Northwords Now Issue 34

The FREE literary magazine of the North

I’m Coming With You

Pennings from Home, Away, and In-between (Scottish Pen)

A Review by Anne MacLeod

In her thoughtful introduction to I’m Coming With You, an anthology published to celebrate ninety years of Scottish PEN, Makar Jackie Kay declares ‘Ninety years of supporting and defending the rights of writers, the world over.…. could not feel more important now..’  

A hundred pages of poetry and prose, I’m Coming With You, is a selection from PENnings magazine, the online journal published twice yearly by Scottish PEN with contributions from refugees, asylum seekers, writers with English as a second language and Scottish PEN members.  Here, work from international writers, such as Goran Simic, Kishwar Naheed, Eeva Kilpi and Ali Cobby Eckermann runs with poems and prose from such established Scottish names as Tessa Ransford, James Robertson, Liz Niven and many more. These, interwoven with the freshness of new and lesser known voices, contribute to an illuminating, sometimes heart-breaking, mix.

The necessity of meaningful communication, the sharing of lived experience in words – and thus its transcendence – blossoms in these pages.  AC Clarke’s The Poem confesses ‘I carried a poem in my pocket as cash/for those who won’t take plastic’. In Alienation, Najat Abdullah, in luminous English, shares both love for her native land and her distress in exile. ‘My hope is my country to return as beautiful as before.’   In Unruly Night, translated by Bouzekri Ettaouchi, Iyad Hayatleh’s longing for home becomes a bird fluttering off his chest and heading south to ‘a corner/where I used to play as a child’. His grief is clear in ‘..the onset of my anguish/and the soul I deserted/and left behind.’

Kusay Hussein’s The Consequences of Freedom, describing a tragedy in Baghdad in 2006, begins under a huge, bent old mulberry tree beside the Tigris, as Sunni neighbours note ‘a human wave, all in black, heading to the holy shrine of Al Khadthim.’ What starts a stampede in the Shi-ite procession is unclear, but the ensuing carnage, as desperate pilgrims struggle to avoid death by crushing or drowning, stimulates the Sunni watchers to attempt a rescue – the bravest and strongest of them, Uthman returning to the river waters time and again till he himself is lost. ‘..we’re all poor,’ the storyteller acknowledges, ‘looking or pretending that we’re different, but in fact we embrace each other..’

The refugee experience is harrowing, as the Scottish writers represented here understand. They walk with their fellow writers. In Rhythms and Aromas, (for Iyad and Lamees,) Jim Aitken writes of his friend ‘..tears can fill his eyes and not just/for his wife but for the lands within him.’ Catherine Czerkawska, in Aliens, rides on her father’s shoulders. ‘My father’s papers proclaim him alien/which makes me half alien too’ and Morelle Smith, in Walking in Tirana, admits ‘I don’t know who I am, as I walk through these streets…. I whisper to the sauntering streets, tell me who I am..’

This thought-provoking volume should be required reading for our times. Its contributors and editors are to be congratulated on their achievement.

‘How does one mend dreams?’ pleads Kishwar Naheed in Commonplace Miracles.  ‘How does one cross rivers made out of storms?’  AC Clarke may perhaps have an answer – ‘Don’t fret,’ the poem said.  ‘I’m coming with you.’