Before Leela Soma, the event’s curator and host, introduced the theme of the evening and the six writers who would explore it, there was a brief pause in which the audience could observe the small differences between the authors: their different postures, the different drinks they had chosen from the bar, the different smiles and glances with which they awaited the event’s beginning. All clearly, however, were united in a common goal of sharing their work, of making heard their various voices, and this theme of commonality in variety, of unity in diversity, extended and expanded over the course of the night.
Readings began with Irfan Merchant, a poet and visual artist currently living in Ayr, who ‘likes to create things of beauty’ in his work. Influenced by a childhood fascination with magic and trickery, small moments of humour and juxtaposition animate his verse, spry constructions of sibilance and rhyme. These features were all wryly exhibited in the first poem he read: ‘An Ode to Chicken Tikka Masala’, a tribute and response to Burns’ famous ‘Address to a Haggis’. Here the poet considers ‘the spice o’ life’ and the famous Glaswegian culinary innovation, something that proved a surprisingly apt emblem for the symbiotic multiculturalism that was investigated across the evening.
Priya Kharbanda, a writer and illustrator of Scottish children’s books, continued readings next. She aims in her work, she told us, to teach children about multiculturalism and good living through play, but was, she continued, ‘just excited to speak to adults tonight’. Priya is the creator of Invergarry, the highland home of Harriot McDougall, ‘an adventurous lass’ who explores the surrounding landscape with the help of her friends Bonny the Shetland pony, Haggis the highland cow, and Fergus the Scottish terrier. Her reading was exuberant and humorous, cleverly rhymed and carefully coloured, and the feelings of discovery and adventure that underpinned her stories, far from being just for children, were sentiments that were echoed and developed more widely in the prose and poetry that followed her.
Magi Gibson, poet and author, spoke next, presenting a collection of Glaswegian voices, and her poems, quiet moments of careful observation, encompassed the diversity of experiences an individual can have when they are content to watch and observe the world around them. Her poems, all new, covered topics as wide ranging as a trip to Arran with her dying mother, thoughts following a school massacre, and a series of crystallised, fleeting impressions recorded on an early train to Inverness, where pylons stood like girls ‘playing rope’ and a stream ‘pished like a drunk’.
Similar transformations were the key act of the next speaker, Christie Williamson, who utilises the language of Shetland in his works. He began by reading Federico Garcia Lorca’s ‘La Guitarra’ in Spanish, before reading his own translation in the Shetland dialect. These kinds of metamorphoses were present in all the writers’ work, from Irfan’s references to Indian myths, Priya’s stories that were recently translated into Gaelic, and Leela Soma’s own reading in Tamil to conclude the evening; acts reminding us that diverse voices are accompanied by diverse languages and diverse sounds. The language of Shetland, which, like so many dialects, often appears opaque on the page, was rendered vital and vivid in Christie’s reading, cut with unique sounds which sharpened the consciousness like the sea winds, rough sands and pattering pebbles that pattern Christie’s poems.
Prose from Orly Koppel followed next, a psychotherapist with biographical links to Germany, Holland, Oxford, America and Glasgow, and who was reading from her new work: A Stupid Skirt and Other Interludes, a collection of the most moving, bizarre and uplifting tales of her experiences with patients. Invoking Oliver Sacks, another writer with a scientific background, she said that while she had changed names and details to protect her patients’ identities, she wanted to preserve ‘the essential feeling of their lives, their real and full presence.’ She shared narratives about procrastination and circumcision, the tragic death of infants and the strength of their parents, and a case of writer’s block, testaments to the breadth of life, the humanity that can be found in the darkest situations, and the fact that human experience is itself unendingly diverse, mingling always the humorous with the profound, the flippant with the earnest.
It was in a moment of similar candour that Chiew-Siah Te spoke, visibly moved, before reading an extract from her second novel The Mouse Door Kingdom, set in her homeland of Malaysia. ‘Your homeland,’ she said, ‘is a very important part of your life. There is always an umbilical cord that connects you with that place.’ We had seen proof of this over the course of the evening: six writers, in their prose and poetry, had brought half the world to Glasgow. ‘It’s a diverse community,’ Chiew continued: ‘a diverse nation. All writing should be an integral part of mainstream literature. As writers in Scotland, we should all be recognised as a part of Scottish literature.’