Jackie Kay: Reality, Reality @ Birmingham Book Festival

Jackie Kay graced Birmingham Cathedral last Thursday, for the second annual ‘address from the pulpit’. The renowned poet, writer and broadcaster came to give a ‘secular sermon’, as she mischievously dubbed it, to promote her new book Reality, Reality. The seats were filled with fans, young and old, who were obviously excited about seeing the woman whose observations of life have captured the hearts of many.

Despite being a huge literary figure, the Jackie Kay who giggled like a child at the irony of her surroundings, was both gracious and unassuming. She began by reading The Friday Poem, from her 2011 poetry collection Fiere. In Scots dialect fiere means ‘companion’ and the poem was a fitting reflection of Kay’s heritage. Although the audience mostly consisted of women, and the prevalent voice in her works is female, there was a unified appreciation for this tribute to friendship.

Kay then read an extract from her best-selling memoir Red Dust Road. A chronicle of the author’s search for her birth mother and father – a journey which eventually takes her to Nigeria – Kay explores a form of loneliness. One particular quote stood out: ‘I am only alone in the way that everybody is alone. And yet it seems that the bundle of child that is wrapped up in the ghostly shawl of adoption does have another layer of aloneness wrapped up in there.’ In the Q&A session Kay talked of the exposure one feels when writing as oneself, rather than vicariously through a character. This only seemed to enhance her work; her account of meeting her biological Father for the first time was as funny as it was poignant. Each anecdote was tinged with the heartbreaking disappointment that came with deconstructing the images she had held of her birth parents. She told the audience how it would later strike her that both parents had become extremely religious – and both came to meet her holding carrier bags.

Kay frequently flitted back and forth between her own life and her collection of fifteen short stories, Reality, Reality; at times it was hard to distinguish between the two. Her oration, however, maintained a buoyancy throughout, regardless of her self-recognised inability to do the myriad accents she captures in her stories. As any Jackie Kay fan will tell you, alternative cultures and perspectives are conveyed in her work through ‘voice’ more than image. With this comes an emphasis on the authority of personal experience.

Indeed, it is hard to separate Jackie Kay from her writing and she voiced her worries about this in the Q&A session. She stated that not everything is autobiographical but also hinted that all inspiration has its source. One impertinent audience member stated, ‘You are a black, outspoken Lesbian writer’, as if she was unaware of this fact, and demanded to know her thoughts on being placed in the ‘Gay Fiction’ aisle of a book-store. Kay diplomatically replied that she did not feel pigeon-holed by this factor and if it helps people in the gay community, especially younger people, understand themselves then the pleasure is hers.

Jackie Kay’s work, although a celebration of companionship, was never over-sentimental. Her matter-of-fact tone allowed her work to speak for itself. A highlight of the evening was one of her collective short stories, These Are Not My Clothes. Kay read the story of Margaret, an elderly woman who is stripped of dignity by the abusive staff at the old people’s home she resides in. Placing middle-aged and older women at the centre of Reality, Reality, it felt like eavesdropping on the private thoughts of a host of disparate women. Memory, loss and self-delusion were just a few of the many topics she explored in the extracts she read aloud.

Jackie Kay is as famous for her fascinating life as she is for the excellent work she produces. Infusing her discussion with warmth and humour, it was clear that there is a through-narrative in everything she shares with her readers. Reality, Reality continues this tale of amity and stresses the importance of appreciating those around you.

Sadly, Birmingham Book Festival 2012 is now over. Visit their website for more information about the festival as a whole:  http://www.birminghambookfestival.org/

Elisha Owen

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