240 pages, Â Â£12.99
Jackie Kay’s voice in my head is clear and light and dancing, a young river through green grass. I’ve been to see her read poetry twice, and both times reveled in that voice, in the humanity of her words, in her poise. So I was enthusiastic in picking up this collection of short stories, never having read her fiction before, nor her memoir, and wishing to remedy this.
[...] My name was Elina Makropulos. I’ve had many husbands, countless children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. Some of my children are a blur, but the pianos are vivid – the babies and the uprights, the ebony and ivory, the little Joes.
I remember time through music – what I was singing when. How I loved those Moravian folk songs, how I lost myself in those twelve-bar blues, how I felt understood by those soaring arias, how beautiful ballads kept me company, how scatting made me feel high. For years I’ve been singing my head off, singing my head off for years. When I sang Elina’s head off, Eugenia came. When I sang Eugenia’s head off, Ekateriana came. When I sang Ekateriana’s areas, Elisabeth came. After Elizabeth I was Ella. My favourite period was my Ella period. Every song I sang had my own private meanings: ‘I Didn’t Mean A Word I Said’, ‘Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall’, ‘Until The Real Thing Comes Along’, and even ‘Paper Moon’. Ella seemed to be cool about that. [...] I’ve sung about every type of love through the years. Back when I was Elina Makropulos, my skin was pale, perhaps a little translucent. As the years went on, I got darker and darker. Now my skin is dark black. Emilia Marty has dark black skin. I’m rather in awe of it.
This passage is from ‘The First Lady of Song’, a version of Orlando, in which the main character lives for hundreds of years, changing her race rather than gender. It’s one of the standouts,Â fantasticalÂ and sweeping in scope. Kay’s stories in this collection are almost all of the disenfranchised, the ones we forget. There is the woman in “These Are Not My Clothes” drifting in and out of her dementia in outraged, brave resistance toÂ the neglectful aridity of her old folksâ€™ home. There are the overweight, the cheated on, the lonely. Each one in their own voice, moving to their own tunes. Or slouching, or in a haste of comic earnestness verging on despair:
I arrive back home. Nearly time to start the timer and the lunch. It is one o’clock. No time for the lunchtime news. I am the news. I am the rolling news. I have lost a stone and a half and have started my own HEATS. I could perfect my style and earn a fortune. What would I call it?Â The Whisky Diet? (that would attract fat alkies!)Â You Diet and Dog Diets Too? (That would lure obese people who uncannily resemble their obese canines). For lunch, I’m serving a watercress soup to start followed by a lovely piece of halibut with Welsh rarebit topping and a spinach, pine nut and raisin salad. I’m using up the GruyÃ¨re cheese from the morning omelette. I ask myself: What are we looking for today from you, Stef, do you think? A beautiful plate of food, I answer myself. I need to cook my heart out today. Need to take risks! It is do or die today.Â Let’s Cook!Â I’m not actually hungry, but I must stick to the gruelling schedule, or I can’t call myself anything.
From the title story, ‘Reality, Reality’, in which a woman pretends to participate in a TV cooking show in order to motivate herself to lose weight. She herself is a drinker, she is alone with her dog. But there is no pity or easy conclusion. No cheap punchline to a life. Some stories in this collection are whispers that drift out of mind quickly, but in the stand-outs, like ‘Reality, Reality’, like ‘The First Lady of Song,’ ‘Doorstep’, ‘Mind Away’ and ‘These Are Not My Clothes’ there is a gleam. The manner of approach sprinkled with gallows humour that drives the reader on through the meloncholy. The narrators are predominantly female and middle aged, frequently lesbian and mixed race – as Kay is herself.
I mention it reluctantly, because Jackie Kay is so often linked to her background. Scratch that, it always comes up. Â She’s a Scot with a white Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, adopted and brought up byÂ ardentlyÂ left-wing, socially aware (and white) Glaswegian parents, and come into acclaim in the deep, narrow sealoch of the Scottish literary scene. Small fact: Scotland is 96% white, and matters of race far different to the issues in the US or even down South in England. But I am not enough qualified to speak on the subject beyond that. There are conversations to be had, people needing their say.Â Into this environment, Kay steps in, shimmies, smiling. Building out a space, you could put it. If you weren’t paying attention. She is more than a pioneer, more than a synecdoche. If there is the idea of the singular, the remarkable, surrounding Kay like an aura, it seems linked to that voice of hers, which is uniquely, lyrically hers. A compassionate, but never lecturingÂ raconteur, the one we all gather around at parties, just to listen, bask in if almost impossible to distil on the page.
Helen McClory was raised in both rural and urban Scotland. She has lived in Sydney and New York City and is currently to be found in the Old Town of Edinburgh in a three hundred year old flat opposite a tunnel into the underworld. The manuscript of her first novel KILEA won the Unbound Press Best Novel Award 2011, and publication is currently being sought for it. To keep the wire steady, Helen is working on a second novel about the intersections of love, failure and technology set in New York, New Mexico and Cornwall. Progress on this at: http://schietree.wordpress.com/