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May – Red Dust Road

Jackie Kay     Red Dust Road 

If you had been a child in 1960s Glasgow, would you rather have been black, gay or adopted? Kay was all three and although her race and sexuality brought jaw-dropping abuse, it was ignorance of her birth parents that hurt the most, leaving a “windy place” in her heart.

There is a moment when, as a little girl, Jackie Kay realises that her skin is a different colour from that of her beloved mum and dad. Later in life, and pregnant with her own son, she decides to trace her birth parents. On a journey full of unexpected twists, turns and deep emotions she discovers that inheritance is about much more than genes: that we are shaped by songs as much as by cells, and that what triumphs, ultimately, is love.


Often memoirs are fascinating for the things they tell you that you really don’t expect to learn. Jackie Kay is one of our greatest poets so I knew when I read Red Dust Road that the words would sing from the page and I wasn’t disappointed. Like the very best poetry it is beautifully written but incredibly easy to read and the words just carry you along pitch perfectly. But the book isn’t about poetry or being a poet, it’s not even, once you get down to it, about adoption, race, growing up in Glasgow, communism, sexuality or any of the things that have made up Jackie’s life. Its about love, and not even in the lovey-dovey romantic way, it’s about love between parents and children, brothers and sisters, for one’s fellow man, for humanity, for life. And it is, of course, about that journey we all take, whether our roads are red dust, smoothly tarmacked, winding or straight.

Maybe I was feeling sentimental because I read it at Christmas. Or maybe writing this now on the back of some really fascinating research I’ve been looking at about how much better for us reading great writers than self-help books really is, has slightly skewed how I feel. Whatever it was I felt incredibly enriched and uplifted by reading about Jackie’s life – and apart from being a woman and loving books and poetry there is nothing we share in common. But maybe it is that very fact that can make memoirs so powerful. The ability to walk in someone else’s shoes, to see the world as they do for a few hundred pages and to exercise our empathy and understanding to such a degree.

It’s also what makes it a great choice for World Book Night. There are many who are choosing to give it to adults and teens who share some life experiences with Jackie but regardless of your intended receivers backgrounds, it is a great, great book, over-brimming with hope and love.
And in a cold, dark January I don’t think there’s anything I can recommend more highly.

Julia Kingsford, World Book Night Chief Executive

Available in the senior fiction section of the library.