Red Dust Road has been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile since its publication in 2010. How can I have left it there for so long? If you’ve not read it, I don’t think it will disappoint. If you’re engaged in life-writing, I’d say this is a ‘must.’ I found it unputdownable.
Jackie Kay arrived on the poetry scene over twenty years ago a highly-acclaimed first collection, Adoption Papers. In that book she wrote about the experience of being adopted; we ‘met’ her adoptive parents and grandparents, characters who lived and breathed on the page. Since then she has published novels, short stories, more poems; some of this writing has touched on the matter of her birth parents. Red Dust Road – what she calls ‘an autobiographical journey’ – now charts her twenty-year search for those parents, most recently her father, Jonathan who lives in Nigeria. The red dust road of the title is a track that she follows geographically and emotionally.
The book opens with Kay’s first meeting with Jonathan, a born-again Christian. In her hotel room in Abuja he insists on inviting her to join him in prayer. She declines but watches politely as he chants and dances for two hours. ‘The man can talk. We have that in common …’ Kay observes.
This contrasts sharply with a meeting with her birth mother in Milton Keynes. Now a Mormon, and suffering the onset of Alzheimer’s, she is altogether a quieter, though no less complex a character. What is impressive about Kay is her restraint in writing about these challenging meetings. She never confronts them, never blames or demands. Her compassion for them is remarkable. But then she seems to have been brought up by the most adorable adoptive parents, Helen and John Kay. The Kays – both active communists – clearly nurtured in Jackie both a sense of humour and an understanding of the ethical in encounters with fellow beings. Often, in these stories, the humour is there to relieve the sting. When Helen Kay hears of the meeting with Jonathan she remarks, ‘By God, did we rescue you.’
Kay has been daring with the structure of a book that brings to life scenes from over twenty years. We are always on the move - Scotland, London, Nigeria, Milton Keynes. As a working writer with an international reputation, Kay manages to find space to meet the people who gave her up in 1961- whether it’s between readings at Milton Keynes library or running a British Council workshop in Nigeria.
Though the narrative folds back and forth in time, thematically rather than chronologically, the reader never feels lost. We always know where we are on the emotional journey as Kay reflects in journal entries that reach back to student days, or propels us forward through dramatic scenes in her search for half-siblings.
It’s one of those books that feels necessary, by which I mean, the author HAD to write it. It has urgency and an emotional honesty. Most remarkable is that Kay never assumes a sense of entitlement to meet her extended family both in the UK and in Nigeria. In the more reflective passages she weighs up the issues – “How do you keep a grown woman secret? Why does a grown woman collude with being kept secret?” There is no final judgement and so there is space for the reader also to reflect – don’t most families have secrets of one kind or another?
One of three epigraphs at the front of the book is from Helene Cixous: ‘… all narratives tell one story in place of another.’ Kay writes her own story with such life, humour and verve, while, at the same time, acknowledging that her birth parents have different versions of their overlapping narrative.
Red Dust Road is a reminder that, where stories are concerned, we are insatiable. We can never have too many stories. This one is highly readable and thoughtful. A book, I’m sure, I’ll read again.