Southern Belle to Scottish Lass - An Interview with Dr Gwen Enstam
Firstly, what brought you to Edinburgh?
I first visited Edinburgh with my parents in the late 80s, and I loved it. When looking into universities for my PhD a few years later, someone suggested the University of Edinburgh, and I remembered how fond I had been of the city. It worked out very well - Edinburgh was the best place for me to study, and it was also my top choice for where to live.
You were raised in Texas, and studied Medieval literature at university. So how did you first get interested in Scottish literature, and the modern Scots language?
I was always aware of Scotland's literary tradition but was never taught Scottish literature in school or at university, and this meant it was a new and very exciting field to explore. I started working for the Scottish National Dictionary Association (now Scottish Language Dictionaries) in 1999, while finishing my postgraduate study, and this was instrumental in my becoming familiar with, and interested in working with Scots language. I took advantage of working with SLD's Word Collection, which records Scots language as it is used in speech and in writing, to find out more about Scotland's authors.
Can you describe your roles for the ASLS and SLD?
My responsibilities as Project Developer for ASLS and SLD focus on international publicity for Scottish writing. For ASLS this means managing the Scottish Writing Exhibition and co-editing The Bottle Imp Scottish Studies ezine with Duncan Jones, and examining the results of these projects with a view to furthering awareness of Scottish literature around the world. For SLD I work on the members' newsletter and the electronic International Newsletter.
Each year you take the exhibition of Scottish writing to the MLA in America. What are your criteria for choosing Scottish books?
Our aims for the Scottish Writing Exhibition are to encourage and support the teaching and study of Scottish literature internationally. The MLA is an annual academic convention in North America and one major goal is to provide Scottish resources for lecturers to use in coursework and research. We therefore choose titles which can either be incorporated into existing courses (e.g. World Poetry, British 19th Century Novel) or which can be used to create new courses which consists entirely of Scottish writing. We choose as wide a variety of books as we can - from the Middle Ages to the 21st century, including poetry, ballads, fiction and some non-fiction, and we always like to bring classic texts as well as a good sampling of the newest writing.
There is a tremendous hunger for Scottish writing internationally. We have found this to be true at the MLA in North America, and also among European scholars, at the ESSE conference (European Society for the Study of English). People love classic Scottish authors like Stevenson, Scott and Hogg, but there is also a strong interest in what Scotland's writers are creating today. Academics immediately recognise Scotland's unique writing culture and how it has contributed to the literature and philosophies of other countries. They tell us how much their students love reading Scottish books, from Jekyll and Hyde and Confessions of a Justified Sinner to Trainspotting and Poor Things.
You've said in the past that your are frustrated by bookshops' inconsistent handling of Scottish authors and books. What would you like to see happen?
"Scottish interest" sections seem to be primarily aimed at visitors, and they include arbitrary choices of fiction and poetry. On a practical level, this makes it difficult and frustrating to find a particular title because the author you want may be there, or may be in General Fiction or may be in Mystery, etc.
Categorising Scottish fiction as a kind of special genre also raises issues of how Scottish writing is perceived by the public. If someone new to Scottish writing is directed to an abridged selection, then as far as they know, the titles they see in this section could well be all there is. I feel that, to some extent, removing Scottish novels and poetry from the context of the rest of the bookshop undermines the authority of Scottish writing.
There is nothing wrong with a varied display of books for visitors, of course, and literary tourists should be catered for. But perhaps there should be some resource available in bookshops for people to use to help them find Scottish authors. Since bookshops can't be expected to shelve two copies of each Scottish title they offer - one in Scottish interest and one in General Fiction etc - ideally I would like to see Scottish authors categorised with everyone else, alphabetically and according to genre.
Edinburgh must sometimes feel very far away from Texas - how often do you return home? Or is Scotland 'home' now?
My grandmother taught me that you can have more than one home: every summer I'd visit her and when I arrived she would say "you're home now, you can do what you like". So Texas is home and Scotland is home and I love coming back to both: if I'm in Dallas, I miss Edinburgh, and when I'm in Edinburgh, I miss Dallas. I'm very fortunate in that way.