A Queerie Sowl: Q&A with Harry Josephine Giles

Harry Josephine Giles, aka Josie Giles, is from Orkney and lives in Leith. Her verse novel, Deep Wheel Orcadia comes out with Picador in October 2021 and is written in the Orkney Dialect. Her show Drone debuted in the Made in Scotland Showcase at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe and toured internationally. Here, she discusses the new book, her ingenious use of compound translation and the grief for what gets lost in the translation between people.

The Demented Goddess: Deep Wheel Orcadia might be said to be a sci-fi romance between Astrid, an artist returning to her native, working-class Orcadia, and Darling, a privileged Martian gathering knowledge through her travels. Where do you envision Orcadia? How did the world of the poem piece itself together for you?

Put one way, Orcadia is a space station orbiting a gas giant orbiting a star, a little under eight light years further inwards on our galactic arm from Earth, four hundred years in the future. Put another way, Orcadia is not so very long ago and not so very far away from contemporary Orkney. Once I knew I was taking my story to space, I started thinking about the practical and emotional realities of living somewhere small and meaningful, what would be like an island in the North Atlantic and what would be different. Orcadia, like Orkney, is a place that was once central to the travels of expanding empires, and that now, as technology changes, finds itself on the periphery. But it’s also somewhere that change happens, where new energies begin.


Performance of Drone by Harry Josephine Giles by Rich Dyson. “Orcadia…is somewhere that change happens, where new energies begin.”

DG: It’s a gripping read. Each verse appears on the page with its translation. How do you approach English translation while composing a poem? Does it come with, before or after the Orkney?

The Orkney comes first in this book, always. I chose to include the English in order to give more readers a route into the Orkney language, but there’s a risk in that: that folk might read only the English and not put thought into the Orkney. So I wanted to minoritise the English on the page (it’s at the bottom, and prose, and smaller), and also thread it with speed-bumps, ways of slowing down the Anglophone reader and turning their attention back to the Orkney. That’s where the tool of compound translation came from, with words running together, and once I’d found it I starting thinking more about the fun I could have with it.

DG: You express different types of love, in the poem – and the conjoinings of your translations feel apt to its mystery. There’s the word, “Buddo” with which Inga, Astrid’s mother, greets her, after eight years of absence. You give this as “friendchildlove”, which evokes the complex states of loving an older child. Then there’s Astrid’s first glimpse of Darling, ravishing by Martian standards but also “a aafil queerie sowl” to Astrid’s eye, “a veryawfully strangequeer soulperson”. Is the slippage of language an advantage, when writing of love? Or is it simply a boon for any writer?

For me, the Orkney word is very precise and clear: I know what “Buddo” means, as a precious term of endearment. But I also can’t express it accurately in English: there’s only a collection of approximations. So, I suppose the gift of language here is not just complexity but also a kind of grief for what gets lost in the translation between people, what’s inexpressible. When we love, there are important things that are held between us but can’t be said, and there are also the confusions and absences we project onto each other.

DG: We often don’t notice that the same word is packed with varied powers, beyond dictionary meanings, depending on who is speaking and to what end. One joy of the book is how you bind a single word to different contexts, embedding its usefulness for the reader. You translate “guff”, for example, as the “stinkpuffsnortnonsense”, and canny ways of trade on Orcadia. Then there’s the guff of the “fifty square miles of old equatorial forest” seen by Darling on Old Earth; and the guff, the “stinkpuffsnortnonsense of the lab” where Øyvind, Astrid’s father, hauls his nano-replicated protein slices into being.

This reusing of words in contexts is a phenomenon we often practice without noticing. Are there any particular thrills or pitfalls of reusing and shifting word meaning, for you?

When I find a word I like, my first stop is often an etymology dictionary – I want to know where the word came from, and what hidden histories it carries. The challenge of that is that a word can mean very different things to different people: its resonances can’t be pinned down by a dictionary, and you can never wholly predict what it’s going to do. That’s especially the case with threatened languages like Scots, where dialects and idiolects get separated from their close kin and common understandings fall away in favour of local meanings. Checking my Dictionary of the Scots Language now, I can find other meanings for guff I didn’t use: “fool”, stretching from Dumfries to Aberdeen; the wake of a motorboat, a contemporary usage in Shetland; and an old call-name for a pig in Orkney too.

DG: Both Astrid and Darling are vexed over where home might be, for different reasons: a “placedistancepartwhile”. Meanwhile, the language of Orcadia means they are free to see each other as a “bodyperson” or “soulperson” rather than man, woman or women. From Bowie’s The Man Who Fell To Earth to Scarlett Johansson in Beneath the Skin, there’s a latent bodyqueer tradition in sci-fi films. And there’s been an increase, recently, of women in space films, including the poetic and austere Aniara, which includes a convincingly unsentimental lesbian romance. Is it easier to be queer in space?

When it’s hard to be yourself in this world, it’s natural enough to imagine yourself into worlds where it’s easier. This utopian hope is common to a lot of queer and trans science fiction, to the point where sometimes queerness vanishes into the accepted reality of a new normality. Is that still queer? I’m interested in what remains troubling about gender in societies where problems like “family” and “dysphoria” have novel answers. And I’m also interested in how utopias enable and constrain us: that is, when we project a better world onto a real place, what becomes possible, and what gets lost?

Harry Josephine was talking to our editor Soma Ghosh.

Follow Harry Josephine  http://@HJosephinGiles

Follow Soma https://twitter.com/calcourtesan?s=20

Main image by Claire Biddles

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