Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

I discovered Red Dust Road after reading a feature about Jackie Kay in the Guardian’s A Life in Writing series coinciding with the release of her short story collection Reality Reality. Upon reading the interview I learned that she had also recently published a memoir focusing on the story of her adoption by a Scottish couple and her subsequent attempt to find her Scottish birth mother and Nigerian birth father. I ordered both books, keen to discover this writer’s work, particularly as she is also a renowned poet and I am drawn to writers who already have poetry resonating within their voice, and I couldn’t wait to jump into the memoir, more for personal reasons, since I have been on a similar journey myself.

While her brother Maxie said he couldn’t remember not knowing he was adopted, for Jackie, the realisation was one she remembered clearly after watching a cowboy and Indian film and feeling sad because the Indians had lost again and she wanted them to win. After observing that the Indians had her colouring which was not the same as her mother, she asked why. The revelation that followed came as a shock, she cried and worried that ‘not real’ meant her mother was somehow going to disappear or dissolve. But she had been gifted with a loving and sensitive mother, an honest, straightforward and intelligent woman, who clearly loved both her children unconditionally as Jackie Kay displays in her warm, appreciative depiction of the characters involved in this remarkable and exhilarating story.

My Friend’s Wedding in Lagos

‘Betrothed’, she told me ‘your father met your mother in the Highlands of Scotland and they fell in love. He was from Nigeria – look, here it is in the atlas – and she was from the Highlands – look, here’s where she was from, Nairn. They were madly in love and they made you, but he was betrothed and had to return to Nigeria to marry a woman he maybe had never met. They do that there, you know. Hard, Jackie, must have been hard’.

In no rush to piece together the puzzle, but knowing that she will, Jackie finds occasion with her work to be in certain places where she can do a little investigative work, she visits Nairn, where he birth mother grew up and Milton Keynes where she lives now; Aberdeen where her father was at university and Nigeria, that supposed foreign land of her ancestors that she had no connection to in her daily life, but has dreamed of and imagined and experiences a kind of coming home when she visits the ancestral village of her father.

Recounting her visit to the village and in particular meeting one of the family members, left pools of liquids in my newly prescribed reading glasses, tears of joy and recognition as acknowledgement is realised. I don’t want to say too much, because there is too much good in reading this for the first time and not knowing what will occur, but this is a wonderful story, narrated without sentimentality, putting the reader right in her shoes, almost experiencing it first-hand.

Hanging Out in Lagos, Nigeria

Like so many adoption stories and as depicted so well in Mike Leigh’s ‘Secrets and Lies’, there remains much mystery and secrecy around so many of the stories. For those who have buried that episode in their lives somewhere deep, there is a reluctance to risk the turbulence they perceive it may cause, and even when acknowledged by the parent adoptees are often kept from the rest of the family. This can be one of the greatest risks of pursuing genetic ties, the risk of rejection as an adult with full consciousness, unlike that of a baby; although much research suggests that a baby does indeed have awareness of the separation.

Many doctors and psychologists now understand that bonding doesn’t begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period. When this natural evolution is interrupted by a postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing that which I call the “primal wound”. Nancy Verrier, The Primal Wound, Understanding the Adopted Child

The balcony from where the children sang to me

I laughed when she talked about the experience of being called Oyibo (white person) in the village, causing quite a sensation with her paler skin. She mentions returning to Lagos which she describes as more cosmopolitan and where one is unlikely to hear that word.

I have to say that I too know that word, from my visit to Lagos in 1999, when I visited for marriage of a very dear friend. In the quarter where I was staying, I was a bit of an anomaly and not only did the children come to stand outside the house in case they caught a glimpse of the Oyibo, they even had a song they sung, which my friend laughed at, remembering she too used to sing it as a child, something about ‘white man, eat more pepper (the very hot pepper soup for breakfast), make your face go redder’, I guess it’s true, we do have an unusual capacity to change the colour of our face when eating something very hot or becoming embarrassed!

There are so many extracts I could paste and talk about from Red Dust Road, the reaction of her own son, the discovery of names, the reading through old archives, visiting buildings from another past, the importance of the imagination and the importance of a true friend, but I would prefer that you read the book and enjoy your own journey and reactions to this wonderfully humane and important story that we are privileged to share.


Below, I share a few photos from my visit to Lagos, Nigeria in 1999, an unforgettable experience it was indeed.

Preparing for the Native Ceremony, bride wearing her family ensemble

View from a rear window

Bride with her brother, wearing an outfit from the husband’s family

The theatrical Native ceremony in full swing

39 thoughts on “Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

    • I agree Jo, great book and triggered lots of memories, don’t think I’ve ever scribbled so much inside a book or tuned over so many pages for easy reference. And the Lagos experience a real bonus to have experienced that, and an authentic experience at that!


  1. My fingers lay on the keybord and don’t know where to begin. Captivating is the word I’m looking for. My coffee is cold, the cat has stolen my cookie but I didn’t notice while reading your review. I expect that once I start this book I better make sure I have nothing else “pressing” to do because I fear I will forget my own time and place. My list of books to read get longer and longer…You have the ability to share “tidbits” of a story and then leave the reader asking for more. First rate review!


    • Thank you for your kind words Nancy, I know the feeling, cat included!

      The day I finished this I was on a bus going to an Aquatic Park with the children and the driver took a wrong turn, keeping us an additional 30 minutes on the bus, a detour I was incredibly grateful for so I could stay reading!

      I hope you find a copy, enjoy and pass it on/recommend it as well.


      • It has taken me 4 years and I’m still captivated by this post. Coffee is now hot, cat is hanging on my arm as I type ready to pounce on my cookie. Having read so much the past years while blogging…Jackie Kay is now top prio for my journey into poetry. I’d love to see your comments on other poems. Perhaps a blogpost that can introduce me to yet more poetry richness.


  2. fascinating story… you raise so many points – yes, in the life coaching work that I do, I find that people were totally conscious as babies, and know what is happening and feel deep grief and fear and anger…and set the patterns for ther rest of their lives…
    I also really appreciated the point you make about upsetting family members with the telling of one’s own truth .. a a really tricky one.
    LOvely pics, thank you, and what wonderful clothes!!


    • Thanks Valerie, it is certainly a good thing to have an awareness of how adoption can impact someone as an adult, it is one of western societies lofty social experiments, that is still being understood.

      Sensitivity to family members is a tough one, and should be respected up to a certain point, l do believe that knowing who created you is a basic human right that no other person/government should have the right to prevent an individual from knowing.

      The fabrics and colours of Africa and the great joy in celebration is a magnificent thing and I was privileged to be able to take part, getting the head piece to stay on my head wasn’t easy, African hair is magic for wearing bold, stiff, flamboyant fabrics!


  3. Liked the review but think the book might be too emotional for me! Photos of your time in Nigeria are great. Had a friend who was Headteacher of school here who did 6 months VSO teaching in small village school in Nigeria – her description of local children’s fascination with her white skin is exactly as you describe! She loved it – raves about it still – so much so that doing VSO is on my own list of things to do.


    • It’s a beautiful book and a wonderful story really, just very touching and of course it all depends on what we bring to the book.

      VSO in a small Nigerian village sounds like a life-changing experience, I hope you too attain your VSO dream.


  4. Just when I think I’m whittling down my TBR list, you come up with another excellent recommendation. I really like memoirs that are telling unique stories. Just finished Mother-Father-God by Lucia Greenhouse which is about how bizarre it is how belief systems can destroy a family. But similarly and almost shockingly, the prose is poetic.


    • Ok Jan that’s fair, I’ve added to yours, so now there’s one you have added to my list 🙂 I agree, reading unique stories is like experiencing something for the first time, only safer and lyrical prose helps to smooth the ride.


  5. My dear Claire- Thanks to you I’m at risk of serious injury from my rapidly increasing TBR pile! Red Dust Road sounds like another “must read”.

    I have to take exception with Valerie’s comment: “I find that people were totally conscious as babies, and know what is happening and feel deep grief and fear and anger…and set the patterns for ther rest of their lives…” I truly feel this is a generalization that must not be accepted for everyone. Adoption is very common within my family and I would say that none of us fall into such a category nor do any of the other adoptees I know. To suggest that every adopted child begins life as that remark implies is simply an unfair statement.


  6. I read the same review in the Guardian and thought then it would be a great read. I am so behind on reading anyway, what’s one more. I sure read more when I wasn’t writing. Each of those pictures are inspiring in themselves. I’ve not been, but I could see myself traveling there, if anything to find a story. I liked your comment about poets writing a book and the lyrical tone of their writing. For the writer in me, it’s a beautiful description of her work.


    • Thanks Brenda, I love those A Life in Writing series and especially when someone saves me a copy of the actual Saturday review, so I read the paper version at my leisure, the content never dates in my opinion.

      Visiting Nigeria was a wonderful experience and there are some wonderful writer’s who originate from there as well whose work I admire.

      And yes, writer’s with the voice of a poet inside them, you are right in there in that category Brenda and I love reading all your prose, one day soon it will be between covers and not just on the blog 🙂


    • I almost mentioned this to you on your blog, wondering if this might be a great title to get you back into the mood, would be great to have it to hand for when you are ready anyway, its truly a wonderful story and beautifully written.


    • I remember when I was in Nigeria hearing wonderful things about Ghana and many people telling me I must visit. A wonderful story and the author’s visit to Nigeria a wonderful experience to share through this insightful work..


    • It is a special book and a wonderful reflection on her life and of those around her, written at a time when her situation could be appreciated and seen from many more angles perhaps than if she had written it 20 years earlier. Just like she says about her poetry that she used to write when she was younger. A gifted writer and poet and I am looking forward to reading more.


    • Thank you Neelima, I recently listened to 3 poems she wrote during the Olympics which I really enjoyed, thank you so much for this link, what a wonderful interview and such thoughtful, inspired responses she gives. So many wonderful quotes!


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    • You absolutely have to read this book then, to read how it was for this amazing woman to come to Nigeria for the first time having had very little exposure to the culture and to meet people she is related to, it’s brilliant.

      You experienced the culture shock of living in Scotland, her home and here she repesents how it was for her to meet not just family, but a whole different culture.


  9. Yes, you are right. Living in Glasgow was a bit of a culture shock; the Scots were friendly but not quite what I used to in terms of living in London. But it was as if it was totally alien for them, coming across a Black Brit. The same thing when I lived in South Africa just after Apartheid was dropped. Whereas Nigeria, the ‘difference’ is although I’m black, I am, to them, a ‘foreigner’. An ‘Oyibo’ I am sometimes called, which means ‘white’. But no worries I will get around to reading her book.


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