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Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay

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A Critical Interrogation of such concepts as race, gender, nationality, childhoood, sexuality, motherhood in the poetry of Jackie Kay, especially in The Adoption Papers
A Critical Interrogation of such concepts as race, gender, nationality, childhoood, sexuality, motherhood in the poetry of Jackie Kay, especially in The Adoption Papers

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Published by: Kerim Can Yazgünoğlu on Aug 14, 2011
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Kerim Can Yazgüno lu IED 6/720 British Women Poets Assoc. Prof. Dr. Hande Seber 08.06.2011 Jackie Kay and Identity Politics: ³Where do you come from?´ Deemed as ³one of the best-loved contemporary poets in Britain today´ (Low ³Jackie Kay´), Jackie Kay is a ³versatile writer whose oeuvre encompasses plays, poems, novels, short fiction, screenplays, poetic documentary, and biography´ (Schrage-Früh ³Jackie Kay´). It is worth remarking that Kay¶s ³exploration of Scottish identity and its exclusions occupies a large part of her poetic oeuvre from its very beginnings´ (Winning 237). As is indicated,
[b]eing a black child adopted by white parents, being black in Scotland, being gay in a predominantly heterosexual society, being a woman writer in a male-dominated literary tradition--all these borderline experiences have generated Kay's sense of otherness as well as her need to write into existence her supposedly impossible identity as a "black," Scottish, lesbian woman writer. (Schrage-Früh)

Obviously, Kay experiences different vicissitudes of life and displays the fluidity of those abovementioned identifications. The aim of this study is to delve into Kay¶s poetry by bringing (genetic) identity, womanhood, motherhood, ³other,´ subjectivity, race and gender into focus. Jacqueline Margaret- Jackie Kay- first of all, was born in 1961 in Edinburgh to a white Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, and then was adopted by a white Scottish couple (Low). She best reflects this experience of interracial adoption in her work. As we have underlined, Kay, ³who is homosexual, contests the static and restrictive label of µBlack

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Scottish Lesbian,¶ and the instability of a developing identity composed of many shifting elements is a unifying theme that runs throughout her work´ (Persoon and Watson 259). She has published three collections of poetry, The Adoption Papers, Other Lovers and Off Colour. What is significant is that Kay ³gives voice to a range of experiences, not only of a black girl adopted into a white Scottish family in the collection The Adoption Papers but also to working-class male homosexuality (in µClose Shave,¶ Other Lovers, 1993), which speaks of a bodily yearning at odds with its prohibited status´ (Goody 144). Her poetic versatility entails diverse voices, drawing attention to the conceptualizations of identity. Her first novel, Trumpet, was published in 1998, and won the Guardian Fiction Prize. Jackie Kay gained significant attention with The Adoption Papers in 1991. This first poetry collection won a Forward Prize, a Saltire Award and a Scottish Arts Council Book Award (O¶Rourke 178; Persoon and Watson 4). The Adoption Papers sequence ³encapsulates a desire to disrupt any straightforwardly monolithic construction of self in its formal concerns, since it is printed in three typefaces, each representing a different µvoice¶ by which identity is explored´ (Lumsden 79). These three voices belong to the daughter, the adoptive mother and the birth mother, respectively. In the opening three-stanza sequence, the adoptive mother speaks directly: ³I always wanted to give birth´ (10). She recalls the pressure to ³do that incredible natural thing/that women do´ (10). The adoptive mother is as reflective as the birth mother is. The birth mother imagines her daughter as such: ³She is twenty-six today/my hair is grey´ (10). It is pointed out that her ³words, like the connection between her and her daughter, are sparse and dislocated´ (Persoon and Watson 4). The connection between the stanzas of the adoptive mother and the birth mother is the voice of the black, Scottish daughter. Each stanza begins with ³I´ indicating the personal experience respectively. This illustrates ³a fragmented, elusive subjectivity, as each persona is given space to voice her own particular desires and fears which between them contribute to the adult whom the adopted

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daughter will become´ (Lumsden 78). The daughter, the adoptive mother and the birth mother are ³baffled in their different ways and these bafflements multiply each other through juxtapositions and interpenetration´ (Gregson 244). In addition, racial and genetic identity is of great significance in shaping subjectivity, which is interrogated throughout the poem. The white adoptive mother remarks:
They told us they had no babies at first and I chanced it didn¶t matter what colour it was and they said oh well are you sure in that case we have a baby for you ± to think she wasn¶t even thought of as a baby, my baby, my baby (³Black Bottom´ 24)

Conspicuously, this displays the deep-rooted racism in the Scottish society. It can be argued that it is a kind of dehumanisation which reflects the sense that woman of colour is inferior, even not a human being. Skin colour affects the perspectives, and in the poem the black daughter is in-between due to the fact that both the birth mother and the adoptive mother is white. A teacher shows ³strongly essentialist and reductive notions of race and apply them cruelly in front of the class´ (Broom 61-62):
[...] my teacher shouts from the bottom of the class Come on, show

us what you can do I thought you people had it in your blood. My skin is hot as burning coal like that time she said Darkies are like coal in front of the whole class ± my blood

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what does she mean? I thought (³Black Bottom´ 25)

It is through these lines that what is salient is that a child experiences racial abuse. Again, race and culture are interconnected with each other in such an intricate way that the issue of blood brings them together. The black daughter asks: ³What Is In My Blood?´ (25). It is remarked that ³while she may acknowledge the limits of a biologically grounded notion of self, she also recognises that, in her desire to recover and inscribe her fractured identity, it is inescapably seductive´ (Lumsden 80): ³the blood, the tie, the passing down/generations´ and ³the blood does not bind confusion,/yet I confess to my contradiction/I want to know my blood´ (29). Here, genetic and racial identity is questioned with regard to biological aspects of identity. When we take into consideration a quotation from The Souls of Black Folk (1903) written by W. E. B. Du Bois, this can explain the contradiction which the black daughter, the voice of Jackie Kay, experiences:
[T]he negro is a sort of seventh son born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world [Scottish world], - a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one¶s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one¶s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, - an American, a Negro, two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body... (2)

Obviously, for Kay, the situation is more complicated since she is a Black, Scottish, Lesbian Woman Writer. It is important to highlight the fact that ³two warring ideals in one dark body´ become five warring ideals in one dark body for Kay. It is through ³a veil´ that the situation of being unrecognised and unseen is emphasised since she is unrecognised as a baby. The black daughter remarks: ³my face watches itself in the glass´ (29). Girl is seen/recognised through the glass, not through the gazes of others. In this context, identity is formed through

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cultural and social norms. Identity becomes a kind of social construction like gender. The issue of blood is again significant in terms of the feminine identity and reproduction in the poem:
It is the well, the womb, the fucking seed Here, I am far enough away to wonder ± what were their faces like who were my grandmothers what were the days like passed in Scotland the land I come from the soil in my blood. (³Generations´ 29)

Such dichotomies as culture/ nature, nature /nurture are scrutinised with regard to the feminine identity. The black daughter is aware of her biological development, and the adult self begins to be shaped by the questionings about race, gender and the land. This biological imagery such as the well, the womb is juxtaposed with the papers of the title since womanhood and motherhood are under scrutiny with respect to maternity. The adoptive mother is aware of the fact that ³I¶m not a mother/until I¶ve signed that piece of paper´ (16). Also, motherhood is questioned in these lines: ³Ma mammy says she¶s no really ma mammy/But I love ma mammy whether she¶s real or no´ (21). After the adoption papers, the adoptive mother becomes ³really ma mammy.´ In addition, it is remarked that ³[w]hat is absent from the book are the perspectives of the fathers, both biological and adoptive fathers´ (D¶Aguiar 66). Some lines, themes and words are recurrent throughout the poem. The poem is dramatic in form. It is important to emphasise the fact that Kay has ³an ex cellent ear for cadences of speech, regional accents, and dialect, and these qualities come through in character studies brought vividly to life through her use of dramatic monologues´ (Low). It is

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clearly seen that the ³use of dialect or another language to foreground questions of cultural identity is a strategy which has also been used by Scottish and Welsh poets´ (Wallace 257). Jackie Kay is one of them, using dialect, colloquial speech in her poems. As Fred D¶Aguiar figures out, The Adoption Papers is ³a new and distinctive voice on the British literary scene´ (66). Furthermore, the problems of place, colour and identity come to surface with the poems, ³So You Think I¶m a Mule´ and ³In My Country.´ The poem, ³So You Think I¶m a Mule,´ begins as such:
µWhere do you come from?¶ µI¶m from Glasgow.¶ µGlasgow?¶ [...] The white face hesitates The eyebrows raise The mouth opens [...] µAh, but you¶re not pure.¶ µPure? Pure what. Pure white? Ugh (qtd. in McMillan, 570)

Racist Scottish woman interrogates Scottishness of a Black Scottish woman through these lines. Black Scottish woman refuses to accept such words as ³mulatto,´ ³hybrid´ and ³half caste.´ Jackie Kay illustrates the racist mind of Scottish woman by focusing on racial identity in the poem. The fact that the identity of Black woman is denied within the dominant white society is reflected in a sinister tone in the poem. The poem ³In my country´ from Other Lovers is an example of the interrogation of identity and place-attachment:

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[...] a woman passed round me in a slow watchful circle, as if I were a superstition;

or the worst dregs of her imagination, so when she finally spoke her words spliced into bars of an old wheel. A segment of air. Where do you come from? µHere,¶ I said, µHere. These parts.¶ (24)

Clearly, Black woman is regarded as uncanny, inscrutable and mystery. As Joanne Winning argues, the woman¶s ³imagination´ ³symbolises the cultural consciousness of white Scots, carrying within it age-old narratives about race and possession´ (237). It is obvious that Jackie Kay ³asserts her right to exist on Scottish soil succinctly, claiming her place within µparts¶ of the country´ (Winning 237). The recurrent line ³Where do you come from?´ stands for the fact that Kay belongs to the part of Scotland, which exerts great influence on Kay¶ identity. Besides, Other Lovers begins with a sequence of seven poems on the blues singer, Bessie Smith (McMillan 572). In ³The Red Graveyard´ Jackie Kay tells of her first encounter with Bessie:
I am coming down the stairs in my father¶s house I am five or six or seven. There is fat thick wallpaper I always caress, bumping flower into flower. She is singing. (Did they play anyone else ever?) [...] I pick up the cover and my fingers are all over her face. Her black face. Her magnificent black face.

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That¶s some voice. (13)

The child first encounters the voice of Bessie, and then is herself identified with Bessie. It is pointed out that ³[t]he movement of the poem slows right down, creating cine-footage of the epiphanic moment in which the young child picks up the cover and recognises something herself in Smith¶s µmagnificent black face¶´ (Winning 239). Child¶s black identity is constructed by the identification with a black face. The fact that ³an awareness of one¶s cultural ³ancestors´ is crucial in the construction of a black subjectivity´ (Lumsden 83) is explored in ³The Red Graveyard´ as such: ³Why do I remember the blues?/I am five or six or seven in the back garden;´ [...] ³her voice claims the rooms. In the best room even,/something has changed the shape of my silence./ Why do I remember her voice and not my own mother¶s?´ (13). Here, the shared past is significant in constructing the black subjectivity since she recognises the voice of Bessie before she remember her mother¶s voice. In Kay¶s poems there is a longing for the past and the land inseparable from the formation of black identity. For Kay, racial or genetic identity is a complex problem which is interconnected with her identity of Black, Scottish, Lesbian Woman poet. To conclude, Jackie Kay carries out an exploration into the fluidity and plurality of identity by bringing into focus its ambivalent aspects in terms of race, gender and inheritance in her poems. She challenges the commonly accepted norms of race within the Scottish culture so as to display the polyphonic voices in the society.

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Works Cited Primary Sources: Kay, Jackie. The Adoption Papers. Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1991. ----. Other Lovers. Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1993. Secondary Sources: Broom, Sarah. Contemporary British and Irish Poetry: An Introduction. Basingstoke: PalgraveMacmillan, 2006. D¶Aguiar, Fred. ³Have You Been Here Long? Black Poetry in Britain.´ New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 1993. Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover P, 1994. Goody, Alex. ³Contemporary British Poetry.´ The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Culture. Eds. Michael Higgins, Clarissa Smith and John Storey. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Gregson, Ian. Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism: Dialogue and Estrangement. New York: St. Martin¶s P, 1996. Low, Gail. "Jackie Kay." British Writers: Supplement 13. Ed. Jay Parini. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2008. Lumsden, Alison. ³Jackie Kay¶s Poetry and Prose: Constructing Identity.´ Contemporary

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Scottish Women Writers. Eds. Aileen Christianson and Alison Lumsden. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2000. McMillan, Dorothy. ³Twentieth-century Poetry II: The Last Twenty-five Years.´ Eds. Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005. O¶Rourke, Donny, ed. Dream State: The New Scottish Poets. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Polygon, 2002. Persoon, James and Robert R. Watson. ³The Adoption Papers.´ The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry: 1900 to the Present. New York: Facts On File, 2009. Schrage-Früh, Michaela. "Jackie Kay." Twenty-First-Century "Black" British Writers. Ed. R. Victoria Arana. Detroit: Gale, 2009. Wallace, Diana. ³µWriting as Re-vision:¶ Women¶s Writing in Britain, 1945 to the Present Day.´ An Introduction to Women¶s Writing: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day. Ed. Marion Shaw. London: Prentice Hall, 1998. Winning, Joanne. ³Curious Rarities? The Work of Kathleen Jamie and Jackie Kay.´ Contemporary Women¶s Poetry: Reading/Writing/Practice. Basingstoke: Macmillan P, 2000.

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