The story of Jackie Kay’s life is as fascinating and complex as her literary works. The comparison is significant because several of Kay’s pieces spring from her biography and they are all concerned with the intricate nature of identity. Kay’s father was a black Nigerian visiting Edinburgh when he met Kay’s white Scottish mother. After he returned to Nigeria, the mother discovered she was pregnant and decided to give up the child. Kay was then adopted by a white Glaswegian couple with a strong commitment to radical politics. As Kay grew up she also began to identify herself as lesbian. Graduating with a degree in English from the University of Stirling in 1983, she became Writer-in-residence at Hammersmith, London from 1989 through 1991. In 1988 she gave birth to her son Matthew. After moving from Glasgow and living in London, Kay relocated to the Manchester suburb of West Didsbury, where she lives with the poet Carol Ann Duffy.
None of this should imply that Kay’s literature is solely autobiographical. While she herself could be considered an identity politics poster child, Kay’s writings reject easy platitudes and challenge readers to reject normative ideas of racial, sexual, and national identity. Although a poem like “The Adoption Papers” clearly stems from her autobiography, Kay uses biography as a starting ground from which to explore the broader conditions of multicultural Britain and identity in general. Rather than a narrow exploration of one unique life, Kay’s work has the power to challenge her readers’ expectations about the relation of self to other. Yet even as Kay’s work discomforts, it allows many voices to speak in a way that builds empathy and understanding for characters however different they may seem.
In the poems “So You Think I Am a Mule?” (1984) and “In my country” (1993), Kay illustrates her preoccupation with identity as a site of contestation. In both poems a black female speaker is confronted by a white woman who asks, “Where do you come from?” In “In my country” the response is simply, “Here. These parts” (p 24). In “So You Think I Am a Mule?” the speaker answers, “I’m from Glasgow”, but the white woman persists by asking where her parents are from (“Glasgow and Fife” p 202), finally insisting, “Ah, but you’re not pure”. The white woman of the poems cannot imagine that a black person could also be Scottish. What these poems reveal is not just racism, but the inability of people to understand the intricate, hybrid nature of identity. Kay’s work exposes the intersections of nation and race that define so much of Black British literature and British racism. She attempts to show again and again in her work that identity is always at a crossroads of nation, race, gender, sexuality, and class, and that no person bears the privilege of being more pure than an other. Moreover, Kay’s characters do not suffer from identity crises for being Black and Scottish, adopted (The Adoption Papers), or transgendered (Trumpet). Rather it is the characters troubled by the identities of others they do not understand who suffer the identity crises. In a sense, Kay normalizes the different while questioning the sureties of the norm.
Kay’s literary output also proves her to be a writer of diverse forms. Although she has frequently written in several genres at the same time, her oeuvre follows a chronological path from drama to poetry to fiction. Her first dramatic works, Chiaroscuro in 1986 (originally The Meeting Place) and Twice Over in 1989, were written for the Gay Sweatshop. Since then she has written the play Twilight Shift (1994), the TV drama Hidden Fears (1988), and the multi-media, poetic documentary Twice Through the Heart (1992, also serving as the libretto for the opera by Conor Murphy in 1997).
While trying to establish herself as a playwright, Kay became widely known instead for The Adoption Papers (1991), a collection of poetry that won the Scottish Arts Council Book award, Eric Gregory award, Saltire First Book of the Year award, and the Forward Prize. Written between 1980 and 1990, it possesses a clear dramatic quality. This is especially true of the long title poem. Performed for BBC Radio 3 in 1990, “The Adoption Papers” is a twenty-five page piece written for three voices, making use of distinct typography to distinguish the voice of a daughter, her birth mother, and her adoptive mother. Across ten chapters, the poem moves forward in time while interweaving the three voices. Throughout, the poem addresses motherhood, race, and the identity of those involved in adoption. By using three voices, the poem foregrounds the importance of perspective, so that the reader sees how adoption affects the three figures in significantly different ways. The birth mother expresses the pain of giving up a child and of the regret that remains. The adoptive mother articulates her anguish of not being able to give birth and states her frustration with the racism she meets from raising a Black child in predominately white Glasgow. For instance, the adoptive mother finds it difficult to find a child, until she confesses,
Just as we were going out the door
I said oh you know we don’t mind the colour.
Just like that, the waiting was over (p 14).
There are touching passages when she stands up for her child when she is called “Sambo” and “Dirty Darkie” at school. Finally, the daughter conveys the questioning of self undergone by the adopted.
The use of multiple voices in “The Adoption Papers” produces a powerful effect, generating empathy for all the characters even as, or because their identities are shown to be uncertain, constantly changing, and often dependent upon the perspectives of others. For example, the adoptive mother is anxious to hide signs of her radicalism, her Marxism, and work for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, lest the adopting agency regard them as the marks of unfit parents. Meanwhile the birth mother wrestles with her thoughts about destroying the unwanted child. Most prominent are the ruminations of the daughter and adoptive mother as they ponder what counts as a “real mammy” (p 21). As the daughter experiences doubts about who she is, the mother must wonder if the process of adoption makes her a true mother.
In the end, though, neither the daughter nor the adoptive mother feel they are less legitimate because of the process of adoption. The poem emphasizes the idea that the birth tie is not a condition of authenticity. As the adoptive mother puts it, “all this umbilical knot business is nonsense” (p 23). As the title of the poem indicates, identity can largely be a matter of paperwork, of what is found on paper not in the flesh. The birth mother signs away her role as mother – “my name signed on a dotted line” (p 17) – and the daughter only gets to know her through a trail of paperwork. The adoptive mother also realizes: “I’m not a mother / until I’ve signed that piece of paper” (p 16).
All of this raises questions about how one determines identity: are we who are because of the conditions of our birth and natural lineage, or are we made in the discourses of society? In the words of the adoptive mother: “a few genes, blood, a birth. / All this bother, certificates, papers” (p 20).
Through these questions Kay establishes adoption not only as an overt theme – the special subject of the adopted – but as a metaphor for identity in general. In Kay’s work identity is never a given; adoption opens up the idea that identity is uncertain and in flux, but also something that does not have to remain the way it may naturally seem. Identity is regarded as a process of choices characters make about themselves, usually in reaction to the ideas and perceptions of others. The discussion of race is of particular interest here. Even as race and racism are shown to have real effects, the poem shows race to be a matter of social perception not skin and biology. Because of the differences in race, the adoptive parents feel there is no reason to hide the truth of the daughter’s origins, thereby making family a choice and cultivated creation, rather than a given. In one of the more fascinating moments of the poem, the daughter discusses a poster on her bedroom wall of African-American activist Angela Davis, given to her by her parents. While they are passing on their passion for radical politics, she is confronted with her first mirror of
the only female person
I’ve seen (except for a nurse on TV)
who looks like me (p 27).
The biological, social, and textual all merge in the attempt to manufacture and understand identity.
Kay’s work, like Angela Carter’s brand of feminist fiction, never allows her readers any easy answers. “The Adoption Papers” defends the idea that identity is constructed, but it also presents the daughter’s strong desire “to know my blood” (p 29). The dialectic of essentialism and constructivism is pushed even further in the poem “Pride” (1998). In this poem, the speaker is on a train heading out of Euston station, when she sees a black man
staring into my face,
as if he had always been there,
as if he and I went a long way back (pp 2-4).
Examining her, he identifies her as Ibo. Her African origin is found in her face, and then written into her body:
There was a moment when
my whole face changed into a map,
and the stranger on the train
located even the name
of my village in Nigeria
in the lower part of my jaw (pp 34-39).
She asks him to tell her about her people, and as he tells her, she is filled with pride as she locates herself in this clan (as she has only seen Scots do). The poem takes a turn, however, in the final couplet: “When I looked up, the black man had gone. / Only my own face startled me in the dark train window” (pp 89-90). The stranger was never there; she has been staring at her own reflection, fantasizing the whole exchange. Racial identity is regarded here as a creation of desire and fantasy, something imagined and projected, yet which has real effects and strong import for one’s own notion of self.
The Adoption Papers was followed by two other collections of poetry, Other Lovers in 1993, winner of the Somerset Maugham award, and Off Colour in 1998, as well as four books of verse for children, Two’s Company in 1992 (with Shirley Tourret), which won the Signal Poetry Award, Three Has Gone in 1994, The Frog Who Dreamed She Was an Opera Singer in 1998 (with Sue Williams), and Five Finger-piglets in 1999 (with Brian Patten, Roger McGough, Carol Ann Duffy, Gareth Owen, and Peter Bailey). She also wrote a poetic biography of blues singer Bessie Smith in 1997. After establishing herself as a poet in the early 1990s, Kay then made her mark by turning to fiction. Her novel Trumpet (1998) drew international interest, and won the Author’s Club First Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize. She has since compiled a short-story collection, Why Don’t You Stop Talking in 2002 and a children’s book The Straw Girl, also in 2002.
If Kay’s first collection of poetry bore the signs of her work as a dramatist in its use of multiple voices, Kay’s first novel bears the fruit of both her poetic and dramatic sensibilities. Like “The Adoption Papers”, Trumpet foregrounds the voices of individual characters to highlight their unique perspectives. In this way the structure of the novel resembles William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Graham Swift’s Last Orders. The novel begins after the death of jazz trumpeter, Joss Moody. It examines the reactions of several characters to the revelation that Joss’ body is identified by medical authorities as female, even though almost everyone recognized him in life as male. Kay’s story owes some allegiance to the true story of American country musician Billy Tipton, who worked and lived as a man, but who was later classified as a woman. Kay’s novel, however, transforms this premise by exporting it to Britain and having gender and sexual constructions intersect with race and nationality.
By using multiple voices, Kay allows the reader to see how Joss’ identity is made and remade in the minds of the people around him. The most prominent voices are Millie, Joss’ white wife, their son Colman, and the tabloid journalist Sophie Stones, but the reader also hears from a doctor, registrar, funeral director, house cleaner, a childhood friend, and a bandmate. The conglomeration of these perspectives opens up a battle over who Joss was. While Millie and the bandmate insist on remembering Joss as the person they knew and loved, others demand an exposure of the “lie” Joss lived. Colman expresses his rage that everything he has known about himself and his father has unravelled. Yet it is significant that Colman is adopted (a fact he always knew); identity, for him, was always questionable. Sophie Stones is the most insistent upon exposing Joss and Millie, demanding a confession that reveals gender certainty. Yet much is made of her desire to wear a power suit to make her feel masculine in a man’s world of success. Despite herself, Sophie proves the principles of Joss’s life. For Joss, clothes literally make the man. More than biology, it is the social fabric of clothes that shape the identity of the body.
The imaginary construction of identity is true of race and nationality as well as gender and sexuality, for Joss also makes claims to be Black and Scots. Joss Moody’s earliest hit song is called “Fantasy Africa”, and the title captures the essential message of the book: “Every black person has a fantasy Africa, he’d say. Black British people, Black Americans, Black Caribbeans, they all have a fantasy Africa. It is all in the head” (p 34). It is significant that Joss is a jazz musician as the form requires improvisation and constant construction and reconstruction: “He looked real enough playing that horn in those smoky clubs; he looked real and unreal like a fantasy of himself. All jazz men are fantasies of themselves, reinventing the Counts and Dukes and Armstrongs, imitating them” (p 190).
Identity, the novel insists, must be invented and reinvented. For instance, all of the characters have invented names – Joss was once Josephine, but Millie was once Millicent, and Colman’s name was given after his adoption – and Millie finds her self transformed after Joss’ death, both in how she feels and how others perceive her.
When Colman begins to question the “realness” of his father, he also begins to question Joss’ claims to Scottishness. Yet nationality is neither essential nor empirical; it is as Benedict Anderson has famously put it, an “imagined community”. Moreover, Colman and Joss are products of “mixed race” relations. This is a significant, but subtle component of the novel. No one questions whether either character is really black, or demands certainty as to what they really are – black or white. Yet this is precisely what is demanded in terms of Joss’s sexed body. The novel also begins with a red herring of sorts when Millie tells of her first meetings with Joss. The controversy seems at first to be about inter-racial relationships, but this is quickly offset by Joss’s bodily “revelations” to Millie. By beginning this way, Kay has the reader question why certain taboos or issues bear the weight they do, and why certain forms of identity seem more or less certain than others.
Like Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashoman, Trumpet allows the reader to hear from numerous characters who are questing for a truth, but the location of truth remains uncertain, unknowable – even when we hear, briefly, the voice of the dead; a letter from Joss fails to fix the truth. The important voices here finally emphasize that identity is not what we are born with but what we decide to make it – a manifestation of our desires. Identity is a “Fantasy Africa” – a self, racial, gendered, and national, that is a matter of fantasmatic confirmation.
Where the dialogic form and multi-voice perspective distinguishes Kay’s most important works, Why Don’t You Stop Talking, Kay’s first collection of short stories, is marked instead by its use of first-person narratives. Whether the stories address a fear of dying (“Shark! Shark!”) or jealousy of a partner’s child (“Big Milk”), each story is permeated by a mood of loneliness, in which the narrators feel disconnected from the people around them, even the ones they care the most about. In the title story, a large woman who talks obsessively and bluntly expresses the alienation she experiences from everyone because of her size and her insistent attempt to communicate. This feeling of loss and alienation builds on Kay’s body of work and her ruminations on identity. The multiple voices of Trumpet and “The Adoption Papers” show how much a character’s sense of identity is shaped by the lenses of how others see him or her. The stories of Why Don’t You Stop Talking, on the other hand, accentuate a concern found, but less pronounced, in the earlier works: characters may be forged by the perspectives and ideas of other people, but in the end other people can never really get to know them. Trumpet and “The Adoption Papers” share a community of voices, but the recent stories emphasize the great loneliness and the great distance between us all.
Jackie Kay’s work offers a remarkable set of literary tools for contemplating the complexity of identity. Race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and class are markers that help people situate us, but they mostly block our ability to communicate and get to know each other, especially because of the reductive and simple notions people have of these markers. As much as we may resist, we are still made in the eyes of others. Kay’s work expresses a deep desire to allow for more complex pictures of identity and a hope that such an understanding may lead to greater acceptance of difference and to greater acts of communication and connection.
Citation: Paddy, David Ian. "Jackie Kay". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 11 December 2002 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5158, accessed 24 May 2022.]