‘Gifts Send Down Roots’

an introduction to Bashabi Fraser by Robert Alan Jamieson

The name ‘Bashabi Fraser’ first came to my attention sometime in the mid 1990s when I was co-editing the Edinburgh Review. It sounded strangely familiar – Fraser was one of the surnames in my native village in Shetland, and ‘Baabi’ a familiar abbreviation for Barbara, a common first name there. By the time we met in 2000, at the launch of the pocketbook, Wish I Was Here, I had seen enough of her poetry to realise that here was an exotic Bengali flower, transplanted in auld Edina. On meeting her, it was apparent that she was no villager but rather a scholar from a great metropolis, a classical Indian dancer and cultural activist, drawing confidently on rich and ancient traditions - and that she had shuttled between Britain and India sufficiently for her to feel at home in Scotland, by the cold North Sea, writing in English.


In 1934 J. Leslie Mitchell[1] suggested that no matter how expert a Scottish writer becomes in the English language, there will always remain an element of strangeness in the writing which the true native English speaker will detect - with the effect of rendering the text in question as strange as that of Bashabi’s great countryman, Rabindranath Tagore. The weaving of various new forms of ‘English’ out of local tongues and the Imperial standard in post-colonial times (which in Scotland owed much to Grassic Gibbon’s own experiment) is a process that grids Scotland and India alike. The intervening years have brought appreciation of such ‘strangeness’ as a strength, and the muscularity of linguistic difference has flexed since. Poetry is after all, as the Russian Formalist 1910 definition of the Futurist poetic project claimed, very often a matter of making the familiar strange.

Bashabi Fraser’s writing emerges from that fruitful territory between certainties and languages which cultural and geographical removal entails, but appears at ease with this. She writes an English that communicates strangeness in the subtlest of manners, like a charming accent upon the familiar, spicing her vocabulary with words from afar as subject matter casts them up. But the strangeness is there too, in the way that the language dances out. Even as syllables accrete English meaning, underlying her work we sense there are other ‘logics’ that are essentially rhythmic and melodic – and essentially Indian. Sometimes, as if driven by a tabla player, the syllables dance quickly, keeping strict tempo; at others, swirling long lines suggest an classical Indian musician playing a rag, gathering key notes and improvising upon them, then returning to the silence of the margin and the white space.


Tartan and Turban focuses on clear themes and issues - displacement, removal, belonging, identity, war, - but the abstract is not allowed to dominate. Poems throw up images both colourful and memorable, a kind of pageant of ‘folk, work and place’, celebrating difference while finding commonality. It reminds us that the links between Scotland and India, particularly Bengal, are complex and old, and that although there are many differences, we look to ‘the same moon’. And it maps another kind of country too, that of woman, as daughter, bride, mother, outsider, victim and so on. There are urgent messages against war and repression, yet a faith that gentleness and kindness can prevail.

Bashabi Fraser’s emergence confirms a developing sense of a new era in Scottish writing. This trend is also evidenced in the work of such varied individuals as Suhayl Saadi, Leila Aboulela, Sheila Puri, Irfan Merchant, and in a different way, such as Michel Faber. It is as if the generally urban and quintessentially Scottish writing of the early 1990s - in which ‘internal exile’ from the systems and culture of pre-devolution Britain found a variety of expressions [2] - has helped create the ground for if not inspire[3] a whole new wave of ‘stranger’ writing. But in this new era, neither protagonist nor author is fully ‘of’ the host culture in the way as was previously the case. It is work that offers a vital new view of Scottish life and questions the definition ‘Scottish writer’ itself. And when we consider ‘new Scottish’ writing such as David Nicol’s New Caledonia, Alice Thompson’s Pharos or James Robertson’s Joseph Knight, or the geopoetic wanderings of such as Kenneth White and Gerrie Fellows, it appears as if some kind of internationalisation is taking place. ‘Scottish’ writers, broadly defined, are grappling with Scotland’s relationship to the world. It is as if post-devolution Scottish culture is attempting to locate itself afresh, particularly with relation to its imperial past.

This ‘new’ Scotland is less self-congratulatory in the ‘Wha’s like us?’ manner. It is more confidently self-critical, looking at the facts rather than the myths – consequently, realising its multiculturalism, it is a wee-rainbow-nation-in-embryo. At this moment in time, while the forces of United States of America and Britain still brush the sand from their weapons, this comes as a comforting thought.

In her response to a passage from Khalil Gibran, ‘Mine in Pain, Yours in Success’, Bashabi Fraser writes that ‘gifts send down roots’. Tartan and Turban is indeed a gift. I trust it will help her root still deeper in Scotia’s soil. At the heart of this collection we find a great journey. It is a journey that has brought wisdom. There is a grace of reconciliation with dislocation and difference that others may draw solace from. We are all to some extent led elsewhere by life. These poems are, I feel, the expression of that common human desire to arrive somewhere, to give out the gifts we have brought and have them gladly accepted.




[1] In the essay ‘Literary Lights’, Scottish Scene (with Hugh MacDiarmid

[2] Leonard, Kelman, Galloway, Kennedy, McLean, Welsh and Warner and the like

[3] The link in certain cases is acknowledged: Saadi has suggested it was the example of such as Kelman and Welsh that inspired him to deal with issues around his sense of alienation and identity, and to find ways of writing the language he heard around him.