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Jackie Kay
RED DUST ROAD is very thought-provoking read and must be particularly fascinating for adopted people and adoptive parents – in fact anyone involved in the process of adoption. Do people write to you about it?
Yes, I've received so many touching and moving letters about loss and adoption, letters telling gripping and emotional stories of separations and reunions. It seems the triangle of adoption touches so many people. I've had letters from birth mothers and adoptive mothers and adopted sons and daughters as well as from women who've been brought up with their mother but have not met their African father. I had one extraordinary letter from a woman who said that Red Dust Road had given her the courage to try and find her Nigerian father and she was about to fly there and wanted to let me know. To me, this is the most any writer can hope for: that in reading your story, readers will be reminded of their own, and will tell themselves their own stories in the spaces between the pages.
You write very candidly and movingly in the book about your adoption and meeting your birth parents. Does it worry you in retrospect that you revealed so much of yourself and your relationships?
Good question! I think I thought long and hard before I ever decided to publish the book, so that now that I have done, I don't feel as worried as I did before. I was careful to protect people by changing names and places, and also I thought a lot about what I wouldn't say. Writing memoirs is as much about what you don't say as what you do. But you have to accept that you will feel exposed to some extent and that in being candid you'll feel like there is no place to hide. You can hide in fiction and in poetry to a certain extent, but with memoir there is No Hiding Place. I worried too that the people that I wrote about - my mothers and my fathers and brothers - might also feel exposed; it's tricky when you are writing about people who are alive, and I worried that I might damage precious relationships. But so far, touch wood, the opposite seems to have happened. Sometimes, if you are brave enough to be open about tangled secrets and lies, there's relief in the air from everyone around you. But readers and people I meet at festivals and readings often come and tell me their stories too, as if they feel like they want to offer an exchange, because I've been open to them, and they've taken that personally, and also, pleasingly, as if it is a conversation. So I don't feel like I'm the only one that is revealing a lot!
The other interesting thing is that the book has an ending, but my story doesn't. It keeps changing. So there are always things that I feel I haven't revealed at all since they happened after the book had been published! The worry could be that the book kind of traps you in time, because it's written about a certain period; and things change, you do, and your attitudes to events and people change too, and the book seems to carry your memory in more vivid detail than it might have done had you not written it down...
Your descriptions of Nigeria are wonderful. It must have been an amazing and terrifying adventure to go there to meet you father. What’s your relationship with the country now?
I was astonished - when I found my father's ancestral village - how moved I was by the red dust road there. I did feel like I was returning to somewhere I had never actually been. I felt like I had to take my shoes off and put my bare feet on the road. It was like the land of my imagination met the land of my feet. It made me wonder whether or not the overwhelming sense of recognition that I had for the landscape was in my genes, and whether we carry an affinity for our birth places. I felt something akin to love for the land which was surprising to me, and it also made me feel that the land could welcome me, even if my father didn't. I have really good Nigerian friends too, and so I can't wait till the next time I visit. I imagine I'll visit Nigeria often and make links in other ways. A charity, Amaudo, which works with mental health patients in eastern Nigeria, has made me a patron, and I'll go and visit the village there and think of other ways that I can give something back to Nigeria. I always feel a great rush of excitement being there, and a strange mix of belonging and not belonging. All you ever hear about is the corruption and the violence and the danger, but for me there's a lot more to Nigeria than that.
In your novel TRUMPET, Joss tells the teenage Colman to “Design your own family tree…..” Do you think the world would be a better place if we all took Joss’s advice?
That's an interesting link I hadn't thought of! Colman is frustrated and a bit irritated with Joss's advice! But yes, I think that as a society we are very interested in tracing family trees through biology and genes. But there are other family trees that preoccupy me. My adoptive mum always told my brother and I the story of our adoption, and listening to her tell me stories was one of the things that made me a writer, because she has such a vivid and dramatic way of talking. It seems that the story itself was handed down, and that for my mum and me, stories being passed down are as important as blood and genes. Red Dust Road is really about what makes us who we are, nature, nurture. I think of myself as being made from a mixture of porridge and myth! I think that if I were making a family tree, it would have my adoptive parents on it and their parents too, and it would be more complicated and intricate than the straightforward biological blood line. They say that blood is thicker than water. But for me, I feel very strongly that I belong to my adoptive parents, almost fated to have been with them. So, yes, thinking about your interesting link, I'd have to say it would be a better place the world, if we approached the whole preoccupation with genealogy more imaginatively; and in doing so, we'd provide a clearer picture of the real relationships between people.
We read that TRUMPET was being made into a film (which would be wonderful). Is this still going ahead and are you involved?
Yes, it is still going ahead and hopefully will be wonderful! I'm not going to be writing the script, because I don't want to go back to an old work, and would rather move on to the new, so won't be involved in that very hands-on way, but I will have a say about the casting, and will hopefully have to approve of the script.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm finishing a new collection of stories called Reality, Reality and working on a second novel. Won't say much about the novel because writers are more superstitious than footballers and any kind of synopsis of a novel in progress can sound a bit silly...
Who would you invite to join your fantasy bookgroup?
Depends if I could bring some back from the dead or not? If so, I'd love to hang out with George Eliot, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Robert Burns, Grace Paley, Audre Lorde, Jean Rhys, Carson McCullers, Janet Frame, Chekhov and Bessie Head. If the fantasy book group was able to exercise these special powers I'd have the dead writers one month and these living ones the next: Ali Smith, Nick Drake, Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alice Munro, Fred D'Aguiar, Jhumpa Lahiri, Maura Dooley, Chinua Achebe, Kachi Ozumba and Jo Shapcott.
Jackie Kay

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