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Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Jackie Kay – poet of that frrrr sound that you hear when it’s really quiet at a concert and your mom leans over to tug your shirt

Jackie Kay 3

So Jackie Kay will be at the Franschhoek Literary Festival this year, in conversation with me and also with Finuala Dowling. Hosting Kay seems like the coup of coups for the Festival. Because Kay is a writer who excels across genres, from poetry to fiction to memoir. An engaging reader, her performance is laced with humour and delivered in the rich brogue of her home language, Scots.

I was introduced to her work by my former mentor on the Crossing Borders Distance Learning scheme, John Lindley. I was trying to write my story, which oddly enough is a little bit similar to Kay’s. Hence my electric interest, but it was her poetry that really made me to fall in love with her work. Of course as an adoptee I feel ambivalent about the work that I make that is a response to my personal story. It feels like cheating – to have all that drama just served up, just nje like that because you were born and your mother gave you up! not having to imagine a dilemma but inheriting one.

Then the race thing. Feeling tongue twisted and enraged and envious all at the same time, too black and not white enough and just generally twisted and vile, I got into a toestand with a writer colleague who declared “I’m not white when I write, I take off my white male identity, I’m simply a writer.” I was furious with his smugness, his sense of entitlement, his absolute belief that his perspective could be taken to be ‘universal’.  I couldn’t make sense of my frustration with him and with myself, because I couldn’t easily articulate where I was coming from either. Thanks to Jackie Kay I found on page 36 of Red Dust Road: “It’s not so much that being black in a white country means that people don’t accept you as, say, Scottish; it is that being black in a white country makes you a stranger to yourself.”

So how do you write when you’re a stranger to yourself? when all the reflections given to you by others somehow distort what you know to be your inner truth, your reality?

Although I grew up in Africa, I was adopted by white South Africans under apartheid, so I also felt alienated from myself. Writing was a way to map the labyrinth, to link the inner worlds with the outer perceptions and prejudices. It’s like being a snail at a vinegar-tasting, a lot of the time in South Africa, where comments about racial identity are splashed about so frequently one sometimes forgets there’s more to you. There’s more to us.

So here’s to a great line-up at Franschhoek. Thoughtful, intense, and dare I say it? Beautiful. Here’s a poem by Jackie to whet your appetite

You might forget the exact sound of her voice,
Or how her face looked when sleeping.
You might forget the sound of her quiet weeping
Curled into the shape of a half moon,
When smaller than her self, she seemed already to be leaving
Before she left, when the blossom was on the trees
And the sun was out, and all seemed good in the world.
I held her hand and sang a song from when I was a girl –
Heil Ya Ho Boys, Let her go Boys
And when I stopped singing she had slipped away,
Already a slip of a girl again, skipping off,
Her heart light, her face almost smiling.
And what I didn’t know, or couldn’t see then,
Was that she hadn’t really gone.
The dead don’t go till you do, loved ones.
The dead are still here holding our hands.


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