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Jackie Kay Biography

moody life colman novel

Nationality: Scottish. Born: Jacqueline Margaret Kay in Edinburgh, Scotland, 1961. Education: University of Stirling, B.A. 1983. Career: Writer-in-residence, Hammersmith, London, 1989-91. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1991; Scottish Arts Council Book award, 1991; Saltire First Book of the Year award, 1991; Forward prize, 1992; Signal Poetry award, 1993; Somerset Maugham award. Agent: Pat Kavanagh, Peters Fraser & Dunlop, 503/4 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, London SW10 0XF, England.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Trumpet. New York, Pantheon, 1998.

Poetry

That Distance Apart (chapbook). London, Turret, 1991.

The Adoption Papers. Newcastle upon Tyne, England, Bloodaxe, 1991.

Two's Company (for children). London, Puffin, 1992.

Other Lovers. Newcastle upon Tyne, England, Bloodaxe, 1993.

Three Has Gone (for children). London, Blackie Children's, 1994.

Other

Bessie Smith (biography). New York, Absolute, 1997.

Contributor, Stepping Out: Short Stories on Friendships Between Women. New York, Pandora Press, 1986.

Contributor, Lesbian Plays, edited by Jill Davis. New York, Methuen, 1987.

Contributor, Gay Sweatshop: Four Plays and a Company, edited by Philip Osment. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Methuen Drama, 1989.

* * *

Jackie Kay is part of a vibrant literary scene of black British writers who among others include Grace Nichols, Bernadine Evaristo, and David Dabydeen. Unlike most black British writers she has grown up in Scotland and is therefore in the position to craft a new literary language that bears both a "Scottish" and a "black" inflection. Kay published her first novel after establishing herself with three collections of poetry, and her lyrical tone and mature control of language reveal the poet behind the novelist. Kay's novel also connects with her interest in trans-racial adoption, and specifically with her first collection of poetry, The Adoption Papers.

The Trumpet is love story and lament, full of tension and pain. It is loosely influenced by the life of Jazz musician Billy Tipton, whose story is transposed from 1930s America to 1950s Scotland. The black Scottish trumpeter Joss Moody has led life as a man—but in the body of a woman. Only his wife Millie shared this secret, while their adopted son Colman finds out when he sees Moody's body in the funeral parlour. The novel opens with Millie not only having to deal with her personal loss but also fending off the press, which relishes the potential sensationalism of Joss Moody's double life. As the book unfolds, several characters relate their own version of Moody, including his mother, a former school friend, and his drummer "Big Red." Puzzled by the Jazz musician's gender bending, Dr. Krishnamurty reluctantly signs the death certificate. The novel's characters find it difficult to reconcile their former knowledge of Moody with the revelation made upon his death. Indeed, Moody himself could not speak to his wife about his life as a young girl until shortly before his death. Resembling short riffs and solo instruments, these and many other voices are variations of a theme, Moody's life, which is rendered as a piece of jazz.

The stories of those who knew Moody compete with each other for validity—they are not disinterested accounts. Presenting conflicting stories of Moody's life, the novel questions the notion of authenticity. Moody had been a trespasser between reality and performance; by remaining in control of his story for most of his life, he deliberately divided private and public, thereby creating his own identity and effectively inventing himself. The price paid is the exclusion of his son Colman. The novel thereby also addresses the issue of investment into stories. What are they used for, whom do they serve, what is their cost? Colman's case drastically shows that the threat to the recollection of his father is profoundly unsettling: "I don't know any of us any more. He has made us all unreal."

While Millie retreats to a remote coastal village in an attempt to protect her own privacy and her husband's memory, her son's incomprehension and hurt lead him to bond with tabloid journalist Sophie Stone, whose investment in Moody's story is purely commercial. She becomes Colman's ghost-writer, and they travel through England and Scotland together, looking for Moody's acquaintances and family for their bare-all biography. But their research becomes a quest for Colman himself. He traces not his unknown biological parents but his adoptive father, thereby pursuing a partly illusory figure. His father's trumpet resounded with a yearning for the past, with displacement. Colman quests his fantasy father and authors his own memory, his own story, putting himself into his father's lineage.

—Mark Stein

Elizabeth Kay (1949–) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights [next]

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