A Strong Voice from Scotland

Helen Lamb is an award-winning short-story writer and poet. Her first poetry collection, Strange Fish (with Magi Gibson), was published in 1997. Her first short-story collection was published by Polygon in 2001 and in the US by Columbia University Press a year later. Winner of the Scotland on Sunday/Women 2000 short-story prize, Lamb's work has been widely published in literary journals and anthologies. It has appeared in translation and been used on National Poetry Day postcards. Many of her stories have been broadcast on Radio 4.
What is the situation of women writers in Scotland? And how was it 20 years back? Twenty years ago, very few women were getting published. But in the late eighties and early nineties some Scottish publishers, like Polygon, started to promote women's writing. Many of us got our first break in Polygon's Original Prints series and quite a few of those writers are well known poets and novelists now. It has been easier for the women who followed us and these days women are a force to be reckoned with in Scottish Literature.

Scotland has its own language. What about the usage of Scots language at this time in Scotland? Does any litterateur write in Scots now?
Actually, there is more than one native language in Scotland. Scots is similar to English and draws on many of the same roots, such as German, Latin and French. Some would argue that Scots is just a variant of English, a dialect. But many Scots words have subtleties of meaning that are lost in the equivalent English word.
The other language spoken in Scotland is Gaelic and it is not related semantically to either English or Scots. Nowadays, Gaelic is spoken by only a small minority, mainly in the Highlands and Western Isles, though it used to be more widespread. 'Cheerio' is an example of a Gaelic word that has been adopted into English; 'whisky' is another.
Both Scots and Gaelic are well represented, alongside English, in contemporary Scottish writing. But, of course, if you choose to write in Scots or Gaelic, you are limiting your potential audience. There is a worldwide market for writing in English.

What is the state of Scottish literature? And what is its condition in the scale of world literature?
There are so many facets to Scottish literature and, of course, much of it is written in English. So it is also British literature. Many of the best-selling writers in the UK are based in Scotland. In children's literature J K Rowling's Harry Potter series have sold millions, possibly billions, worldwide. Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting epitomizes a very different strand in popular Scottish literature, one that is dark, gritty, amoral but truthful.
In the second half of the twentieth century, Scotland produced some great poets, notably Norman McCaig and Edwin Morgan. It remains to be seen if the next generation can match them.

Why do you write? What works behind your force?
Curiosity, I think, is what drives me to write. I always hope to discover something new in the process of creating a poem: maybe a grain of truth, some small moment of illumination, or some revelation that takes me by surprise. If there was nothing to be discovered, there would be no point to it for me.
Two of your stories have been translated into Bangla. Have any other stories of yours been published into other languages? How do you feel when your writings are translated into other languages and people read them?Only one, Looking for Joe, it was translated into Magyar, the language of Hungary. I am curious about how they come across in translation. For instance, one of the stories translated into Bengali references a well-known European folk tale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Language may be less of a barrier than culture in this instance. A French or German reader would get these references. But I don't think it matters if you know the Goldilocks tale or not. It's an added dimension, that's all.
The Scottish imagination often tends to be dark and I suppose my stories are part of that tradition. It is important, I think, to bring what is hidden to light. There is always a danger that in translation this could be misunderstood.

You know Rabindranath Tagore was the first Bangali to win the Nobel in literature. When did you first know about Tagore? Have you read any of his work?
I have only begun to read his work recently, some poems from The Crescent Moon which I found both enchanting and surprising. The element of surprise, I think, is what lifts a poem out of the ordinary. Tagore himself wrote 'In Art, man reveals himself and not his objects.' And in his poetry, I think Tagore reveals a great soul.

How much do you know about Bangladesh and Bangladeshi community in UK?
I am aware of the Bangladeshi community in the UK, mainly because when I am in London I always stay in a hotel at the bottom of Brick Lane, which is the heart of the Bangladeshi community in London. It's a very old street with traditional English architecture but the atmosphere is Bangladeshi: the voices, the music wafting out through shop doors, the spicy smells, the clothes people wear. It is an amazing blend of two cultures and it draws me back again and again.
These days, we don't get much news about Bangladesh except when you have floods but I remember the struggle for independence. It seemed right because Bangladesh was separated from Pakistan not only geographically but also by language.
How do you see the present world and world politics, war in different countries as well as the worldwide imperialism of America? Do they ever come in your writing?
In recent years, I have found world politics almost too painful and confusing to contemplate. My youngest son was in Iraq as an engineer in the British Army. He, like many other young soldiers, felt duped when it turned out there were no weapons of mass destruction.
As for American imperialism, if you examine history, there is always one group or other in ascendancy. The Ottomans, Moguls, Romans, British all had their empires. America is the latest but it won't be the last. China is rising now and trawling the world for resources. They bought a mountain in Peru recently. In a few years, when they finish mining it for copper, the mountain will no longer exist. How can a mountain just vanish?
I don't think world politics often comes into my writing, though I had a poem about the Cuban missile crisis published recently. I was very young when it happened. Before Cuba, my world was small and safe. It was my village, the neighbouring town and one or two mysterious, far off places - London, Africa… Then the nuclear crisis happened and suddenly my world seemed vast and dark and dangerous.
I think eventually I will write something about Iraq--but not yet.

Who are your favourite writers? Is there any influence of them in your writing?
I love short stories. So I think I'd choose Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver. It is no accident that they're both American. The short story form is taken much more seriously over there than in the UK. When I first started writing short stories I studied Flannery O'Connor's short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, obsessively--till the book fell apart. Her stories have a tremendous intensity of focus and I wanted to learn how to achieve that.

You are teaching creative writing at Edinburgh University. Do you think creative writing courses makes one a writer, how much does it help one to become a writer?
Ah, this is a question I often ask myself - because it is not how I became a writer. I think you can teach the craft but not the art. Maybe more importantly, you can encourage talent when it comes your way.
How do you define life?I don't think life can be defined. It has to be lived first.

Published in the Daily Star, 2008