Oct/Nov 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

Journey to an Elusive Welcome

Review by Ikeogu Oke

Red Dust Road.
Jackie Kay
Picador. 2010. 289 pp.
ISBN 978-1509858392.

Red Dust Road is the story of British writer Jackie Kay's extraordinary journey in search of her Scottish mother Elizabeth Frazer and Nigerian father Jonathan O., who met while the father was a student in Scotland. She embarks on the journey about forty years after her adoption, which took place five months after her birth in "a mother-and-baby home" in Edinburgh. This is also, perhaps more importantly, the story of the redemptive care she receives as a beloved child of Helen and John Kay, her adoptive parents—"the people who are to me my real parents," she declares in unmistakable appreciation of a remarkable couple to whom she fondly calls "mum" and "dad," whereas her birth parents are just "mother" and "father."

The Kays (both Scots like her birth mother), stand out not only for their courage in being "lifelong and committed socialists," but also for their adopting and raising colored children in a Britain where doing either was the rebellious equivalent of hoping to make progress swimming against the current at the discharge end of a dam. They never felt that their adopted children were beholden to them, while they stoutly and constantly defended them against racism, as in this encounter after they adopted Kay's brother, Maxwell:

"Shortly after the day they brought my brother home," she recalls, "a minister arrived at my parents' door. 'I've heard that you've done a kind act and adopted a coloured child,' he says to me. 'We at the Church just wanted to know if we could be of any assistance,' as if he were thinking of both of you as noble savages. I sent them packing," my mum told me. "I'll tell you what's savage, the Scottish Presbyterian Church!"

"In many ways, we still live in a rather primitive racist society," Kay later laments.

In due course, blood proves thick (at least on her part), though not necessarily thicker than water, and Kay sets out to trace her birth parents in nearby Scotland and faraway Nigeria. She hopes to find out the type of people they are and, quite curiously, the circumstances of her conception. "Nobody wants to have been created out of hate, or boredom, or foolishness or ignorance," she explains, insightfully. "I prefer to believe that I've been made out of love. I like to imagine my black father madly in love with my white mother."

After meeting both parents she seems convinced that she was "made out of love," but also discovers, quite disconcertingly, that they, now very religious people married to different individuals and with children, regard her as an embarrassing evidence of their sinful past which they would rather conceal. Her father can only acknowledge her as his blood with thinly veiled reservation, unwilling as he is to make the fact public. A university professor of high academic repute, he is also a born-again Christian of the extreme sort, who dispenses prayers like some placebo. He even offers an unsolicited prayer for Kay to cleanse her of the sin of her birth. "I try to think of all my sins. True, there's a lot of them. But the fact that I was born out of wedlock? That is not my sin," Kay writes as she contemplates the strange indictment. What is more, neither parent is willing to disclose her existence to their other children, in effect her siblings.

Those who identify with Bertrand Russell's strictures in Why I Am Not A Christian might consider the father's church-warped sensibility that emerges from Red Dust Road as an additional disincentive to those the great British philosopher details in the book. Nor would the mother's image offer any consolation to such people, especially after she tells Kay that the Mormons, whose religion she has embraced, "believe that adopted people cry out to be adopted while they are still in the womb"—a belief that, in effect, absolves her of blame for putting the author up for adoption and implicates to the child!

It is gratifying though that after the father practically snubs Kay while trying to negotiate a subsequent meeting with him, leaving her tearful and in shock, she is warmly received by his son from the woman he married after his return to Nigeria. Interestingly, it is two empathetic Nigerian writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and London-based Kachi Ozumba, who help her contact the father and the brother. "I'm shocked by the speed Sidney has accepted me as his sister..." she writes after their cathartic meeting, during which the brother promised to urge their father to have a rethink.

The Igbo, whose blood runs in Kay's split-down-the-middle veins, to adapt Derek Walcott's description of his mixed-race parentage, have a saying that roughly translates as: "It's not who raises a child but who gives birth to it that counts." Kay's honest assessment of her birth parents implies a positive interrogation of this saying. "You cannot find yourself in two strangers who happen to share your genes," she seems to quip in return.

Beyond the personal story, there are spinoffs by way of humane social criticism and hints that tourists travelling to Nigeria may find useful. For instance, Kay also narrates encounters with policemen who extort money from travellers on highways where countless potholes make travelling an ordeal. Then she shares her experience with well-dressed girls who beg her for money at a five-star hotel, making her feel unsafe by their subtle aggression—in a country whose citizens would want to hold their heads high but are habitually let down by their government. Yet Nigeria is a country where, as she also reveals, literary creativity is in a perpetual ferment, occasionally yielding pleasant surprises such as an unpublished opera by one of the people she meets at a writer's workshop.

In all, Red Dust Road delivers through its multiracial characters the overriding message, which should recommend it to readers globally, that both good and evil transcend the colour bar—a clear fact often unseen by our blinkered world; and its fast-paced, lyrical prose makes it an alluring read.


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