Jackie Kay was born to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father in Edinburgh on 9 November 1961. She was adopted as a baby by Helen and John Kay and grew up in Bishopbriggs, Glasgow. Kay has drawn on her unconventional upbringing in her
poetry, and described it with humour and great affection in her autobiographical account of the search for her birth parents, Red Dust Road (2010), which she has called a ‘love letter’ to her white adoptive parents.
‘I shift uneasily in my seat. Christ Almighty, my father is barking mad. He spins and dances and sings some more, singing in the most God-awful flat voice, really off-key. The singing sounds like a mixture of African chanting and hymns. It’s a shock. Despite the fact that he can’t sing, his performance is captivating. I watch his bare feet dance round the room and recognize my own toes.’Extract from 'Red Dust Road', Jackie Kay
Jackie Kay's first collection of poems, The Adoption Papers (Bloodaxe, 1991), was immediately recognised as an outstanding debut, and gained the Saltire Society Award for best first book, as well as a Scottish Arts Council Book Award. Written in the three voices of an adoptive mother, a birth mother and an adopted child, it evidenced what were to be continuing strengths of Kay’s work: the ability to articulate a wide range of emotional experiences, firmly rooted in everyday life, and a keen sense of socio-political realities combined with a deep faith in the transformative powers of human love.
Her next adult collection, Other Lovers (1993) also revolved around a quest for identity, but this time particularly with regard to colonial histories and slavery; the musical theme that appears in her poems about Bessie Smith was taken up in fictional form in Trumpet (1998), the story of a jazz trumpeter – again told through several voices – whose death reveals ‘him’ to have been a woman. This won the Guardian Fiction Prize. In an online interview for her American publisher, Random House, Kay said that ‘I don't think I ever set out to write with a message in mind. I was interested in how fluid identity can be, how people can reinvent themselves, how gender and race are categories that we try to fix, in order perhaps to cherish our own prejudices, how so called extraordinary people can live ordinary lives.’
Herself often categorised – as black, lesbian, Scottish – Kay has remained determined to escape categorisation as a writer, publishing several collections of short stories as well as work for radio and theatre and writing for children, both fiction and poetry. Although she is often in Scotland, she has made her home in Manchester, and for ten years lived there with her partner Carol Ann Duffy, her son Matthew, and Duffy’s daughter. She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle, and much in demand for readings in the UK and internationally, her early drama training having equipped her to be a superb performer of her own work and a very engaging presence. Kay was made MBE for services to literature in 2006.
Audiences respond with particular intensity, in fact, to her readiness to discuss aspects of lesbian life, being black, and being adopted: whether as fiction, poetry or memoir, her words go directly to the heart of a situation and an audience. The ability to imagine herself in other skins, at other ages, perhaps also accounts for her success as a children’s writer. The authenticity of the experience is never in doubt, and it is often seasoned by an infectious humour. The ‘Maw Broon Monologues’ – spoken by the eponymous Scottish cartoon character – began with a Maw Broon poem in Off Colour, Kay’s 1998 collection which dealt with issues of health and illness. Maw Broon visited a psychiatrist, and has subsequently mused on colonic irrigation, the ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown (‘Nae relation!’), and climate change. The poems were the basis of a stage show performed in Glasgow in 2009, and shortlisted for the inaugural Ted Hughes Award for new work in poetry.
Further poetry collections include Life Mask (2005), inspired by the experience of sitting for the sculptor Michael Snowden (whose head of Kay may be found alongside other busts of Scottish poets in Edinburgh Business Park), and Darling: New and Selected Poems (2007).
Kay was commissioned to write a poem for the Scottish Poetry Library’s anthology of contemporary Scottish poets’ responses to Burns on his 250th anniversary in 2009. She chose ‘John Anderson my jo’, and brought to her own poem, ‘Fiere’ a long love of reciting Burns’s poems and hearing sung, and made it a celebration of strong friendship between women. It became the title poem of her 2011 collection Fiere, a poetic partner to her memoir of the previous year, which draws together the languages and landscapes of Scotland and Nigeria. As the Daily Telegraph’s reviewer neatly summed up: ‘Kay’s strength as a poet has always been her clear, plain style, and its fearless spoken poignancy’.
In March 2016, Kay was appointed the Makar or National Poet for Scotland for a five year term.
‘I was quite chatty, loquacious. I learnt that word early... it felt good because it kind of covered it up; I could say, 'I'm loquacious,' and it sounded better than saying, 'I'm a bletherer from Hell!' I was quite political. I had strong ideas about apartheid and poverty, and I used to go on a lot of marches and I wrote a lot of political poetry when I was younger and I used to organise garden fetes and raise money for leprosy and things like that. ... I was very imaginative, I suppose, I had a big imagination, so I always liked writing, but more than that I always wanted to be an actress when I was little so I used to go to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama on Wednesdays and Saturdays for years. And then when auditions came up I'd go for things like auditions for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and I wouldn't get the part. Must be because I had the Glasgow accent...’ABC interview, 4 September 2008
Biography information from Scottish Poetry Library.