Susanna Rustin 

A life in writing: Jackie Kay

'I think the short story suits people who feel displaced or misplaced or who don't fit in, people who feel their very bones are lonely'
  
  

Life can go either way, for the people in Jackie Kay's stories. They can be miserable, lonely and pretty desperate. Or they can be lucky. Usually, the way she tells it, this means finding someone to share it with, and not necessarily a partner. Cheryl, in "Doorstep", is hellbent on spending Christmas alone following a breakup: "Hurray! I can opt out of the fattening Christmas meal, the sodden, shrivelled roasted veg, the Christmas pud – do you have brandy butter or custard, do you microwave or steam – and the wrapping paper, the horrid fights about what to watch on television. I'm having none of it." Until, on 25 December, her overweight and needy friend Sharon arrives at the door with a roast bird, and turns out to be just what Cheryl wants.

In "The Pink House", 41-year-old Elizabeth Ellen is broke and homeless, massively in debt, and consoled by her pregnancy: "I feel like I could fly. I could. When my baby arrives, we will live from hand to mouth, from her tiny hand to my full mouth. I don't actually need very much. I need the baby to come and be healthy and I need my dark-dark curly-haired one to suck, but nothing else."

Kay is a romantic writer, for whom tenderness is something to celebrate. "Grace and Rose", in their eponymous story, are planning the first lesbian wedding on Shetland. The narrator of "Bread Bin", too, has met the love of her life, and experienced her first orgasm at 49: "It went all the way through me; it sped back to my birth and hurtled towards my death. It went through me like a train. Like a boat upturning. Like a tree in a wild storm."

But these four stories, with their promises of comfort and joy, are in the minority in Kay's third collection, Reality, Reality. Fourteen out of 15 of these new stories are narrated in the first person, and most give voice to personalities far more precarious and worrisome than Elizabeth Ellen or Cheryl, socially isolated though these two may be.

In the kitchen of the terraced house where she lives alone in Chorlton, south Manchester, with the central heating on and tea and cake on the table, Kay explains that the reason she feels at home with short stories is that "you can focus on people who are really on the edge, whereas if you did that for the whole length of a novel it might get very tiring. It's like having a malt whisky really, a short story. You can have a wee malt but if you tried to drink a whole pint of whisky you'd be dead, so there's something about the intensity. I like seeing people at a moment of crisis or at a moment in time."

The crisis most of these characters face is losing touch with reality altogether (hence the title). The question the book asks is: what happens when imagination takes over? There are characters with dementia, and one woman who is resisting it to the last – though her existence in an abusive care home is so bleak that you wonder if her firm mental grip makes her worse off than the rest.

A ghost features in "The White Cot", a spooky gothic tale about a lesbian couple whose decision not to have a baby years before resurfaces, on holiday in a rented cottage, as a source of division and regret. But mostly there are women struggling with lives that are difficult and disappointing, and finding solace in food, cigarettes and making things up. Kay says: "I think the form suits people who feel displaced or misplaced or who don't fit in, people who feel their very bones are lonely. I don't think of it as a completely sad book but I think the sad stories last longer – if you're talking about malts, they have a longer finish. It's about getting some sort of emotional range, and the funny stories can make the sad stories sadder because it's about contrast."

Kay is funny and good-humoured (one of the nicest jokes in the book is a grandmother deciding, "It is not one of my biggest regrets – never having an orgasm – if you're good for nothing afterwards"). She is pleased when readers say she has made them laugh and cry, and combines in her writing her enthusiasm for all sorts of things (wine, friends, her son, sex) with insight and honesty. Since her first book of poetry, The Adoption Papers, published just before she was 30 and telling the story of her adoption from different points of view, Kay has regularly revisited her own life story, most recently in her acclaimed memoir Red Dust Road and Fiere, her newest collection of poems.

Red Dust Road told the story of how she tracked down her birth parents – a young nurse from the Highlands and a Nigerian student at Aberdeen university, Jackie, originally named Joy, was conceived in 1961. Her birth mother was on the verge of dementia when they began a series of meetings soon after Kay's own son was born. Her father was a forestry expert with a wife and grown-up children, who prayed and chanted for two hours when they met and was more interested in her sex life than her personality. Both were deeply religious, and saw her birth and adoption through the prism of theology.

That Kay managed to salvage an uplifting story from this saga of disappointment and rejection is down to the good fortune of her adoption. Born in Edinburgh and brought up in Glasgow, Kay and her brother Maxwell (adopted separately two years earlier) were extremely unusual at the time in being black children adopted by white Scottish parents.

John and Helen Kay were communists, and political activism was the backdrop to a family life filled with affection: "I used to get a thrill when Madame Allende came to Glasgow and I learned she had managed to give up smoking after her husband" – Chilean president Salvador Allende – "was assassinated. My mum said, 'Isn't Madame Allende's hair beautiful!'" Kay recalls. "I was 11 and going to these rallies for the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and people would sing "The Red Flag" and "The Internationale" and I would get the shivers. To this day I feel moved by a group of people singing political songs."

But though she knew she was loved, the question of her origins became more insistent as she grew older. If anything, this curiosity was encouraged rather than inhibited by her imaginative mother, who joined in fantasies of where she came from. On one occasion the two of them knocked at what they thought might be the childhood home of Jackie's birth mother – to her father's fury. In her memoir she described the "windy place right at the core of my heart" and suggested that "the bundle of child that is wrapped up in the ghostly shawl of adoption does have another layer of aloneness". For her, the sense of alienation was heightened by a growing awareness of ethnicity (Kay's memoir should be required reading for anyone tempted to pronounce on the rights and wrongs of cross-racial adoption).

At school her parents challenged every instance of discrimination, but at 16 Kay quit the Young Communist League after a row concerning the eviction of a group of Arab people in France convinced her the party didn't take racism seriously. One day she came home and told her parents she was black, not coloured. It was years before her mother absorbed this fully and bought her a book of African poetry.

At the same time she was beginning to realise she was attracted to girls, and aged 17 asked her mum: "'How would you feel if I told you I was a lesbian?' She said, 'I would be very upset,' and I said, 'Why?' 'Because you would be becoming somebody I don't know or understand, you wouldn't be Jackie any more.'

"And that's always stayed with me," says Kay. "The idea that by becoming a lesbian I would suddenly not be Jackie. It frightened me. Recently she said she had taken ages to properly accept me being a lesbian and felt bad about that, and it really moved me. I thought, how amazing that there you are at 82 and you're saying you didn't handle this right. Nobody handled it right in the 70s. I think they were actually fine; they were brilliant," she ends warmly.

In Glasgow the only other black person she knew was her brother, but studying English at Stirling University she got to know a couple more (foreign students, like her birth father) and took to spending the long summer vacations in London working as a hospital porter and a cleaner and, by chance, as a house-sitter for the writer John le Carré.

When Trumpet, her first novel, was published in 1989, Kay became one of the most prominent of a small number of women writers of African descent in Britain. The poet Jean "Binta" Breeze and novelist Joan Riley both emigrated from Jamaica and published here in the 1980s. Unsurprisingly, it was to African-American writers – Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou – that Kay turned as a young woman, and the poet Audre Lorde, who told her she didn't have to deny her Scottishness in order to be black. "'It's a strength! You can be both!'" Kay says in a hearty approximation of Lorde's accent. "That was an amazing thing to hear. So I stopped feeling like a sore thumb and realised that complexity could bring something, that there are advantages as well as disadvantages."

She put the lesson into practice, and in her most recent poems combines the Scots vernacular she grew up with and the Igbo speech of her Nigerian forbears. One poem, "Bronze Head from Ife", addresses a 14th-century African sculpture directly in Scots ("Gies yer haund! / Miracle that ye are, yer braw face / lifts my heart; naebody can doot yer art") with an effect that is startling because so utterly unfamiliar.

Kay says she was "bogged down" in identity politics for a long time, and worries that the labels and categories it created – "lesbian writer", "black writer", "Scottish writer" – can become a drag. "You want to be open about being gay – why would you not be open about being gay? But you don't want to be defined by it," is how she expresses the conundrum. "You never have control over how much the volume goes up or how much flavouring goes in. Ultimately I'm a writer and I don't want my work or my characters to be constrained by the fact of me. I think a lot of writers feel like that."

At university people made "crass and awful" remarks about this black Scottish lesbian they knew. "Woah, really, are you working class too?" one excited lecturer asked, while others made jokes along the lines of "all you need now is to have a disability as well". But her race was inescapable, not least in appearing to thwart her first ambition to be an actor. She went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama part-time. "I was a good wee actress," she explains. She spent her childhood putting on performances for her family, but never got past the auditions: "One time this woman said to me, 'You're really good dear, you're just the wrong colour,' which was quite helpful in a way because it made me feel it was nothing to do with talent, it was just racism."

Kay believes the advances in race relations made during her lifetime are now under threat: "Things that wouldn't have been acceptable a few years ago are becoming acceptable again and that worries me." She hasn't made up her mind about Scottish independence but fears it could make the place more parochial: "I worry about wee countries getting large egos and I wouldn't want Scottish identity to become that, bravado and swagger, a wee hard man. I want it to be an international country that I feel I still belong to."

As a young writer she found generous mentors in older Scottish authors including Alasdair Gray. Her poem "Strawberry Meringue" affectionately describes a visit to Edwin Morgan: "my mum and I bought you a strawberry meringue, / a vanilla slice and a cream fancy / and round your bed we three / had our own wee tee party". Her first collection of poems won a Scottish book prize and led straight to the commission for Trumpet, so far her only novel.

By the time her first book came out Kay was a mother, having accepted an offer by her friend, the Afro-Caribbean-British writer Fred D'Aguiar, to be the father. "Did you do it the normal way or with a syringe?" her mother asked upon hearing the news. "I said 'the normal way' and she said 'that's good Jackie because the syringe is far too cold'." Matthew is now 23, and a film-maker living in London. Photographs of him, Kay's parents and other friends and family cover one wall of her kitchen. For many years Matthew was brought up alongside Carol Ann Duffy's daughter, Ella, when Kay and Duffy lived together in London and Manchester, and the pair remain close despite their mothers having separated after 15 years. The writer Ali Smith is also among a cherished circle of friends.

Kay would have had more children, she says, if circumstances had allowed, "but I didn't want to have another dad – three men between two lesbians seemed too much". She was clear she didn't want to use a donor and do the "two mummies thing, a lot of people do that but I didn't … I never wanted Matthew to have unknowns if I could help it." Her current partner, Denise Else, to whom the new book is dedicated, is a BBC sound technician who lives down the road.

One day a week she teaches graduate students at Newcastle University, where she is professor of creative writing, but she talks of moving back to Edinburgh, or London.

Having spent five years on her first novel – she once hid under a table at the Hay festival out of embarrassment at having kept her publisher waiting – Kay is now writing another one, set in the present, with the working title Bystander. "It's about the things that people witness," she says. Trumpet, the story of a jazz musician revealed after his death to have been a woman, won the Guardian fiction prize, has, like her memoir, been more commercially successful than her other books. "Trumpet should have been remaindered by now," she chuckles. In fact it remains in print, a clear illustration of the fact that, unless you are Ted Hughes, novels most often sell better than stories and poems.

It's become a cliché to talk about the renaissance of the short story – often wished for by literary enthusiasts, never a reality. But Kay, on the verge of launching her third collection and still "not a natural novelist", can't help but hope that forms of fiction other than the 300-page narrative might find a better accommodation in the age of ebooks and digital downloads.

"I think the short story is perfect for our time, and perfect for people's time," she says. "You can read a short story in your lunch hour or before you go to sleep and it's a complete experience. You can carry the story around with you in your head and if you put it down in a large field it should still glow because of its intensity."