Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay
27th Feb 2012
I didn’t associate her with nonfiction, but when I started studying memoirs this year, Kay’s Red Dust Road was increasingly pressed upon me by enthusiastic readers.
Now that I’ve read it myself, I understand this almost religious zeal: The book is a delight. It tells the story of Kay’s search to find and get to know her birth parents, interspersed with a memoir of her childhood in Glasgow.
Born in 1961 to a young Scotswoman and a visiting Nigerian student, adopted by warm-hearted parents who raised her within a large circle of friends, her coming of age was not without its difficulties, which are dealt with bravely and unstintingly.
Kay’s writing is remarkably personable, almost conversational. It is pleasantly spare and unadorned with lyrical embroidery.
Addressed so directly, the reader can’t help but feel like a friend. I was right there with her as she puzzled over her skin colour as a child, or struggled to reconcile the way she always imagined her birth parents with Elizabeth and Jonathan, the two difficult characters she tracks down as an adult.
It’s funny, too. This could so easily, in lesser hands, have become worthy, wholesome stuff – but thankfully Kay has a sense of humour about herself, and events that might be played as maudlin elsewhere are related with a light hand.
Real life is (as we know) so much stranger than fiction, and Kay has biological parents who are almost ideally unsuited to the storybook birth parent reunion scene of your imagination.
Her first meetings with her skittish, intensely religious mother are painfully awkward and her attempts to get to know her father, a self-important professor in Lagos, are downright agonising at times.
One passage in particular, where she has to endure hours of prayer before being permitted to talk with her father, whom she has flown to Nigeria to meet, is both excruciating and hilarious, as is another, where she has to field his questions about lesbians’ sex lives. You feel her frustration and bewilderment – how can this man be my father? – while you admire her for enduring it all so gamely.
I finished this book more than a little bit in love with Kay’s charming, no-nonsense parents, who gave her a childhood as loving as it was unconventional. Active socialists and trade unionists who adopted Kay and her brother in a time and place where cross-race adoptions were rare, they are understandably ambivalent about her need to find her birth parents, but are clearly willing to support their daughter wherever her search takes her.
In the end, Kay finds her own ragtag kind of closure, and emerges with a renewed love for the parents who raised her and the place she comes from. And she has acquired other gifts on her journey – new siblings, and awareness of her Igbo heritage, which has clearly added a new seam of rootedness and inspiration to her life. Her mother’s response to Kay’s story about her first meeting with Jonathan sums up the book nicely: “What a scream. What an absolute scream. See your life. You couldn’t make it up.”
Recommended for: Memoir lovers, adoptees and their families, and fans of Kay’s other writing who are curious about her life.