With her poetical radio play The Lamplighter (2008), which was first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 2007 to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, Jackie Kay inserted herself into the historical tradition of slave narratives as well as into the more recent literary practice of “neo-slave narratives” (Bell 1987). Designed to draw readers’ attention to the horrors of slavery, the latter genre first emerged in African American literature in the 1960s and in the last three decades has also gained prominence in Black British literature, where it received a boost around the time of the bicentenary commemorations. While these fictional(ised) neo-slave narratives may “approach the institution of slavery from a myriad perspectives and embrace a variety of styles of writing” (Smith 2007), I have argued elsewhere (Bekers 2017) that Black British writers have expanded the genre by 1) shifting the setting away from the USA to focus on Britain’s involvement in slavery and 1) taking a metafictional interest in the authorship of the enslaved.
My reading of The Lamplighter treats the radio play as a creative exercise in what Procter and Schiebiner (2009) label agnotology or the study of culturally induced blind spots in (Western) knowledge and aims to focus on the literary strategies that Kay, as a Scottish author, adopts to address in particular Northern Britain’s “historical amnesia” (Evaristo 2008) regarding its involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery. I will demonstrate how Kay takes full advantage of the unusual formal complexity of her neo-slave narrative, which is variously described as “both a radio and stage play and a multi-layered epic poem” (original back cover), “lyrical drama” (BBC Radio 3), “dramatised poem” (Tournay-Theodotou) and an “epic play” (Angeletti) and which presents the voices of four enslaved women as well as the (male Western) Zeitgeist. By showing how The Lamplighter’s generic hybridity, multi-vocality and metafictionality all work together to implicate the port cities of Northern Britain, including Kay’s hometown of Glasgow, I aim to highlight the artistry of Kay’s contribution to what Toni Morrison has called the “rememory” (37) of the history of slavery.
Period3 Jun 2021
Event titleJackie Kay Conference
Event typeConference
LocationLiverpool, United Kingdom
Degree of RecognitionInternational