Am Bratach No. 235
May 2011


by Kevin Crowe

Jackie Kay: “Red dust road” and “Fiere”. Both published by Picador, 2011, £8.99.

Jackie Kay is one of Scotland’s most accomplished writers, equally at home with drama, poetry, fiction, memoir and children’s writing. She is one of those people who can’t be pigeonholed. 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.

“Red Dust Road”, published in hardback last year and now available in paperback, describes her childhood with her adoptive parents and her adult search for her biological parents. The book moves across space and time with the ease only a great writer can achieve. 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 Kay describes having the most wonderful childhood, despite some appalling incidents of racism outside the family home.

Her descriptions of meeting her biological 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 Kay as the embodiment of his sin and spent hours preaching at her. She later returned to Nigeria and visited her biological father’s home village. She met her biological 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 biological parents were conservative Christians, whilst she is an atheist. Tracking down both biological parents was difficult, but she had the support of the parents who had adopted her, as well as that of her then lover, Carol Ann Duffy (now Poet Laureate).

“Fiere” (a Scots word meaning “equal friend or companion”) is Kay’s latest poetry collection. Many of the poems refer to her search for her biological parents and her discovery of her Nigerian roots. In “Ukpor Market” she writes of seeing women who she thought looked like her: “Same square physiognomy,/same wide nose, same broad smile.” These women point at her: “…Oyinbo, they say,/admiringly, touching my skin…Kachi tells me/what they mean:/Oyinbo is a pidgin word/for a white woman.” In Scotland and England, Kay is thought of as black, whereas in Nigeria she is described by the local people as white.

Equally as amusing is “Igbo Bath”, which describes her initial confusion at finding a bowl and an upturned bucket in the bath at the hotel in Nnewi, but once she understands she quickly takes to it: “…until I was/down by the river…/bent over, pouring the water over me,/years back, inside the body/of my grandmother; bathing the Igbo way/I am a split second, a spit and a jump away.”

On a more sombre note is “Burying My African Father” in which she describes her journeys in Nigeria, meeting her biological father and making her own way to his village. 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.”

In stark contrast are the poems about Helen and John, her Scottish parents, and her son Matthew. In “85th Birthday Poem for Dad” she describes how his only “bugbear” with his wife “was how she never watched him play football”. Taking this as her cue, much of the poem uses football imagery. She describes the setting sun falling “like a ball in a penalty” and “the moon smashed into the clouds-/a goal from the past lobbed into the present.” In “My Mother Remembers Sri Lanka” she describes her mother describing her time in what was then Ceylon: “When I saw that snake charmer/he told me the love of my life was near; so he is still.” In “21st Birthday Poem for Matthew” she compares him swimming in her womb with his current interest in underwater diving.

There is also a wonderful parody of MacDiarmid’s “A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle”, written in Scots and called “A Drunk Woman Looks at Her Nipple.”
Both these books are highly recommended.


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