While I dislike the expression ‘National Treasure’ I think it probably applies to Jackie Kay. As Scottish Makar, she is officially honoured – at least, if you treasure poetry. In keeping with this year’s Book Festival theme – ‘We Need New Stories’ – Jackie Kay’s story is very much out there, with her 2010 memoir, Red Dust Road, having been adapted for the stage and currently showing at The Lyceum as part of the International Festival.
Appropriately, her appearance at the Book Festival was in conversation with Tanika Gupta, who wrote the stage adaptation. It made for an interesting discussion, although I’m not sure what the premise was for the event, apart from a general chat. There was a lot of focus on how Gupta adapted Red Dust Road, and what Kay thought of it, but the former writer slightly dominated the conversation in this respect.
Nevertheless, there was a lot of common ground between the two writers, not least in matters of race and identity. There was also a chance to hear Kay read some of her poetry, which then pushed the discussion onto the theme (or at least, the title) of the event: National Treasures. With the current social and political changes, Kay admits that it is “interesting to be Makar at this time.” Although we live in a different place to the Scotland described in Red Dust Road, there is still great need for cultural change – and education.
Glasgow is rich in Black History, and yet so many are unaware of the city’s links with, for example, the slave trade. Kay points out that so much of our public debate is centred on our relationship with England (and Westminster) and yet, she says, “we need to take responsibility for our attitudes to race if we are to grow up as a country.” Things take a serious turn in this ‘chat’ when Gupta points out that, when casting for Red Dust Road she was told, “there are no black actors in Scotland.”
Luckily, there is enough humour to stop this event being too heavy, and the audience questions helped to re-focus the theme, enabling Kay to reveal her plans for the final 18 months of her tenure as our treasured national poet. These essentially were to use poetry to continue shaping our identity as a country, in terms of place, politics, and inclusivity.
Wrapping up the discussion, the Festival theme came back when she explained that, as adopted children, Kay and her brother “Instead of being handed down DNA, we were handed down stories. We are stories.” Whoever is handed the laurel wreath when Jackie Kay steps down from her post of Makar, I’m sure they will be taking on a rich legacy.
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival programme click here.