I've read several accounts over the years of British poet Jackie Kay's first meeting with her Nigerian biological father, and it never fails to move. Reading her poetry collection Life Mask (inspired by the birth father), I was astonished by the warmth and generosity shown to a man who told Kay she was his 'past sin' - to be kept a secret from his Nigerian family, mindless of how that might hurt his long abandoned child. A pastor of some sort who saw nothing wrong in a continued life of lies, secrets and hypocrisy. I've also seen Kay read poems from Life Mask at least twice, once at the South Bank Centre in London and again last year at the Farafina Trust literary evening in Lagos. From the audience at last year's reading, I put my long-held question to the poet: how could you be so forgiving of such a man? She answered with the same lack of judgement I'd gleaned from her poems.
The father himself, known only as Jonathan, has become a major theme in Jackie Kay's work. And so in today's Observer is an excerpt from her memoir, recalling again that first meeting. Jonathan is insensitive, sure - and riddled with contradictions - but he's painted as neither good nor bad, just deeply flawed. And immensely fascinating, a Nigerian man of the cloth who readily accepts his daughter's lesbianism (it's the homosexuals God's got issue with, he tells her!) - though he can't help wondering how the thing works ('which one of you is the man?' he wants to know).
There is mention of Kay's former long-term partner, the poet Carol Ann (Duffy). Duffy's 'Rapture' - a beautiful, red, hardcover little book complete with a red ribbon page marker - is a favourite of mine. Achingly beautiful poems on the pages attest to why Duffy is so revered in the UK. My several hundred books are still waiting to be cargoed or shipped from England, but when I was relocating I had about 20 books that travelled down with me in my suitcase. 'Rapture' is one of them. I read it regularly and carry many of the lines in my head, like the beginning of 'Text' -
I tend the mobile now
like an injured bird...
The fact that Jackie Kay has made something of herself as a writer clearly did nothing to sway the father from his decision to keep her a secret. It is a bit touching when at the end he urges her to make their meeting "a happy thing." And that, she's certainly done.
And now we're in the room. I'm about to have a conversation with my birth father for the first time. "Ask me anything," Jonathan says, staring at me, "I will try and answer it." "First," I say, "I'll give you a gift." I get his present out of the hotel safe. He opens the wrapping paper, slowly, with some enjoyment, and peeps in the box. "This is very generous of you. This is very kind," he says looking at the silver watch. He tries it on. It is too big. His wrist is thinner than I'd calculated back in Arthur Kay's jeweller's in Manchester. I'm sad it is not exactly right. Jonathan says, "No, it fits perfectly! It is a very nice watch. How much did it cost?" I try to shrug this question off politely, but he pushes. "How much, tell me. I'm curious to know what a watch like this would cost." He is still staring at the solid silver bangle, loose on his arm. "A hundred pounds," I say, giving in. "A hundred pounds!" he whistles.
Then he says, "Now I have a question for you. Would you mind very much if I gave this watch to my wife?" I'm stunned. "Yes, I would mind," I say. "I bought the watch for you. It is a gift for you. I like to think of you wearing it and that you might sometimes think of me when you look at the time." "I don't need to wear your watch to think about you," he says. "That's nice," I say touched, "but I'd still prefer you kept the watch." "It's only that I have a watch already and my wife doesn't have a watch," he says. "Well, why don't you give her the watch you have and keep the watch I've given you?" "This is a good solution," he says. "I didn't think about that. This is what I'll do. But now you must make up a lie for me to explain the watch. How would I get it? How would I have come across such a watch?"
I feel oddly flattered by this. He has told lies to come and meet me and now needs more lies to return home with the unexplained Seiko watch ticking on his arm. Perhaps all lies are fixed to some timing device that will eventually explode. "Who did you say you were going to meet in Abuja? Religious people? Students? Whoever it was, tell her that somebody who admires your work had been given this watch from a friend in England as a present and they wanted you to have it." He nods sagely and says, "This is a good lie."
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