By Jackie Kay
Review by Tolu Ogunlesi
Jackie Kay’s latest collection, ‘Fiere’, in which she negotiates between her Igbo (Nigerian) and Scottish identities, brings to mind the famous lines from Derek Walcott’s poem, ‘A Far Cry from Africa’: “I who am poisoned with the blood of both, / Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?”
But the parallel ends with the existence of a keenly-felt double heritage. Kay’s dilemma (if any), unlike Walcott’s, is not in what direction to turn. She has turned her back on the path of ambivalence; choosing instead to embrace her twin “bloods.” The first hint of this is to be found in the title of the collection.
“Fiere,” we are told, is a Scottish word that means “a companion, a mate, a spouse, an equal.” The next hint is in the epigraphs that open the collection. Two lines from the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, (who, like Kay’s birth father, is Igbo) – “Wherever someone stands, / something else will stand beside it” – sum the collection up. (The other epigraph, introducing the word “fiere”, is by the Scottish poet Robert Burns)
That Achebe quote – see it as an English translation, mediated by an Igbo sensibility, of a Scottish word (“fiere”) – gives resonance to Kay’s life story; the secrets and revelations that have showed up over a lifetime, regarding her origins, and formed the inspiration for much of her writing. (The title poem of ‘The Adoption Papers’, her debut poetry collection, published in 1991, is a narration by a trio of voices: “Daughter”, “Adoptive Mother” and “Birth Mother.”)
Soon after her birth in Edinburgh in 1961 to a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother, Kay was adopted by a Scottish couple. In 1991, aged thirty, she met her birth mother, and then her birth father when she was in her forties. Now imagine Kay’s adoptive parents “stand[ing] beside” her birth parents, and Kay beside another version of herself (“you, who were with me all along, / walking that road not taken”), and you will realise the significance of Achebe’s words.
Haunting these poems is a keen awareness of the fragile nature of life, lived as it is beneath the shadows of fate and “accident”. So when the poet, addressing a 12th century bronze head from an ancient Nigerian civilisation, says: “Looking back and furward in time, / ye could hae been forgotten, / dug up, as ye were, by accident: / but naw, ye’re here…,” she might well have been speaking to and about herself.
Read the rest here