Jackie Kay‘s writing oozes ‘normality’, it’s unashamedly honest and at times unapologetically simple. But her personal life has been neither normal nor simple, and her identity has very much influenced her work; a Scottish poet and writer, Kay was born in Edinburgh to a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother. She was adopted at birth by a communist white couple and was brought up in Glasgow.
In Red Dust Road: An Autobiographical Journey, Kay tells us about the journey she took to trace her birth parents. Her journey is a metaphorical and physical one: from Glasgow to Milton Keynes to Aberdeen to Nigeria and back again, to the forked roads and the roads not taken and the long winding roads. Emotionally, the journey is a difficult one, and Kay doesn’t take the easy route. At an important stage of the story, she ignores advice and chooses to travel to her father’s village of Ukpor by road instead of flying. After the dangerous twelve-hour journey Kay’s journey ends with her finding her imagined red-dust road, and more:
The road welcomes me; it is benevolent, warm, friendly, accepting and for now it feels enough, the red, red of it, the vivid green against it, the long and winding red-dust road.
But it’s not just a search for genealogy, as the blood imagery of the red-dust road might suggest; it’s the search for a greater truth:
“This question fascinates me,” I say, leaning forward in my chair to be closer to him. “Nature or nurture?”
Throughout the book Kay indulges us with humorous, touching anecdotes about being a black adopted child with white parents in Scotland during the 60’s and 70’s, as well as her experience of being pregnant, and family, secrets, memories and religion, but it falls short of delving into the deepest recesses of her private life. I craved an insight into her sexual identity and personal relationships, particularly with Carole Anne Duffy to which she provides only one heart-breaking insight (“she didn’t love me anymore”). But the exclusion of the ‘juicy details’ only makes it clear that Kay doesn’t define herself by her sexuality or her relationships. And why should she, kiss-and-tell isn’t exactly her style.
Before reading Red Dust Road, Kay’s life story was one I already knew, albeit a bit vaguely. The detailed insight was captivating, and the non-chronological, disjointed narrative was the kind of thing I had expected to see (and it worked!), but the story alone wasn’t what kept me gripped. It was Jackie’s likability and honesty that made me read on: she is naïve, terrible with money and too trusting by her own admission, and she openly shares with the reader some of her lowest points:
I remember Kinberleys astonished and hurt face when I joined in with the others and called her Chinky. To this day, that memory shames me more than any other.
But what is most striking is her ability to turn every negative into a positive. Sometimes too often as she undeservedly makes excuses for, and defends the actions of others.
Her unique writing style and use of imagery carries the story, and it is so beautifully written that I had to remind myself that this was a book about her LIFE and not her latest novel. The story is a testament to her adoptive parents: Kay answers her own question of nature or nurture without REALLY answering it.
As a rule, I don’t read biographies or autobiographies. I’m not much interested in reading about other peoples’ lives, but surprisingly the end left me hanging for a wee bit more, I wasn’t quite ready to be kicked out of her life, and so in a matter of coincidence I will be seeing her this year at Glasgow’s Aye Write festival.