Kay, Jackie 1961–
Jackie Kay 1961–
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. Kay’s 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.
Kay’s 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 wasn’t easy for a biracial child in mostly–white Glasgow. “I still have Scottish people asking me where I’m from,” she told Guardian writer Libby Brooks. “They won’t actually hear my voice, because they’re 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.”
When Kay was twelve, she wrote One Person, Two Names, an eighty–page story about an African–American 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 half–hour 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 London’s Soho Polytechnic in 1986. A second play, Twice Over, was produced in Sheffield, Bradford, Bristol, and San Francisco.
Kay’s 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; Writer–in–residence, Hammersmith, London, 1989–91; 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 Two’s Company 1993; Somerset Maugham Award for Other Lovers; Guardian Award for Fiction, 1998, and Lambda Literary Award, Science Fiction/Fantasy, for Trumpet, 2000.
Addresses: Home—Manchester, 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.
Kay’s 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 Kay’s 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, Kay’s 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 Colour’s 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.
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 it’s often asked of a lesbian writer.” Many of Kay’s works confront issues around gender identity. Her award–winning 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 Mooody’s 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 Moody’s 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, “Kay’s imaging of this difference in Moody’s hidden gender begs another question—that ultimately Moody’s 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 love—rough and lyrical, simple and sophisticated—with 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] Millie’s and [adopted son] Colman’s 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 Don’t 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 Kay’s trademark themes of mixed–race identity, adoption, and lesbian relationships. “Kay’s 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 childhood—my past—comes swimming back. I like to keep the conversation open between myself as an adult and myself as a child. When I am creating children’s characters, the gap between childhood and adulthood doesn’t seem all that large.” Kay has published two collections of poems for children and has recently completed her first children’s 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 Duffy’s daughter. “It’s not easy,” she commented to Brooke. “We don’t live in a society where it’s 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. It’s the classic catch–22—yes, I’m black, yes, I’m gay, but does that define everything I write? No, it doesn’t.”
Everyday Matters 2 (novel), 1984.
Stepping Out (novel), 1986.
Chiaroscuro (play), 1986.
Twice Over (play), 1989.
The Adoption Papers, Bloodaxe Books, 1991.
Two’s 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 Don’t 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, www.sbu.ac.uk
Kay, Jackie 1961–
Kay, Jackie 1961–
(Jacqueline Margaret Kay)
PERSONAL: Born November 9, 1961, in Edinburgh, Scotland; partner of Carol Ann Duffy (a poet), since 1999; children: one son. Education: University of Stirling, B.A. (with honors), 1983.
ADDRESSES: Home—25 Macefin Ave., Manchester M21 7QQ, England. Office—School of English Literature, Language, and Linguistics, Percy Building, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, England. Agent—Pat Kavanagh, Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, 503/4 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, London SW10 OXF, England. E-mail—[email protected].
CAREER: Poet and playwright. Writer-in-residence, Hammersmith, London, England, 1989–91; Wingfield Arts, Suffolk, England, poet-in-the-schools; University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, instructor.
AWARDS, HONORS: Eric Gregory Award, 1991; Scottish Arts Council Book Award, and Saltire First Book of the Year Award, both 1991, and Forward Prize, 1992, all for The Adoption Papers; Signal Poetry Award, 1993, for Two's Company, 1999, for The Frog Who Dreamed She Was an Opera Singer; Somerset Maugham Award, 1994, for Other Lovers; London Guardian Fiction Prize, 1998, and Authors' Club First Novel Award, and IMPAC Dublin Literary Award shortlist, both 2000, both for Trumpet; Cholmondeley Award, 2003.
Two's Company (poetry), illustrated by Shirley Tourret, Puffin (London, England), 1992.
Three Has Gone (poetry), illustrated by Jody Winger, Blackie Children's Books (London, England), 1994.
The Frog Who Dreamed She Was an Opera Singer, Bloomsbury Children's (London, England), 1998.
Strawgirl, Macmillan Children's (London, England), 2002.
Number Parade: Number Poems from 0-100, illustrated by Jo Brown, LDA, 2002.
Chiaroscuro, Methuen (London, England), 1986.
The Adoption Papers, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1991.
That Distance Apart (chapbook), Turret (London, England), 1991.
Other Lovers, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1993.
Christian Sanderson: A Poem, illustrations by Peter Arkle, Prospero Poets (Alton, England), 1996.
Off Colour, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1998.
Sick Bag, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1998.
Life Mask, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 2005.
(Author of libretto) Once through the Heart (opera), produced by English National Opera, 1991.
Bessie Smith (biography), Absolute (Bath, England), 1997.
Trumpet (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1998.
Why Don't You Stop Talking (short stories), Picador (London, England), 2002.
Also author of material for television and radio. Contributor of plays to anthologies, including Lesbian Plays, edited by Jill Davis, 1987; Gay Sweatshop: Four Plays and a Company, edited by Philip Osment, Methuen Drama (London, England), 1989; and International Connections: New Plays for Young People, Faber & Faber (London, England), 2003. Contributor of poems to anthologies, including A Dangerous Knowing: Four Black Women Poets, Sheba, 1983; and Penguin Modern Poets, Volume 8: Jackie Kay, Merle Collins, Grace Nichols, Penguin, 1996; and to periodicals Artrage and Feminist Review. Short stories included in anthologies Everyday Matters 2, 1984, and Stepping Out, 1986.
SIDELIGHTS: The writing of Scottish-born poet Jackie Kay has been praised for the unique qualities it gains due to the rich influences of Kay's background and life experiences. Kay, who writes in both the Scots dialect and in standard English, is also a black woman; she was adopted as a child by Caucasian parents and grew up in a predominantly white community. Kay's lesbianism also influences her work for adults, which consists of plays, fiction, and poetry. The award-winning poetry collection The Adoption Papers, for example, includes a ten-poem sequence describing Kay's search for her birth mother from three perspectives: that of the poet as a child, that of Kay's biological mother, and that of her adoptive mother.
Kay's highly praised poetry for children includes the collections Two's Company, Three Has Gone, and the award-winning The Frog Who Dreamed She Was an Opera Singer. In her works for younger readers she takes on serious topic such as racism, but filters these childhood experience through a gentle lens, tempering her characteristic thoughtful and meaningful approach with an uplifting view. In addition to her poetry and plays, Kay is the author of several works of fiction, including the adult novel Trumpet, a collection of short fiction, and the children's novel Strawgirl. Reflecting her love of blues music, she has also penned a well-received biography of American blues singer Bessie Smith. In 2003 Kay received the prestigious Cholmondeley Award.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Kay grew up in the city of Glasgow; she discovered her love for poetry through the works of celebrated eighteenth-century Scots poet Robert Burns. After earning an honours degree in English at Stirling University, she moved to England and embarked upon a career as a writer for the theater as well as for television and radio. At a time of rising feminist consciousness, her plays were popular with women's theater groups, and she contributed poems and short stories to several anthologies and magazines. Discussing Kay's first published poetry collection, The Adoption Papers, Booklist reviewer Pat Monaghan claimed that the work "should become a feminist classic." The volume, which is noted for the poet's use of rhythm and sound, also includes poems about death, including dying of AIDS; about gay love; and about life in Great Britain under the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Kay's second collection of poetry for adults, Other Lovers, was also praised for its use of language. In this work, Kay includes memories of the racism directed at her as a child, as well as a poem written from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old girl.
In her poetry collections for children Kay focuses on experiences important to her young audience and draws on many of the subjects and issues that she addresses in her adult works. Her writing for young people contains at its heart a sensitive child's developing perceptions of the people and society that exists around her. In her first collection for children, Two's Company, Kay uses blank verse to express a variety of childhood experiences, from the pain of divorce to the joys of travel. Imaginary friends are the subject of several poems, some of which are narrated by Carla, a girl whose parents have separated and who is trying to muster her customary spirit. Two's Company was praised as "a brilliant debut in writing for children" by Morag Styles in Books for Keeps, the critic adding: "There is plenty of fun, pain too, lyrical moments, compassion, but absolutely no sentimentality (the great fault of so many who attempt to write for the young)."
In Three Have Gone Kay's subjects range from a Gaelic dog who refuses to speak English to childhood betrayal and guilt and the joys and difficulties of living within a family. Writing in Junior Bookshelf, D.A. Young called the volume "an excellent successor to Two's Company, adding that Kay "continues to delight us with childhood memories crisply retold as if they had happened yesterday." "A spirited child with a lively imagination she must have been, and that spirit pervades her work," wrote Judith Nicholls, describing Kay in a review of Three Has Gone for Books for Keeps. The Frog Who Dreamed She Was an Opera Singer is an imaginative collection that features droll characters such as Mr. and Mrs. Lilac, the Sulk Pod, Jimmy Mush, and, of course, the highly imaginative amphibian of the title.
In Strawgirl Kay spins a story about eleven-year-old Molly "Maybe" McPherson who lives in a rural Highland community where she is one of the few people of mixed race. Her innate feistiness when dealing with life—she earned her nickname because she never commits herself to answering a question with "yes" or "no"—and the local bullies is transformed into resilience and perseverance after Maybe's father is killed in a car accident and she must help her grieving mother run the farm and save the property from unscrupulous businessmen hoping to take advantage of the family's tragedy. At harvest time, when the girl's spirits start to sag, a magical doll called Strawgirl suddenly appears, helping Maybe harness her strengths and gain the confidence to deal with the challenges life has given her. Praising the novel's image-filled text in the London Daily Telegraph, Carole Mansur noted that with Strawgirl Kay crafts "a warm and comforting story in which elements of traditional folk myths are yoked to a world recognisable to today's children."
Commenting on the difference between writing for children and adults, Kay told Jean Sprackland in PoetryClass.com: "I don't like writing for children that is 'writing for children.' If it is any good, then adults will like it too. When I create a voice or character, I go through the same process…. When I am writing for children, my own childhood—my past—comes swimming back. I like to keep the conversation open between myself as an adult and myself as a child. When I am creating children's characters, the gap between childhood and adulthood doesn't seem that large."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Poets, sixth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996, pp. 565-566.
Booklist, March 15, 1992, Pat Monaghan, review of The Adoption Papers, p. 1332.
Books for Keeps, November, 1992, p. 23; March, 1993, Morag Styles, review of Two's Company, p. 28; September, 1994, Judith Nicholls, review of Three Has Gone, pp. 20-21.
Books for Your Children, autumn, 1994, p. 28.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), July 12, 2002, Carole Mansur, review of Strawgirl.
Junior Bookshelf, August, 1994, p. 135; February, 1995, D.A. Young, review of Three Has Gone, p. 21.
Library Journal, January, 1999, Lawrence Rungren, review of Trumpet, p. 152; July, 1999, Judy Clarence, review of Off Colour, p. 94; October 1, 1999, review of Trumpet, p. 51.
Publishers Weekly, December 21, 1998, review of Trumpet, p. 50.
School Librarian, May, 1994, p. 70; summer, 1999, review of Off Colour, p. 97; winter, 2002, review of Strawgirl, p. 192.
Times Educational Supplement, February 19, 1993, p. R2; November 11, 1994, p. R7.
Times Literary Supplement, May 22, 1992, p. 30.
World Literature Today, autumn, 1999, reviews of Trumpet, p. 736, and Off Colour, p. 743.
ContemporaryWriters.com, http://www.contemporarywriters.com/ (July 31, 2005), "Jackie Kay."
PoetryClass.com, http://www.poetryclass.com/ (July 31, 2005), Jean Sprackland, interview with Kay.
Writing Scotland Web site, http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/arts/writingscotland/ (July 13, 2005), "Jackie Kay."
Nationality: Scottish. Born: Jacqueline Margaret Kay, Edinburgh, 9 November 1961. Education: University of Stirling, 1979–83, B.A. (honors) in English 1983. Family: One son. Career: Writer-inresidence, Hammersmith, London, 1989–91. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1991; Scottish Arts Council Book award, 1991, Saltire First Book of the Year award, 1991, and Forward prize, 1992, all for The Adoption Papers; Signal Poetry award, 1993, for Two's Company; Somerset Maugham award for Other Lovers.Agent: Pat Kavanagh, Peters Fraser & Dunlop, 503/4 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, London SW10 0XF, England. Address: 20 Townsend Road, London N15 4NT, England.
The Adoption Papers. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1991.
That Distance Apart (chapbook). London, Turret, 1991.
Two's Company (for children). London, Puffin, 1992.
Three Has Gone (for children). London, Blackie Children's, 1994.
Other Lovers. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1993.
The Frog Who Dreamed She Was an Opera Singer (for children). London, Bloomsbury Children's, 1998.
Off Colour. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1998.
Trumpet. London, Picador, and New York, Pantheon, 1998.
Critical Studies: By Peter Forbes, in Poetry Review, 82(4), winter 1993; by C. Beeston, in Critical Survey (Oxford), 6(3), 1994.* * *
Jackie Kay's position in English poetry is perhaps unique, and this is so first of all for external reasons that some of her most forceful poems turn into compelling motifs. She is a Scots poet who speaks and writes with a Scots accent, and she is a black poet who, as a girl growing up in an almost all-white community, had her all too visible difference thrust upon her in a number of wounding remarks. "In my country," for instance, presents through a few carefully chosen phrases the common misgivings of honest local people whose fear of difference is so deep that they would readily burn her as a witch ("her words spliced into bars /of an old wheel"). When she points out that she belongs to the place as much as they do ("Where do you come from? /"Here', I said, "Here. These parts'."), she further unsettles the natives, since they cannot safely dismiss her as a stray creature from some distant country. Similarly, the reference by the tight-mouthed, white-uniformed nurse to her "thick lip"—while she cries for her mother's "soft lips"—compounds the bodily pain of an open fracture with the worse wound of insulting dismissal.
These poems are from Kay's second collection, Other Lovers, and they echo chapter 7 ("Black Bottom") in the earlier The Adoption Papers, in which the daughter and her adoptive mother recall instances of patent unfairness and racialism, such as other children's jeering or the teacher's teasing when the girl cannot dance in step ("I thought /you people had it in your blood"). The sequence, which is fairly straightforwardly autobiographical, is a long poem printed in different types for three voices—adoptive mother, daughter, and birth mother. It is remarkable for dramatic vividness and humor, particularly in those parts in which we listen to the adoptive mother, the one the girl would call "Mum," the one whose inflections and idiosyncracies the poet knows. The birth mother's voice, however, is more a reconstructed synthesis and does not have the same ring of intimate acquaintance.
There is great openness, at times even a certain stridency, in the seventeen poems attached to The Adoption Papers sequence. A number of them are about dying, at least one about dying of AIDS; some are about homosexual love, at least one about the love binding a white girl to a black girl, both of whom grew up in Africa and now live in London. The opening poem, "Severe Gale 8," is a five-part sequence about the Thatcher years in Britain, an era of increasingly unshackled private capitalism. It is also a terrible and yet hopeful fairy tale and in its way a protest song in the tradition of "We Shall Overcome" or of the nineteenth-century French weavers' song "Les Canuts." Four of the poem's five parts begin with the clause "There was no bread" and proceed to describe aspects of the extreme and only slightly exaggerated impoverishment of the many who live in cardboard cities, who wait "perhaps one year" for an urgent medical appointment, and who face irretrievable overdrafts thanks to easy credit. In the final stanza the children, whom their mothers have had to "throw out into the wind," float away to places (some now unlikely) where they find a sense of justice that they bring back to the triumphantly marching people. "I try my absolute best" is a hilarious piece on a mother's helpless and foundering attempts at feeding her children properly. As she discovers that the various healthful procedures she had trusted to be foolproof are actually flawed in one way or another, she eventually gives in, is "back on Valium," and lets her kids "[stuff] Monster Munch /and Mars bars down them":
I says it's your pocket money.
Do what you want with it.
On the whole I find that there is greater confidence both in Kay's skill at impersonation and in her use of rhythm and sounds in the later Other Lovers. Occasionally her handling of rhymes is brilliant, sometimes underscored by the haunting repetition of lines. In the short poem "Inside" first the lines "Inside I'd say don't please" and "Grit my teeth. Bite the pillow" and then the line "My own heart, broken like bones" are repeated. The bones sadly chime with the impossible wish that sorrow should leave her alone, and sorrow numbly echoes in the bitten pillow, the threatening shadow on the wall, and the deepening hollow in her heart.
The physical anguish of absence is prominent in a number of poems, such as "The Day," "This Long Night," "The Keeper," "Away from You," "The Crossing," and, for me probably the best, "Dusting the Phone." The last is conversational and witty while torn with longing ("Your voice /disappears into my lonely cotton sheets. //I am trapped in it. I can't move … Come on, damn you, ring me. Or else. what? //I don't know what"). The six sections of the poem called "Other Lovers" take the addressee, who is "I" only in the first section, when "you" and "I" were still "we," through the heartbreak of separating until she emerges to "a whole new life."
A poem like "Watching People Sing," shot through with the yearning of a sixteen-year-old, is a tribute to communal conviviality. "Colouring In," by contrast, is the disillusioned attempt to retrieve a lost genuineness in a place where the flames of the fire are "now [turned] down by numbers" and the protest marches—as well as the several known shops of her childhood—are smothered by McDonald's "garish red and yellow." The last line of the poem awkwardly, almost despairingly, insists on the reality of a remembered experience when a painted egg rolled to the bottom of a hill, "where it did smash, it did, and you were happy, you were."
Broken bones and broken hearts are a recurring theme sounded in the first poem of the collection, "Even the trees." This piece, which takes the whipping to death of a slave as its starting point, launches a sequence on Bessie Smith and blues singing: "In the early /light, the delicate bone-light //that broke hearts, a song swept from field to field," "a blue song in the beat of her heart." At the end of this first poem, as indeed at the end of the last one, which also is set on a plantation, we find the anguished statement that "everything that's happened once could happen again." Horror repeats itself, albeit on a small scale, in present-day Germany with the torching of guest workers' settlements. In "Gastarbeiter" the image of a shroud is suggested by the woman's job in a textile factory ("the long swathes /of material long enough to wrap /twice around the dead; a close family"). Here, ominously, the stars are "the shapes of swastika."
"Sign" is one of the poems in which Kay protests against the erasing of other people's severalty, in this case of the right of a girl to use sign language. Along with all dissident, discordant, minority languages, her way of expressing herself, branded as "no language at all," is steamrolled by "the big one, better tongue":
They say her voice is very strange.
They tie her hands behind her back.
They say repeat after me until
she has no language at all.
Kay will not be reduced to the common tongue. She holds on to her particular English and her way of using it. She, too, is "a songster, making music," and through most of her writing she joins in songs of remembrance and commemoration.
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.
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 man—but 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 validity—they 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.
KAY, Jackie. (Jacqueline Margaret). Scottish, b. 1961. Genres: Poetry. Career: Writer. Writer-in-residence, Hammersmith, London, 1989-91. Publications: Poetry: The Adoption Papers, 1991; That Distance Apart (chapbook), 1991; Two's Company (for children), 1992; Three Has Gone (for children), 1994; Other Lovers, 1993; Bessie, 1997; Trumpet, 1998; Off Colour 1998; The Frog Who Dreamed She Was An Opera Singer, 1998. Address: c/o PFD, Drury House, 34-43 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HA, England.