Jackie Kay is one of Scotland’s most accomplished writers, equally at home with drama, poetry, fiction, memoir and children’s writing. She is also a broadcaster, columnist and librettist. She is of mixed race (a Highland mother and Nigerian father) and was adopted by a Marxist Glaswegian couple. She is both a mother and a lesbian. Her writing features English, Scots and Igbo (a Nigerian language). She can see the profound in the simplest thing and find humour in the most tragic circumstances.
Born in 1961 at a time when black children were a rarity in Scotland, she was adopted by Helen and John Kay. Because of their political convictions – Helen Kay was Scottish secretary of CND and John Kay was a full time official of the Communist Party of Great Britain – they were viewed with suspicion by social workers, but in her memoir “Red Dust Road” (Picador, 2010), Jackie describes having the most wonderful childhood, despite some appalling incidents of racism outside the family home. Even today, racism is still a fact of life.
In 2013, she told Scottish Poetry Library: “I still have Scottish people asking me where I’m from. They won’t actually hear my voice because they are too busy seeing my face.”
For ten years she lived with the current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Both poets wrote about the relationship and its break up, Carol Ann Duffy in her collection “Rapture” (Picador, 2006) and Jackie Kay in her collection “Life Mask” (Bloodaxe, 2005).
Her first collection of poetry “The Adoption Papers” (Bloodaxe, 1991) is about an adopted child searching for her identity, and is told through three voices: an adoptive mother, a birth mother and a daughter. It is one of the most powerful debuts in modern Scottish literature. It won the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award, the Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the prestigious Forward Poetry Prize. Not bad for someone who wanted to be an actor and who only concentrated on writing after being urged to do so by Scottish novelist, poet and artist Alasdair Grey.
Identity is also at the core of her breathtaking memoir “Red Dust Road”, which she describes as “a letter of love for my parents”. Her descriptions of meeting her birth parents are moving, disturbing and occasionally humorous. She met her father in an Abuja hotel in 2003, and discovered him to be a conservative fundamentalist Christian who thought of Jackie as the embodiment of sin, particularly as she was homosexual, and spent hours preaching at her. She later returned to Nigeria and visited her birth father’s home village. She met her birth mother in Milton Keynes in 1991, and discovered her to be a divorced Mormon with Alzheimer’s. She comments on the fact that both her birth parents are conservative Christians, whilst she is an atheist. Tracking down both birth parents was difficult, but she had the support of her adoptive parents, as well as that of Carol Ann Duffy.
She returns to these issues in her collection “Fiere” (Picador, 2011), a Scots word that means “equal friend or companion”, and features poetry about her birth parents, adoptive parents and her son Matthew. Some of her best poetry is found here. In “Upkor Market” she describes seeing Nigerian women whom she thinks she looks like, but these women refer to her as “Oyinbo”, a Nigerian word meaning “white woman”. In Scotland she is considered black, in Nigeria she is described as white.
In one of the most powerful poems – “Burying My African Father” – she writes:
“Now that I have finally arrived, without you,
to the home of the ancestors, I can bid you farewell, adieu
and years before you are actually dead,
bury you right here in my head.”
The poems about her son and her adoptive parents are joyful, often playful and sometimes humorous. In “85th Birthday Poem for Dad”, she describes how his only complaint against his wife was she never watched him play football, so she fills the poem with football imagery. In “21st Birthday Poem for Matthew” she compares him swimming in her womb with his passion for underwater diving. In one poem she shows just how wicked her sense of humour can be: she takes Hugh MacDiarmid’s famous poem “A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle” and parodies it in “A Drunk Woman Looks at Her Nipple”.
She has only published one novel for adults, but “Trumpet” (Picador, 1998) is surely one of the greatest novels by a contemporary Scottish writer. Inspired by the life of American jazz musician Billy Tipton, the novel opens just after the death of acclaimed jazz trumpeter Joss Moody, who has lived most of his life as a man but who was born female. The only person who knew Joss’s secret was his wife: not even his (adopted) son knew. The narrative of Joss’s life, death and legacy is told through the eyes of various characters, all of whom bring their different perspectives on gender, sexuality and identity. It is a compelling read, and a book one can return to again and again.