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New Writer 2020: Shirley Gillan


Shirley wrote her first story when she was seven and has been writing ever since; stories from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, where she lived and was inspired for 14 years of her career.

Currently living in Glasgow, her work with refugees and migrants continues to provide focus for her creative writing. Her short stories have been published and won awards. Outside In, won the 2019 SMHAF International Literary Award. Fragments, a piece of flash fiction, was also shortlisted. An Egg and Ten Olives won its category in 2020, and A Loop of Faith was placed in last year’s FWS Competition.

She co-facilitated a writing group for survivors of torture for three years, and in 2019 visited Calais, where she supported refugees, sleeping out in snow, to tell their stories. 

Her novel, Light is a Hard Place, is based on a year she spent working in a refugee camp situated precisely on top of the equator.

Follow Shirley on Twitter(this will open in a new window).

Writing sample

An Egg and Ten Olives

The Damascus Café. Thick cardamom coffee in tiny tinkling cups. Last night’s shisha lingering, scent muted by time. Bubbled smoke earlier exhaled weaves round Arabic notes emerging from speakers. Spotlights glint in shadowed corners, mirrored tables bounce sun rays off gold-rimmed tea glasses.


Yaser slumps on the couch opposite me. I meet his hollow gaze, jaw etched by sunken cheek bones, eyes carved by nightmare-bruised skin.

He starts to speak and the stories I have listened to for years, in mountains and deserts, through bars and perspex, in courtrooms, camps and clinics, segue together: Somali, Arabic, Nepali, Shona; a Pentecost of words.

I need to write them. But how do I express another’s story when it has crashed into mine? Simmering more insistently than the shisha, at times dissipating in new air but at others reforming with an image or a word to slam my gut and dislocate my mind. And I’m back in Nepal, Kenya, Zimbabwe, back in cells and torture chambers, back with folks lying bruised and broken on a bloody feculent floor, dampness clawing at fractured bones.

And I’m silenced. Thinking of my ineptitude in finding the words and getting them out of my head and onto the page - but also of the impact of them.

Is this a story I can ask you to read?

Shirley says:

"It was a driech day when I got the call; the sun immediately came out. I’ve always loved messing about with words, and am so grateful to the Scottish Book Trust for offering a year of support, alongside other writers, to really immerse myself in my writing."