I know what you’re thinking, why read this so soon after reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Two books by well-loved authors talking about their upbringing and adoption. Doesn’t that invite such a direct comparison so soon upon one another? I’ll tell you why I chose to read Red Dust Road now. Reading Why Be Happy, Winterson repeatedly describes being adopted as inherently embedded with loss, says things like “adopted children always blame themselves” and feel “rejected”, “unwanted”, and never feeling like they “belong”. And I read that and thought, “No, adopted children don’t always feel like that. Unloved children always feel like that.” For me, a lot of what Winterson ascribes to her identity as an adopted child has a lot more to do with the lack of love she was shown by the family who raised her than how she began life. I read what she wrote and thought, “I know adopted people and they don’t feel like that.” Yet everyone I know who lacked love as a child, either through loss, separation, abuse or just plain lack of connection to their parents, feels like that. Being biologically related to your parents will not stop you feeling like you don’t belong.
So I wanted to read another adoption story, and I love Jackie Kay and I wanted to hear hers. And this is just a beautiful, moving, hilarious and wonderful story. This book is the book you read that turns you from liking someone’s work and reading what you can of theirs, to LOVING them and having to read everything they’ve ever written.
The hero of this story is Helen Kay, Jackie’s mum who raised her. I love Helen. She’s everything you could want in a wee mammy. A communist, a feminist, an ardent fighter for equality, and a great storyteller with a big imagination to feed her family with. There are times when she speaks and I’m almost in tears of laughter –
“How romantic is this – Your dad said to me, “What would you prefer, a wedding ring or a rucksack? Because we cannae afford both.” I chose a rucksack.”
– and times when she speaks and I’m almost in tears because it’s so moving –
“NEVER EVER let anyone tell you you should be grateful [for being adopted]. WE are the ones who are grateful.”
Her mammy rushes to her side when Jackie’s in uni and the BNP put up posters calling her a “Fenian” “wog”. She suggests Jackie even refuse her MBE as a snub to monarchy, because she’s so rock n roll. And she always encourages Jackie to trace her biological family, do whatever she wants or needs to do to get a sense of completion on her identity. When Jackie finally finds her Nigerian brother, she tells Jackie she wants him to call her (Helen) his “Scottish mum”. She’s just a big hearted woman who it would never occur to her to be anything but open and giving. Jackie paints her mother as her best friend, and her childhood as a happy one.
Also, this book adds to a long line of books I’ve read recently which might as well have the tag line “in which religious people are crazy”. This book opens with Jackie’s biological father meeting her for the first time. He is a Nigerian evangelical preacher and healer, and he prays over her for two hours straight by way of introducing himself. He wants her to accept Christ and be born again. But he doesn’t want to tell his wife or other children about her. He doesn’t want his congregation to know he had a child out of wedlock. He doesn’t want to see her again unless she is born again. Ah, Christians.
Jackie’s biological mother is a much more sympathetic figure but she too has devoted herself to God and isn’t much interested in losing her standing in her church. She is a Mormon convert, and also doesn’t want anyone at her church knowing she had a child out of wedlock. She doesn’t want to tell her husband or other children about Jackie. She prays on it, and God agrees with her that now is not a good time. Ah, Christians.
The people who actually welcome Jackie into their family – the Kays – are atheists. Not a God-fearing bone in their bodies. Thank fuck.
These interactions with her biological parents are probably about as bad as parental reunions get. I haven’t done a survey or anything, but I imagine your biological father standing over you praying for two hours because he sees you as the living embodiment of his sin, has got to be right up there with the worst. Yet she deals with them with quiet dignity, courage, internal fortitude and laughter. In contrast with Why Be Happy, where Winterson’s reunion with her biological mother is almost completely positive but she is left still coping with the scars that she carried in the woman’s absence all these years, in Red Dust Road Jackie’s reunions are disrupted, anxious, secret, and only tentatively welcoming, yet she integrates them into the larger, loving tapestry of her life with the love, support and humour of her family.
The race issues brought up in the book give the whole thing an extra dimension. Jackie is helped on her travels to Nigeria by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (how awesome would it be to have Chimamanda as your pal?!) and Chimamanda is shocked at Jackie’s treatment at the hands of her father. Not only is it not ‘Nigerian’ to not acknowledge your kin, but specifically among the Ibo (the ethnic group to which both women belong) it is unheard of. Also, as part of the diaspora, she should expect to be welcomed to Africa. This homecoming, which so many people from all around the world feel the urge to make but which so few can, has massive psychological and cultural weight.
What I found really interesting was the way both her biological parent’s heritage is important to Jackie. Tracing her father to his ancestral village in Africa is important for her identity as a black woman. Yet she is equally keen to find her mother’s home in the Highlands, trace her back to her village in Scotland. It kind of de-otherises the whole process, which for me as a white reader stories of return to Africa can be, romantic but intangible. I like the idea of Jackie standing in the grass in Nairn, her heritage the most Scottish of the Scottish, and standing on the red dust road in Nigeria, her heritage the most African of the African, straddling worlds underneath her toes.
Honestly read this book. It’s awesome. It literally had me creasing myself with laughter. And it spans such a vista of time, geography, race, gender, sexuality, everything. And at its centre is a core story of love and acceptance and family. It really is a gorgeous book