Leela Soma, writing at a desk

Remembering Leela Soma

The Board of Scottish PEN would like to share a tribute to colleague and friend, member and former Trustee, Leela Soma, who died earlier this year.

March 16, 2023

The Board of Scottish PEN would like to share a tribute to colleague and friend, member and former Trustee, Leela Soma, who died earlier this year.

On Friday 7th January 2023, David Manderson, a member of our Board of Trustees, shared the following obituary in the Herald newspaper. We are pleased to republish it here. We hope that readers will take the time to learn more about Leela’s amazing work, and offer their support to the Kavya Prize, which Leela founded, and which launched in January 2022.

We look forward to announcing further plans to commemorate Leela’s work and contribution to defending free expression.

Obituary: Leela Somasundaram (Soma), Indo-Scottish poet and novelist and founder of the Kavya Prize for Scottish writers of colour

Leela Soma, who has died after a short illness, was an Indian-Scottish writer whose work promoted integration and understanding. A talented and gifted poet and novelist, she was on the threshold of a major breakthough after the publication of her 2021 crime thriller, Murder at the Mela, from Ringwood Press. Her hard-working detective, Inspector Patel, seemed set for many more cases in his pursuit of justice and equality.

Born in Chennai, formerly Madras, in India, Leela emigrated to Scotland in 1969 and began learning how to to adapt while retaining her Indian heritage, an experience explored in her first book of poems, Tartan and Turmeric. Settling in Milngavie, she entered the teaching profession and held posts in secondary education, eventually rising to Principal Teacher of Modern Languages. Her heart, however, was in writing, and she chose early retirement to pursue that ambition. In her first novels, the independently published Twice Born (2008) and Bombay Baby (Dahlia Books, 2011), she continued her themes of identity and adapting to new ways of life, with the pain and joy such life-stories affirm, in tales of migration, displacement and return.

Leela joined Strathkelvin Writers and pushed at the edges of her skills, reading at poetry events such as the Reading Allowed evenings at the Tchai Ovna Café in Glasgow’s West End. These meetings could be packed, but Leela never wavered in her resolve to have her voice heard. Soon, other Scottish-Asian writers were taking part.

With the publication of her second book Leela grew in assurance and began to put her organisational skills to use. Within the Federation of Writers Scotland (FWS), she launched the Bearsden Writers Club which soon started its own readings and classes in small venues like Gavin’s Mill cafe and the local Waitrose community room. Tireless in her encouragement of others, her group came to include the crime novelist Allan Martin, non-fiction writer Palo Stickland and novelist Maura McRobbie.

Leela’s path through self-publishing to ‘proper’ books allowed her to share new routes to success with other budding authors. She also began to run larger events such as the Milngavie Writers Conference, inviting guest authors including Sally Magnusson as keynote speakers to help put the town on the map of the annual Scottish festivals. She was an outstanding example of the quality essential to all writers, young or older – persistence.

With the publication of her third novel after a spell as the FWS’s ‘Scriever’ or writer-laureate in 2021, Leela broke through to the mainstream. Murder at the Mela began life as a hundred-word proposal presented at a Bloody Scotland crime festival which did not win but gained many admirers. She had noticed that there was no Asian detective-inspector anywhere in Scottish crime writing. DI Patel, the ambitious son of an Indian-Scottish family, was the result. Murder at the Mela drew attention across Scotland and beyond and chimed with increasing awareness of the need for greater representation of diversity at exactly the right moment. Detective Patel, keen to rise and aware of the pitfalls of rivalry and prejudice around him, is armed with dedication, an invincible work ethic and the knowledge that he is all the richer because of his two heritages.

Leela joined the Board of Scottish PEN in 2020, where she had an impact on its campaigns for international writers at risk of imprisonment for the expression of their beliefs. This included PEN’s campaign on behalf of the poet and activist Varavara Rao, who was released from appalling conditions in prison after an international outcry.

Leela had one more achievement, the establishment in 2022 of the Kavya Prize at the Aye Write festival in Glasgow, in association with the University of Glasgow. The title was taken from a Sanskrit word meaning a literary style or body of work, and the inaugural first prize went to Uma Najah-Rada, a playwright of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage, for her play Toy Plastic Chicken published by Salamander Street in 2020. 

Had there been more Patel novels, Scottish writing would undoubtedly have been blessed with an investigator for our changing times to match John Rebus, Jack Laidlaw or Jules Maigret. With Leela gone we can only think about what might have been, but the Kavya Prize will be her legacy. Scottish writers will miss her warmth and integrity and her determination to recognise the shared identity of Scottish writing.

Emerita Professor and member of our board, Bashabi Fraser, writes:

“Leela Soma will live amongst us through her books which weave her two worlds – of India and Scotland together in a tapestry that is vibrant, moving and magical. Her liberal humanism and generous spirit shone through her work and those who met and knew her, were touched by her affectionate nature, sincerity and integrity. Her legacy was immense, and the Kavya Prize which was the first major literary prize established for writers of colour in Scotland, was her brainchild and will remain part of her great legacy, signifying the debt Scotland owes to a writer who was conscious and proud of her dual heritage.”

Ricky Monahan Brown, President, adds:

“Everyone at Scottish PEN is deeply saddened by the loss of our friend and colleague. We remember not only her great talent, but her friendship and kindness and her contribution to Scotland’s literary world. Our thoughts go out to her family and friends.”

Leela is survived by her daughter Nita and husband Som.

Written by David Manderson for The Herald, Friday 7th January