One of the joys of working in a library is that when a whim to read a specific book suddenly overtakes you the chances are it may well be in the building. This was the case with Jackie Kay’s memoir Red Dust Road, which I actually thought I had read but realised I hadn’t? Small aside, does anyone else do this? If so please let me know. Anyway, one of the challenges for the #PrideMonthReads challenge, which George Lester and I started this month, was to find or recommend and own voices book. With adoption being on my mind rather a lot at the moment, the tale of Jackie’s adoption and search for her birth parents had been one I had been contemplating reading. With that and her being an out member of the LGBTQ community Red Dust Road seemed like the perfect read for me RIGHT NOW, fortunately there was one on the shelves. So I started it that very day on my lunch break, I wasn’t expecting a book that would chime with me in the many ways that it did.
As Red Dust Road opens, Jackie is about to meet her biological father for the very first time in Nigeria. This is quite a different setting from the hotel foyer in Milton Keynes where she met her mother for the first time some years before, we learn. From this point the book then weaves backwards and forwards through time as she embarks on the potential relationship with her father, who happens to be a born again Christian and sees her as living proof of the sins of his past, deal with the maintaining of the relationship with her birth mother and look back her childhood with her adoptive parents before and after the moment she realised that she was not theirs biologically.
I am seven years old. My mum, my brother and I have just watched a cowboy and Indian film. I’m sad because the Indians have lost again, and I wanted them to win. It suddenly occurs to me that the Indians are the same colour as me and my mum is not the same colour as me. I say to my mum, Mummy why aren’t you the same colour as me? My mum says, Because you’re adopted. I say, What does adopted mean, my brother scoffs; Don’t you know what adoption means. He’s eating a giant-size bowl of cornflakes. He eats cornflakes for nearly every meal. No, I don’t know. I’m nearly in tears. I’ve heard the word before but I don’t really understand it. My mum says, It means I’m not really your mummy. What do you mean, you’re not really my mummy? I say. I am crying for real now because I love my mum so much and I want her to be my real mummy and I’m worried she means she is not real and that something is going to happen to her, that she is going to disappear or dissolve. She says, Your real mother couldn’t keep you so she gave you to me so that I could be your mummy. Yes, that means you’re not really my sister, my brother laughs. Ha ha. Do you get it? Are you making this up? I ask my mummy. Is this one of your stories? She’s so good, my mummy, at telling stories. No, it isn’t, she says. She’s in tears herself too.
One thing I particularly loved about Red Dust Road is the open honesty with which Jackie Kay tells her story. There are no hero’s or villains in this piece, though I have to say I think Jackie’s mother and father John and Helen and their love for their daughter and support in her finding her birth parents is utterly wonderful. Everyone has their quirks and their flaws, because that is what all humans do. Make no mistake this is not a misery memoir, Jackie is perfectly happy, she just wants to know more especially when she is pregnant herself with her son. She isn’t expecting a perfect ending; sometimes it can be about a happy imperfect ending after a journey of discovering more. Even when things take a wobble there is still vibrancy to Jackie’s writing which I also love, with parents like John and Helen though whatever the outcome you feel Jackie knows she has already got a winning combination and security in them, which always gave any scenario this positive undertone which I really loved.
Now I don’t want to make this all about me because it is very much Jackie’s book and her story… However sometimes a book will get you on a personal level and with this being my personal blog, admittedly more with a bookish twist than on my personal life, it would seem remiss of me not to share the two levels with which this book had a deep resonance with me and made me rather emotional on several occasions.
The first of these was the fact that starting the adoption process myself, thanks to Jackie’s honesty (as I mention above) this is the first time I have really read such a frank and intimate set of thoughts about what it is like to be adopted. The role of the adoptive parent seems to be much more documented and whilst I have lots of friends who have been adopted it has never really been something I have brought up with a lot of them, I assumed that it might be prying a little too much into their lives. Interestingly I have pried into many of the lives of my friends who have adopted. I do wonder if it because the process has happened while I have known them as adults adopting, whereas I didn’t know my friends as children when they were adopted. Anyway, this was the first time I had encountered such a frank depiction. The love Jackie felt for her adoptive parents, who she considers her parents end of, made me cry as did the way they unwaveringly supported her in finding her parents as an adult, highly emotive indeed.
The other big element was that in some of the pages, passages of Jackie’s story felt like they could be my own. You see whilst I am not an adopted child myself, I didn’t meet my father until I was sixteen years old. And so when Jackie is writing about both imagining what her biological parents might be like and also the strange feeling of having some of your identity missing – which is no fault of the loving parents you have – and needing to discover more were very much like the questions I had in my head. Though my father was from Derbyshire like my mother not from another country, I still had this huge gap if not culturally then just in a sense of myself. I haven’t experienced having those thoughts shared by someone else before. Frankly at some point I might have to hunt Jackie Kay down for a cup of tea, a cake and a good old natter about it in more detail.
‘Maybe your father was an African chief,’ my mother used to say, and, ‘Maybe you are an African princess.’ I liked that. In my imaginary princess picture, I am wearing a traditional African dress, purples and oranges and yellows. ‘Maybe you will own land,’ my mother said. I liked that too. I pictured the plots of my land in the African landscape of my imagination. It was flat land, not like the Highlands of Scotland. The earth was dark and rich. There was a red-dust road. I couldn’t really get much further than that.
So a huge thank you to Jackie for writing such an honest and open account of several parts and elements of her life. Thank you for sharing in the laughter, tears, joy and fears of the journey of discovery that she has gone through. If you a looking for writing on adoption or just a memoir with a difference then I would recommend red Dust Road very much indeed. I was also thinking it would make a very interesting companion read to Kit De Waal’s My Name is Leon, which I also really loved when I read that a year or so ago. A gem from the library shelves, hurray for libraries, they are brilliant aren’t they?