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New Writer 2020: Shirley Gillan


Shirley wrote her first story when she was seven (stubby pencil; hamster hero) and has been writing ever since: stories, poems, journals, letters and blogs 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 has provided focus and inspiration for her creative writing. One of the reasons she writes is to raise awareness of the issues refugees face, so she was thrilled that her short story, Outside In, won the 2019 Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival Literary Award. Fragments, a piece of flash fiction, was also shortlisted for this award.

At the beginning of last year she blew the dust from a neglected manuscript, knitted a hat from the cobwebs draped around its pages and edited her first novel to within a comma of its life. In December, Light is a Hard Place, based on a year she spent working in a refugee camp, received a high commendation from Harper Collins in their HQ and Gransnet novel competition.

She is still dancing.

And editing.

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."