Jackie Kay, born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1961 to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, is unabashedly lesbian. Tracing her roots, she eventually met her biological daddy in a hotel room in Abuja. But it was no sweet re-union of father and daughter. Adopted by a white couple at birth and brought up in Glasgow, she studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and Stirling University where she read English, and has over the years garnered a string of awards for her literary exploits, starting with The Adoption Papers (1991), a collection of poetry that deals with an adopted child's search for a cultural identity. Associate Editor, Taiwo Ogundipe
had a chat with her during her recent visit to Nigeria as a resource person at the writers' workshop organized by Farafina Trust in collaboration with Nigeria’s celebrated writer, Chimamanda Adichie.
Let’s have some insight into your family background in the interestingly unconventional but stimulating home setting, as an observer once described it.
I grew up with my mum and dad, a Scottish socialist. My childhood was like a calendar of events. In January we would celebrate Burns’ Day, which is Robert Burns’, the Scottish poet’s birthday. In May, we would do May Day. On New Year Day, we used to sing all kinds of songs. We also used to have political marches. We just had great time. I grew up with a very political understanding of the world and also it was a lot of fun.
Did you grow up to feel any bitterness towards your biological parents for allowing you to be adopted by other parents?
I don’t feel bitterness, because when a woman gives her baby out, it must be a very hard thing to do. I’ve got a baby myself, a 21 year old son. I find it difficult giving him up, I couldn’t have done it.
During your reading on stage a while ago, you talked about the unusual attitude exhibited by your father, who had long been separated from you, during your meeting in an Abuja hotel room. Tell us more about this.
I was a bit shocked at first because he spent the whole time trying to persuade me to move to his church rather than just tell me what it was like meeting my mother, tell me a bit about himself, a bit about his family and a bit about his children. I was expecting that kind of personal conversation. However, he started the conversion with everything about God, and trying to get me to join his denomination of the born again Christian church. That was in a way deeply disturbing to me. He was trying to cleanse me, because he saw me as a sinner. It was traumatic for me although I told it on stage during my reading as a kind of funny story because I like to protect people from such trauma. I think one should always be careful with an audience because people are vulnerable. The experience was deeply upsetting and I did come back to Nigeria the last time, questioning the meaning of everything.
How do you currently feel about the whole thing?
Now I feel a lot better because I have lots of very great Nigerian friends. I have people who have appreciated and welcomed me.
You were quoted somewhere as saying that your initial ambition was to become an actress. How do you think that would have turned out? Were you passionate about it?
I love acting. And I loved the idea because I’ve got a side to my personality that is very extrovert. The interesting thing about being a writer is that you have to be both of an introvert and an extrovert. It’s a kind of Jekyll and Hyde personality in a way. I used to go for auditions for parts but at one time a woman said to me, I am sorry you are very good at acting but you are just the wrong colour. So, I decided I will write. The first thing I ever wrote were plays about black people who came from different countries where I gave them complex characters to play because I was fed up with black people always having one dimensional roles to play.
Do you feel nostalgic about your acting stint?
Yeah, I do, I feel nostalgic about the stage, the red curtain, encore. I did love to be an actress.
The theme of an adopted child searching for cultural identity characterises your first major work, a collection of poetry entitled The Adoption Papers, which seems biographical considering your own life story. Would you say you have found your own identity now and stopped searching?
Yeah, I don’t think I ever stopped when I published it years ago. It’s an ongoing story. It never finishes. Even as I speak the scenes are unfolding about my story, things I just learnt yesterday or the day before. It doesn’t ever finish. It doesn’t have any resolution, and it is a mistake to think that the story has ended. What you can do is to embrace it as an ongoing story and see a positive thing in it. And, I say it is quite an exciting thing to be adopted. You have two sets of parents. You have two potential different lives. It’s a writer’s dream in a lot of ways.
You said you are going to write about your experience up to date.
Yes, it going to come out next year, it is going to be published in May. It is entitled Red Dust Road.
Your first novel, Trumpet is also characterized by a form of identity crisis, which is sexual. It was said to be inspired by the life of a male musician who was discovered to be in fact a woman when he died. What informed this?
I’m fascinated in people who want to shift and take on different identities. And I’m very interested in the fluidity of identity. I am a gay woman myself. I am openly gay and I like being a little bit different, I like being a lesbian. It’s been fun, I found women very attractive. But more than that, I like to imagine myself in the shoes of different people. Being a writer is all about putting yourself in other people’s shoes. That is the first rule of writing. You imagine what are these shoes like? What does it feel like being in them? I find these endlessly fascinating.
A critic once described you as a writer who has moved from being a marginal voice to being a national treasure, do you consider the MBE Award given to you as an affirmation of this?
The MBE is an award from the queen. I had to agonize over it. The award tags one as a member of the British Empire and being Scottish, it is problematic for me politically. But, on the other hand, I know for you to have been put forward for an MBE, there are lots of people in the poetic community that have recommended you and if you refuse it, you will actually be turning down their voice. Actually, you can have a bit more power to do good if you accept such award. So I gave it a lot of thoughts and I decided to accept the award. And I was pleased to get it.
Are you yearning for a similar Nigerian recognition, being your country of paternal origin?
Yes, I would like people to see me as a Nigerian. My mother was Scottish. In Scotland, the country recognizes me as Scottish. In Nigeria the country also recognizes me as Nigerian because I am half Nigerian, half Scottish. Yeah, I’m not going to be an African writer in the way that some writers are African writers because what I write about is limited by my experience. If Nigerians will open their arms to me, I will open my arms to them. In fact, I’ve already opened my arms to Nigeria and I will like Nigeria to open its arms to me. Yesterday, I was at the market and I was telling some guys about going to my father’s village and when I mentioned the name of the village, they exclaimed, "you are my sister, you are my sister". And that was so moving and loving for me because after having been made invisible by a father who would not acknowledge you, it was so very nice to get acknowledgement from other people.
How much of Nigerian writings are you conversant with?
A lot, yeah, one of the poems I have ever read was by Wole Soyinka, Telephone Conversation. It was in school and nobody in the class could understand the meaning of the poem. I understood the poem and people used to ask me in school, "Are you both of the same colour. It was weird but people used to ask me. I understood the poem and it was a kind of revelation to me.
How did you meet Chimamanda?
She was coming to London and I was asked to interview and present her as a guest before a live audience during a programme. I already knew her work. So I just reread it, then I interviewed her. It was quite a close, intimate interview. A lot of people said it was a most-relaxing and open-ended thing. After that, I was asked to do a bit of scripting in Newcastle and I interviewed her there as well. And at one time, we were all in London. We were both so all-together. I mean with Chimamanda - we kind of struck of a chord right away. She’s been an amazingly inspiring person and she’s a very self-possessed young woman. And she’s got an incredible talent. And I think she’s incredibly generous with her talent, which is unusual, because a lot of writers are just in it for themselves. To most, it’s an ego thing. For her to have collaborated with the Farafina Trust in bringing all of us here for this workshop, she’s doing something to help others. I think that’s an incredible thing. I am personally grateful to her for giving me an opportunity to reach the Nigerian audience through the workshop. She’s magical and mysterious. She makes things happen. She’s a treasure we should all be thankful to.
Which of the genres are you most comfortable with?
I just think of myself as a writer. So, whichever book I’m writing, I’m writing my best. I’ve written probably more of poetry. I think probably more people think of me as a poet.
You were also described in one write-up as having a deep love of jazz music. Has music had any influence on your writing?
Yes to an extent. Music represents unsayable things. It speaks to the silences. So, I like the things you can say and the things you can’t say.
How do you motivate yourself to write? What is your writing regime like?
Oh well, I always have a writing regime I mean to stick to but I’m not very disciplined in it.
Do your writings reflect your real life situations?
That comes to me as an interesting question. I am interested in the dichotomy between one thing and the other. And because when you are adopted, you have an imaginary mother and a real mother. And your real mother is actually the adopted mother. So people say to you, how do you know your real mother? You’ll say your real mother is the one that brought me up. So, I think when you are adopted, you question the notion of what makes real and what makes imaginary, what makes fact, what makes fiction, what makes your own country, what makes another country. Where is the border? And to me the interesting things go on in the border between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the real and the strange, the fact and the fiction. That’s back. I’m also a highly imaginative person. I don’t think if I haven’t been brought up in the way I have been, I don’t know if I would have been a writer.
Tell us about your son
He is lovely. He is pursuing a Spanish degree. I imagine he might be a film director or he might go into writing. I don’t know what he’ll do. But whatever he’ll do, he’ll do it well because he’s a young man of credible self-possession. I believe he is going to turn out a more special person than I am. He is 21 years old now.
What is your overall vision? Are you aiming to win the Nobel Prize in future?
(Laughs) No, I’m not hoping for that.
Why? Are you saying winning award is a bad idea like some writers do say?
I don’t know if it’s good or bad but I’m superstitious. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to think about what award I should get. But I’m not really too worried about awards. I’m more worried about if I could find a way to bring into the world the books that I want to bring into the world. It’s a bit like you bring children into the world. And you want these books to be cherished and loved by readers. And readers are more important than any awards. Honestly, they are. So if a reader comes up and presents to me ‘this book’, this means such a lot to me. That’s why I write. I don’t really write to get prizes. If prizes happen, that’s a bonus. It’s not really important in my thinking. I’m not really thinking in advance about that
What do you essentially want to achieve with your writing?
I want to achieve a conversation with my readers, to really get along like we are in a setting with a glass of wine together, intimate, revelatory, where both of us can have a moment of epiphany, where both of us can discover and recognise something that we hadn’t known before, where both of us can be surprised.
OQUNDIPE, Taiwo. In: The Nation. Available in: <http://thenationonlineng.net/web2/articles/26126/1/My-Nigerian-father-ashamed-of-me-says-Scottish-writer-Jackie-Kay/Page1.html> Access: June, 13, 2011.
The Poetry Archive. Available in: < http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/trackListing.do;jsessionid=73E25EAE73BD7C40AC1A104661A0CEEA?poetId=5682> Access: June, 11, 2011.
Contemporary Writers. In: British Council. Available: < http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth54 > Access: June, 11, 2011.
Gender Forum: An Internet Journal for Gender Studies. Available in: < http://www.genderforum.org/no_cache/issues/raceing-questions-iii/the-body-is-a-bloody-battlefield/> Access: June, 13, 2011.