In our latest Talking Heads feature, Amy Ortiz reviews the SMHAF Writing Awards 2019.

Right in the middle of Buchanan Street, a unique pocket of performance, storytelling and ceremony unfolded inside St George’s Tron Church on Wednesday, where the annual SMHAF Writing Awards 2019, held in partnership with Bipolar Scotland, took place. With a stage backlit by two ceiling high stained glass windows and twinkling with decorative fairy lights, this was an atmosphere guaranteed to be remembered.

This year’s awards also coincide with the 70th Anniversary of The Mental Health Foundation, who announced their symbolic project ‘70 Stories’ to mark the occasion. This project aims to connect writings gathered from SMHAF participants across it’s 13 years and provide a “more compelling portrait of mental health in 2019.” Further information can be found via the SMHAF website here.

The Writing Awards are a cornerstone of SMHAF, underscoring its core values by addressing the need for diverse personal expression and stories that further important discussion. They also provide a supportive platform for first-time writers and creatives to gain due recognition. From the many burgeoning talents across Scotland that applied under this year’s theme of “Connected”, twelve outstanding pieces of prose, poetry and more were selected as finalists and read out in excerpts on the evening by the writers themselves or those chosen in their place.

Ian Rankin, author of the best-selling Rebus crime series and host of this year’s awards, sensitively introduced the evening by speaking of writing as therapy, as a means of escape. This sentiment, which set the tone for the rest of the event, was soon echoed by the soulful singer-songwriter Emma Pollock confirming, “books are my favourite way of escaping,” then launching into a powerful short set that stirred up emotional landscapes through deft lyrics.

One by one the twelve writers read out their excerpts, each with an individual flair of style and interpretation of “Connected”. From a heartfelt poem entitled ‘Shoormal’ by Aileen Paterson, a Shetland word meaning the point at which the sea meets the shore, to Laura Barbour’s glorious coming-of-age short story of male sexuality, inextricably tied to some David Bowie worship. This was an evening of diverse perspectives brought together by one, universal theme connecting people and wider communities to experiences of mental health.

Shirley Gillan, the winner of the Writing Awards 2019 had not just one, but two of her impactful short stories selected as finalists: ‘Fragments’ and first-place clinching ‘Outside In.’ Both explore the pertinent, devastating lack of support for refugees in the UK and in her words, “pay homage to the courage of people who are caught up our in immigration and asylum seeking system which is deliberately designed to mess up people’s mental health.” ‘Outside In’ tactfully tells the story of Navid, an immigrant in search of the sense of community he desperately misses, and an escape from the cold fringe of society he’s confronted with in an environment that seems to acknowledge his existence only as far as a “moving mop.”

In second place came ‘Message in a Bottle’ by Eilidh Clark, a narrative that switches perspective from one character to the other, exploring the controlling relationship between characters Alistair and Claire that is marred by broken boundaries, emotional abuse and an overall sense that Claire has been backed into a suffocating, isolated corner. It is from this, that Claire finds connection in very unlikely places. A six year old girl, a fridge magnet, an elderly widow, all in response to messages in a bottle that she throws out across Ruby Bay. Communicating via message in a bottle serves as an empowering and poetic final resort to regain her autonomy, standing on the cliff edge from which she sends her messages “one hundred feet above him, tall and solid, and morbidly unashamed.”

‘Twenty Five, Vanilla Milkshake’ took the third spot, beautifully written by Benny Allen. This story deals with the past, loss and regret, all artfully woven into an unlikely early morning Café scene and through the eyes of a young Mindy, who reveals an innocent wisdom that only children seem to possess. ‘Vanilla Milkshake’ is sweet by name and character yet cut through with pangs of sorrow and mystery that pack this story with an emotive punch. In a particularly memorable line Benny Allen writes, “Curved in the pupils you could see your own thoughts. Piled up memories you won't even remember. The stack of regrets you don’t want to have.”

As Ian Rankin pointed out on the evening and urged to set aside the cliché for a moment, without a doubt each and every one of the shortlisted finalists are winners in their own right. This year’s Writing Awards have truly been treated to this talented group of writers and the stories they so generously offered that will continue to connect and inspire all those who get a chance to read them.

Click here to read the twelve shortlisted stories.

Amy Ortiz is a Belfast born design student living in Glasgow and self-described weirdo. She strives to involve herself in local creative goings-on, especially when they combine arts with meaningful social impact.

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.