May 18, 2013

Jackie Kay at AWRF 2013

Jackie Kay is a poet and author who was born in Edinburgh to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father. She and her brother were adopted by a couple of Scottish communists (who had met in New Zealand of all places) and raised in Glasgow. "My parents were very open about us being adopted," she tells us. "Well, they'd have to be, because we were a different colour."

Spirit and humour is something Jackie Kay seems to brim over with. Arriving on stage together with Stephanie Johnson (who chaired beautifully), she announces that she's going to read us a poem, but that rather than do it from one of the twin armchairs, she has decided to stand at the lectern because she'd noticed while listening to other speakers that "at the lectern you're framed by these nice flowers" -- breezily waving her hand at the two green giant palmettos rearing up behind her.

But the stories she tells are poignant. She goes to the town in Nigeria where her birth father came from and feels she recognises it. "I believe we can carry other people's memories in our DNA", she says, but then a minute later she is saying "Perhaps it was just me wanting to belong to that land which was my father's who had abandoned me".

Still later, she says "We can be defined by our losses, our griefs," she says. "People can be haunted by absences. To the point that an absence can be a sort of presence".

And one more thing is there along with the wit and wistfulness: courage. She talks about growing up in Britain in the '60s, being called a "darkie" even by a friend, and then about being a black, lesbian poet in Britain during the early '90s, a very strange time, she says, a time of extreme politics. "You had to hold your nerve". A white supremacist poster went up declaring Jackie Kay a "degenerate Irish Catholic wog", with razor blades concealed behind it so that if you tried to pull it down you'd get your fingers sliced.

She laughs. "I don't know where they got Irish Catholic from!"

In her latest book, she tells us, she had felt like creating interesting older women characters, as too often "they tend to disappear". She reads us a piece which is about an old woman in a nursing home. "These are not my clothes." the woman tells the attendant when she is helped to dress in the morning, when she is taken to a lounge and parked by the window, when she is taken to the dining room. I thought I was listening to a poem, quite a long one, I remember thinking, but I liked it. It turned out that I had missed the fact that the book Reality, reality was a collection of short stories, not of poems, which says something about the expressiveness of Kay's writing.

At question time, someone asks her to name her favourite poet. "Robert Burns", she responds immediately, and then adds Pablo Neruda, contemporary Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie and the last century Scottish poet Hugh Macdiarmid. "I like New Zealand poetry too", she says. "Fleur Adcock, Bill Manhire, Lauris Edmond."

She had started the hour with a poem about friendship (poems are often written about love, she says, but not often about friendship) which she introduced by saying that she had read it "at the Robert Burns Supper in Sri Lanka". Everyone laughed to hear this, including Jackie. "The haggis was flown in", she said.

Here's the poem. it's called "Fiere", a Scottish word meaning "friend".


    If ye went tae the tapmost hill, Fiere,
    Whaur we used tae clamb as girls,
    Ye'd see the snow the day, Fiere,
    Settling on the hills.
    You'd mind o' anither day, mibbe,
    We ran doon the hill in the snow,
    Sliding and singing oor way tae the foot,
    Lassies laughing thegither - how braw.
    The years slipping awa; oot in the weather.

    And noo we're suddenly auld, Fiere,
    Oor friendship's ne'er been weary.
    We've aye seen the wurld differently.
    Whaur would I hae been weyoot my jo,
    My fiere, my fiercy, my dearie O?
    Oor hair micht be silver noo,
    Oor walk a wee bit doddery,
    But we've had a whirl and a blast, girl,
    Thru' the cauld blast winter, thru spring, summer.

    O'er a lifetime, my fiere, my bonnie lassie,
    I'd defend you - you, me; blithe and blatter,
    Here we gang doon the hill, nae matter,
    past the bracken, bothy, bonny braes, barley.
    Oot by the roaring Sea, still havin a blether.
    We who loved sincerely; we who loved sae fiercely.
    The snow ne'er looked sae barrie,
    Nor the winter trees sae pretty.
    C'mon, c'mon my dearie - tak my hand, my fiere!

What a great line that is, "My fiere, my fiercy, my dearie O".  Jackie Kay didn't translate "fiercy" for us, but I think we can guess.

I wanted to buy one of her books, but the line was long and I was in a hurry, so I gave up the idea. Later, coming out of another session and stopping for a moment in the midst of the crowd to think about where I needed to be next, I saw a familiar face right in front of me: it was Jackie Kay, in the act of signing a book for someone. A disappointed "Oh!" escaped me as I realised what a missed opportunity it was,

She turned and smiled at me. "Did you want me to sign a book ?" I explained my predicament -- the store was halfway across the foyer and I could see a ring of customers around it two or three deep. "Oh go and get it!" she said. "I'll wait!" And she did. On my return, I passed the PR homing in to take her to wherever she had to be next. But first she signed my copy of Red Dust Road, her memoir about looking for her birth inheritance.

Not just with her signature. She also put "To Karen", which I didn't tell her but she read off my lanyard, and "All best to you". And then this fiere, this fiercy, was off.

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 17:00


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