Red Dust Road is the compelling autobiographical account of a woman’s search for her birth parents. The book was chosen by my very small book group, and we meet to talk about it on Wednesday. We will have lots to discuss I think. Not just a hugely compelling memoir, this is a book which raises questions of race, family and belonging.
The story of Jackie Kay’s upbringing and search for her biological parents is not told chronologically – the narrative moves back and forth across the decades, allowing different aspects of the author’s story to be revealed gradually. I enjoyed this non-linear structure, it has the feel of a long, intimate conversation, it definitely adds to the compelling nature of the narrative. The book opens in fact in 2009 with the author meeting her birth father in a hotel in Nigeria. The meeting is related with humour – despite the fact her father is not quite the man she had hoped he would be. From there we return to Jackie’s childhood, in Glasgow, her student days and the beginnings of her search for her identity.
“It is not so much that being black in a white country means that people don’t accept you as, say, Scottish; it is that being black in a white country makes you a stranger to yourself. It is not the foreigner without; it is the foreigner within that is interesting. Every time somebody in your own country asks you where you are from; every time you indignantly reply, ‘I’m from here,’ you are subconsciously caught up in asking that question again and again of yourself, particularly when you are a child.”
Jackie Kay is a poet, novelist and short story writer who grew up in Scotland. As a child watching cowboy and Indian films in her Glasgow home, she was suddenly brought up short, realising that she was the same colour as the Indians (who she wanted to win but who always seemed to lose). This was how she discovered as a seven-year-old that she was adopted. Naturally this was a shocking revelation to a child who had not noticed until then that her skin was a different colour to that of her mother, but her mother Helen handled the revelation with tact and sensitivity and great love. Jackie had been born to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father, and adopted as a baby in 1961. Her older brother Maxi also having Nigerian heritage had been adopted a couple of years earlier.
“My friend Margaret says to me that a lot of people in the Party admire my parents for adopting my brother and me, and that we should be grateful. When I tell my mum this, she’s furious. She says Never Ever let Anyone tell You YOU should be grateful! WE are the ones who are Grateful!”
Their adoptive parents, John and Helen Kay were wonderful parents to both Jackie and her brother – and their relationship comes across beautifully in this book. Jackie was blessed to grow up in a warm and intelligent family environment, secure in their relationships to one another, Jackie was able to look for her birth mother, while relating every step of her emotional journey to the people who were mum and dad. John was a member of the communist party, and once stood as a member of parliament, while Jackie’s mum Helen worked for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
“And no matter how much she loved me, no matter how much my dad loved me, there is still a windy place right at the core of my heart. The windy place is like Wuthering Heights, out on open moors, rugged and wild and free and lonely. The wind rages and batters at the trees. I struggle against the windy place. I sometimes even forget it. But there it is. I am partly defeated by it. You think adoption is a story which has an end. But the point about it is that it has no end. It keeps changing its ending.”
It wasn’t until Jackie was expecting her son, that she decided to go in search of her birth mother – and then much later her Nigerian father. This quest took many years, and took Jackie to a number of places. Her birth mother was from a small town in the Scottish Highlands – and had met Jackie’s biological father in Aberdeen where he was studying at the university. Jackie’s meetings with her biological mother were not straightforward – and in this beautifully written, compelling memoir Jackie recreates their awkward meetings with great understanding and pathos. Over a period of something like twenty years – Jackie and her biological mother met about four times, communicating by letter too in between. Jackie’s birth was a secret that her natural mother was not ready to share with her family. Her journey in understanding her natural parents took to Nairn in the Scottish Highlands, Aberdeen and Milton Keynes, and then naturally in time to Nigeria.
Having met her natural mother, Jackie naturally had curiosity about her biological father – and she started to wonder if she could find him too. In her mind she has a clear image of a red dust road – leading to her ancestral village.
“The road welcomes me; it is benevolent, warm, friendly, accepting and for now it feels enough, the red, red of it, the vivid green against it, the long and winding red-dust road. It doesn’t matter now that my father turned out to be the Wizard of Oz, a smaller man than the one in my head, and a frightened man at that. What matters is that I’ve found my village. Matthew had asked me how I could feel anything for a place without the people, and I’d wondered whether I might feel nothing. But I feel overwhelmed just to be here.”
It is this ancestral village – as much as her natural father – that Jackie goes in search of. She is helped in her quest by a number of friends who support and encourage her, sharing her dream, Jackie is fortunate in her friends.
This is a wonderful memoir, warm and wise, it is suffused with the author’s poetical voice, her humour and understanding.