Jackie Kay: meet your maker

Scottish national poet Jackie Kay made headlines last week when she called out racism in her home country. Now her story of growing up mixed race in a white adoptive family comes to the stage

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When Jackie Kay finished writing her memoir Red Dust Road 10 years ago, she nervously handed the unpublished manuscript to her adoptive father for him to read.

“I said he could change anything that he didn’t like and he was reading it out loud going: ‘That isnae me. That isnae me.’ And then he got to this bit and went: ‘Oh, by Christ. That is me!’” recalls the Scottish poet, playwright and novelist with a hearty laugh.

A decade later, history repeated itself when Kay handed her father Tanika Gupta’s script for the stage version of Red Dust Road, which recently opened at the Edinburgh Festival and visits Manchester arts venue Home, where Kay is a patron, in September.

“He read the first 30 pages and said: ‘I cannae read any more. I’m saturated inside my own life,’” says Kay, affectionately mimicking her beloved father’s thick Scottish burr.

First published in 2010, Red Dust Road’s transition from page to stage has been a long time coming, but the best-selling book has lost none of its power to move audiences. It tells the heart-warming story of the writer’s 20-year search for her birth parents – a Scottish mother and Nigerian father – as well her unconventional upbringing in Glasgow, where she was lovingly raised by a white couple, John and Helen Kay, two lifelong communists who adopted her when she was a baby.

“I’ve had lots of letters from people who’ve read it and feel that the book represents their life,” says Kay, who was appointed Scottish Maker (national poet) in 2016 and divides her time between Glasgow and Manchester. “It no longer seems just about my life, but about the lives of lots of different people who’ve been separated from their original parents, suffered bereavement or people who are trans-racially adopted.”

Watching her childhood being brought back to life by actors has been a “bizarre” experience, she says, speaking to Big Issue North from the Glasgow home of her parents, now aged 88 and 94. “It’s stranger than I anticipated it would be. There’s whole scenes in the play that I’d forgotten that I’d even written about, so some of it is a surprise to me.”

The arrival of Red Dust Road in theatres arrives at a pertinent time. Only last week, Kay generated national headlines when she told audiences at the Edinburgh Book Festival that Scotland lagged decades behind the rest of Britain in its attitudes to race. Looking beyond her home country, the 57-year-old writer says the global rise of populism is a frightening reminder that we have not left behind the racism that she regularly encountered as a person of colour growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I think that’s why Red Dust Road feels very fresh and resonant. It doesn’t feel like a book that’s 10 years old to people when they read it. It feels like it could be now and that’s because of some of those things are just not changing. In fact, they’re getting worse,” she reflects.

“When I was young and you fought against apartheid or went on marches against racism, you expected that when you got to this age there would have been progress.

“To see Trump as president and Johnson as prime minister, and all the hate and bile and putrid racism that’s being chucked around all over the world is so disheartening. The one thing that we can’t ever lose is hope that things will get better.”

Red Dust Road is at Home, Manchester from 11-21 September

Main image: Red Dust Road comes to the stage nearly 10 years after Jackie Kay wrote the book, but it retains its resonance for audiences

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