Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay, adapted by Gill Waters

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BBC Radio 4, 19-23 July 2010
Read by the author herself, Red Dust Road chronicled the author's search for her birth mother and father - a journey which takes her first to Scotland and later to Nigeria. After an exhaustive search through the archives, she arranges to meet her mother in the lobby of an anonymous Hilton Hotel. During this meeting her mother is more interested in talking about her neighbour's heart condition rather than getting to know her daughter. We also learn about her religion; she follows the Mormon faith which, according to Kay, encourages the belief that "adopted people cry out to be adopted while they are still in the womb." Eventually we find out that Kay's mother had a history of psychiatric disorder, and ultimately suffers from the initial symptoms of dementia. Kay herself experiences an incredibly poignant moment when she opens her handbag and finds a Post-it sticker inside saying that her mother loves Jackie. This might be a heart-felt sentiment, or a reminder to her mother about who Jackie actually is; we are never told. But nonetheless Kay welcomes the experience.
Travelling to Nigeria on a British Council tour, Jackie subsequently encounters her father, an academic who gave up his hedonistic life in Scotland for religion. During their first meeting at a nondescript hotel, her father Jonathan spends two hours in energetic prayer, trying to cleanse her of his past sins. Kay herself admits that this is a "fresh horror [...] me as the impure, me the bastard, degenerate." This meeting proves the first and last time that the two of them actually meet; despite regular attempts to arrange further rendezvous, Jonathan wants to keep her out of his life. Kay returns to Nigeria to visit his village, and discovers to her susprise that she is treated as a "white" person, on account of her light skin. Contrast this with her experiences in Scotland, where she was always "black." The story ends with Kay being reunited with her half-brother Sidney who, unlike Jonathan, actively welcomes contact with her, however brief it might be.
Told with compassion and warmth, Red Dust Road not only records Kay's search into her past - which also might be her future - but depicts the loneliness experienced by many adopted children as they try to discover their roots. This is not to take anything away from Kay's adoptive parents, Helen and John Kay; as the author recalls, they couldn't have provided a better example for her with their firmly held social and political beliefs and fiercely antiracist stance. Nonetheless Kay feels it incumbent on her to embark on this journey, both physical and mental, despite the obvious pain it causes her. Red Dust Road - the title refers to Kay's dreams about what Jonathan's life might be, with a house on a red dust road in Nigeria - is a heart-rending yet compassionate tale. I hope that Radio 4 has the good sense to repeat it soon.