Look up the Edinburgh International Book Festival listing for this year’s planned joint session featuring Harry Josephine Giles and the novelist Ely Percy, and you’ll see at the bottom the slightly mind-blowing list of categories or genres to which the festival organisers have linked the event. The list covers gender and sexuality, LGBTQI+, language and translation, sci-fi and fantasy, Scottish fiction, and Scottish interest; and it offers a partial but vivid insight into the huge range of preoccupations that have so far shaped Harry Josephine Giles’s writing life, since she began to win poetry slam competitions in the late 2000s, and published her first collection of poetry, Visa Wedding, with Stewed Rhubarb press in 2013.
Giles’s novel, Deep Wheel Orcadia, which will be published this autumn, is the first written in Orcadian for half a century, and is set on a distant space station, where Astrid and Darling search for hope in a universe that seems to be leaving them behind. Giles describes it as “a gay space communist fantasy written in a small language and about the small peace of small things”; and it reflects not only her fascination with science-fiction as a means of expressing intense political concern about the direction of travel of our civilisation – an idea also expressed in Giles’s hugely successful theatre monologue Drone, first seen in Glasgow in 2015 – but also her continuing strong creative relationship with the language of the Orkney islands, where she grew up.
Giles was born in London in 1986, but was transported to a completely different world two years later, when her family moved to Westray, and later to the Orkney mainland. She was always, she says “extremely political”, an anti-war and climate activist, and after school she studied sustainable development at St Andrews University, and went on to work for several years as Environment Officer for Festivals Edinburgh. For the last seven years, though, Giles has been able to sustain a working life as a writer, poet and performer, living in Leith, and performing at events and festivals both across Scotland, and as far afield as Canada and Aotearoa New Zealand; and she has published more than a dozen collections of poems in book and pamphlet form, as well as individual poems and theatre texts.
For this Scotsman Session, Giles has recorded her new poem The Reasonable People, which reflects on the recent intense polarisation of political debate on many issues, including gender recognition. Obviously, “reasonable people” deplore the growing harshness and divisiveness of political debate; but here, in typically searching and challenging style, Giles asks us to consider whether we, the “reasonable people”, are not ourselves part of the problem, and a significant cause of the rage and alienation we see around us.
Harry Josephine Giles and Ely Percy will appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 18 August. Deep Wheel Orcadia will be published by Picador on 12 October.
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