I was vaguely aware of Jackie Kay and had read an extract of this book a few years ago. Heard her speak about her novel Trumpet and knew she was a poet. Poets make the best prose writers. What stuck in my memory was her parents. Two white working class people that adopt two kids that happen to be black or coloured, or whatever term you’re comfortable with, because this is not about race, or about class, although both her adoptive parents are staunch Communist, this is a story about love.
John and Ellen were both from Townhead in Glasgow, but met whilst working in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was 25, she 18. They went to see Death of a Salesman on their first date and were married six months later, the day after April Fool’s Day 1954. Willy Loman often has that effect. They wanted children and couldn’t have children. They adopted.
Adoption agencies in the 1950s were run by Church groups. The Kay’s religion was Communism. Both had been pilgrimages to Moscow and John was organising and proselytising for Communist Party members in Scotland. They weren’t willing to lie about their affiliation and say they supported a Christian church group to help them get a much-wanted child. They were a straight talking couple and in many ways the heroes of the book and I liked them very much. Indeed one of the lines I laughed out loud at was later in the book, in 2009. Ellen is taken to Gartnavel hospital because her nose won’t stop bleeding and she’s lost lots of blood and been given a transfusion. The nurse asks her if she wants to see a minister and she answers: ‘Only if he’ll resuscitate me’.
Ironically, the book opens with Jackie meeting her birth father at the Nicon Hilton Hotel, Abuja, in Nigeria and he embarrasses her with his dancing, singing, praising of the Lord and calling for his daughter to be saved. He tells her he is a minister, but takes a sleazy interest in the mechanics of her lesbianism. He is also married to a woman Jackie’s age because the Lord has provided him with a younger partner because of his high sex drive. He wants to keep Jackie a dirty secret. He acknowledges her as his daughter. She is a professor. He too is a professor that studied trees and botany at Aberdeen University in the late 1950s. Jonathan, her birth father, is in some ways the villain. Jackie works hard to uncover how he got from a bongo playing good-time man about town who got a young white nurse Elizabeth from Nairn pregnant to the preacher, patriarch and arsehole he became.
This is a biography of what-ifs, the past less travelled. If Jonathan wasn’t black would Elizabeth have been allowed to keep the child she was carrying? She admits to wishing when she was younger to being white, like everybody else, but when in Northern Nigeria and her ‘red dust road’ homeland to being darker and blacker. Jackie’s quest to find out more about her birth mother are hampered by a different kind of fog. Elizabeth when they first meat has dementia. She wants to acknowledge Jackie and Jackie’s son, but she keeps forgetting. She like Jonathan has found salvation, but in her case the Mormon Church.
I like Jackie Kay, the questions she asks herself as the questions we ask ourselves. The Kay’s her father, mother and adopted brother are a godsend. The rest leave us blest to be who we are.