- An Interview with Jackie Kay
This interview took place on March 27, 2008, at the home of Jackie Kay in Manchester, England.
I am always struck by comments about you, and they are always dealing with identity politics. Obviously in the United States we live identity politics, but what does “identity politics” mean here in this setting in Northern England and in Scotland where you were born?
Well, for me I’ve got a complex identity because I’m Scottish and I’m African and I’m adopted and I was brought up in Glasgow by white, working class socialists. My birth father was from Nigeria. My birth mother was from the highlands in Scotland. I don’t think you need to go much further than that to get a sense of a mixture or a clash or a fusion of identities; for me that has always been very enriching and it’s a starting place in my writing. I’m really interested in the borders and the borderlines that exist between one state and another and one country and another, one state of mind and other. I write from that border country. I never think, oh I wish I hadn’t been adopted because I have wonderful adopted parents. I never think, oh I wish I had never been brought up in Scotland because I love Scotland—even though it’s problematic in lots of ways—and I see myself as being Scottish and black. So that’s my identity and my identity is a complex, shifting thing. At different points in my life it’s been different things to me. I think identity is fluid. If you go to Scotland you will see it’s light-years away from Manchester where we are now. Manchester is a multicultural city which is more at ease with itself racially, like say London. Scotland has no city that is as at ease with itself as Manchester or London. So that’s why I live south and because I really wanted, I’ve got a son who’s also black and I wanted to bring him up in an environment where he’d feel completely comfortable. In Scotland people still ask you where you’re from even with my accent. They’ll say, where you from? Where you from really? The other day I was in a wee of Scotland, in Drymen, spelled Dry-men but pronounced Drimmin, but plenty dry men about in Drymen, and I was trying on this top and my mum said to me, “That color suits you” and this complete stranger said to me, “I think that color suits you too dear, where are you from?” so I said, “I’m from Glasgow.” She paused and she went, “Is that right, because I’ve got a friend from the Dominican Republic.” [Laughter]
That’s extraordinary. She identified you as a Dominican, a citizen of the Dominican Republic, and you remained a Dominican, a culture and a people you knew nothing about. That’s amazing. [End Page 268]
We find ourselves in the world with our various, different, complex backgrounds. We define ourselves often in our society by difference or through difference. Actually everybody has an identity. White people have a white identity and that travels and shifts and changes in lots of different ways as well. I think that as we still grow towards a new period it’s been interesting, reading for instance about Obama and the presidential race because that keeps on changing its focus.
Does your identity place you in the margins of this society, British society, as African Americans are treated in the United States? How are you treated as an artist? Is your work also marginalized? Am I misrepresenting your position in British society when I imply that you are marginalized? Are you marginalized? What is the impact of that position on you as an artist, a writer?
I think you can have a different vantage point, and the vantage point may be an advantage and because you’re the outsider, and the writer and the outsider have always been close bedfellows