Kirsty Logan, Kirstin Innes, Jenni Fagan – a new canon for a Scotland without boundaries
Much is made of the great wealth and variety in the ‘canon’ of Scottish literature – of Spark and her sharp, sparkling wit, of Gray and his powerful, often psychedelic tomes. McIlvanney broke boundaries as the godfather of tartan noir, and Kay is proving to be our most deserving makar yet. Such a bounty of enormous talent, easily recognisable by just their surnames – Duffy, Lochhead, Welsh. It’s high time we considered adding three more to that list – Fagan, Innes, Logan.
In literature the most lauded are often those who tackle boundaries, transgress them, butt against them, but for these three writers boundaries fade from liminal to seeming nothing at all. No subject is taboo or off-limits, and in the work of all three writers there is an openness, an ability to confront issues honestly without the weight of extraneous context and prejudices. In this frank capability is reflected the open-minded and willing heart of our nation, something we must celebrate and never lose.
“The willingness of our literature is beginning to be reflected in our politics, and we should endeavour to continue writing a future for our nation that is without boundaries.”
Logan’s novel The Gracekeepers is an evocative rumination on death and water, but where the queen of sensuous selkie metaphors about change and self-acceptance excels is in short stories. A Portable Shelter collects a staggering variety of form in its slim pages, framed by a narrative that questions just how far we can convince ourselves to bend the truth, pulling the reader in to a moment created within the pages that takes place in world just a little more fabulous, a little fiercer, than this one.
A werewolf story in sheep’s clothing opens the collection and showcases a tone that switches from saccharine to biting in an instant, proving that Logan is just at home in the grit of everyday life as she is with magic realism. It would be wrong to say that she explores same-sex relationships and female bonding fearlessly, because she doesn’t. Rather, Logan comes to these issues with a wide-eyed, trembling wonder.
Wonder may seem in relatively short supply at the outset of Kirstin Innes’ Fishnet, but her captivating examination of sex work demonstrates an equally transformative talent. Firmly rooted in the real, Innes utilises that frank clarity of vision to imbue an incredibly well-researched piece with deeply sympathetic life and character.
“In literature the most lauded are often those who tackle boundaries, transgress them, butt against them, but for these three writers boundaries fade from liminal to seeming nothing at all.”
Winner of last year’s Not the Booker Prize, Fishnet doesn’t seek so much to confront the boundaries of the issues it examines but to question: do they exist at all? Or instead, do the opinions that we all carry colour us long before the ink has dried on the page? It makes for some bruising self-examination, but Innes succinctly observes that it is only by challenging ourselves to lift up the damp stone of our beliefs and look at the grubs underneath that we can know who and why we are.
Finally, Fagan. She cut the teeth of her mesmeric talent on her novel The Panopticon which saw her widely shortlisted and selected as a Granta Best Young British Novelist. Her new novel The Sunlight Pilgrims is a startling monument to her ability that is simultaneously hopeful and devastating, with her trademark eye for the brutally beautiful. Fagan’s celebration of the optimistic heart of the inimitable Stella, half-sylph and all steel underneath, is a refreshing dialogue in contemporary writing about being young and trans.
There is wonder and a sense of constant, almost o’erleaping desperate hopefulness in Fagan’s narrative about a winter that consumes the world that strikes at a feeling familiar to many who hope for a better future for our nation. Opening on a bastion of independent cinema shuttered once and for all and growing to encompass an entirely new concept of family and companionship, The Sunlight Pilgrims widens the scope of what is possible when the heart is willing.
“Firmly rooting in the real, Innes utilises that frank clarity of vision to imbue an incredibly well-researched piece with deeply sympathetic life and character.”
Undoubtedly all three writers possess immense talent, but to claim them as an emerging force in a canon for a Scotland without boundaries means more than that. Their honest and unflinching willingness to encounter and celebrate the marginalised in society doesn’t exist in a theoretical literary vacuum.
In April 2016, Nicola Sturgeon pledged to reform gender recognition law to recognise trans and non-binary people if re-elected in the May Holyrood elections.
Rise ran on a platform that included an anti-sexism bill and supported the successful Tie campaign for LGBTI+ education in schools. The Scottish Greens Women’s manifesto advocated for the decriminalisation of sex work and for gender equality in the media. The willingness of our literature is beginning to be reflected in our politics, and we should endeavour to continue writing a future for our nation that is without boundaries.
We should stand, like our literature, with wide, embracing arms: inviting, open, ready to let the world rush in.
This blog is dedicated to Claire Heuchan for her kind encouragement, and D Franklin for being a towering inspiration and helpful critic.