Red Dust Road: New forms of memoir and the enrichment and extension of public discourse on family, identity, belonging and adoption
Submitting InstitutionNewcastle University
Unit of AssessmentEnglish Language and Literature
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
Professor Jackie Kay's memoir Red Dust Road (2010), her account
of growing up black in Glasgow, the adopted daughter of white parents, and
her search for her birth parents, challenges and extends public discourse
on identity, family and belonging, using memoir to explore the
complexities and emotional resonances of the difficult issues raised.
Responses to the work point to its significant on-going impact in civil
society on the understanding of adoption, including transracial adoption,
and how society defines family. Its impact can be judged by the media
coverage received and its widespread use in the public sphere in
discussions of issues of identity, adoption and family. Its reach is
evidenced through the number, range and popularity of Kay's readings as
well as the book's sales and its reception within groups not traditionally
thought of as typical audiences for literary memoir.
Jackie Kay MBE was Northern Arts Literary Fellow in the School of English
at Newcastle from 2002-04, appointed to a senior lectureship in 2004 and
promoted to a personal chair in 2006. From her influential poetry
collection The Adoption Papers (1991) onwards, her writing has
investigated complex issues around identity, and probed the power of
stories and storytelling to reveal and transform lives. Several poems on
this subject appeared in her 2005 collection Life Mask (1).
Red Dust Road (2), published in 2010, and the companion
poetry collection Fiere (3), published in 2011, extend
these explorations to book length. Kay has been widely praised for the
warmth, humanity and compassion with which she treats difficult material,
and the effectiveness with which she communicates with her audiences.
The development in Red Dust Road of themes already present in
Kay's work was based on a lengthy process of personal and scholarly
research. The research began with a 2002 trip to Nigeria to meet her birth
father, as recorded in a number of the poems in Life Mask. In
2009, she undertook a second trip with fellow writer, and PhD student from
the School of English, Kachi Ozumba. Together they identified and visited
the ancestral village of Kay's birth father, the journey to which forms an
important narrative thread in Red Dust Road. The School of English
at Newcastle played a critical role in supporting these trips, helping
with organisation and funding Ozumba's costs. Using his network of
personal and family contacts, Ozumba enabled Kay securely to take the long
road-trip across Nigeria, to experience the Igbo culture of her birth
father's town, and to make contact with her birth father's other children.
Kay's writing has developed the memoir form in both prose and verse,
using fiction as a technique and taking the importance of stories as a
central theme. She has moved away from notions of essentialised identity
to explore the recognitions and connections between people that the
exchange of stories makes possible. Memoir is used by Kay to challenge
some of the assumptions of the genre: the paradigmatic journey of
discovery in her version produces unexpected results and can never be the
story of origins. Stories are instead presented as plural, unforeseeable
and ongoing, and always involve transactions with others. Kay's
explorations through memoir are also exploration of memoir. They
propel interpretations of identity and its representation in new
directions, and have been praised for transforming the memoir genre.
Bernardine Evaristo, for example, commended the `novelistic and poetic
flair' of Red Dust Road, in which `characters come alive with
pitch-perfect speech, language is lyrically and imaginatively rendered,
there is page-turning suspense' and `even the structure defies
expectation, criss-crossing the decades back and forth, from Kay's
childhood voice through to middle-age.' Both the artistic success and
societal impact of Kay's writing has been recognised by multiple awards
and accolades. Life Mask was a Poetry Book Society recommendation
in 2005, and in 2011-12, Red Dust Road was Scottish Book of the
Year, London Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for numerous other
prizes. Following its publication Kay received honorary doctorates from
Caledonian University and the Royal Society of Music and Drama in
References to the research
(1) Jackie Kay, Life Mask (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2005). ISBN
185224691X. Available from HEI on request.
(2) Jackie Kay, Red Dust Road (London: Picador, 2010).
ISBN 978-0330451055. REF2 output: 168802.
Audio version narrated by Jackie Kay for RNIB (London: Picador, 2011).
ISBN 978-0330451062. Audiobook version read by Jackie Kay (Rearsby: Whole
Story Audiobooks, 2011). ISBN: 978-1407488486. Abridged and serialised as
BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, 19-23 July 2010, read by Jackie Kay.
(3) Jackie Kay, Fiere (London: Picador, 2011). ISBN:
0330513370. REF2 output: 168803.
Details of the impact
Life Mask, Fiere and, in particular, Red Dust Road
have had a significant impact on public discourse and policy debate
surrounding adoption and identity and related issues, as well as on
individual readers. They have also had impact in the education of both
social workers at HEIs beyond the submitting institution and children at
primary and secondary level. As a book that is supremely 'readable', Red
Dust Road is recommended on reading lists on adoption websites and
has provoked discussion of its major themes in reading groups worldwide.
Kay has frequently discussed her work and the issues it raises in print,
in person and as a broadcaster. She has also worked with a large and
diverse selection of community groups — including many that are
marginalised or hard to reach — engaging in dialogue, and discussing the
implications of her work.
Enhancing public and professional understanding, and intervening in
Kay's poetry and memoir, and the associated outreach and media work she
has undertaken, have contributed appreciably to public discourse
surrounding issues of identity and adoption. Her work brings complexity to
the topic of transracial adoption; she refuses to be co-opted to support a
single position. Between 2008 and 2013, Kay appeared 16 times on BBC
national radio to talk about her work and the issues it raises, on
programmes as diverse as `Front Row' (discussing Fiere: BBC Radio
4, 11 Jan. 2011), and `The House I Grew up In' (discussing her childhood:
BBC Radio 7, 9 Dec. 2010). Often she engaged directly with policy makers,
as for instance in an appearance on BBC Radio Four's `Woman's Hour' (9
March 2012) in which Kay discussed trans-racial adoption with presenter
Jenni Murray, Tim Lawton MP (then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State
for Children and Families) and Shama Sutar-Smith, Senior Policy Officer
for the London Borough of Camden. The programme was broadcast to 4 million
listeners. Discussing adoption in her advice column in The Guardian,
Mariella Frostrup argued that, in her `brilliant Red Dust Road',
Kay's `description of being a mixed-race child in a white Scottish
Marxist home offers a compelling argument for opening our homes to
similarly abandoned children' and `makes a strong case for the benefits to
all concerned of looking beyond our own biology for children to raise' (IMP1).
Red Dust Road is a featured resource on almost all major adoption
websites, including for example, the `Social Care Online' resource on the
Social Care Institute for Excellence website which provides the most
authoritative list of social care resources in the UK (IMP2), and
the website of Pact, a US adoption agency for children of colour.
Reviewing the book, Susan Ito, Director of the Pact Family Camp, called Red
Dust Road `the best adoption memoir I have ever read' (IMP3).
The international importance of her contribution to debates on adoption
has resulted in her being invited as a keynote speaker at the Alliance for
the Study of Adoption and Culture (ASAC) in 2014.
Impact on individuals
Kay's work has had direct impact on individuals affected by adoption.
Adoptive parent Sally Donovan, typical of many, blogged, 'I would urge
anyone who is touched by adoption to read Jackie Kay's book'. In the US,
Susan Ito wrote that `As an adult adoptee, reading this memoir made me
feel more understood and seen than almost any other.' (IMP3). One
adoptee contacted Kay to tell her that Red Dust Road had given her
the courage to journey to Africa herself to trace a birth parent. The
responses of dozens of reading groups to Kay's work are recorded online.
Typical is that of The Berlin Intercultural Reading Group: `Red Dust
Road opened up fascinating discussions around adoption. Kay
questions things many of us might take for granted: assumptions about love
and family — and the right to know our parents... Our discussions included
personal dilemmas and experiences' (IMP4). Kay's own half-sisters
discovered their relationship to Kay through a Guardian podcast of
extracts of the memoir, and subsequently contacted Kay at Newcastle
University. Red Dust Road is powerful in being able to affect
highly personal outcomes while also speaking to wider themes, because, as
Bernadine Evaristo put it, it `opens up the conversation around adoption
beyond Kay's personal narrative' (IMP1). For Aminatta Forna, Red
Dust Road tells `the story of every person of colour who grew up in
Britain, of being told you don't belong' (IMP1). The power of
Kay's poetry to help people to explore the issues of family and belonging
has also been widely recognised. Four of Kay's poems from Life Mask
were republished in an anthology called In Search of Belonging:
Reflections by Transracially Adopted People (2006), published by the
British Association for Adoption and Fostering. Kay's work has the ability
to be both very personal and to speak to others, who can read their own
stories in hers.
Impact through education
Kay's work appears on a growing number of school reading lists. From 2012
her autobiographical poetry has been on the Scottish Qualifications
Authority's `Set Scottish Texts' list for National 5. Red Dust Road
has been selected by individual teachers in Scottish schools as the set
non-fiction text for Highers classes. It is on the prescribed reading list
for the Leaving Certificate in English in the Republic of Ireland. In
addition, Red Dust Road appears on teacher training curricula.
Following a workshop Kay conducted for PGDipEd (QTS) students and school
children in the Department of Education at Birmingham University, for
example, lecturer Dr Kay Fuller wrote that she had no doubt the trainee
teachers would go on `to use Jackie Kay's poetry and autobiography in
their school teaching as a result of her visit to the school' (IMP5).
Kay has lectured on Red Dust Road on a number of occasions to
audiences of social workers, for instance at the University of Central
Lancashire (16 May 2012), turning engagement based on the text into
Extending public discourse and enriching lives
By 31 July 2013 Red Dust Road had sold 11,090 copies hardback,
15,896 paperback 1,445 e-book, making 28,431 copies in all. Kay has
extended public discourse on issues of family, identity, belonging and
adoption much further by taking part in frequent public events in relation
to Red Dust Road and Fiere. The estimated audiences for
these events is in excess of 15,000. Attendees value these experiences
very highly. Kay has been a major draw at literary festivals including
Edinburgh (650 people), Cheltenham, London, Dublin, Manchester,
Birmingham, Ilkley and Lichfield (where Red Dust Road was chosen
as the `Big Read' and 200 copies distributed free). At the Latitude Music
Festival in 2010 Kay gave a reading to over 2000 people. Internationally,
Kay has given readings from Red Dust Road and led debate on this
issues it raises in many countries, including at the Paraty Literary
Festival, Brazil (2011), the Sydney Writers' Festival (2013), at which she
was interviewed for ABC radio, and in New Zealand. She has frequently been
invited to speak at universities and colleges beyond the submitting
institution, including giving the 2010 Richard Hoggart Lecture at
Goldsmiths University and the Amnesty Annual Lecture at the Edinburgh
International Book Festival on `Poetry and the Fight for Human Rights'
(2013). Other organisations for which she has given readings include
Oxfam, the Glasgow Women's Library, the Freud Museum, and numerous
In March 2013, Red Dust Road was selected by members of the book
group of the international women's rights charity Womankind as their
International Women's Day book, and Kay answered questions online (IMP6).
On World Book Night (23 April 2013), having been voted for by the public
and selected by the editorial committee, Red Dust Road was one of
the twenty titles given away to 500,000 people `who don't regularly read',
especially those `in prisons, care homes, hospitals, sheltered, supported
and social housing [and] the homeless'. Julia Kingsford, World Book Night
Chief Executive, has written that Red Dust Road was `a great
choice for World Book Night', noting that many of the 20,000 volunteers on
the scheme `are choosing to give it to adults and teens who share some
life experiences with Jackie' but that `regardless of ... backgrounds, it
is a great, great book, over-brimming with hope and love' (IMP7).
Impact on marginalised communities
Kay works with marginalised and hard-to-reach groups directly, and her
writing has achieved substantial significance in the lives of many people
from these constituencies. For example, in 2012 Kay worked with the Reader
Organisation's Reading In Secure Environments (RISE) programme at HMP
Holloway and HMP Styal, reading from Red Dust Road. Testimony from
those present indicates the impact Kay had on inmates: `Afterwards the
buzz in the room is palpable, it's the excited, purposeful chatter of
people talking to each other about what they've just been part of, fifty
people talking about great writing. Many gather round Jackie to
congratulate her, ask more questions, grab a book or just shake her hand.
One woman sidles up to me and says that the event was "beautifully
inspiring", another looks up and simply says "She understands, that
Jackie, she really knows"' (IMP8). Poems from Fiere have
also been used in the RISE programme. Greater Manchester Mental Health
Trust's reader-in-residence Damien Taylor, for example, has found that the
poems have particular resonances with female inmates (IMP8). Kay's
most recent poems (March 2013) have been inspired by meetings with asylum
seekers in Scotland and were written specifically for the Scottish Refugee
Council's `Stop Destitution' campaign (IMP9). As noted in The
Scotsman on Sunday article: "Kay is a strong believer in the power of the
written word, believing that writing a poem that moves the reader can make
a difference. `Auden said, "Poetry makes nothing happen," but your wish as
a poet is that it should make something happen. I believe in the power of
words, and for me my words are actions, so the two are not mutually
exclusive. It's a way of making a contribution' (IMP10). In other
words, Kay designs her writing to achieve impact.
Sources to corroborate the impact
IMP1 Collation of newspaper coverage of Red Dust Road
(reviews, comment, blogs, etc.).
IMP2 `Social Care Online', Social Care Institute for Excellence.
Available at: http://www.scie-socialcareonline.org.uk/.
IMP3 Susan Ito, `Two Stories of Reunion', PACT's Point of
View. The Newsletter for Adoptive Families with Children of Color,
2011, and http://store.pactadopt.org/Transracial-and-Transnational-Adoption-Books-for-Adults.html.
IMP4 Summary and transcript. Berlin Intercultural Reading Group on
Red Dust Road, 10-22 June 2011.
IMP5 Dr Kay Fuller, Lecturer in English Education, University of
Birmingham. Testimonial letter, 30 October 2013
IMP6 Womankind Worldwide Book Group, March 2013. Available at:
IMP7 Julia Kingsford, `Red Dust Road', World Book Night UK and
Ireland website. Available at:
IMP8 Reader Organisation blog: `Jackie Kay at HMP Styal', Reading
in Secure Environments blog, 2 November 2012. Available at: http://risereader.org.uk/2012/11/02/jackie-kay-at-hmp-styal/
and ``Featured Poem: Woman at a Window by Jackie Kay', 8 October 2012.
Available at: http://thereaderonline.co.uk/2012/10/08/featured-poem-woman-at-a-window-by-jackie-kay/.
IMP9 Scottish Refugee Council: `Writing for Refugee Women', 2013.
IMP10 Janet Christie, `Jackie Kay, using poetry to help female
asylum seekers', The Scotsman on Sunday, 10 March 2013. Available
Copies of all documents can be supplied on request