on life as a Gaelic writer, the metaphysics of the imagination, and trans-Atlantic dialogues …
Angus Peter Campbell [Aonghas Phàdraig Caimbeul] is an award-winning poet, novelist, journalist, broadcaster, and actor. Born and brought up in South Uist he spent his teenage years in the Oban area where he was taught by Iain Crichton Smith at the local High School.
In 2001 he was awarded the Bardic Crown for Gaelic poetry. In 2002 he was given a Creative Scotland Award for Literature and in 2008 was nominated for a BAFTA Best-Actor Award for the lead role in the Gaelic film, Seachd. His Gaelic novel An Oidhche Mus do Sheòl Sinn was voted by the public into the Top Ten of the 100 Best-Ever Books from Scotland in the Orange/List Awards. His latest book, Memory and Straw, has just been released and the story begins in New York.
We are delighted to have the privilege of this interview with him.
(1) Can you tell us a little about your new novel, which, unlike much of your previous work, is in English? It contains some interesting contrasts between the past and the present/future, as well as contrasts in geographical and social settings. It might surprise some people that an author belonging to a (supposedly) remote island and minoritised ethnic group would be grappling with such huge issues as what it means to be human and the end game of technophilia. Can you say something about what motivates you as an author, and how your specific personal and cultural experiences as a Gael condition what you say and how you say it?
I always remember the old story about The Fool, who was asked a series of impossible questions, such as “How many stars are there in the universe?” and “What is the length of rainbow?” culminating in the big question “Inns dhuinn, Amadain, càite bheil meadhan an t-saoghail?” (Tell us, Fool, where is the centre of the world?”, and of course he answers “Càit’ eile ach an-seo, fo mo chasan?” (“Where else but here, right beneath my feet”).
The existential centre of the universe being where you stand (given the universal validity of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity) always struck me as being blindingly obvious. If you were in South Boisdale, as I was, the centre of the universe was of course there, despite the magnetic attractions of North Boisdale, and especially the electronic attractions of the big city of Lochboisdale, which had concrete stairs and pier lights and all kinds of sparking attractions.
To go on the ferry to Oban, where there were trains and girls with marvellous names, was merely further evidence that Einstein had it right. (By the way, growing up in the long flat landscape of Uist also gave me a problem with gravity. When I went to school and heard that an English lad called Isaac Newton had sat under a tree where an apple fell on his head, I knew instantly why we hadn’t discovered gravity – not only had we no trees in my district, we also had no gravity, because nothing ever fell down – everything came at us with full force horizontally from the north and west…)
So I have always been interested in the space (physical and metaphysical) that makes us human. The borders and edges and barriers and customs and traditions and beliefs and behaviours and languages that shape and form and mould and constrain and inhibit and proclaim and sustain us.
I was and brought up in An Leth Mheadhanach, which translates as ‘The Half of the Middle Quarter’ which of course is an old land dispensation, yet in “official English” it was called South Boisdale. Indeed, I remember a man from Inverness County Council arriving one day during my childhood to erect a sign opposite our house which confirmed the fact that I now lived in a place called South Boisdale, not in The Half of the Middle Quarter, or – above all – in An Leth Mheadhanach.
This dissonance has always fascinated me and part of this new novel of mine concerns itself with that dissonance. The story itself begins in contemporary New York/ Martha’s Vineyard where the protagonist, Gavin MacDonell, works in developing mask-bots for androids which will take care of elderly people – a growing market.
Partially as part of his professional work, and partially out of curiosity (dawdling on the internet) he begins to search through his own family background, as far back as his great-great-grandmother Elizabeth, living in a glen in northern mainland Scotland. The novel then becomes a journey of discovery – of identity and place and personality. How much we owe to Homer who established the template all those centuries ago!
(2) Gaelic communities in Scotland have been fundamentally altered by emigration for some two and a half centuries. The themes of exile, home and belonging have featured prominently in Gaelic literature for generations, as social, economic and political pressures from the anglophone world have disrupted the fabric of Gaelic life. These experiences form the backdrop of much of your work. How has emigration affected your family and yourself personally? What do you think have been the impacts of the linguistic and cultural assaults and pressures on Gaels? How have these patterns had a knock-on effect on the larger stages of Scotland, Britain, British Empire, and so on? Do you think novels can help us to understand these complex and abstract issues by portraying them on a human level?
Part of the architecture of my novel owes a debt to that strange and marvellous book The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, fauns and Fairies written by the Reverend Robert Kirk of Perthshire in 1691. I officially acknowledge that in the novel. Amongst other marvels from that book Kirk says this (and I use this quote as part of my own novel): “Several did see the second sight when in the Highlands or Isles, yet when transported to live in other countries, especially in America, they quite lose this quality, as was told me by a gentleman who knew some of them in Barbados who did see no vision there, although he knew them to be seers when they lived in the Isles of Scotland.”
I think it’s an extraordinarily powerful statement. To what degree does the physical/geographic/cultural environment we inhabit liberate or constrain the visions we see? Where does the horizon that breaks (or enables) the dream begin or end?
Kirk’s statement has endless possibilities and terrific implications. It speaks, implicitly, of the fundamental importance of land, language, environment (what previous generations would have called Nature) and culture in shaping our world-view. And naturally, if one is brutally torn from that environment (as folk were during the Clearances, or from Syria etc in our time) it has awesome consequences.
And I don’t think it’s a mere matter of distance. In the novel I have an old lady – about to be cleared from her home – say that to move an inch is to emigrate forever.
(3) It may be hard for English-speakers to appreciate the role of a writer for a minoritised language audience, such as Gaelic. When communities become minoritised, there is not just a reduction in number of speakers, there is a diminution in perceived status, authority, imagination, and so on. It’s hard for the constraints of the present, and the sense of historical inferiorisation, not to constrain the understanding of the past and the possibilities for the future. Would you say something about the importance of fiction and drama – indeed, the imagination in general – in the Gaelic language for a Gaelic audience in this respect? Do you think that literature and the creative arts generally offer a means of negotiating, resolving and reimagining these issues for individuals and communities?
I’m not sure what to say about the role of art or the imagination in this context. Part of the difficulty is that when a language or culture becomes a minority, the cultural space to sow and harvest tends to become more limited. At times it feels like a cultural desert.
It reminds me of being a Spaceman. As a child growing up in South Uist I would see the moon in all its shapes in the sky – from the corran (sickle) to gealach bhuidhe an abachaidh (the full yellow moon of harvest). As a writer sometimes I feel like a child putting some paper into an old tin and lighting it in the hope that it will zizzle and then rise and head off towards the moon with Neil Armstrong on the prow. But instead, the matches are wet, the paper is damp, and a little flame lights momentarily before the wind catches it and extinguishes it. But that’s fine – it’s great fun being that boy, trying to send an old empty can of beans to the moon.
(4) The diaspora is an enormous presence – or absence – in Gaelic society. What might be fruitful ways for the descendants of Gaels who came to North America to engage with their relations still in the Gàidhealtachd? What do you think Gaelic heritage has to offer people outside of Scotland? Do you think that fiction and imaginative literature offers a productive vehicle for exploring these issues? What are the limitations and dangers posed by such cultural exchanges and literary tourism?
I think one of the great fruits of art is to reassure us – sometimes despite all the outward evidence – that we matter. That what be believe in, what we think and what we do can make a difference. I was reading a marvellous piece the other day by George Saunders (writer of Lincoln in the Bardo) where he highlighted the marvel of the novel speaking to us across space and time. So that, if I choose, I can spend time every day with Homer or with Dickens or with any of those great unknown Gaelic women who composed the largely anonymous songs that have survived from the 16th century. And Saunders commented that spending time with Tolstoy (for example) makes us realise that he actually cared for us, and desired to make us more human. In short, Tolstoy – like all great artists – loved and loves us.
I think that generosity (of spirit) – alongside courage – is the great virtue, and what I gain from listening to old Gaelic songs, or to the ceòl mòr of Donald MacPherson, or to the music of Bach is a widening sense of my own generosity of spirit. Life really is a gift and if there are to be creative trans-Atlantic dialogues, let them be done with humility, knowing that we have a culture and a language, and traditions, which can be startlingly beautiful (rather than to be ashamed of, as official colonial policies have dictated).
Part of the challenge brings me back to my first observations – we now live in a global village (a sort of International An Leth Mheadhanach) where the behaviour of the village bully (I won’t give him the great dignity of The Fool) – Donald Trump – affects us all. Our job, after all, may be to remind him that the centre of the world is not actually under his feet, but over the hills and far away, where all good things dwell, a heartbeat away.