By Jordan Ogg, first published in The Island Review, January 5th 2019
Helen Nisbet is a curator and artistic director born and raised on the island of Yell in the far north of Shetland. She is now based in London, and It Disappears In Blue And Red And Gold is her first book. It appears in a series entitled Dialecty; a project which according to its publisher is about how “dialect words, syntax and language question traditional orthodoxies of critical writing”. Such verbiage may be the standard brogue of the arts publishing scene — Dialecty is ‘conceived’ by Belfast-born experimental writer and arts critic Maria Fusco — but general readers should not let it put them off. Otherwise they will miss out on experiencing an intriguing, profound and memorable little book.
The dialect here is a Yell variant of Shetlandic, a blend of Norse, Lowland Scots and English, each element reflecting a period in the isles’ history. It is a rich and tangy mode for any writer to work with, and has, over the years, become best known for its use by poets. Nisbet has a keen ear for its qualities, bringing to the page gloriously salty phrases like, “Imagine lookin at yun erse fur da rest o dy life”, and a stirring opener which recalls the isles’ violent Norse history: “Shetland wis won by Harald Hårfre, in da days whan da Vikings wir settin oot in aa da aerts wi dir axes, longboats and stinkin haps tied aboot dir backs.”
Told in two parts — the first located in an old peoples home in Yell, the second variously in New York, London, Glasgow and Sri Lanka — this compact volume orbits the more accessible reaches of experimental writing, with Nisbet deploying auto-fiction, verse and prose to ruminate on the daily acts of remembering and forgetting we all experience. How do our minds choose what to keep in and what to filter out? Why do aphorisms tend to stick? How should the act of remembering a tragedy to which we were not primarily affected make us feel?
In dealing with these questions, Nisbet reminds us that, no matter how well or otherwise we understand each other through words, we all share a common language: that of experience. We must all walk through our own haunted avenues of memory, often returning to them when we least expect to.
Recalling the dialect voices of her late grandmothers in part one, Nisbet introduces us to an island world of lore and superstition. This is a realm where giants and trolls roam the hills, where fishermen drown in mystery, and where the devil lurks behind every ill-gotten gain.
Part two moves into the present; fantasy is replaced with realism, and idiom is replaced with prose. Nisbet recalls personal experiences in fractured visions, which seem remote yet are strongly felt. We find her on a flight descending into London on the night when 72 of her fellow city-dwellers perished in the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Later she remembers the murder of a young woman in a public park close to her old flat in Glasgow which took place as she lay asleep safe in her bed.
Later still we find Nisbet back in Yell at the funeral of one of her grandmothers who gave voice to the island realm we left in part one. In bridging the two parts of her book this way, Nisbet connects the traditional life of a small rural island with the wider, yet no less significant, concerns of the contemporary urban metropolis. Remoteness becomes diffuse, almost meaningless, and this is, I think, the greatest success of the book.
Jordan Ogg comes from Shetland and lives in Edinburgh. He is a founding editor of The Island Review.