Jackie Kay (1961 – )


Jackie Kay ( Wikimedia Commons )

Jackie Kay ( Wikimedia Commons )


Jackie Kay is one of Scotland most popular writers. She is an award-winning writer of fiction, poetry and drama but also a black lesbian woman which plays an important role in her writing.

Jacqueline Margaret Kay was born on 9 November 1961 in Edinburgh to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father. She was adopted by a white Scottish couple, Helen and John Kay, when she was a baby and she grew up in Bishopbriggs, a suburb in Glasgow. Helen and John Kay adopted Jackie in 1961 having already adopted Jackie’s brother, Maxwell, in 1959. She also has half-siblings through her birth parents. Her birth mother, Elizabeth Fraser, was a teenager of 19 years old from the Scottish Highlands when she had Jackie and she was forced by Highland racism to have her adopted, probably because the father was a black man or because she was very young. Her birth father, Jonathan 0. , was at the time a graduate student from Nigeria (Orlando). Jackie Kay was brought up as a Communist as her  adoptive father, John Kay, worked for the Communist Party  and stood for Member of Parliament, and her adoptive mother, Helen Kay, was the Scottish secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

On April 1978, she had an accident which ended her carrier as a runner, and she said that it made her a writer (Orlando).

Jackie studied English at the University of Stirling where she had a degree with honors in 1983. She also studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama that is why she was also a good actress, however her color was considered as a handicap at auditions (Orlando). She has then moved to London where she worked at a series of menial jobs while focusing on her literary career. Nowadays she lives in Manchester and she is Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University. In 2006 she was rewarded an MBE, which is Member of the excellent order of the British Empire, for services to literature (British Council).

Because she was a lesbian, Fred D’Aguiar (an Afro-Caribbean British writer)  asked  her one day if she wanted to be a mother. She said yes but she wanted it by “the normal way” as she said. (Rustin) Thus in 1988 she gave birth to her son Matthew, who studied at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico and he is now a film maker in London. Jackie doesn’t have any more children, although she wanted more but she didn’t want another man in the family or any donors (Rustin).

Jackie Kay has met Carol Ann Duffy in 1991 and lived together in Manchester in 1996 with Kay’s son and Duffy’s daughter (Ella).  In 2003, when Kay decided to contact her birth father  Duffy  made the first phone call to him. They split up the same year, just before Jackie met him (Orlando). In 2010 Jackie was in a relationship with Denise Else, who is a sound technician at the BBC (Orlando). However because she is really reserved about her private life it quite impossible to know if they are still together at the time.

 Jackie Kay has decided to contact her birth mother, Elizabeth, when she was pregnant with Matthew. She met her in 1991, when Elizabeth was then a divorced Mormon with Alzheimer’s (Brown). Jackie said that the meeting was quite awkward and that she was quite disappointed, however they met again four years later and several times after that.  Jackie also met her birth father when she was 42 while she was doing a poetry tour in Nigeria. She describes all these meetings in her memoir.  Her adoptive father, however, was not pleased at first about Jackie getting in touch with her birth father (Orlando).Jackie said that being adopted was a very positive thing in her life because it gave rise to an obsession with her identity in her writing but it is also a subject that she is living with everyday:

“I still have Scottish people asking me where I’m from. They won’t actually hear my voice  because they are too busy seeing my face”.(Scottish Poetry Library).


 When she was young she wanted to be an actress but she decided to concentrate on writing. Indeed her English teacher at school was so impressed by her writing that she has shown her poems to Alasdair Gray, the Scottish artist and writer, who told her that writing was her vocation. Jackie Kay began writing poetry at the age of 12 years old, and her first poem is called “One Person, Two Names” (Orlando).

Jackie sees her writing coming from two different traditions. First the Scottish poetry tradition is a real inspiration for her because she really likes the poetry that can be read out loud and performed, also as a child she went to a lot of Burns Suppers. Secondly she affirms that her poetry is  inspired by jazz, blues and Celtic songs. Indeed her father used to love jazz and blues music and he played a lot of it at home (Severin). She is also influenced by Liz Lockhead—she is one of the first poets she has heard—, and Tom Leonard, but also by some American poets (especially Audre Lorde, a black lesbian poet). When Jackie thinks about this latter she says that : “At that time, I didn’t know anybody existed that was like me at all” (Severin).

At the beginning of her career Jackie Kay wrote a lot of poems but people said that she didn’t talk enough about her in these poems, then they found that there were only deeling with personal subject that’s why Jackie didn’t like them and finally she has arrived to write something about herself but also about the imaginary and at that moment she really felt like a poet (Severin). Jackie wants her poetry to be accessible, and thinks that her poems should have more than one meaning because she does not really like to find private references in poems (Severin).

Old Tongue by Jackie Kay

The Adoption Papers, published in 1991 by Bloodaxe, is her first collection of poetry and it deals with an adopted child who is searching for her cultural identity . It is told through 3 different voices: an adoptive mother, a birth mother and a daughter. This collection explores the issues of race, individuality, parenthood and love. Jackie Kay dedicated it to her adoptive mother.  This collection of poetry demonstrated that she was able to talk about herself but also about something imaginary. It permitted her to win the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award, the Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the Forward Poetry Prize in 1992 (British Council).

Life Mask, by Bloodaxe in 2005, deals with themes such as love and loss of identity, and breaking up with a lover, written a couple of years after the break up with Carol Ann Duffy (British Council).

The Lamplighter, by Bloodaxe in 2008, is a drama about the exploration of the Atlantic slave trade. It was broadcast on BBC radio in March 2007 and published in poem form in 2008. Jackie won the British Book of the year in 2009 (British Council).

Red Dust Road, published by Picador in 2010, is her famous memoir which traces her upbringing as a Scottish, mixed-race, adopted child, and her later search for and encounter with each of her biological parents. She defines it as “a letter of love for my parents”. Jeanette Winterson said that it is one of her best books of 2010. Jackie Kay won the PEN/ Ackerley Prize and the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book of the year in 2011 (British Council).

Selected Works 

1984: A dangerous Knowing: Four Black Women Poets, Sheba

1986: Chiaroscuro, Methuen

1991: The Adoption Papers, Bloodaxe

1993: Other Lovers, Bloodaxe

1998: Off Colour, Bloodaxe

1998: Trumpet, Picador

1998: The Frog who dreamed she was an Opera Singer, Bloomsbury

2002: Why don’t you stop talking, Picador

2002: Strawgirl, Macmillan

2005: Life Mask, Bloodaxe

2007: Red Cherry Red, Bloomsbury

2008: The Lamplighter, Bloodaxe

2010: Red Dust Road, Picador

2011: Fiere, Picador

2012: Reality, Reality, Picador

Works cited

“An interview with Jackie Kay”. RandomHouse, Bold Type. Web. 17 March 2013.

Brown, Helen.  “Jackie Kay: Interview”. Telegraph. 05 Jun 2010. Web. 15 March 2013.

“Interview with Jackie Kay”. Books from Scotland. 27 April 2012. Web. 16 March 2013.

“Jackie Kay”. Answers. Web. 16 March 2013.

“Jackie Kay”. British Council, Literature. Web. 16 March 2013.

“Jackie Kay”. Literary Festivals. Web. 17 March 2013.

“Jackie Kay”. Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles. Web. 16 March 2013.

“Jackie Kay”. Scottish Poetry Library. Web. 15 March 2013.

“Jackie Kay”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 March 2013. Web. 16 March 2013.

Rustin, Susanna. A life in writing: Jackie Kay. The Guardian. 27 April 2012. Web. 16 March 2013.

Severin, Laura. Interview with Jackie Kay. Free Verse. Web. 17 March 2013.



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