In Conversation with Scottish Makar, Jackie Kay

By Betty Mayhew & Day Lilico

Sun and summer soaks the Main Marquee at the North Cornwall Book Festival, and Day and I are lucky enough to catch up with the brilliant Jackie Kay, MBE and Scottish poet laureate. We are big fans of Kay’s poetry, and are grinning ear to ear throughout the meeting. Here’s how it went:

Betty: Transgender studies narratives has been missing in fiction a lot recently, what was it that made you want to write a trans narrative or draw on a trans story for your novel, Trumpet?

Well I was first of all, inspired by something I read in the newspaper about Jazz musician Billy Tipton, who lived all of his life as a man and when he died it was discovered that he was biologically female and his adopted son was quoted as saying ‘he’ll always be daddy to me’ and I find that really quite inspiring, it makes you aware that if you love somebody enough, you believe them. It made me think that identity was also about love as much as anything else.

Betty: And when you write about sexuality, do you feel like you become a generational voice for other aspiring queer writers, like myself?

I don’t think you think about that when you’re writing, in a way, because I think it would be inhibiting and I think it would make you feel that the personal voice that you strive for in your work would become overblown and bloated. So I never think of myself particularly as an inspiration, I mean I’m always delighted when people tell me that I am, wow that’s lovely, but I don’t sit writing thinking that and I think that would affect my writing if I did. I think it’s a funny thing with writing its both private, initially, and it goes on to be public but I think that business of you being alone with the page doesn’t really change, you’re just sat there alone wondering if you can do it or not and thinking that you will fail and that’s just all you do, and that’s a part of a writer’s  art- we all have that. We all wonder if we’re up to the job, if we’re going to be able to pull it off, if we’re going to be able to do it or not. That’s what we do.

Betty: Relating to that idea of failure and striving to ‘make it’ – how did it feel to win your first award? Was it a feeling of validation, that it’s all worth it?

Yeah, it was a great feeling of wild excitement. It feels like a such a reward really, it’s not really to do with what you get given, cause often that’s not very much! It’s actually that was is given is unquantifiable, and that is a massive endorsement- like somebody saying ‘I believe you’, for somebody to say ‘I believe you’ to your work as if your work was a person or something and that’s quite a thrilling thing.

Day: Which award are you most proud of?

Probably The Guardian Fiction Prize for Trumpet, there was also the Forward prize for The Adoption Papers, for one of the poems I was really proud of that as well. The Scottish Book award for Red Dust Road, very, very proud of that. It’s really hard to pick, I mean.

Day: Well when you’ve won so many awards!

[Laughter]

Exactly, it’s just so hard to choose. In fact it would seem a terrible thing to choose between them, you know, like choosing between your children- which is your favourite child? Any award feels like a massive encouragement, it really makes you think – and it puts quite a bit of pressure on you. Getting good marks in anything, puts some pressure onto you because then it’s what you’re going to do next. It also means someone else has thought I can do this, and a part of you thinks ‘wow that’ great’. When I finished Trumpet, I really wasn’t sure if I’d managed to pull it off. It really took readers to tell me, and don’t have that feeling yourself when you’re writing.

Betty: I had a whole seminar of people tell me how inspired they were by Trumpet and how we’d never read anything like it. It was so different for us, to experience a story about trans narratives that also was about nationality, identity – we were so enthralled. All of us. We loved it.

Thank you.

Betty: Finally, a main theme of Trumpet is nationality and Scottish identity. How do you think your own cultural identity has influenced your writing in this way? Do you feel it’s also your story?

I think that it helps to have a complex identity yourself if you’re writing about complex identities. It’s not absolutely necessary – but it helps if your own sense of self is already multiple. And if you’ve got a tenuous relationship with your own country where you felt like you half belong and half don’t, if there’s any position where you’re in as a person where you feel like you’re on the border between one thing and another – then it really helps when you’re writing because you draw on that. It might be that what your drawing on is very different. I’ve not myself been a trans person, I’ve not been in that position that my character Joss Moody has been in, but I have been black and Scottish and growing up in a household where the people didn’t look like me – everybody at school – and I felt very much on the outside of things and that sense of being black and Scottish went in to create Joss Moody and into creating Coleman. The idea of invention, inventing yourself. When you’re adopted you partially do invent yourself, you invent your birth family – you make things up, you make stories up and it becomes part fairytale. So you’ve already got a story going on, and I think being a writer is listening to stories that are inside you as well as listening to the stories that are outside of you.

Day and Betty: Thank you so much we’re looking really forward to your talk!

All this and more at the North Cornwall Book Festival 2016, 21st-23rd October at St Endellion.

Photo credit: Daniel Hall Photography