This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 9th–25th August 2014 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.
Jackie Kay performed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 12th August 2014

by Stephanie Green

Jackie Kay is appearing four times at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, 2014: as a presenter of four poets of the Caribbean Diaspora, discussing the films of Margaret Tait with Ali Smith, presenting the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award and, as herself, in an event entitled ‘Inside a Woman’s Mind’, reading from her latest short story collection, Reality, Reality (Picador, 2012) and poetry collection Fiere (Picador, 2011).  At this latter event, introduced by Peggy Hughes who described Jackie Kay as “basically, one of Scotland’s National Treasures,” we were also treated to one new story and new poems.

Jackie Kay is a consummate performer. No mutterings or dropped papers for her, as happens too often at author readings. Funny and warm, it is clear the audience love her. I’m told at one time she wanted to be an actor but fortunately for us she is also a brilliant short story writer, poet and playwright and her 2007 radio play ‘The Lamplighter’ about slavery will also be performed at a rehearsed reading during the festival. At one point during her story and poetry event, she breaks into song in the middle of a story ‘We’re coming through the rye’. “Can you sing that?” she asks the audience and they do. And not only one song, but two.

Most of the stories in Reality, Reality are in first person, present tense, best for Kay to show off her talent for dialogue and interior voice. These are stories for performing, with a dramatist’s ear for the speaking voice. Most of these stories in this collection are told from the point of view of a menopausal, middle-aged, elderly or lonely woman and are gently humorous and compassionate, as well as heart-breakingly sad. But the story she chose to read was ‘Grace and Rose’, a purely upbeat celebration of a gay wedding, written Jackie said, even before such weddings were legal in Scotland. Told in two voices, of both Grace and Rose, the story is set in Shetland and for anyone who knows the islands, there are lovely references to eccentric well-known places like the Wind Dog café on the island of Yell. Most of the story is told in English with just a flavour of Shetlandic. The first line begins “Our wedding is drawing nearer and in three peerie days’ time I will have married her…” ‘peerie’ being the Shetlandic for ‘little’ or the Scots ‘wee’. Shetland seabirds and a sly nod to the famed knitting make an appearance: “We’ll tell ourselves the story when we have surprised ourselves by taking up knitting and are sitting watching the tides in Bressay and the fulmar, the puffins, the black guillemots arrive to make their homes in the summer on the east cliffs of Noss.” During the wedding itself is has to be Aly Bain who plays a slow fiddle version of ‘John Anderson my Jo’. That is enough to win over any lover of Shetland to this story.

And though this is a story about gay love, it is about common humanity and I noticed the audience grinning as they recognized the shared experience of planning and organizing a wedding: “Goodness me, I said to Grace, knocking back my pint one night, how on earth have the heterosexuals managed all this wedding stuff for years?  It could give you a heart attack. It could leave you bankrupt!”

Then she had the audience in stitches with her comic timing, the stress of remembering whom they had invited: “And whether or not we had remembered to invite the local councillor.” Jackie paused and nodded to the audience eliciting more laughter.

It is, of course, the deeper shared experiences that touched us, such as love for your parents and worry that you will let them down. “My father walked me down the aisle. He had tears in his een. He was proud of me, he said….To think of all the years I worried what he’d think of me!”

A high note is the post wedding dancing “Chooking and whooping and spinning. Hooch! Da whisky wis flowin oot da door” and a touching ending where Rose, summing up the day, turns to the other: “Grace,” she says. “Oh my dear Grace.”

Jackie also read a new story entitled ‘The Ginger Macintosh Clan of St Kitts’ about a fictitious group of twelve ginger-haired women with blue-green eyes: “Some say stranger than albino, No?” Some of them have hair that grows horizontally so that it looks like a halo against the sun, but all are different.  The Bossman cannot tell one from the other, and calls them all Ginger. They are ostracized and persecuted but have a talent for healing. Though the story is humorous at times – the description of piles as “hanging down like big black sour plums” Jackie is able to draw political parallels with the history of the Caribbean. It is an allegorical tale and at times her reading has the rhythm of poetry. It is clear that she is also a poet.

We were also treated to new poems, one entitled ‘The Imaginary Road; – “the one that exists in your mind, trying not to look back…as you draw your line in the sand.” Others from ‘The Ardtornish Quintet’ written whilst Writer in Residence on the Ardtornish estate which include details which will be recognizable to anyone familiar with the Morvern landscape, or for that matter, much of the Highlands, where home is:

…over the uncertain cattle grid,
past the empty passing places,

where you missed your chances,
avoiding the deer, the sheep, the stags,
the odd romances. And it’s round
the bend, now, and into the dark.

One of these Ardtornish poems was published in the Oban Times, 2013, where she satirizes but also celebrates the local shop:

Nothing can be hidden from Lochaline Stores,
…not an addiction to scratch cards or whisky,

…not a dickey heart, not an icky stomach
…not you, stood there in a quandary
at the sorry not this time, sotto voce.
…not a forty-day habit, not a weakness for crumpets
…nor your good intention to visit Iona, one day…

but it is also a boon to the lonely as a place for “a kind word, a warm blether, small bit talk” and the shop has proudly laminated it and displayed it in their shop.  Jackie told us her dad had quipped: “Carol Ann is the Poet Laureate. You are the Poet Laminate.”

Jackie ended her reading with ‘Fiere Good Nicht’ (‘fiere’ pronounced ‘fairy’ she said, mainly because it gave her more rhymes) which is Scots for friend or companion, one of two ‘Fiere’ poems in her collection of that title.  It is a melodious piece, influenced by Burns and an uplifting poem to end with. She first read it at a Burns Supper in Sri Lanka where the haggis was flown in:

and coorie in, coorie in, coorie in.
The good dreams are drifting quietly doon,

like a figmaleerie, my fiere, my dearie,
and you’ll sleep as soon as a peerie,
and turn, turn slowly towards the licht:
goodnight fiere, fiere, Good Nicht.

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