Jackie Kay was born to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father in Edinburgh on 9 November 1961, and was adopted as a baby by Helen and John Kay, who had already adopted a boy, Maxwell. The family lived in Bishopbriggs, Glasgow, where John worked for the Communist Party of Great Britain, and Helen was the Scottish secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. 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 adoptive parents. Asked by Ramona Koval what she had been like as a child, Kay answered:
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 fêtes 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)
When I was a teenager, I went to these things called “poems and pints nights” in the Highland Institute on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow (more pints than poetry). It was there I first heard poets such as [Liz] Lochhead and Tom Leonard, who wrote in their own voice. You didn’t have to pretend to be somebody else. And perhaps it is this that is the key to poetry’s endless successful reinventions: a proliferation of authentic and original voices, chiming with the voices of the entire population.
(Guardian, 29 January 2011)
Lochhead, Leonard and Edwin Morgan were her lodestars and became her friends. A long convalescence after a road accident set her to reading extensively, and she went on to Stirling University to study English, graduating in 1983. She moved to London, and while working in a variety of places (including a stint as a hospital porter), she was writing poetry, plays and publishing two novels in the 1980s.
Her 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 blues singer 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 – black, lesbian, Scottish – Kay has demonstrably questioned the worth of such categorisation as a writer through various collections of short stories as well as work for radio and theatre and writing for children, both fiction and poetry. ‘I still have Scottish people asking me where I’m from. They won’t actually hear my voice, because they’re too busy seeing my face’ Kay told the Guardian (12 January, 2002). Although she is often in Scotland, she made her home in Manchester, and for ten years she lived there with then-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, 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 have included Life Mask (2005), inspired by the experience of sitting for the sculptor Michael Snowden (whose bronze bust of Kay may be found alongside other Scottish poets in Edinburgh Business Park), Darling: New and Selected Poems (2007) and Bantem (2017).
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, choosing ‘John Anderson my jo’, leading to her poem, ‘Fiere’ which came out of a love of reciting Burns’ poems and songs, and a celebration of strong friendships between women. It became the title poem for her 2011 collection, the poetic partner to Red Dust Road, 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 to the role of Makar, or National Poet for Scotland, a title she held and relished, taking on a tour of the isles and making the successful BBC television programme, Beyond Burns, which introduced many well-known Scottish poets to a wider audience in 2021. Later that year, she handed on the baton of Maker to Kathleen Jamie.