Jackie Kay interview – Sunday Times

JACKIE Kay never wanted to write about slavery. When the BBC asked her to pen its flagship radio play for this year’s abolition bicentenary, it sounded exactly the sort of thing black writers were expected to do. Which is why she refused.

“I just didn’t want to be lumbered with this subject that so far I’d largely managed to avoid,” explains the Scottish-born poet and writer, with trademark frankness. “I watched Roots in the Seventies like everybody else, but I hadn’t really thought about it properly. So I said no.”

More than a year later, she’s grateful that producer Pam Fraser Solomon proved just as stubborn in persuading her to change her mind. For The Lamplighter, premiering tonight on Radio 3, proved to be nothing less than an epiphany.

“When I immersed myself in it I realised I’d almost been hiding from it,” says Kay, 45, who was given up at birth by her Scottish birth mother and Nigerian father, and adopted by white Glasgwegians. “I was very surprised to discover that slave ships left from Port Glasgow, and that it was the slave trade which allowed Glasgow to reinvent itself – in fact the industrial revolution was partly financed through it. It wasn’t black history comfortably in the corner there – it was Scottish history, British history, the history of the world.”

More unsettling still were the testimonies she unearthed: the plantation owner who kept a meticulous diary in Latin, recording the slaves he had “tupped”; the stench of faeces and death which heralded the packed slave ships two days before they reached port; the living captives fed to sharks to bump up insurance claims; the adverts in British newspapers offering “three-year-old child, sold with nigger wench if required”. Kay brooded on it all with growing fury, and a script began to take shape.

“It became a sort of obsession,” she admits now. “I was staying up till one, two in the morning and I was getting very, very angry. But I also felt like I was being renewed, which was a strange feeling, like the way you first write when you’re 13 or 14, out of a need, out of things you feel strongly about. It was as if I got that energy back.”

As slaves were traditionally – and wrongly – pictured as male, she conceived a quartet of women, composites of those she had encountered in her research. There was Mary, tortured for trying to defend herself against rape; Constance, broken by the sale of her three year old daughter; Black Harriot, a feisty prostitute servicing British lords. And the eponymous Lamplighter, symbolically illuminating a dark time, in whom Kay found the closest echoes of herself.

“The Lamplighter was denying her past, as African people often have done – wanting, understandably, to get away from it. So I invented a child self for her, trapped in a Cape Cod fort until she could turn round and look at her – and that became quite a powerful, dramatic thing. She’s lost he accent, she’s lost herself, she doesn’t really know who she is or where she’s from.”

Meeting Kay over an Italian meal in a glass fronted restaurant in the white enclave of St Andrews, it’s not hard to see why she might occasionally feel similarly adrift. A chatty Glasgwegian with an infectious laugh, she’s in town to give readings of her award-winning poetry at the tenth Stanza Festival, and to discuss this year’s themes of homelands and exile – subjects close to her heart.

“I love Scotland, and always feel I’m coming home to my people,” says Kay, who currently lives in Manchester. “But I don’t know if my people would see me as theirs. For a writer, home is the place we have to question: is it a state of mind, is it a house, is it a bit of landscape? Is it blood, is it soil? Is it roots? For me it’s a very complex question: where do you belong? Everything that I write somehow feeds into that question.

The Lamplighter proved no exception. “In a sense I was on a trail back to my own past. A lot of the original Africans were taken from the West Coast of Africa, where my father came from. So I was thinking if I trace back my family tree far enough I would find slaves.”

Born in 1961 to a nurse from the Highlands and a Nigerian student studying agriculture at Aberdeen University, Kay was adopted at five months old by a couple of lifelong Glasgwegian socialists who she still adores. “They’re very open minded, and I had a great childhood,” she remembers. “They took me to the theatre a lot, opera and poetry readings, Burns suppers as well as anti-apartheid or CND marches. It was actually a very cultural life, and I think that’s what allowed me to be a writer.”

A graduate of Stirling University who originally wanted to act, she tried writing plays to remedy the dearth of black parts, but found her true calling in 1992 when she won a plethora of poetry awards for The Adoption Papers. Her first novel, Trumpet, won a Guardian award in 1998 – the year she moved to Manchester.

“I moved partly for work, but also because I was tired of people asking me where I was from,” she says now. “It gets slightly monotonous to have to assert that you belong to a place when other people are telling you that you don’t. I was in Wigtown recently with my mum, and this wee woman said: “Ooh, your daughter’s awful tanned! Is she that colour every day?”” Kay guffaws and shakes her head. “That happens all the time. It’s not malicious, it means to be really friendly – it’s just ignorance. But it’s hard to imagine that happening in Manchester. Scotland is slowly changing, but it’s like England was in the sixties.”

But even cosmopolitan Manchester provided scant protection when her then partner, Carol Ann Duffy, was in the frame to succeed Ted Hughes as poet laureate in 1999 – and the couple suddenly found reporters camped in their garden.

“I’m not closeted or the least bit embarrassed about being black or a lesbian,” says Kay, who became an MBE last year. “But I do object to the labelling, because in this society at this moment in time it’s a way of diminishing people. If every time we mentioned Martin Amis we said White Heterosexual Middle-class Smoker, his writing wouldn’t be taken quite so seriously.”

Her writing is beautifully-crafted, transfiguring mundane and often intimate details of everyday life with humour and pathos – but she insists it’s not quite autobiographical. “A writer’s life is really only raw material,she says, fending off questions about her personal life with a smile. “People always try and find out what’s true in what you write. But it’s actually much more mashed-up than that.”

Currently living alone, she’s been following the progress of her 18-year-old son Matthew on his gap year in Costa Rica. “It’s my first experience of having him away for this length of time and I’m missing him dreadfully.”

Not that she’s exactly twiddling her thumbs. Only recently back from a literary festival in India, she’s been rehearsing for a forthcoming multi-media tour reading from her recent collection of short stories Wish I was Here, and putting the finishing touches to a forthcoming slice of rare autobiography: an account of her disastrous first meeting with her birth father two years ago in Nigeria. A septuagenarian born-again Christian pastor, he spent two hours trying to induce her to repent of her sins in a hotel room, and refused to introduce her to his young wife whom God, in his wisdom, had “provided for my sex drive”. An earlier meeting with her Scottish birth mother wasn’t quite as traumatic, but she won’t be repeating either in a hurry.

“Who would imagine that my Scottish dad would be more “right on” than an African one?” she says, chuckling at the paradox. “In a funny way, if I hadn’t been adopted I wouldn’t have got such a sense of black history, because my Scottish parents taught me about Nelson Mandela, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith or Angela Davis, a lot of my black heroes. And on the other hand my African father had become so white through Christianity that he was rubbishing African culture in a way that my Scottish dad would never do. These are the complexities! It’s not all black and white!”

Nevertheless, after writing the The Lamplighter, she passionately believes Scots in particular need to face facts. “I think it’s just important to acknowledge what happened,” says Kay, who would like to see Third World debt wiped out in a symbolic recognition of what the west owes to enslaved Africans. “Scotland has been an oppressed country itself, but why talk about Highland Clearances and not talk about the Diaspora and the triangular slave trade, which was the biggest clearance ever in the history of the world?”

For all this, her characters are never simply victims but enriched with humour and fortitude. “I really do believe in human compassion and the ability to understand things you thought you couldn’t,” says the self-proclaimed optimist. “I believe in redemption, though I’m not particularly religious. And most of all, I think that once people start to tell a story that has been silenced, very positive things can come of it.”

25th March 2007

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