(Picador, 2010); pbk: £8.99
Red Dust Road starts in Abuja, in an extraordinary and captivating opening chapter which packs the case for a journey which crosses countries, continents and hemispheres. The book begins with “Jonathan” , Kay’s blood father, and indeed he can claim much undeserved credit for shaping this memoir. Tracked down from her “”Fantasy Africa”, which was long conjured up in “Reality Britain”, to a very richly painted real Nigeria, Jonathan rapidly loses his layers of dreamed-up lustre.
Founded on a rock-solid sense of self, Kay’s deceptively easy to read prose shakes memory particles, pithy observations, and a sharp social awareness to create that unpredictable, exciting path. Her sure ear for dialect and dialogue brings both the familiar and unknown very close. An enervating wit flares, sometimes in a justified anger and often in unadulterated joy. She finds much to celebrate; “’Call her Joy’ he [Jonathan] remembers saying, and left it at that.”
Kay’s titular road maps her journey to discover her birth parents. Like any autobiography, however nuanced or focused, it is also a trail of self-discovery – her early realisation that she was adopted and that her brother (the wonderfully named Maxie for Maxwell, of Red Clydeside fame) was not a blood sibling; her awareness of her skin-colour; her emergent sexuality; significant forks in her career and life paths. Anyone who has had the privilege of hearing Kay read knows that she did not entirely forsake her early ambitions to perform. Bead-like, each chapter has a self-contained finish, as might be expected from Kay, who is of course, both a fine short story writer and poet. Strung fabulously, rather than merely lined chronologically, her beads articulate into an accomplished whole:“It’s like a whole new way to tackle the potent danger of dementia or Alzheimer’s: my parents reinforce each other with memory”. If, separately, Kay’s birth parents reveal themselves to be less luminous than she had hoped, her adoptive ones, Helen and John, truly sparkle. Warm, wise, unconventional and gutsy – would that it were every child’s fate to have such wonderful parents, adoptive or otherwise.
This journey’s twists and back roads are both physical and, more importantly, internal. It would be very wrong to reveal the ultimate destination or final steps. That is the reader’s path. Suffice to say, her generous dedication reads: ” For my family, With love”. Now, unpack the fullness of that.
Nigeria’s 49th anniversary of independence celebration is marked here. As Scotland lurches towards its own uncertain 2014, we must be able to ask ourselves what it takes to be a Scot today, and by extension, where that places us as citizens of the twenty-first century world; Kay writes, “…there are two little boxes […]”Family trip? YES OR NO […]. I pause over the simple question and then tick the box for no. Under Nationality, I write Scottish.”
Following Kay’s road through a Scotland which heard Powell’s “rivers of blood” as its overspill reached the playground; the same Scotland which, so recently, within a University campus, felt able to pillory and persecute her for her lesbianism; we must rejoice that this vibrant, intelligent woman made that choice in a distant airport. We should be proud that she can own us. Her vital, witty, soul-warming book deserves to be read by everyone who has a cross to make next year.