A second bite of the cherry

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THE first time I met Jackie Kay was a chance encounter. I was in a café in Glasgow's West End and the Scottish writer and her parents, who adopted her as a baby in Edinburgh, asked if they could share my table. Two hours later we had eaten lunch together, swapped phone numbers and her mother had bought me a stick of liquorice.

Kay, born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, is as warm and mischievous in person as she is in her writing. Meeting Kay's mother and father, working-class white Glaswegians who used to take her and her brother on protest marches when they were members of the communist party, it's not hard to see where she gets her exuberance and quick wit.

When we arrange to meet this time round, Kay invites me out to dinner with her parents and once again I spend a random evening in the company of this loving, unconventional family from Bishopbriggs. Kay regularly comes up to Scotland from Manchester, where she has lived for the last 10 years, to see her parents and "top up" her accent.

"I love Scotland and I feel like it belongs to me, but do I belong to Scotland?" she says later. "I could write a whole book of stories based around people asking me where I'm from. I was in Wigtown recently and this wee old lady came up to my mum and me and said: 'Oh she's awful tanned, isn't she. Is she that colour every day?'" Kay roars with laughter. "It's hysterical. Being black and Scottish is a battle because you constantly have to assert your right to say, 'I'm here too, I have been for years and actually, I was born here'."

Kay has two collections of poetry out this month. The first, Red, Cherry Red, is a beautifully illustrated children's book, accompanied by a CD of Kay reading the poems. "Writing poetry for children is one of the forms I like best," she says. "I don't see much difference between writing for adults and children. I deal with the same issues but from different points of view. It's about trying to recapture a child's lens."

One of the best poems in the collection, 'My Face Is A Map', is about facial disfigurement. The final lines read like a distilled version of the question that has preoccupied Kay throughout her impressive and varied career. "Without my map, will I be the same person?/Will I know where I am, where I have been?"

"Identity is pertinent for me," says Kay. "I did some research about children who are made to feel special about their disfigurement. It made me think about being adopted and how my mum always said to me: 'You're special because we chose you'."

The second book, Darling, is an anthology of poems chosen by Kay and dating back to 1991's semi-autobiographical The Adoption Papers. It also includes new poems that Kay has written over the past couple of years on subjects ranging from her 18-year-old son's gap year to another of her great subjects, love and the loss of it, in bittersweet poems with titles such as 'Facing The Double Bed, Single'. Having spent a number of years on her own following her break-up with fellow poet Carol Ann Duffy, Kay is now seeing someone. "I have a new girl in my life and it's very exciting," she says. "You take a wee while to mend because the relationship I had before lasted 15 years, which is longer than armed robbery time." Another belly laugh follows.

She is as busy as ever, working on a second novel for children about a girl lighthouse keeper and a memoir about meeting her birth father in Nigeria. Much of Kay's work exists, as she puts it, "in the border country between fact and fiction, and experience and imagination", but sometimes "a story just happens to you and it seems right to put it down".

Being reunited with her father was not easy. "He was secretive and didn't want me to meet any of his family," she says. "He was very religious and saw me as his sin. I'd always imagined him as a cross between Paul Robeson, Nelson Mandela and Duke Ellington. He wasn't anything like that."

Kay, though, always sees the humour and, crucially, the kernel of a story in any situation. "I found him really easily because he's a world tree expert. Imagine tracing your family tree and a finding a tree specialist? It's the kind of thing that, if you put it in a novel, would sound absolutely ridiculous." And she starts laughing again. v

Red, Cherry Red is published tomorrow by Bloomsbury. Darling: New & Selected Poems is published by Bloodaxe