What you need to know:
- The verses Kay reads are derived from her numerous poetry collections like Bantam, Other Lovers and Life Mask.
- She transports the crowd as she switches accents sounding, now Nigerian, now Scottish, and then British.
Fairway Hotel in Kampala is silent on the rainy May evening that Jackie Kay, Scottish poet and novelist, stands to read her poetry.
The Uganda International Writers Conference has just ended, but most of the delegates are still here.
In fact, the crowd seems larger than it was during the day as Kay churns out anecdote after anecdote, explaining the inspiration behind each poem she reads.
There is the funny tale of the stranger on a train who stared at her then shouted, “Igbo nose”, way before Kay set out to seek her birth father, and another tale of how shrapnel was found in her grandfather’s arm long after the world war had ended.
The verses Kay reads are derived from her numerous poetry collections like Bantam, Other Lovers and Life Mask.
The poems are sad, funny and warm, rich in metaphors and overflowing with love, laughter, identity questions and (not) belonging.
She transports the crowd as she switches accents sounding, now Nigerian, now Scottish, and then British.
Yet Kay’s warm and friendly demeanour camouflages something important, that she is a woman of many accolades: Scots Makar — Scottish poet laureate, acclaimed writer with more than 10 titles to her name, professor of creative writing and university chancellor.
Born in a mother-and-baby home in Edinburgh to a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother, Kay was immediately adopted by a couple in Glasgow, who loved her so much that she didn’t bother to find out her biological parents until many years later.
As a kid, she wanted to be an actress as she enjoyed acting, telling stories and making things up.
“I used to go to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama twice a week for children’s classes, they were free at the time. I’d then go for auditions but I never seemed to get a part. One day this woman said to me, 'You’re really good, dear. You’re just the wrong colour,' and I realised I wouldn’t get any part at all because they didn’t have parts then for kids of my colour.
I decided from then on that I had to write parts for kids of my colour. That was one of my first impulses to write.’’
This incident and other racist encounters contributed immensely to Kay’s decision to become a writer.
In a harsh world, Kay’s imagination became a sanctuary and survival tool. “I was beaten up a lot and so I would go home and write poems of revenge. I soon realised that inside my imagination, I was quite strong. My imagination was rich and it could transport me somewhere else. Suddenly, I didn’t have to be this kid that was beaten up and had mud shoved in their eyes.”
The unpleasant encounters also influenced the subject matter of her poems and Kay admits that even as a child, she used to tackle heavy subjects like racism, apartheid and poverty. Her first poem was published in a paper when she was only 12, and it was about poverty in Glasgow.
Clearly, growing up in a very political household that went on anti-apartheid matches and wrote Christmas cards to Mandela made her develop interest in the outside world. Inevitably, her first book of poetry, The Adoption Papers, deals with issues of identity, race, gender and sexuality.
In 2016, Kay was selected as the Scots Makar, an appointment that she terms a great honour and one that sees her write poems on all sorts of subjects, ranging from homelessness to refugees and even women’s golf.
This position also makes Kay travel around the country and the world in an effort to introduce more people to poetry and to create more opportunities for younger poets.
By the time she is done with her five-year term as Makar, Kay is expected to have created a new poetic map of Scotland — The Makar’s Map. This project is already underway and she is working on a very large anthology involving old, young, professional and even unprofessional poets to put together 500 different voices that give readers a sense of what Scotland is like.
How, then, does Kay ensure that her poetry speaks to everybody and maintains generational interest across all age groups? “If the word feels alive and authentic to me, if they surprise me and I don’t know what is going to happen next, then I have to trust it will surprise my readers too. If, however, my prose feels dead and dull and I feel like it hasn’t got that spark, it goes into the bin. I only publish what I’m happy with.”
The reader of Kay’s work cannot miss to notice the humour interwoven into her verses. Even as mood, subject and settings shift to dark ones full of sombre moments, she still manages to effortlessly lace the experiences with humour. This, she says, is due to her belief that tragedy and comedy live very closely together.
“I think that often, when people are challenged like when suffering bereavement, sudden changes or heartbreaks, they need to step outside themselves in order to survive. One of the ways of stepping outside is to see the humour.
If they can find humour in a situation they’ll survive it better because humour is a survival tool that can be profound and deep. Interestingly, we require just as much depth to laugh and in our thinking processes as we do to cry.”
True to her word, the 57-year-old writer employs a great deal of humour in her 2010 memoir Red Dust Road. In the first chapter, she narrates about the first meeting with her Nigerian biological father in Abuja.
“I was invited to go to Nigeria as a writer by the British Council and I thought that once in Nigeria I should find him. Years earlier when I was pregnant with my son, I found my birth mother but it was a difficult experience that put me off trying to find my father. So while in Nigeria, I tried to find him. At first he denied he was my father and then when he realised I knew too much, he agreed to meet.”
Kay then goes on to describe how upon setting eyes on her, her father plucked his Bible from a plastic bag and started twirling, dancing and clapping his hands above his head singing, “Oh God almighty, Oh God almighty”. At that point, it occurred to her that her father was a religious fanatic who saw her as his past sin. Narrating the event to her adoptive mother made her see the humour in an experience she describes as traumatic, upsetting and emotional.
“Mother started laughing and kicking her legs, then I realised how funny it was. Later, when I actually started to write it, I too realised it was funny. Making that encounter funny allows my readers to feel more than if I employ a sort of self-pitying tone. I find it really important as a writer to leave enough space for my readers to come in with their emotions, worries, thoughts, concerns, memories, similar experiences and tragedies. Humour is the door that allows them to do that.”
If she was to have dinner with four dead writers, Kay says she would choose Audrey Lorde, the African-American poet who was a friend of hers and a great influence on her; and 19th century novelist George Eliot, because of Elliot’s philosophy and because Middlemarch is one of her favourite books. Lastly, she would pick the witty and wonderful Oscar Wilde and Robert Burns, who was also Scotland’s national poet.
Currently chancellor of the University of Salford and professor of creative writing at Newcastle University, Kay is not convinced that a degree in creative writing is necessary for one to write. Instead, she believes that what writers should do is to read a lot.
“Creative writing classes can’t teach talent, they can teach you to be better, to develop writing practice and routine, editing and structure. They can also give you a lot of feedback, and that’s very important for a writer, but really, the basic business of writing is solitary and even if you’re going for creative writing classes, you still have to do the work on your own.”
On the writing life, Kay believes that every author ought to embrace the fact that writing is a very solitary profession with two sides — the public self and a private self. She believes that once writers becomes well known, they have to learn to deal with the public self that involves taking selfies and signing books, after which they must turn down the noise, go away to find themselves, focus and go back to the work.
In her parting shot on the importance of keeping old languages alive through poetry, Kay had this to say: “It’s very important that we keep our old languages alive through poetry because poetry is a button passed down through the ages and centuries, from one tongue to another tongue, from one time to another time.”
Tongues change, idioms change and languages change, so it’s important as well to remember the old tongues.
I write some of my poems in old Scotts, some in current Glaswegian dialect, some in Standard English and some using Igbo expressions and Nigerian accents. I like to try and write multi-voiced poetry that give a range of voices that go into making me who I am but also to keep some of these languages alive.
I think small languages all over the world have been oppressed, stamped upon and sometimes wiped out altogether and then big languages come and take over, just like when an army occupies a country but if we allow our languages to be taken over then who are we?
How do we remember ourselves if we can’t remember our language?’’