Red Dust Road is a kind of autobiographical book by Jackie Kay. I say kind of as it is not a full autobiography, rather a partial one. Jackie Kay is a prominent Scottish writer of poetry, novels and short stories for both adults and children. What makes her stand out, literally, is that her birth father is from Nigeria and her birth mother from Nairn in Scotland. I mention birth parents because at a very early age Jackie was given up by her mother and adopted. This book is essentially Jackie’s reflections on her childhood growing up as a black girl in Glasgow and an account of her attempts to meet up with her birth parents.
Jackie was born in Edinburgh in 1961 and adopted shortly after by John and Helen Kay. The Kays are a fascinating couple in their own right. Active members of the Communist Party, they brought up Jackie and her elder brother, another adopted child, with great love and care. In the book Jackie recounts with love her own memories of the happy times she has spent with her mum and dad. As a black woman Jackie has encountered too many encounters with racists, which in her case was no doubt made worse by the fact that she is a lesbian.
However the main focus of this book is her various attempts over many years, decades in fact to meet up with her birth parents. She does not try to find out about them until she is an adult and only meets her birth mother when she, Jackie, is 30 years old. She is much older, 42, when she finally meets up with her father. By some strange coincidence both of her birth parents have become religious. Her mother is a Mormon and her father is a born again Christian. Doubly strange given that Jackie has been brought up by about the most un-religious couple you could imagine. Both of her birth parents are none too sure about meeting Jackie and while both recognize and accept her as a daughter, neither is willing to reveal their secret past to their current families. This as one can imagine is pretty upsetting for Jackie. However she never criticizes her birth parents, but continues to try and meet them. Easier with her mother, who lives in England, but a bit more difficult with her father, who is now back in Nigeria.
While she is keen to keep in touch with both her birth parents, she is perhaps understandably more fascinated by her father and is very keen to find out about her African roots. She does this eventually and even manages to visit the ancestral village of her father. The title of the book, Red Dust Road, comes from her imagined picture of what her father’s village looked like. And lo and behold when she does reach this village she has to walk along a red dust road.
The book is in many ways quite a sad tale. The trials and tribulations of adoption – who am I and where am I from – and the risks of trying to meet one’s birth parents can hardly make it otherwise. Add in the additional trials and tribulations of growing up as a black girl and a lesbian to boot in Scotland, then adversity is never far away. However this is mainly a positive tale. Jackie overcomes everything thrown at her, in part due to the wonderful support of her adoptive mum and dad. She also finally makes a breakthrough in Nigeria, though I won’t spoil just how it ends.