Category Archives: Prose

YARNS contemporary writing in Ulster-Scots

In time for Ulster-Scots Language Week (22nd – 27th November) the Ulster-Scots Community Network has brought out a very welcome collection of prose and poetry. The work of 25 writers, a few writing in Scots, is represented here.  It bills itself as ‘celebrating contemporary writing’ in both tongues.

I am very pleased to have 2 poems and an extract from my novel-in-progress Thoarn included.

The significance of this publication is that it sets today’s writers in Ulster-Scots firmly under the spotlight. Is the writing genuinely ‘contemporary’? How wide is the range of style and of subject-matter? What is the gender balance? What hope does it give that there is more high-calibre work to follow on?

The main editor, Dr Frank Ferguson stresses in his introduction that he sees the book as a spring-board.

‘Evidence of so many committed to their work begs the question of how we might work towards fanning single poems to pamphlets and collection…’

‘Such creative verve, as displayed in this collection requires recognition, support and nurturing from tha mainstream.’

Indeed, it does need such support and this collection demonstrates why such help is deserved.

Such support from the mainstream presumably means that Ulster-Scots will want to enter that mainstream,  claiming its place – or rather re-claiming its place – in the literature of the island and beyond. This means taking advantage of a developing openness to multi-lingual publication.

The last two years have seen a marked increase in the publication of new Ulster-Scots work. For instance, a year ago, Steve Dornan’s stylistically ambitious Tha Jaa Banes was brought out  by the Ulster-Scots Language Society.

The  Ulster-Scots elements in Anne McMaster’s moving poetry collection Walking Off The Land were rightly welcomed by her publisher Hedgehog Press. One of my poems in ‘Yarns’ was first published (in an earlier version) in the English-language Bangor Literary Journal. I found no editorial barrier to submitting in Ulster-Scots.  In my collection of short stories, A City Burning the Welsh publisher did not baulk at including a story with an Ulster-Scots-speaking character.

The resistance to multi-lingualism has lessened. For instance, I notice poems in Irish appearing in collections from Welsh publisher Black Bough Poems. I see a welcome drive towards fostering the creative expression of  writers who are among our newer citizens, bringing non-European languages to our cultural life. Today’s editor is increasingly likely to be presented with work in languages other than English.

A striking example is Arachne Press’s bilingual Welsh/English poetry anthologies such as the upcoming  A470 

A470

and its anthology What Meets The Eye poems, short fiction and scripts from UK Deaf, deaf and Hard of Hearing writers in which another language, British Sign Language, shares the stage.

Multi-lingual publishing requires, of course, additional editorial expertise and it demands more of critics, and readers. It’s not too much to expect publishing to reflect the society – the writers and readers – it springs from.

It’s heartening that during Ulster-Scots Langauge Week 22 – 27th November the theme of the workshop for writers in Ulster-Scots is Future Tense

That is, Scots / Ulster-Scots as a language of the now, of evolution of all its speakers of all ages, and its words and relation to the modern world.

Yarns is available from yarns@ulster-scots.com or info@ulster-scots.com

On The Wall: Place and Displacement 1st draft

“Get it up on the wall,” Des Jones says of plaster. “You can do what you like with it later.” He’s married to my husband’s cousin, Susan and he’s handled a quare few walls in his time. So I’ve got my book on Place and Displacement ‘”up on the wall’ this afternoon, tens of thousands of words, and I’ll put the finishing touches to it when I’ve had a metaphorical cup of tea. (The illustration is the cross-section of the house from the speculator’s submission to Belfast City Council. It’s the dream of the house before it became a reality, one of thousands of parlour houses built for the expanding city.)

I’ve had to go and have a bit of a lie-down too because the work has covered several years of research and preparation and centuries of event and my head is full of architectural and historical details. I received a Support for the Individual Artist Award (SIAP) from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2019 towards research for this book.

This piece of work started as ‘a bit of context’ for a set of poems I’ve written about the house of my childhood and my experiences of growing up in east Belfast in the Sixties and Seventies. It gave me the opportunity to focus the search for my paternal grandfather which I’ve been carrying out, off and on, since the Eighties when I made a TV documentary which touched on some of the material. My grandfather was almost never spoken of in my childhood and it has taken much careful research, over many years, to tease out his story. I kept everything I came across and, over time, connections have matured, as I have, and I feel I am more able, at this stage, to see the broader picture.

It also became a forensic investigation of, not only the house, but the area, the field in which it was built and the people who put up the money for it, designed it, built it and first lived in it. It’s an account of belonging, and not being allowed to belong. Continue reading On The Wall: Place and Displacement 1st draft

Showcase of Irish Authors – Seren Books

I’m looking forward to taking part in this event, 7pm Tuesday 29th June with three great writers from north and south of the island. Seren Books, the leading literary publishing house in Wales,  has many Irish writers on its list and is kicking off its  40th anniversary celebrations with an Irish focus.

Seren Publisher, Mick Felton says,

The line up for this event is a clear reason why we like to publish authors from Ireland.

Continue reading Showcase of Irish Authors – Seren Books

Llandeilo Lit Fest: Writing Wales – incomer & native

Have you ever read a book about a place you know well and thought No, that’s not it at all!

What are the challenges to an incomer writing well about a place they weren’t born and raised in? Is  the perspective of a native inherently more valid? Do the relative merits complement each other or clash?

Tickets

Sun 25th April 4pm English
Debut Authors: Writing Wales | Sponsored by Mari Thomas Jewellery

Join debut authors, Welsh woman, Angela Johnson and Belfast-born Angela Graham, as they discuss their experiences of putting Wales on the page in their new books, Arianwen, a warm and witty novel set in West Wales, and A City Burning, a confident collection of stories set in Wales, Ireland and Italy.

Arianwen has been described as ‘brilliantly evocative’ with ‘lilting Welsh rhythms and poetic imagery’; A City Burning was named ‘ a book of the year’ by Nation Cymru in 2020, and described as ‘wonderful’ by the Irish Examiner.

I’d like to think ahead to my session alongside Angela Johnson, author of Arianwen.

I was born and raised in Belfast. I’ve had to ‘learn’ Wales. I’ve written stories about Welsh people and places (some partly in Welsh) in my collection, A City Burning. Does my perception differ from that of a native? Yes, I believe it does. Do I get Wales and the Welsh ‘right’? Right by whose criteria? Continue reading Llandeilo Lit Fest: Writing Wales – incomer & native

The Art of Boredom – Wales Arts Review

The Art of Boredom – Writers Lament

Boredom. Tedium. Monotony. Quiet. It’s been over a year since the pandemic exiled us to a repertoire of sofas, armchairs and kitchen-tables-turned-desks. Though the phenomenon of lockdown has been common across the board, few of us have experienced it in the same way. Here, Wales Arts Review compiles reflections from some of the finest writers of Wales on the elusive art of being, rejecting and wishing for boredom.

 

My piece:

Angela Graham

Whenever I’m bored it’s not because I lack options but because none of them appeals to me and their very unattractiveness saps my capacity to manufacture alternatives.

At Christmas, the prize for a cracker-pulling victory is sometimes a tiny spinning-top, like a tubby ballerina revolving en pointe. As a child, I’d set this little toy going in front of a small mirror. Its whirling action instantly doubled in the busy space before the mirror’s bright face. But on the other side of the mirror nothing was happening. Continue reading The Art of Boredom – Wales Arts Review

PRAISE FOR ‘A CITY BURNING’

26 stories set in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy, from the end of World War 2 to the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘The film-maker and screenwriter’s move into fiction brings with it an eye for perspective, for the power of the vignette to momentarily depict a whole life. There is a craft in the economy of Graham’s prose, as evocative as it is sparse, and the theme of change resonates throughout the collection, as well as the inherently human fear of it. We are not always prepared for the moment when our lives change for ever, and Graham seeks to capture that sense of knowing and not knowing here, inviting us into an intimacy with her characters that is never forced, and always elegiac.’ Becky Long The Irish Times

‘The stories entice and intrigue… highly recommended Graham Reid

‘What fires the attention is Graham’s mastery of language and her ear for local speech of both the poetic and prosaic kind. Her experimentation with Ulster Scots in particular points to a new talent in Irish writing…’ Dr Frank Ferguson Northern Slant

‘This is an exemplary collection illustrating the creative possibilities of the short fiction form.’ Jane Fraser The Lonely Crowd

‘Short, sharp and sometimes shocking, these wonderful stories truly pack a punch.’         Sue Leonard The Irish Examiner

‘Angela Graham’s collection of short stories A City Burning … has a voice that feels completely new and fresh. With stories set in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy it’s a broad ranging collection but what I particularly loved about it… was its nuanced and beautifully observed view of the human condition. Graham’s language has a searing quality yet also a humour about it that is genuinely hard to forget long after reading. Very highly recommended – I can’t wait to see what she does next.’ Kate Hamer, The Lonely Crowd

‘The prose is elegant with a clarity of voice and purpose… The use of Welsh and Ulster Scots in some of these stories brings a vivacity to the page… poignant and haunting stories lingering in the mind long after the book is closed.’ J.L.Harland 

‘Angela Graham’s debut collection A City Burning announced a confident, stylish new voice in short fiction.’ Jon Gower Nation Cymru

‘a fine writer… Some of these stories are short, jewel-like and almost Mansfield-esque in the way their protagonists achieve their epiphanies, reflecting Graham’s poetic training but also perhaps, in their reliance on visual imagery her career as a film-maker.’ Aidan Byrne Planet

‘the most striking element of Graham’s collection is the clarity of voice. Though each of the twenty-six stories employs a decidedly different perspective … Graham’s authorial command remains honest, insightful and impressive. The quasi-cinematic focus given to each story … gives the collection intriguing multiplicity and serves as a testament to Graham’s talent for interpersonal perception. The focus on linguistic exchange in A City Burning is also notable; English, Welsh, Ulster Scots, and Italian all converge to create a narrative that is both highly contextual and elegantly told. ‘ Gemma Pearson, Wales Arts Review

‘These stories show us what the genre does best: the ‘snapshot’ of a moment which reveals a life or a culture in a moment of transition or realisation, what James Joyce called an ‘epiphany’.’ Prof Diana Wallace University of South Wales

‘Graham’s background is in T.V. and film, and it shows in the writing… Her prose often has the deceptive simplicity of film, the tidiness created by the screen’s frame as well as that profound immersiveness… Each story is like a short film: its own world unfolding inexorably in front of our eyes yet retaining its power to surprise and shock.’ Sarah Tanburn The Cardiff Review

‘honest, searing, insightful and very, very good’ Inez Lynn New City

A Book of the Year 2020 for Nation Cymru and for The Lonely Crowd 

Longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2021.

A Writer’s Bursary from Literature Wales supported the development of this book.

Available here @SerenBooks £9.99 paperback £7.99 e-book

New Impetus in Ulster Scots Writing

Ding Doon Tha Mairch Dykes – a quotation from a collection of poems by Stephen Dornan heads up this article by me in The Irish Times of 3rd March 2021 here

In 2017 I received a SIAP Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland towards research for a novel set in NI. One of the most striking currents in the air was the turbulence around issues to do with language, with Ulster Scots and Irish. The Stormont Assembly collapsed partly because of apparently irreconcilable pressures around the way people speak; how they write; their cultural ‘reading’ of the land itself.

Language and land – two permanent pieces of the NI puzzle. Language embedded in land, in heart, in psyche.

I noticed also some important shifts in population presence within Northern Ireland; the move from city to country; the changing ownership of land and property; demographics impacting on communities.

From these arose a contemporary story, but it could only be told, I felt, through English,  through Ulster Scots, through Irish.

I didn’t find it hard to access materials in Irish or to access advice but when it came to Ulster Scots, although I had that in my inner ear from my father’s side of the family (as I had Irish from my mother’s), it was a much tougher enterprise to gauge its contemporary use, to inflect this according to age, area and class. Some of the reasons for this are mentioned in my article.

I am enormously grateful to each person who has helped me along the way, in both Irish and Ulster Scots.

I am absolutely delighted that, in these few years, there has been an opening up in the Ulster Scots field, a writerly energy that wants to be expressed across forms and registers. Again, the article touches on this but there would be much more to say and report.

I would like to see, in Irish publishing, particularly among journals and magazines, a greater readiness to consider publishing – alongside English – Irish and Ulster Scots too. The Bangor Literary Journal published a pair of sonnets I wrote in Ulster Scots and English. The sky didn’t fall in.

I wrote a story partly in Ulster Scots for my collection A City Burning. The publisher, Wales-based Seren Books, was interested in the calibre of the work, its intelligibility, its coherence and the Ulster Scots earned its place on those terms.

There are challenges to trying to get Ulster Scots (a) written and (b) published outside specialist publications. Where is the material? Who is to judge its competence? Can Ulster Scots recover itself enough to flourish today?

These are questions appliable, in varying degrees, to any minority language or dialect.

Certainly, no one gains from setting one form of expression against another; or from over-zealous gate-keeping about standards (though these must exist or expression gets catastrophically unmoored from its roots); or – most insidious of all – who is to be allowed to write in Ulster Scots.

That last was the pressure that threatened most powerfully to hold me back. But I have finished the first draft and it has been a wonderful experience to live with the characters, and particularly the Ulster Scots speakers, seeing the world through those eyes, speaking with that tongue.

But perhaps the time has arrived when a new set of questions can be asked: Why not in Ulster Scots? Why not me? Why not now?

The Header illustration is a page from the passport of Éire / Ireland: Ulster Scots words, by James Orr