Jackie Kay at the London Literature Festival

12th Jul 2010

Jackie Kay at the London Literature Festival

Last night, I went to see Jackie Kay read from her recently-released memoir Red Dust Road at the London Literature Festival. I’d heard her talk before, years ago in a hectic but brilliant fortnight of stage-managing at the Ilkley Literature Festival. But before then, I have to confess I was slow to clamber aboard the Jackie Kay bandwagon.

In fact, I’ll admit my first introduction to her was in song lyrics by anarchic musical duo Jean Genet, who I knocked about with at uni. The chorus went like this: What does he study? English Lit. What does that mean? He must suck dick!” But one of the verses was along the lines of: “She’s reading Jeanette Winterson, she’s thumbing Jackie Kay. Come on girl, you’ve gotta be gay.” Now, by then I was already besotted by Jeanette, but having grown up distrustful and cynical about all things poetic, I hadn’t come across Jackie before. But, by putting her in the same sentence as Jeanette, my interest was piqued.

And there a lot of similarities between them, besides their sexuality. Both grew up in working-class households, with adoptive parents. But Jackie’s experiences with her adoptive family were far happier than Jeanette’s, and she describes Red Dust Road as a love-letter to her adoptive parents, fiercely affectionate Glaswegian socialists, as well as the story of her search for and reunion with both her birth parents.

An extract she read at last night’s event described her first meeting with her birth father, a religious zealot who launched into a two-hour sermon as soon as they had been introduced, during which “pages of the Bible were flying around the room like hummingbirds.” He claimed God had watched over Jackie during her journey to Nigeria, saying: “Don’t even bother with your hotel safe while you’re here. God will protect you.”

In a reading which swung between being at times hilarious and at other times disquieting, Jackie related her birth father’s enthusiasm when I found out she was a writer: “Think of the people you could convert,” he said, which Jackie followed with a modest aside about “twelve people in Milton Keynes library on a rainy Thursday.” They also had a surreal conversation about Jackie’s sexuality. You wouldn’t think a father’s first question when meeting a long-lost daughter would be about how they satisfy their sex drive, but nevertheless, he was fascinated when he found out she is a lesbian, asking for all the lurid details. Jackie was understandably mortified that “the preacher man wanted a sermon on lesbian sex!” However, once they had discussed it in depth, he claimed to be pleased, saying: “God doesn’t mind women. It’s the men he minds. The men who wear frocks.” (This was later revealed to be a comment about gay clergy, rather than transvestites, as Jackie apparently first thought.)

As always, Jackie is a joy to listen to: intelligent, eloquent, warm and upbeat. She laughs a lot, and smiles even more, answering questions from the audience with kindness and empathy. The questions focused around themes of identity and family, as well as the reasons why writing a memoir can be tricky, and the intertwined relationship between comedy and tragedy when tackling uncomfortable and upsetting subjects (“Comedy and tragedy live in the same house,” she said. “They share bedrooms. Maybe bunk-beds”). I had a wonderful time, and after the extracts I heard yesterday, I’ll definitely be adding Red Dust Road to my wish list.

If you want do the same, the hardback edition is out now, for £10.89 from Amazon.

Post by Jane Bradley