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Kay, Jackie 1961–

Jackie Kay 1961


Unconventional Upbringing

Early Works Explored Identity

The Multiplicity of What I Am

Selected Writings


British writer Jackie Kay has won acclaim for work that questions assumptions about personal and cultural identity. Her poetry, fiction, and plays, which have won numerous awards, examine issues of race and ethnicity, family, gender, and cultural belonging and exclusion. Kays achievements, according to Lesley McDowell in Times Literary Supplement, confirm her place as one of [the] most notable and challenging writers working in Britain today.

Unconventional Upbringing

Kays fascination with themes of identity can be traced to an upbringing that set her apart, in many ways, from the majority culture in her native Scotland. Born in Edinburgh to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, she was adopted by a white family and raised in Glasgow, where she often accompanied her communist parents to antiapartheid demonstrations and peace rallies. Life wasnt easy for a biracial child in mostlywhite Glasgow. I still have Scottish people asking me where Im from, she told Guardian writer Libby Brooks. They wont actually hear my voice, because theyre too busy seeing my face.

Books offered the young Kay a way to cope creatively with the pressures of her childhood. She cited the Anne of Green Gables and the Famous Five series as particular favorites from her early years. In addition she wrote wonderful stories and poems of her own. The most healthy thing you can have [as a child] is an active and vibrant imagination, because it allows you to carry out all sorts of things without ever actually doing them, she commented to Brooks. If I got called names, I could go away and write a poem about some terrible revenge. Your imagination can allow you to survive in a completely different way.

Early Works Explored Identity

When Kay was twelve, she wrote One Person, Two Names, an eightypage story about an AfricanAmerican girl who pretended to be white. The question of how we define ourselves, and why, has intrigued Kay in all her subsequent work. After earning a degree in English with honors from Stirling University in 1983, Kay moved to London, working at a series of menial jobs while focusing on her literary career. She published two early novels, Everyday Matters 2 and Stepping Out, before turning her attention to the stage. Her first play, Chiaroscuro, evolved from a halfhour play that Kay was commissioned to write by the Theatre of Black Women in 1985. The final version was performed by the Theatre of Black Women at Londons Soho Polytechnic in 1986. A second play, Twice Over, was produced in Sheffield, Bradford, Bristol, and San Francisco.

Kays breakthrough work, however, was The Adoption Papers, a collection of poems written between 1980 and 1990. In this book, Kay explores issues of adoption from the perspectives of birth mother, adoptive mother, and daughter. The collection was widely praised for its emotional power and authenticity; it was described in Times Literary Supplement as a striking search for identity and in Guardian as a triumphal

At a Glance

Born Jacqueline Margaret Kay on November 9, 1961, in Edinburgh, Scotland; one son. Education: University of Stirling, B.A., 1983.

Career: Writer; Writerinresidence, Hammersmith, London, 198991; Times Educational Supplement, guest poet, 2001.

Awards: Eric Gregory Award, 1991; Scottish Arts Council Book Award, 1991, for The Adoption Papers; Saltire First Book of the Year Award, 1991, for The Adoption Papers; Forward prize, for The Adoption Papers, 1992; Signal Poetry Award, for Twos Company 1993; Somerset Maugham Award for Other Lovers; Guardian Award for Fiction, 1998, and Lambda Literary Award, Science Fiction/Fantasy, for Trumpet, 2000.

Addresses: HomeManchester, England. Agent Pat Kavanagh, Peters Fraser & Dunlop, 503/4 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, London SW10 OXF, England.

debut. The Adoption Papers was broadcast as part of the Drama Now series on BBC Radio 3, and won a Scottish Arts Council Award, a Saltire Award, and a Forward Award.

Kays second collection of poems, Other Lovers, also received critical praise. In this collection, Kay again dealt with identity and relatedness, as well as race and romantic love. Among its notable poems are several that refer to the American blues singer Bessie Smith, who, in the words of a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, channel[s] through her voice the history of black oppression. This critic found Kays second collection less willing to deal with risky subject matter, but appreciated its emphasis on the role of language to both communicate and deceive. In a New Statesman and Society review quoted in Contemporary Authors, Peter Forbes commented that the collection is distinguished by bravado ... but also the kind of fierce tenderness you need to animate the timeless love lyric. Other Lovers won a Somerset Maugham Award.

Off Colour, Kays third collection, confronted questions of injustice and abuse, linking this theme with images of disease and violence. Teeth is dedicated to a Jamaican woman, Joy Gardner, who died in police custody. Lesley McDowell in Times Literary Supplement described the poem as an angry burst of a poem which contrasts purity and decay through its use of white and red, silver and grey. The poem Virus Four juxtaposes the names of sexually transmitted diseases against the idea of romantic love articulated in the preceding poem, Love Nest. In another poem, a mother suffers a stroke when her teenage daughter confesses to a lesbian attraction. Despite Off Colours dark themes, however, critics found it an accessible work that conveys not only an awareness of injustice but also the need for community and dialogue.

The Multiplicity of What I Am

Kay has always acknowledged that she wrote directly from her own experience. The personal roots of her work, she said in an interview quoted by McDowell, give her readers a sense of the multiplicity of what I am. At the same time, however, Kay can become exasperated by labeling. I remember doing an interview once, and they just had as the headline Black Lesbian Scottish, she told Brooks. You would never dream of asking a heterosexual writer how being heterosexual affected their writing, yet its often asked of a lesbian writer. Many of Kays works confront issues around gender identity. Her awardwinning novel Trumpet, based on the life of American jazz musician Billy Tipton, is perhaps her most obvious and sustained treatment of the subject to date. Tipton, who died in 1989, was a woman who lived successfully as a man throughout his entire adult life, even keeping the secret from his family and friends. Kay reimagined Tipton as the character Joss Moody, a celebrated black trumpet player from Scotland, whose death reveals that he was in fact a woman. Kay tells Mooodys story from the perspective of those who, in grieving his death, must also confront the implications of his secret. Carol Anshaw, in an Advocate review, suggested that the truly intriguing question in the novel is whether Moodys life as a man has really been a disguise at all: Is gender limited to physicality, she noted, or can it be superseded by desire and reinvention? As McDowell put it in Times Literary Supplement, Kays imaging of this difference in Moodys hidden gender begs another questionthat ultimately Moodys difference is his identity.

Many critics expressed considerable praise for Trumpet. A writer for Publishers Weekly hailed it as a richly evocative narrative, and a contributor to Economist wrote that Ms. Kay takes her readers through the various voices of loverough and lyrical, simple and sophisticatedwith perfect assurance. In New York Times Book Review, Aoibheann Sweeney observed that Kay carefully registers the technical difficulties of transgendered life ... without sensationalizing them, and beautifully evokes both [widow] Millies and [adopted son] Colmans grief. She leaves us with a broad landscape of sweet tolerance and familial love, wondering how it felt to be Joss Moody. Trumpet won the Guardian Prize for fiction as well as a Lambda Literary Award.

Kay followed Trumpet with Why Dont You Stop Talking, a collection of short stories that Times Literary Supplement reviewer Aida Edemariam described as domestic and ordinary in terrain but vertiginous in approach, affording glimpses into frail private worlds which are both familiar and strange. Some pieces, such as Shell and The Woman With Fork and Knife Disorder, convey Kafkaesque surreality; many deal straightforwardly with Kays trademark themes of mixedrace identity, adoption, and lesbian relationships. Kays great strength in this book, according to Guardian reviewer Alex Clark, is to undam a huge reservoir of feeling for her characters while allowing her capricious imagination free rein. Despite the absurd elements in these stories, Clark found them grounded in basic humane values. Edemariam made a similar point, noting that In the end, Kay seems to be saying, what is important is the brave and accurate definition of individual reality; only by acting on that can we get a shot at happiness.

Kay, who wrote poetry for children as well as adults, has enjoyed working on several projects that introduce schoolchildren to creative writing. She found such projects particularly rewarding, and noted that students can produce stunning work when given proper encouragement. In an interview with Jean Sprackland of The Poetry Society, Kay observed that Students who understand the music of poetry will also become better at writing prose. ... Poetry provokes discussion and argument. Poetry inhabits ideas better than any other form. When she writes for children, Kay explained, my own childhoodmy pastcomes swimming back. I like to keep the conversation open between myself as an adult and myself as a child. When I am creating childrens characters, the gap between childhood and adulthood doesnt seem all that large. Kay has published two collections of poems for children and has recently completed her first childrens novel.

After living in London for several years, Kay moved to Manchester, England, where she lives with her son Matthew, her partner, poet Carol Ann Duffy, and Duffys daughter. Its not easy, she commented to Brooke. We dont live in a society where its easy to be a gay mum and pick up your kids from school, or have two of you at parents night.... Hating labels is one thing, but... if we refuse to say what we are, then people wonder what you are hiding. Its the classic catch22yes, Im black, yes, Im gay, but does that define everything I write? No, it doesnt.

Selected Writings

Everyday Matters 2 (novel), 1984.

Stepping Out (novel), 1986.

Chiaroscuro (play), 1986.

Twice Over (play), 1989.

The Adoption Papers, Bloodaxe Books, 1991.

Twos Company, with Shirley Tourret, Puffin Books, 1992.

Other Lovers, Bloodaxe Books, 1993.

Twilight Shift (play), 1993.

Trumpet, Picador, 1998.

Off Colour, Bloodaxe Books, 1998.

Why Dont You Stop Talking, Picador, 2002.



Advocate, March 16, 1999.

Guardian, January 12, 2002; February 2, 2002.

New York Times Book Review, March 14, 1999.

Times Literary Supplement, January 6, 1995; August 21, 1998; October 22, 1999; February 15, 2002.


Contemporary Authors Online, Gale Group, 2001.

Knitting Circle: Poetry,


Elizabeth Shostak

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Kay, Jackie

KAY, Jackie

Nationality: Scottish. Born: Jacqueline Margaret Kay in Edinburgh, Scotland, 9 November 1961. Education: University of Stirling, B.A. 1983. Family: One son. Career: Writer-in-residence, Hammersmith, London, 1989-91. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1991; Scottish Arts Council Book award, 1991; Saltire First Book of the Year award, 1991; Forward prize, 1992; Signal Poetry award, 1993; Somerset Maugham award. Agent: Pat Kavanagh, Peters Fraser & Dunlop, 503/4 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, London SW10 0XF, England. Address: 20 Townsend Road, London N15 4NT, England.



Trumpet. New York, Pantheon, 1998.


That Distance Apart (chapbook). London, Turret, 1991.

The Adoption Papers. Newcastle upon Tyne, England, Bloodaxe, 1991.

Two's Company (for children). London, Puffin, 1992.

Other Lovers. Newcastle upon Tyne, England, Bloodaxe, 1993.

Three Has Gone (for children). London, Blackie Children's, 1994.


Bessie Smith (biography). New York, Absolute, 1997.

Contributor, Stepping Out: Short Stories on Friendships Between Women. New York, Pandora Press, 1986.

Contributor, Lesbian Plays, edited by Jill Davis. New York, Methuen, 1987.

Contributor, Gay Sweatshop: Four Plays and a Company, edited by Philip Osment. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Methuen Drama, 1989.

* * *

Jackie Kay is part of a vibrant literary scene of black British writers who among others include Grace Nichols, Bernadine Evaristo, and David Dabydeen. Unlike most black British writers she has grown up in Scotland and is therefore in the position to craft a new literary language that bears both a "Scottish" and a "black" inflection. Kay published her first novel after establishing herself with three collections of poetry, and her lyrical tone and mature control of language reveal the poet behind the novelist. Kay's novel also connects with her interest in trans-racial adoption, and specifically with her first collection of poetry, The Adoption Papers.

The Trumpet is love story and lament, full of tension and pain. It is loosely influenced by the life of Jazz musician Billy Tipton, whose story is transposed from 1930s America to 1950s Scotland. The black Scottish trumpeter Joss Moody has led life as a manbut in the body of a woman. Only his wife Millie shared this secret, while their adopted son Colman finds out when he sees Moody's body in the funeral parlour. The novel opens with Millie not only having to deal with her personal loss but also fending off the press, which relishes the potential sensationalism of Joss Moody's double life. As the book unfolds, several characters relate their own version of Moody, including his mother, a former school friend, and his drummer "Big Red." Puzzled by the Jazz musician's gender bending, Dr. Krishnamurty reluctantly signs the death certificate. The novel's characters find it difficult to reconcile their former knowledge of Moody with the revelation made upon his death. Indeed, Moody himself could not speak to his wife about his life as a young girl until shortly before his death. Resembling short riffs and solo instruments, these and many other voices are variations of a theme, Moody's life, which is rendered as a piece of jazz.

The stories of those who knew Moody compete with each other for validitythey are not disinterested accounts. Presenting conflicting stories of Moody's life, the novel questions the notion of authenticity. Moody had been a trespasser between reality and performance; by remaining in control of his story for most of his life, he deliberately divided private and public, thereby creating his own identity and effectively inventing himself. The price paid is the exclusion of his son Colman. The novel thereby also addresses the issue of investment into stories. What are they used for, whom do they serve, what is their cost? Colman's case drastically shows that the threat to the recollection of his father is profoundly unsettling: "I don't know any of us any more. He has made us all unreal."

While Millie retreats to a remote coastal village in an attempt to protect her own privacy and her husband's memory, her son's incomprehension and hurt lead him to bond with tabloid journalist Sophie Stone, whose investment in Moody's story is purely commercial. She becomes Colman's ghost-writer, and they travel through England and Scotland together, looking for Moody's acquaintances and family for their bare-all biography. But their research becomes a quest for Colman himself. He traces not his unknown biological parents but his adoptive father, thereby pursuing a partly illusory figure. His father's trumpet resounded with a yearning for the past, with displacement. Colman quests his fantasy father and authors his own memory, his own story, putting himself into his father's lineage.

Mark Stein

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