Growing up with a strong sense of identity is in some ways like being gifted with a golden ticket and yet it is something which largely goes unnoticed by those of us lucky to have it. I had never questioned my own identity, probably because I had never had the need to. I grew up in a provincial town, surrounded by people who looked like I looked and who lived much like we lived and within a family strong on stories and history and resemblances. I never had cause to feel anything other than included.
Now I have my own children I see things a bit differently. In our family unit of four, only our children share a blood tie. They look alike, but not remarkably and although it is often said that they resemble my husband Rob and I, they don’t really. This is where stories of identity start. And once started they grow and change until they take on a life of their own and it becomes difficult to see the truth amongst the myths.
I have become grumpy with most popular media coverage of adoption and now stick mainly to the hard, academic stuff. I sense a popular unease with adoptive parents and we are fruitful ground for myth-making as we don’t often have the opportunity to tell our own story. We are not quite the real thing, we jealously guard secrets and use adoption as a weapon against the alien genes. If a tragedy has befallen a child, the media will be quick to point out if that child was adopted, as though this might make a difference to the sense of loss felt by the parent, or worse still, provide a reasonable basis for suspicion.
‘Red Dust Road’ by Jackie Kay is different. For a start, she likes and loves her adoptive parents and she writes about them with a beautiful affection. They are white, Scottish communists, who went to watch ‘Death of Salesman’ on their first date. They are no strangers to feeling different and how they ever found each other is a miracle in itself. But Jackie who has a duel Scottish and Nigerian heritage not only feels different but looks different too. She shows how identity is so often something which others seek to thrust upon us. She is racially abused in the street, at school and at university. Each incident is rooted both in the frailty of the attacker’s identity and their resulting need to assign an identity to her.
Through their songs and traditions, the Kays knit together a family. They pass down a great deal of themselves; their values and beliefs and their love of holidays, stories and music. They also pass down a conviction that their children deserve no less than a clear place in the world. It is this which sets the foundation from which Jackie Kay can begin the journey towards finding and taking control of her identity.
Most of us live with a level of untruth about who we are because we have confidence in the basic facts. The myths and stories are a nice bit of added colour and decoration and are none the less bonding for that. For Jackie, so much of this myth goes to the heart of who she is. Many adopted children dream big dreams about their birth parents and Jackie was no different. In finding that they were not at all as she had imagined them left her having to grieve for the myths and come to terms with the reality. And it was heartbreaking that the giving up of a child had not only damaged Jackie, leaving her with the ‘windy place’, a feeling of being alone, but had also profoundly damaged her birth parents lives as well.
The process of discarding and piecing together fragments of identity, the highs and lows, the drama and the sadness is so honestly described and the book ends with a strong sense that the journey continues and may never reach conclusion.
I would urge anyone who is touched by adoption to read Jackie Kay’s book. It doesn’t run away from the complexities and yet it has a light touch and a lot of love and fun. I leant it to a friend of mine recently, who has much in common with Jackie Kay. She wrote to me ‘I really,really enjoyed reading it and I identified with Jackie’s childhood in lots of ways. It has been really wonderful for me in terms of my identity’. We can all learn a lot from Jackie Kay, not least those of us who think we know who we are.