Jackie Kay is one of Britain's leading writers. The term 'writer' is used deliberately, as opposed to the more precise designation of 'poet' or 'novelist' or 'playwright', since she is a writer who uses different forms at different times and has become well-known not only for her poetry, but also for her theatre work and, more recently for her prose writing. Her writing combines extraordinary personal honesty with great clarity and a sense of humour, and it is this combination that has led judges of several prestigious literary awards, including the Somerset Maugham prize to single out her work. Jackie Kaye has a distinctive voice, recognisable immediately and quite unique.
That uniqueness is linked to the particularities of her biography. Born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, Jackie Kay was adopted by her parents and brought up in Glasgow. Her first collection of poetry, The Adoption Papers, written over a ten year period from 1980, was published in 1991 to great critical acclaim. It was first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1990, and won the Saltire and Forward prizes.
It is easy to understand why critics responded so enthusiastically to this work by a relatively unknown writer. It is a stunning book, which tells the story of a girl growing up just as Jackie Kay did. The three voices are those of the natural mother, faced with the terrible decision of giving up her baby, the adoptive mother who struggles to bring up a mixed race child that she dearly loves but whose needs are different from her own and the child herself, who loves and admires her parents yet who yearns for knowledge and understanding of the forces that drove her natural parents together and then apart. In one superb poem, Black Bottom, all three voices are heard. One recalls the beauty and passion of her first love:
Olubayo was the colour of peat
when we walked out heads turned
like horses, folk stood like trees
their eyes fixed on us...
He never saw her. I looked for him in her;
for a second it was as if he was there
in that glass cot looking back through her.
The adoptive mother proudly declares that she doesn't like
all this talk about her being black,
I brought her up as my own
as I would any other child
colour matters to the nutter;
but she says my daughter says
it matters to her
The daughter, struggling to establish her own identity, copes with name calling at school, and is encouraged by her communist father to find role models such as the Black power activist Angela Davies:
Angela Davies is the only female person
I've seen (except for a nurse on TV)
who looks like me. She has big hair like mine
that grows out instead of down.
My mum says it's called an Afro.
The powerful dramatic quality of The Adoption Papers reflects the years Jackie Kay spent honing her writing in alternative theatre. She had left Scotland after taking a degree in English at the University of Stirling and moved to London following the birth of her son in 1988. She had several plays performed by the Gay Sweatshop company and the Theatre of Black Women. In an interview given in 2001, she recalls how her interest in poetry and belief in the potential power of poetry started early. Poetry, she declares, is language at its most rich and can provoke emotion, discussion, argument and stimulate readers to think.
Since moving to Manchester, Jackie Kay has also written more for children. Her views on writing for children are, however, as strong as her views on the importance of poetry. "If it's any good, then adults will like it too," she declares, noting also that part of her strategy as a writer is to keep the conversation between herself as an adult and herself as a child open and ongoing. This is reflected in her ability to write from many different perspectives, including adults and children, and her collection of stories Why don't you stop talking? published in 2002 is a tour de force, as she creates a plethora of different characters all telling their own stories.
In 1998 she published a successful novel, Trumpet, which won the Author's Club first novel award and the Guardian Fiction prize. It is a novel that ,like so much of her writing, both explores and celebrates in-betweenness - mixed race, cross-gender identity, the meaning of honesty in family relationships. Jackie Kay is above all an honest writer, never self-pitying, always open, tolerant, gently humorous even in tragedy, a genuinely wise writer.
This citation was written by Professor Susan Bassnett, Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies.