Scottish poet, fiction writer and memoirist, Jackie Kay is one of my favourite writers, so I was beside myself with excitement about hearing her read and speak. When you have loved any public figure for a long time, there is always the fear the the ‘real life’ experience won’t meet your (no doubt unreasonably high) expectations, but this was not the case for Jackie Kay. She was wonderful and this was my favourite session. She has a strong stage presence and shines with humour, wisdom, optimism. It’s an infectious brew!
The session was expertly hosted by New Zealand writer Stephanie Johnson who asked intelligent questions of Jackie Kay.
Early in the session, Jackie read her poem ‘Fiere’ (pronounced ‘Fairy’ but with a rolled scottish ‘R’) from the book of same name, a poem about enduring female friendship. Her broad Scottish accent is delightful and that, combined with the poem’s musicality, was stunning.
See her read it here – trust me, it’s worth a watch!
When she finished there was a collective sigh of satisfaction from the audience and Jackie said, “I love the wee moans people give at poetry readings. We poets live for those wee moans.”
Jackie Kay spoke of her New Zealand connection – her (adoptive) parents met in Christchurch at the Coffee Pot Cafe. This is Jackie’s first visit to New Zealand but she feels like it is something of ‘a pilgrimage of my parent’s love’ and she was headed to Christchurch after the festival to visit some of those key sites in her parents history. She talked about a plastic ‘Maori’ doll she had as a child, sent over from her grandmother who was still in New Zealand. “I loved that doll. I called her Ngaire. One day, though, a girl came up to me on the street and said to me: ‘Just because you’re a darkie, doesnae mean you’ve got to have a darkie doll.’
Jackie Kay has a Nigerian birth father and was adopted by a white Scottish couple, so grew up black in a very white community. Incidents of casual racism peppered her childhood and even now she is often interrogated by fellow Scots about her lineage. Her adoptive father loved jazz and she said she would stare at the covers of his jazz records, at the black faces on the covers and saw them as her “earliest black family: Aunty Ella Fitzgerald, Uncle Duke Ellington.” She spoke at length about the subject of her memoir Red Dust Road – her search for her birth parents, her exploration of Nigeria where her birth father was from and her realisations of the extent to which we are shaped by love more than genetics.
“Identity is fluid. Love is what really matters. People who feel deeply loved have a different aura about them” she said. Her adoptive parents did deeply love and cherish her. When she went to Nigeria she felt “the land was welcoming me, even when my father wasn’t.” Her birth father, a deeply Christian man saw her as “a living emodiment of his past sins.”
She read other poems and excerpts from her short stories, endearingly skipping over the sex scenes “that’s all a bit much for an Auckland writing festival audience at eleven in the morning”. Her fiction writing about old age was very moving, artful writing which raises questions about how we treat old people in our society.
Jackie Kay’s session mirrored the experience of reading her work, one minute you’re laughing until tears roll down your cheeks, next minute the tears are not mirthful but sad. The best wisdom is often framed in humour and Jackie Kay has the uncanny knack to provide both in perfect balance.
After the ‘hour with Jackie Kay’ I took the opportunity to have my own ‘minute with Jackie Kay’. I waited in a very long line for my chance to have a quick exchange with this great author while she signed ‘Red, Cherry Red‘ one of her poetry books for me. I had true fan-girl nerves and as I stood there I wrestled with the dilemma of whether or not to give her the copy of my own poetry book, ‘The Comforter‘.
Although I wanted to, I was also worried it was inappropriate, pushy, over-the-top…but when the moment arrived, I did it, nervously burbling to her “sorry, sorry, probably the last thing you need is more junk to cram into your suitcase”. Jackie said “This is not junk, it’s a gift. Thank you so very much for bringing it for me, it’s wonderful” and smiled at me with a grin so warm I basked in it for the rest of the day. What a gracious and generous writer she is, and a deeply human and humane person.
Written by Helen Lehndorf.
Thank you to Auckland Writers & Readers Festival for providing Helen’s ticket to this event.
by Jackie Kay
Published by Picador
Red Dust Road
by Jackie Kay
Published by Atlas
Red, Cherry Red
by Jackie Kay
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
by Helen Lehndorf
Published by Seraph Press