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The SRB Interview: Jackie Kay – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Jackie Kay

March 21, 2016 | by SRB

Opening one of Jackie Kay’s books is like walking into a busy metropolitan bar that has accommodated within its walls the deep past, character and charm of a country pub. You know you will encounter stories comic and sad, that you will never leave thirsty, and that the mind will feel renewed with the spirit, musicality and colour of life.

Kay was born in Edinburgh in 1961 to a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother. She was adopted at birth by Helen and John Kay, who lived, and still live, in Bishopbriggs, Glasgow. Helen was a primary school teacher who was also secretary of the Scottish peace movement and John worked full time for The Communist Party. When Kay was pregnant with her son Matthew she started a search for her birth parents, and this long experience, along with her Scottish upbringing, is recounted in her memoir Red Dust Road (2010). Kay’s writing style is as varied and vivid as her life, and her ability to inhabit voices and capture them on the page was demonstrated in her first poetry collection, The Adoption Papers (1991). It incorporated themes still prevalent in her work today: ‘what is identity? Is identity a shifting, fluid thing? How much are we made up by genes, and how much by stories? How much is it possible to escape the constraints of our own DNA and invent ourselves? How much does love define us, and make things possible? Does being loved change the shape of your face, or change the look in your eyes, or change your voice, or your body?’

Kay’s output is too prolific to give but a précis. Her second poetry book, Other Lovers (1993), explored the impact of colonialism and slavery on black culture, and it was a topic she returned to in her play The Lamplighter (2008). She has a written a sequence of poems about Bessie Smith, and she also wrote a biographical portrait of the great blues singer, which was published in 1997. Jazz and blues have been a lifelong love, and her novel Trumpet (1998), republished this year as a Picador classic, is about a jazz musician called Joss Moody. Upon his death, the trumpet player is found to have been a woman, and the novel refracts Moody’s life through the lens of those who knew him and the media eye. Kay’s short story collections include Why Don’t You Stop Talking (2002) and Reality, Reality (2012). Her most recent poetry collections are Fiere (2011) and the pamphlet The Empathetic Store, published in 2015 by Mariscat Press. In progress is a new novel, Bystander.

Kay has lived in Manchester for the last twenty years, although she has said ‘in my mind I also live in Scotland’, and frequently is at home in Glasgow seeing her parents. Nick Major met Kay in HOME, a new arts centre and theatre space near Manchester’s old industrial centre. They sat in the upstairs restaurant beside tall glass windows that afforded a view of the sun. The room was baked in a heat that defied the cold winter’s day outside. They had a long afternoon lunch, punctuated with coffee to keep the mind fresh. The clatter of other lives, other lunches, was all around them. Small in stature, large in mind, she was wearing a red jumper that matched the city’s prevailing colour, and two silver discs hung from her ears, shimmering in the light. Kay is a fast talker, and often spoke in long looping sentences that circled every subject, always prodding and poking at it in a search for a newer, clearer understanding. As this edition of the Scottish Review of Books went to press she was appointed our new Makar.

The Scottish Review of Books: You’ve lived in Manchester for many years now, but do you still think of Glasgow as home?

Jackie Kay: I think of Glasgow as my home in the many ways that a person can think of a home. My parents live in exactly the same house I grew up in. Nobody’s been in that house except our family. It’s a Lawrence house. But Glasgow as a city is a spiritual home, and I love the robust energy of the place and all the contradictions. It’s a city of doubles and amazing contrasts. It often gets less attention because Edinburgh is like a beautiful twin sister, but Glasgow is beautiful in its own different way. It is a city that can still surprise you; you can keep getting to know it because it keeps on changing.

How has it changed since your youth?

The river has changed. The ships that used to sail the river have gone and the cruise ships are not there anymore. The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders has gone, which was a big part of Glasgow. An industrial part of Glasgow has come and gone, and in its place have come all sorts of new and magnificent buildings down by the River Clyde: The Armadillo, the new BBC, the Glasgow Science Centre, the whole Quay area. But mostly Glasgow’s image of itself, the conversation it has with itself, has changed really dramatically over the course of my lifetime. It used to be a place some people were embarrassed to say they were from. Down in England, when you said you were from Glasgow, people would say, ‘isn’t it violent, scary, dangerous?’ All the buildings were really dark until they were all cleaned and the beautiful sandstone revealed. It’s gone from being that 1970s dark Glasgow into a new millennium and it has had a facelift. It’s become more culturally mixed than it was, and particularly if you’re in the West End, you see a bigger mix of people. Glasgow is still a city with a huge heart and a big sense of humour, a city that can shoulder tragedy with great dignity, that manages to bring people together, and it’s still a very political, vibrant city.

Your parents were very active communists. What was it like growing up in such a political household? 

For me it was a lot of fun. It was exciting. There were lots of people who came to stay from different parts of the world. You would come down in the morning and there would be different bodies on the floor or on the sofa. There would be Party socials in the house where people would sing songs and recite poems. It was a very social upbringing. We went out to the theatre, and saw all of 7:84’s plays, and Wildcat’s plays, we went to the opera, and to poetry readings at The Highland Institute. We went on loads of demonstrations. It was like the year had a calendar to it, beginning with the Burns supper, and ending with the Morning Star Bazaar every Christmas, and in between there was the May Day Rally, the Miners’ Gala down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, anti-Apartheid marches and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches, and Upper-Clyde Shipbuilders rallies, where I would meet the two Jimmies, Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid. They would admire my red trouser suit and say, ‘nice colour comrade’, and this was when I was ten! My dad stood for the Communist Party candidate in the Gorbals so I would go canvassing with him, knocking on doors.

How old were you then?

I was quite young really. I remember somebody at one time being quite horrible at the door, and saying: ‘do you even know what this is?’ They just shouted in my face and it was upsetting. It really went in because I thought: ‘do I know what this is, and do I agree with it?’ I joined the Young Communist League when I was fourteen and left when I was sixteen or seventeen.

Why did you leave?

I didn’t think they were feminist enough. After a while it didn’t feel like it was me anymore. I felt like I had grown in a different direction. I was still political, and I still had affinities with it, but I didn’t want to belong to any particular party. I didn’t think any party totally encompassed all of my beliefs, and I still feel like that to some extent. I’m not a member of any one political party.

But politics is still very important to you?

Yes, I’m still very politically engaged and I support different organisations, like Justice, Liberty, the Gatwick Detainees Group and the Scottish Refugee Council, and I support literature and libraries, from the Scottish Poetry Library to the Glasgow Women’s Library and the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.

In your memoir, Red Dust Road, your parents seem to nurture your political beliefs and help you stand up for what you believe in. They don’t constrain you or indoctrinate you, which might reinforce an image of communists some people have.

It’s an image that comes across in recent memoirs from David Aaronovitch and Alexei Sayle. I don’t recognise the communist upbringing they describe. I was allowed to celebrate Christmas! For me, my parents enabled me, and I wouldn’t be sat here if it wasn’t for them. I feel like they opened doors rather than pushed me through them, and I didn’t feel indoctrinated. I don’t think I would be so strong-willed had I been constrained!

One of the epigraphs in Red Dust Road is taken from a William Faulkner novel: ‘the past is not past’. Your parents are great raconteurs, recalling the stories in their lives, and you wrote that ‘for my parents their past is their future’. Does the idea of stories being alive help you as a writer?

I remember Toni Morrison once saying: ‘there’s more future in the past than there is in the future’. I like the idea that stories are active, that if you stepped on them they would become alive, like plants, and that the same memory can grow new shoots and flowers, and can change over the course of people’s lives. It’s a massive privilege to be with these parents who are now 85 and 90 and who have been married over sixty years. They’ve shared stories all that time, and reinforce each other’s memory. Although they are very different people, they have a shared mind, like a shared pot they’re eating from which keeps replenishing itself with flavour. I think that’s an amazing thing for memory, and a kind of memory booster for the old! But it’s also amazing that stories are made. It’s not so much that this happened and then that happened, but how you perceive what happened, and how that’s told. For me, being told stories was part of my life. I was told a story about myself: my father came from Nigeria; my mother came from the highlands; they were betrothed; they were in love. It all turned out to be a story. I don’t think any of it was exactly true, but it didn’t really matter. The good intent was there, and the kindness. I think of a story as something you can pass down, like blood or genes. Family mythologies are as important as family heirlooms, and they become part of a family’s identity.

You wrote that ‘the story of your own adoption seems like…the story of a fictional character’. Does it ever feel like the world conspired to make you a writer?

I think so. A writer is someone creative, [and writing is] something that involves stepping into someone else’s shoes, and it means you have to think about other people and how they interact. My dad says: ‘you could have been anything!’ Recently I have been nursing my mum and being in some ways like a carer as well as a daughter for them. I have quite a flair for being able to stay calm in the moment and deal with medical crises. I think of a writer as being several jobs all at once. We often have a medical empathy, and an empathy with people who are on the margins, or on the borders, or those who might have mental or physical health problems. Writers are often architects or gardeners, or people who are interested in the land and the seasons, and they are often cooks. There are poet doctors, like Dannie Abse and Chekhov. I find it interesting that every job you do has a shadow job and that there is another thing that lies under it to which we are also drawn. At the moment part of me likes engaging socially with the world, and sometimes it doesn’t feel enough to just be writing my novel. Sometimes I think: who would I rather be? The person who sat and finished the chapter, or the person who was there when [they were] needed? I am currently Chancellor of the University of Salford and I find that role an inspiring challenge.

When you were in your twenties you were a hospital porter. Was doing odd jobs how you survived as a young writer?

Yes. I couldn’t make a living just from writing. I did all sorts of different jobs. I worked for a children’s centre, for a publisher, and as a driver for a kids’ minibus. Hospitals are intense places for writers. Lucia Berlin’s stories are partly so rich because she also worked in hospitals. I think the ideal writer would also be a worker in a different job because you then have two worlds to draw from. If you’re just in your head all the time, and you’re not mixing with other people, and not seeing the difficulties that other people have, then you’re only relying mainly on memory and imagination, and that can narrow what you write about. Because our world is changing so much there are fewer books about ordinary jobs, books like [James Kelman’s] The Busconductor Hines.

In Red Dust Road you tell of a motorcycle accident which ‘made you write’. Do you think that close proximity to death was a catalyst for your writing life? 

I think the acknowledgement of the closeness of life to death is often the catapult that makes a writer write. Writers have often been created during a period of illness; it gives you another way of seeing time. A brush with death is sobering and can make you value life in a different way, particularly if it comes when you are young. It is almost as if you write to assert that you’re alive. You write to come into a consciousness that death could have annihilated. Perhaps being close to death gives you an empathy with the darker side and introduces you to an imaginative world that is quite different. You see at once how things could have turned out. Loss of one kind or another is our uncomfortable companion through life. Often writers have the black dog clicking at their heels, but often it’s something more subtle: there might be a darker consciousness to what it is you want to say. There is something in writing which is a call to the void, and I think that’s why people get such comfort and solace from reading. A reader is never truly alone. When you’re reading a book or a writer you love there is a feeling that you’re known and profoundly understood. There is a call and response between reader and writer that is timely and timeless. I do think that the accident had a massive effect on me! I don’t think the sense of having death close by has really ever left me. I couldn’t walk for a year and a half and it changed me physically. I suddenly went from being a sprinter, training four days a week, to being laid up. Some of that was brilliant because I read a lot and I took writing more seriously. It was something I could do.

Do you have a writing routine?

It fascinates me that we are so obsessed by writers’ routines. I love reading about other writer’s routines. We think the routine might hold the magic key to the formula for a masterpiece! Even people who don’t write want to know about writers’ routines. I am happiest when I am in a proper routine, so that would be to get up in the morning, have breakfast and start writing early, and write for three to four hours, and then break and read over the work I’ve done in the afternoon. I find that you need different routines for poetry than you do for prose. For long pieces of prose – not necessarily short stories – the more you don’t veer from your routine the better. Long prose almost wants you to stay static, wants you in the cellar or the attic, and wants you not to be on trains, not to be moving about the place. Whereas poetry is more portable, and the same with a story: you can contain a whole story in your head whilst you’re getting on and off a train. But poetry is less biddable than prose. So sitting down at a desk and saying: it’s ten o’clock in the morning and I’m going to write poetry for three hours is not so attractive. The routines are different depending on the form. I’m in a poetry phase of writing at the moment because my life demands that, and I find that poetry’s my old friend. It will come with me wherever I go and adjust to my conditions, like a faithful dog.

Some of your stories in Reality, Reality are about people who are often forgotten in society. Graham Swift once said he felt a duty to tell ‘the stories that don’t get told’. Do you feel the same way? 

I really do feel like that. Graham Swift spoke for the people of the fens, the marshlands and flatlands, and the mystery of that landscape. I think what writers often do is give voice to the voiceless. The voice might be a piece of land, or it could be an island or a kind of person who has been ignored, or whose story has not been properly told. I do feel like I’m drawn to creating characters whose stories are not familiar. Toni Morrison said she wrote the books she wanted to read. I feel like that.

When did you first read Toni Morrison?

I came across her really quite young, before many people were reading her. She published her first book, The Bluest Eye, when she was 48. I came across it in 1979 and after that I caught up with what she’d written and then read books as they came out, and still do. When she wrote Beloved she became a worldwide name: 124 was spiteful. Baby Suggs is amazing. So is Macon ‘Milkman’ Dead in Song of Solomon, who is still breastfeeding in his forties! The thing about Toni Morrison is that she can make you believe in anything. You can have a character like Sula, who has no navel, and you believe that, even though it’s impossible. That’s another part of the writer’s job: to make the impossible possible, and to make you live alongside those strange characters like people in your life. The characters you really love become beloveds, and they are dear to you.

Many of your poems owe a debt to folk songs and the blues you first listened to when quite young. Do you think those rhythms were imprinted in your mind from an early age? 

Perhaps those rhythms are just in me through growing up in a house of song. Some of them might have just been in me before then. You just don’t know what’s in you and what’s not. Poems are musical. A poem is not a song and we could debate for ages about what the difference is between a poem and a song, and that debate to me is a bit academic because what often draws people to a poem is its music: its particular arrangement, its cadences, its rhythms, its syntax, its repetitions, its use of stanzas and turns. But all these forms, whether the sonnet or lyric form, have echoes with musical forms. A twelve-bar blues will echo a sonnet because there’s a turn at the end, and it has a similar structure, and there is great freedom to be found in that structure. When I started writing – unless I was writing about black people – I couldn’t find a way of expressing my colour on the page because my voice is very Scottish, so I used a lot of blues forms and mixed them up with Scottish forms to create a blues-black voice or a Scottish-blues voice. I still haven’t done that to the extent I’d really like to. I’m struggling to find a voice that is unifying. There has to be a way linguistically of finding a voice that captures your own complexities. I envy writers that are half-Jamaican and half-English and who grew up with parents who already have that syntax and language to use, [but] I didn’t have any black people growing up around me – no Nigerian blethers, no Jamaican patois.

Your poems switch quite effortlessly between Scots and English. How do you know which voice to write in?

It depends on the poem. There is a poem in my new collection called ‘The Lang Promise’. I wanted to write a love poem that was an eventuality poem, like an ‘If’ but not a corny, Kipling ‘If’. Then that old Scots voice – ‘whether the weather be dreich or fair, my love/ if guid times greet us, or we hae tae face the wurst’ – came to me, and that voice was robustly Scottish, and the same with [the poem] ‘Fiere’. Sometimes I’ll be struggling to find a voice for what I’m writing, so it varies, and one poem doesn’t help the writing of another. It’s not cycling or swimming: with a poem it’s different. You might have a basic facility with language but your confidence can be attacked and you ask yourself: can I write at all? And I think that’s a disease that affects writers the most.


It’s different from writer’s block, or perhaps writer’s block can be broadened to include a writer’s form of extreme doubt, like a condition? I know so many writers that have that, where they are actually shooting themselves in the foot.

It seems odd that you should want to find one voice. Some poems – ‘Between the Dee and Don’ for example – seem to suggest that there is a freedom to be found living within different voices or different identities. 

I think it would be interesting if I could find a voice that didn’t have to make lots of choices. A voice that combined old Scots myth and say the Harlem Renaissance. A voice that found a home. I’m talking not about an accented voice, I’m talking about a voice that’s not embodied. I think that’s quite an interesting thing: that you might actually struggle to find a voicelessness, but in that voicelessness you find something that is just you. All writing’s a struggle to find a unique voice.

Is it difficult to write in Scots whilst living in Manchester?

You don’t need to live in Scotland to be Scottish, to have the language, to have a Scottish heart and a Scottish sensibility. If anything it can heighten those senses. A huge number of Scottish people live outside Scotland and those people cling on to a sense of being Scottish, sometimes in a more ardent and fevered way than you do if you’re living in Scotland. A lot of writers write more vividly about the place they are from by being outside it – James Joyce did, James Baldwin did – and lots of writers wrote about their societies from a slightly different angle. But I am there nearly half of the year so I get topped up. I’ve never fallen out of love with the way Glaswegians talk, with the way my mum and dad talk, and for me that’s bread and butter. But I like listening to how people talk in Manchester or in Salford. I like the voices of people, and their syntax, word orders and rhythms, and their particular vocabulary.

We were talking about the blues earlier. You wrote a book about Bessie Smith and there is a sequence of Bessie Smith poems in your book Other Lovers. Why are you so drawn to this particular singer?

I was given a double album by my dad when I was twelve, so she was an early love. She had a raw unplugged voice that pulled you right down to a place you’d never actually been, almost to an underground country. She was very different to what my friends were listening to in Bishopbriggs. They were listening to David Cassidy, Donny Osmond, and David Essex – it was all about the Davids in those days! I had one really good friend who was into jazz and dancing. She used to come over and my dad would put the armchairs aside in the wee living room and it would be transformed into a dance floor, and they’d get down and jive. My dad’s a really brilliant dancer, and a singer. He’s a jazz fanatic and he introduced me to loads of jazz, [but] Bessie was the first person he played me who I felt I had to have. Then I grew really fascinated by the stories the blues told. They were stories of murder, depression, drowning, broken-hearts. There didn’t seem anything that the blues didn’t include, and I was always fascinated by what went on behind closed doors. To me the blues was like knowing what went on behind those doors. Bessie just shone to me, and I started to imagine her alive. At one point she was the richest black woman in America, and because she got so fed up with Jim Crow segregation she got her own yellow Pullman train car. She would arrive at the station and they’d say: Bessie Smith’s in town! So that seemed pretty fantastic. I read a biography of her at fourteen, and it described these sexual relationships she had with women, and I was just starting to think about that then, so she was like a role model, although an unlikely role model that ate pig’s feet and roared at people.

In The Empathetic Store there is a poem called ‘Extinction’, which uses humour to undermine certain political ideas about immigration. Why do you find humour useful when writing a political poem? 

If you think of what a writer’s canvas might be, then humour is definitely a strong thing to play with. For me, tragedy and comedy live very closely together. They walk together on a narrow edge. Often people will find themselves laughing inappropriately, or laughing in situations that are truly morbid, and often people might feel joyful in situations that are very dark, so we are all full of Whitman-like multitudes and contradictions. If you’re writing a political poem humour is useful because whilst the reader is laughing you can slip in the wee knife. So it’s a writerly weapon and one way of disarming people. It’s also just the way I am. I’m a mixture of the joyful and the not so, and I think that’s quite Scottish, that Jekyll and Hyde mix. The theme of doubles runs through a lot of Scottish literature, and one double would definitely be comedy and tragedy.

In the same collection there is a series called ‘The Ardtornish Quintet’. The landscape seems like a place you have known in the past. 

I’d never been there but you’re right in the sense that I saw the landscape from a different angle because I’d been to the Isle of Mull and to that quite iconic ruin at Ardtornish Point – you can see that on the ferry from Oban to Craignure and Lochaline. Peninsulas and islands feel similar and they have particular identities. Even more so with peninsulas really. They are the bisexuals of land because they owe something to the land and something to the sea, and they see themselves as quite distinct! I loved it at Ardtornish: some landscapes you already have an affinity with.

In Red Dust Road you recall the joy of driving around the Scottish highlands. Do you miss living so close to the Scottish landscape?

I think landscape exists largely in your imagination, even when you’re in it. The land itself triggers off something within us, which can be quite deep, so I don’t need to be in it to have it. I have it in my mind and I carry it with me.

Your work returns to roads again and again, and it reminds me of Edward Thomas, who wrote about how roads are shaped by human feet over time, and how you can disappear into the road, and lose yourself. For example, in your poem ‘The Imaginary Road’ your footsteps are on a path before you’ve walked along it.

Roads are physical and metaphorical. We think of them as two things at once, roads we walk along with our feet and ones we travel in our minds, destinations we set ourselves, and things we need to learn on our road through life. There are roads that we have only imagined, and there are the forks in the road, and the roads you might have taken had it not been for this eventuality or that one. I’m really glad I didn’t go down the other road, I’m happy mine was the one less travelled by, but still the other road runs alongside, the low road or the by-way. The shadow life, the shadow road. There is something disquieting and at the same time exhilarating about that, the breath-taking road you might have missed.

You’re working on a new novel called Bystander. Can you give an intimation of what it is about?

Not really. In a way summaries of novels always sound a little silly or reductive, or too easily won. But I am interested in the ways in which people are active or passive about the things they are forced to witness…and whether the times we live in have made us into bystanders in our own lives.

Is it difficult to return to the novel form after so long?

For me, writing a novel is akin to having a long illness! I find it physically and mentally tough. It is probably the form that I find the hardest but at the same time I love it because of all the art forms the novel is the one that’s probably the most social, the most capacious, even though it requires you to be the most anti-social. It is a form that will expand and adapt itself to anything you’re thinking about. The trick is to think what to keep out! The novel can be a great big pot of soup, or a ‘loose baggy monster’. It is probably one of the most philosophical of forms, and yet it has to wear its thinking quite lightly.

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