The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival teamed up with Aye Write to present a weekend of literary engagement, featuring talks from a number of Scotland's most talented writers. Taking place in the magnificent setting of Glasgow's Mitchell Library, Saturday's discussions touched on issues surrounding mental health, reality, reading and writing, looking at them in a number of different intellectual and imaginative ways.
The first talk from Jenni Fagan, whose debut novel The Panopticon saw her named one of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists and shortlisted for the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2013. She began by breaking some exciting news - she has been commissioned to write the screenplay for the film adaptation of The Panopticon, which will be made by Ken Loach's production company Sixteen Films, directed by his son, Jim, and is scheduled for a release in late 2014.
The novel is partly based on Fagan's own experiences of growing up in social care, although the writing process was more painful than cathartic. The reality she presents is harsh and brutal, packed with incidents that are difficult to read and, according to Fagan, extremely emotional to write. Describing the end product as a 'love letter to friends who didn't make it', she also spoke about the moral responsibility authors have to their characters and the ways in which she continues to draw inspiration from those on the periphery of society, even though she has no immediate plans to write another novel about the care system.
Next up was crime writer Denise Mina, who gave a lively discussion about the sociological and political elements of her fiction. Mental illness, particularly in the crime genre, tends to be used as a device or trope, and characters who suffer from it are stifled by damaging generic conventions. Mina spoke about her desire to tell the story from the other side, giving a voice to those who are routinely denied one and treating issues and characters with the complexity they deserve.
The third speaker was Ella Berthoud, co-author of The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies and a practitioner of bibliotherapy, the art of prescribing fiction to solve life's problems. While it is easy to see how reading can be a useful therapeutic practice, the discussion disappointingly failed to reveal enough insight into Berthoud's process, giving us the impression that is consists of little more than arbitrarily selecting novels with a superficial connection to a given malady.
Additional chairs had to be brought out for the final speaker, the indomitable Glaswegian author of Lanark and Poor Things, Alasdair Gray. He was there to talk about his latest project, a translation of Dante's Divine (or, as he calls it, Sublime) Comedy. Introducing the text, Gray gave an immersive and digressive lecture on the significance and meaning of Dante's poetry, as well as outlining the many different interpretations that translators have given over the years.
The Divine Comedy is renowned for being the first major work in Italian to be written in the vernacular rather than in Latin, a decision which had a huge impact on how it was received and is still perceived today. It had huge political importance and perhaps explains why Gray, who is an ardent socialist and Scottish nationalist, was compelled to add his own version to the canon. Applying his own vocabulary and poetic rhythms, he gives the text a dynamism that can be lacking from older translations, and his reading of a short section of the Inferno brought the poem vividly to life. In his introduction, he said 'a real poem is a total blend of sense and sound', and we were given a beautiful demonstration of that idea being put into practice.
Afterwards, Gray took questions from the audience and the discussion perhaps unsurprisingly returned to politics. Regardless of whether you agree with all his views, it is a pleasure to hear him speak on a subject he cares deeply about, and his views on the state of the country are evidently driven by a passionate, democratic humanism. Discussing national policies on welfare and healthcare in light of the upcoming independence referendum, he became visibly angry and upset, condemning them as unequal and inhumane. It was a unique experience and a fitting end to SMHAFF's first ever collaboration with Aye Write, which will hopefully become a recurring fixture in years to come.
Written by Rob Dickie