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20 March 2024updated 21 Mar 2024 9:57am

Jackie Kay Q&A: “Audre Lorde told me: ‘You can be black and Scottish’”

The poet and novelist on Bessie Smith, Coronation Street and being a night owl.

By New Statesman

Jackie Kay was born in Edinburgh in 1961. She is a poet, novelist, playwright and writer of short stories, and from 2016 to 2021 was the third modern Makar, the National Poet for Scotland. 

What’s your earliest memory?

I must have been two. I remember a wee girl appearing in our back garden with red wellies on. She and I played for hours. Then she disappeared.

Who are your heroes?

Angela Davis. I admire how she has modestly managed being a living legend, transforming into an 80-year-old politically talented woman who still radiates hope.  

What book last changed your thinking?

Afua Hirsch’s Decolonising My Body is a breath of fresh air and is a travel book, a beauty book, and a history book all in one. It made me think about capitalism and race and the body in a new way.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Fannie Lou Hamer, the African-American civil rights activist whose speeches were galvanising and just as appropriate today as they were then. “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free” – yes. And “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired”.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Bessie Smith. I’m fascinated by the strange arc of her life. We wouldn’t have had Billie Holiday or Nina Simone or Janis Joplin without Bessie. Janis knew that and paid for her gravestone.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d have loved to have lived in 1920s Harlem, with the explosion of art, poetry, music and dance mixed up with politics. I’d bump into Langston Hughes one minute and Zora Neale Hurston the next.

What TV show could you not live without?

Coronation Street. I like how it manages to address all the problems of our times and our changing experience of them, from mobile phones to motor neurone disease.

Who would paint your portrait?

Claudette Johnson. I think she’s so talented. It’s amazing the way she stopped for a while and then returned to the world of art with gusto.

What’s your theme tune?

Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”. I played and played this when it came out and still it takes me back to that fresh excitement, when someone new comes on the scene. It’s nice that it has had a recent new lease of life. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Audre Lorde said to me, “You know, Jackie, you can be black and Scottish. You don’t have to choose.” I was lucky to meet her in my early twenties. She was the great pioneer of multiple identities.

What’s currently bugging you?

The war in Gaza and the wasted lives. 

What single thing would make your life better?

Getting to bed earlier. I’m an owl. I envy larks.

When were you happiest?

When my son took me on a holiday to the Dominican Republic and made me a soundtrack of all my favourite music. 

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I’d be a detective like Columbo.  

Are we all doomed?

I like to cling on to hope. Without it we are all doomed. We live in such anxious, polarising times – keeping up our spirits and trying to contribute to a healthier world is a daily challenge.

“May Day” by Jackie Kay will be published by Picador on 25 April. She will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival on 21 April and at Kings Place, London N1, on 1 May

[See also: Joelle Taylor Q&A: “I’d like to see dinner ladies take over parliament”]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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