Zaffar Kunial with Jackie Kay: Between the Dee and the Don

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Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
Edinburgh Book Festival
August 15th
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I’m always a little awe-struck in the presence of our makar, or Poet Laureate of Scotland, Jackie Kay, but she is so particularly warm, earthy and endearing that I also feel like it’s spending time with a talented big sister you’re striving to emulate. She doesn’t need much introduction at this stage in her career, close to being one of Scotland’s ‘national treasures’, with an MBE for services to literature, including two books of poetry, Darling and Fiere, which draw on her Nigerian-Scottish background. Her confidence beams out along with her smile and easy connection with the audience; excited to be able to introduce an emerging poet of Anglo-Kashmiri heritage, Zaffar Kunial. The subject matter for the talk was fairly specific. What does it mean to be a British writer of mixed heritage in the 21st century? Zaffar looked humble, shy and nervous in his body language, slightly disbelieving that he was on the stage with Jackie in front of a large, enthusiastic audience. He is fairly new on the scene, with just a few poems published in a wee pamphlet, Faber New Poets in 2014, a handful of which he’d brought with him. She was excited to launch him at the Festival and assured us that we were privileged to see him here before everyone else catches on to his talent. He’s been been poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust and came third in the National Poetry Competition with ‘Hill Speaks’ in 2011.

Kaye began by reading three of her own poems. ‘Between the Dee and the Don’, from her celebrated collection ‘Fiere’, set the tone for the discussion. ‘The middle ground is the best place to be’, as so often expounded by the wise, is an Igbo saying, the tribe of her Nigerian biological father. The poem is a celebration of being bi-racial, bi-cultural, and not having to choose one over the other. This self-defined stability is a strong statement; vital after years of confusing experiences tugging and tossing you between different strands of your heritage. She recounts a funny story of a man on a train seeing her Igbo genes shining out of her face. His enthusiastic exclamations at her ‘good Igbo nose, and good Igbo teeth!’ fill her with pride and make the audience laugh. We feel the excitement and pleasure of parts of her being not just identified but celebrated, fuelling long-held and poignant dreams of fully belonging as she painstakingly create her own connections with elusive ancestry. Jackie longs for the connection with Nigeria, as ‘I dance the dance I never knew’, and just as she begins to embrace this identity as an African woman, comes the shock at the reality of being boxed into a category that again, doesn’t quite fit the complexity of self, as she is called Oyinbo (white person) by the market women!
Zaffar’s poems fitted his aura; delicate, thoughful, emotional. The poets I admire the most are those who are fully open and vulnerable in their writing. It’s such a brave space to inhabit, especially for a man in most cultures; being the warrior of the heart rather than the sword. His poems are full of cultural references including clever nods to other poets of many persuasions. He said it was difficult to connect with Shakespeare at school, but had since drawn closer to him with deeper understanding and connection. Identifying with him. Again, the theme of connnecting to whom you choose emerges, having the power of choice, a self-conscious decision to make the connections that you want to. This was exemplified in his poem ‘The Lyric Eye’ where he sees some of himself in Shakespeare. He had the audience, and Jackie herself close to tears as he read out his short poem of whispering into his mother’s ear at the time of her death.
I was keen to ask them both if there was ever a point where they felt grounded and relatively stable in their own identity as a mixed-race person, or whether it continues to shift depending on their environment and others’ perceptions. Kunnial admitted what you could see from his demeanour, that being grounded was not a natural or easy state for him, but that language itself was his ground, that language itself was home. The discussion continued naturally to the positive advantage in creative endeavours of always having an ‘outsider perspective’, forcing you to grapple with contradictions throughout your life. The magic of borders, as American writer Toni Morrison talks about, being the places where exciting things happen. After the barrage of questions, each of which encouraged further introspection, they both ended with one poem each. They both had a connection with Aberdeen, hers being her conception. She finished with her wee homage to the granite city, but to fit the final minute of the allocated hour, rather than read a longer poem with an Aberdeen theme, Zaffar wrapped it up with a sixy-second sonnet. ‘Just a minute’, was a response to Shakespeare’s sonnet 60. Undoubtedly, as Jackie has realised several years ago, Zaffar is going to be a huge name in poetry, and I feel privileged to have been in their company.
I wanted to embrace them both and tell them how much I loved them, loved them for their talent, their vulnerability, their delicacy with language. Their ability to express subtleties of inner experience every time you face the world and the unknown amount of acceptance and understanding you will meet in each interaction. The recognition of a shared struggle. This was the Caribbean side, the Middle Eastern side bidding to express itself. But the reserve from the English genes in my makeup won out this time round and curbed the ‘foreign excess’. It might have been too much to fling myself on strangers, even for poets. But somehow I think the ‘other’ side of them, steeped in the heat of sunshine and spices, rooted in community and easy affection, would have responded to the call for human connection. For after all, the three of us, along with so many others, are ‘light and dark, father and mother.’
Reviewed by Lisa Williams
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