Jackie Kay was born in Edinburgh in the 1960s to a Nigerian father, and a white mother from the Highlands. She was adopted by a white couple who were active members of the Communist party. And she is a graduate of, and holds an honorary doctorate from, the University of Stirling. She is the author of novels such as The Trumpet (Picador: London, 1998) and collections of poetry such as The Adoption Papers (Bloodaxe Books: Northumberland, 1991). She has recently published her witty and heartfelt memoirs, Red Dust Road (Picador: London, 2001), about her upbringing and being reunited with her birth parents. The opening chapter is an amusing account of her first meeting with her birth father in a hotel room in Nigeria, which raises fascinating questions about ‘religion’, and identity:
And now we’re in the room. I’m about to have a conversation with my birth father for the first time.
Jonathan is moving about from foot to foot, shifting his weight from side to side, like a man who is about to say something life-changing. He begins: ‘Before we can proceed with this meeting, I would like to pray for you and to welcome you to Nigeria.’ I feel alarmed. Extreme religion scares the hell out of me. It seems to me like a kind of madness. But it is obvious to me that Jonathan won’t be able to talk at all if I try and skip the sermon, ‘OK, then,’ and he says, ‘Sit, please.’ And I sit.
He plucks the Bible from the plastic bag. Then he immediately starts whirling and twirling around the blue hotel room, dancing and clapping his hands above his head, then below his waist, pointing his face up at the ceiling and then down to the floor, singing, ‘O, God Almighty, O God Almighty, O God Almighty, we welcome Jackie Kay to Nigeria. Thank you…’ He does some fancy footwork. He’s incredibly speedy for a man of seventy-three. He’s whirling like a dervish.
I shift uneasily in my seat. Christ Almighty, my father is barking mad…
When I tell my mum about it on the phone, down an incredibly clear line from Abuja to Glasgow, how he doesn’t want to tell any of his children, and how I must remain a secret, how he feels I am his past sin, she says: ‘By God, did we rescue you!’ (Kay, 2010: 3-11).
As an academic in Scotland specialising in critical religion and culture, and in postcolonial literature, what do I do with this extract? As a teacher, and a researcher, here are some of the questions I would start with: How do we make sense of the concept of ‘religion’ that is portrayed? What does it tell us about national identity, about Scottish identity? What role does the humour play? How can this whole extract inform us to think creatively about writing about religion and postcolonial literature?
In many ways, the reader is presented with the meeting of European rational thought, and non-western modes of thought. The awkwardness of this incredibly personal moment makes us laugh. For Jackie Kay this is the meeting with the fabric of herself, her ancestry, and therefore a significant part of her identity, an identity that is also rooted in European and Scottish rational thought, an identity that rests on a safe distance maintained between religious and secular spaces. The imposition of this almost ecstatic religious display within the confines of a Hilton hotel room leaves Jackie Kay in a state of semi-consciousness: “I’ve zoned out now, drugged by his voice. I go in and out of consciousness like somebody who’s very ill. I can’t see properly” (Kay, 2010: 6). Kay playfully suggests that she has succumbed to a religious trance and is loosing grip on her post-Enlightenment, rational, secular self. I am intrigued by the complexity and contradictions of this exchange; the banal yet often embedded notion of appropriate religious behaviour or the impact of colonial violence? Are we laughing because we can safely sit in our armchairs knowing that we are choosing not to believe, or that we at least know how to contain our religious self appropriately? Or what about what Kay sees, which is the crude imposition of Christianity on African culture leaving behind a ludicrous mimicry and madness. To classify Jonathan’s display as a colonial mimicry is to subjugate and ‘exoticise’ his voice again, but this time by the western (postcolonial) academic. Graham Huggan talks about the risk that the marketing of postcolonial literature takes by ‘replicating the exotic consumption of otherness’ (Huggan, 2001: 37). Is our laughter merely a crude consumption of this display of ‘otherness’?
Mary Keller states that if we, as western academics, continue to correlate the word ‘religion’ with the word ‘belief’, we continue to limit our understanding of “religiousness in the modern world”. She writes: “those whose religiousness is expressed in their work, in their wars… or in public displays have slid into the anachronistic space of backwardness. They are suspected of being mentally needy because they cannot contain their bubble of belief properly” (Keller, 2002: 7). Kay’s diagnosis that her father is indeed insane makes us laugh; it makes us laugh because we are uncomfortable with this inappropriate display of religiousness, and made reassuringly comfortable again with Kay’s playful diagnosis of her birth father being mentally needy, so we can section this display off into a safe category, mentally ill.
But there is a more personal story, with sadness and humour, which goes beyond academic categorisations and theories. Kay’s upbringing as a black child, with white parents, in a predominantly white suburb of Glasgow, gave her an identity of difference, of both wanting to belong and wanting to understand her difference more fully. She describes the moment she arrives in the Igbo village of her ancestors and father. She takes off her shoes and walks down the red dust road:
The earth is so copper warm and beautiful and the green of the elephant grasses so lushly green they make me want to weep. I feel such a strong sense of affinity with the colours and the landscape, a strong sense of recognition. There’s a feeling of liberation, and exhilaration, that at last, at last, at last I’m here. It feels a million miles from Glasgow, from my lovely Fintry Hills, but, surprisingly, it also feels like home (Kay, 2010: 213).
But then only hours later, her affinity with the land is shaken as the local villagers, look at her and gather around her saying “Oyibo”, meaning white person:
I spent some of my childhood wishing I was white like the other kids and feeling like I stuck out like a sore thumb; and now in Nigeria, I’m wishing I was black and feeling like I stick out like a sore thumb. It’s the first time in my life that I have properly understood what it means being mixed race (Kay, 2010: 216).
This neither-nor identity, or what W. E. B. DuBois called “double consciousness”, (DuBois, 1903/1994: 2) leaves Kay searching for her multiple homelands. She is one of many ‘hyphenated bodies’, to take Vijay Mishra’s term (Mishra, 1996), from diasporas across the world. In Kay’s case, this trauma is even more astute for it is the personal separation from her birth parents.
Jackie Kay’s memoir demonstrates and celebrates the complexity of Scottish identity and culture; a place that, especially now in the eve of the referendum on Independence, is even more aware of its borders, of its imaginary and real homelands scattered around the world, and its relationship with the imperial centre. Jackie Kay allows us to see that its beauty is in its fluid borders and global presence.
- W.E.B. DuBois The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Dover Publications, 1903/1994).
- Graham Huggan The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, (London: Routledge, 2001).
- Jackie Kay Red Dust Road (London: Picador, 2010).
- Mary Keller The Hammer and the Flute: Women, Power and Spirit Possession (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002).
- Vijay Mishra “The diasporic imaginary: theorizing the Indian diaspora” in Textual Practice 10 (3) 1996: pp. 421 – 447.