Jackie Kay: Identity, Secrecy, and Love
C. J. Griffin
If I was not myself, I would be somebody else.
But actually I am somebody else.
I have been somebody else all my life.
It’s no laughing matter going about the place.
All the time being somebody else:
People mistake you; you mistake yourself.
Published in Jackie Kay’s Off Colour (1998), the poem ‘Somebody Else’ describes a split-self speaker, trapped in the titular refrain of being ‘somebody else’ (27), and this sets the keynote of the whole collection. This divided speaker feels that they are a secret unto themselves. They lack a definitive name, age, gender, race, or sexuality. They identify themselves by their estrangement. The two observations in ‘People mistake you; you mistake yourself’ are connected by a semi-colon, which seems to imply cause and effect (‘People mistake you because you mistake yourself’). However, the semi-colon could also connote opposition or contradiction between the observations. The grammatical context underpins the speaker’s insecurity about how they come across and their lack of independence. This existential and ontological vulnerability – a sense of oneself and the world around them as secret – recurs throughout Off Colour’s liminal and concealed speakers.
‘From Stranraer, South’ depicts a woman forced to repress her love for another woman, after her confession to her mother leaves the latter bedridden (42). Similarly, ‘Hottentot Venus’ depicts Sara Baartman, a nineteenth-century South African woman exploited in Europe through freak shows and circumscribed by racism: ‘My sigh is black. My heart is black. / My walk is black. My hide, my flanks. My secret’ (25). Only Baartman’s ‘secret’ avoids narration as either ‘black’ or bestial (as captured in the loaded words ‘hide’, and ‘flanks’). As in ‘Somebody Else’ and ‘From Stranraer, South’, secrecy is necessitated by outside forces. However, in ‘Hottentot Venus’, secrecy has an explicitly protective dimension. It expresses a limited but unexhausted agency, the possibility of something imperceptible railing and shouting back from within.
Jackie Kay’s concern with secrets and secrecy, being and becoming, are not restricted solely to Off Colour. Indeed, when talking about the act of writing, Kay has claimed: ’We often write because we have a secret self’. Secrets and secrecy are so foundational to our sense of self that they are part of the creation and defence of our identities and bonds with others. It is no wonder, then, that Kay, a writer fundamentally interested in possibility and identity, retains an abiding interest in visibility and invisibility, concealment and revelation, and the dynamic interplay of hiding and yet wishing to be seen.
The relationship that Kay’s work has with the secret is ambivalent. In Red Dust Road (2010), the known absence of Kay’s biological parents enables her fantasies about her birth mother being Shirley Bassey and her birth father ‘a handsome cross between Paul Robeson and Nelson Mandela’ (43). Yet when Kay has her first meeting with her biological mother, she describes it as being ‘like a kind of grief; only I’m not sure that I was grieving my birth mother, I think I was grieving the imaginary mother I’d had in my head’ (67). Rather than Kay’s mother, it is the secrecy that has preconditioned their relationship that forms part of Kay’s grief. Concealment enabled her imaginative invention of happier possibilities. Yet it also accentuates the pain of the moment when reality intervened.
However, the secret is not always a source of negative experience. For example, in Kay’s short story-collection Reality, Reality (2012), she often writes of love as a great and wonderful secret. ‘Grace and Rose’ describes the ‘[r]omance’ between the eponymous characters as ‘like a wee cove that nobody found but you… our secret’ (74–5). Similarly, in ‘Bread Bin’, the protagonist describes seeing contented relationships pass her by: ‘secretly smiling sixty-year-olds when I’m out and about’ (81). Thereafter, the protagonist describes the exploration of their own sexual identity and her first adolescent experiences of that ‘tight, secret feeling […] Love’ (82, 84). The story ends in describing this feeling again, in the present, when the protagonist wakes up from her sleep during a train journey and meets ‘Martha’: ‘There was something in the way that she smiled – a kind of openness. I knew then. I just knew that I would wake up many more times to Martha smiling at me’ (86). The love’s secret expressed as ineffable openness – a kind of affective resonance – is palpable here.
This regard for love as a secretive but exclusive experience of reality created by chance, can be neatly illuminated if we put it beside philosopher Alain Badiou’s writing about love in the present-day. In In Praise of Love (2012), Badiou laments a contemporary, contractual, ‘safety-first concept of “love” […] love comprehensively insured against all risks’. He identifies this understanding of love to be expressed by the appeal and purpose of online dating apps, which promise the elimination of risk, chance, and the ineffable – the secret, in other words. Comparatively, Kay’s own writing, above and elsewhere, celebrates love as a mysterious experience crafted by the certainty of chance and the chance of certainty. Connected to this, her debut novel, Trumpet (1998), focuses largely on the relationship of Joss and Millie Moody in post-WWII Glasgow. As with the chance encounter with Martha on the train in ‘Bread Bin’, Millie meets Joss ‘when giving blood on the same day’:
I approach him and ask him out. It is 1955. Women don’t do this sort of thing. I don’t care. I am certain this is going to be my lover. When you are certain of something, you must take your chance. (12)
All of Kay’s work ambivalently allows for the rehabilitation of the secret in a century increasingly deprived of a right to it. Secrets and secrecy compensate for privation and prejudice in Kay’s writing. But they also allow for a world in which the chance and risk of accidental encounters can create happier possibilities. ‘Without this love’, writes Kay, ‘nothing could ever be well’: it is a ‘gift the heart wrapped early in this life’ (‘Thirty-Five’, The Empathetic Store, 15).
Badiou, Alain and Nicolas Truong, In Praise of Love trans. Peter Bush (London: Profile Books, 2012).
Kay, Jackie, Scottish Laureate Jackie Kay on Growing Up LGBTQ | One Person, Two Names | Random Acts, online short film, Random Acts – Channel 4, 2017, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYY-hCuvS8c> [accessed 14 Oct 2021].
—, The Empathetic Store (Edinburgh: Mariscat Press, 2015).
—, Reality, Reality (London: Picador, 2012).
—, Red Dust Road (London: Picador, 2010).
—, Trumpet (London: Picador: 1998).
—, Other Lovers (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1993).
Cite this: Griffin, C. J. “Jackie Kay: Identity, Secrecy, and Love.” Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds, 2021, https://writersmakeworlds.com/essay-kay-identity-secrecy-love. Accessed 28 January 2022.