Women on the Shelf – Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

For months I had been gazing covetously at the posters advertising Jackie Kay’s latest offering, while immersed in some heavy theory at uni. Having not had a minute to read anything pleasurable all term, my first foray back into the world of non-academic writing was an exciting prospect, and having read and loved Jackie Kay’s work in the past I had a feeling Red Dust Road would be just what I needed. Post-essay hand-in, with something of a frazzled brain, I got my hands on a copy of Red Dust Road, and true to form Kay did not let me down. You know one of those books you read, where you meet a friend and there is something in the back of your mind you know you really want to tell them, but can’t quite recall what it is, then realise it’s about the great book you’ve just read?

Well, Red Dust Road is precisely one such book.

If you’ve ever had the good fortune to see or hear Jackie Kay read her work, then you will know the mischief and the smile in her voice, which comes singing through her writing. If you’ve never encountered Kay before, then this book is the perfect introduction to a writer with a wonderfully wicked sense of humour and a very big heart. What I’ve always found so appealing about Jackie Kay’s work is the way she clearly relishes the eccentricities and complexities of the human condition. She tells tales of the everyday and gives voice to people you can actually imagine meeting in your daily life. But in bringing these people to life on the page and narrating everyday experiences, she suffuses the apparently ordinary with the truly magical. In turning her focus to piecing together and narrating her own story, none of this magic is lost.

Red Dust Road is autobiographical; Jackie Kay takes you as the reader by the hand and leads you on a journey from a wee cottage in the Highlands of Scotland to the red dust roads of Nigeria. On this journey Kay seeks out her birth parents in an attempt to explore the source of the ‘windy place’ in her heart, which is the result of being ‘the bundle of child that is wrapped up in the ghostly shawl of adoption’. Examining themes of identity and the very human need to belong, Kay’s narrative rejects the linear structure which can be typical of autobiography. Instead she deftly weaves together different phases of her life, moving back and forth between the search for her birth parents, witty and touching recollections of her Scottish childhood with her beloved adoptive parents, shocking incidents of racism from her student days, becoming a parent herself and witnessing her parents aging. The fabric which emerges is a testament to Kay’s love for her adoptive parents, her unrelenting strength and inspiring optimism.

Another form of love also shines through Red Dust Road and that is Kay’s love of language and storytelling. Stories are central to this book, as Kay seeks to complete the jigsaw of her own story by uncovering aspects of her roots which have been obscured in half told, or untold tales. In doing so she creates a book which revels in the glorious amalgamation of all the stories that make up an individual life. Questioning what makes us who we are Kay concludes we are ‘part fable, part porridge’. The narrative of Red Dust Road mirrors this, comprised of lyrical prose interspersed with Kay lovingly bringing to life the stories told by her adoptive parents in wonderfully familiar Scottish language. I found these voices comforting, a reminder to me of my roots, and the importance of paying heed to the everyday tales told in my family, as they make up a part of who I am.

Kay’s warmth and gleeful approach to life with all its myriad complexities is infectious. With this book as my companion I spent a fair few train journeys smiling away to myself, though reader beware, I also had moments of trying to subtly wipe away a tear. This book was ultimately a wonderful reminder of something that I have long believed; it is not just in academic texts and grand theories that explanations and understandings of life can be sought. Instead in giving voice to individual’s lives and stories, just as much can be articulated, if not more. Janice Galloway, another very wise Scottish female writer, once said

it is only…through being true to what you feel to be real through the skin, the soles of your feet and the voice that issues from your mouth, being true to your emotional and linguistic place on the landscape, that there is the vaguest hope of reaching and touching other people

It is this very honesty that Kay achieves, and Red Dust Road is a truly poignant and touching memoir because of it.

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