening, itself defined by a fluid and illuminating interaction of the English and Gaelic languages. Discussion itself focused on a series of books that are similarly preoccupied with travel: physical for their characters, who frequently inhabit new places, and mental for their readers, who, by reading, progress their knowledge of the Gaelic language and end the process, hopefully, quite far from where they began.
‘There was almost no Gaelic prose fiction fifty years ago’ Alison remarked on this topic of progress towards the end of the evening. ‘Everything you do is a step into the unknown, which is quite liberating, but also quite scary.’ Each novella in the Lasag series is not only expanding the published Gaelic canon, then, but also widening the collective Gaelic written consciousness. If all that seems a little daunting, though, Catriona with a laugh provided a moment later a modest but motivational reminder – ‘Not every book in English is a masterpiece either, you know.’