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Age and Sexuality as Intersecting Sites

Configurations of Outsiderness in Jackie Kay’s Why Don’t You Stop Talking (2002)

Ana García-Soriano
p. 191-207


Cette étude a pour but d’examiner le thème de la marginalité dans le premier recueil de nouvelles de Jackie Kay, Why Don’t You Stop Talking (2002), avec un double objectif. Tout d’abord, cet article considère la marginalité par rapport au genre de la nouvelle, en faisant valoir que Why Don’t You Stop Talking communie avec—et approfondit—le potentiel qu’a ce genre de remettre en question les discours hégémoniques. En second lieu, cette étude se penche sur les différentes configurations de marginalité que Kay articule dans le recueil au gré de son exploration des frontières sociales. La marginalité, dans Why Don’t You Stop Talking, n’est pas seulement liée aux questions raciale, ethnique et sexuelle : elle est également déclenchée par d’autres facteurs, moins fréquemment évoqués, tels l’absence d’amour, l’existence de barrières communicationnelles ou les problèmes posés par une perception déformée de la réalité, illustrant de ce fait la diversification de la littérature noire britannique au-delà des thématiques raciales.

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Jackie Kay
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1Jackie Kay is well-known for her experimentation with various genres (Rowell 270), including the short story form. In effect, thus far, she has published three short story collections: Why Don’t You Stop Talking (2002), Wish I Was Here (2006) and her latest Reality, Reality (2012). Despite Kay’s prolific short story production, scholarly work on her oeuvre has tended to focus on her poetry collection The Adoption Papers (1991), her memoir Red Dust Road (2010) and her novel Trumpet (1998). This notwithstanding, in recent years, there has been a growing interest in Kay’s short fiction, one that is closely linked to recent scholarship examining the intersections of gender, national identity and social borders in the short fiction of contemporary British women writers (see Korte and Lojo-Rodríguez; Sacido-Romero and Lojo-Rodríguez). This article seeks to build on Bettina Jansen’s study Narratives of Community in the Black British Short Story (2018), which is one of the latest studies on Kay’s short story writing, and which provides new insights into her collection Why Don’t You Stop Talking—“the most emblematic” of her literary work, according to literary critic Kadija Sesay. As Jansen has argued, the re-definition of the notion of community runs throughout the short stories of black British authors (3). Drawing on such views, the argument developed here illustrates how Kay’s examination of social borders and outsiderness also aims to deconstruct assumptions which foreground an understanding of communities as being socially homogenous (Jansen 4).

2To this end, this article will focus on how the theme of outsiderness runs through and is articulated in Why Don’t You Stop Talking, first analysing outsiderness and its implications for and relevance to the short story genre, as a framework for understanding the intimate connection between alienation and literary form. The genre’s potential to articulate the voices of those considered to be outside social borders and mainstream culture will then be examined, as well as the question of how the form enables Kay to focus on the feelings of alienation experienced by her characters. As such, particular attention will be paid to how Kay presents non-normative characters whose isolation emerges from a problematic and restrictive understanding of community. This in turn will allow for a discussion of the different configurations of outsiderness present in Why Don’t You Stop Talking. This contribution will thus examine how sexuality and psychological difficulties to perceive reality are major factors behind outsiderness throughout the collection. Moreover, it will analyse how the author presents race and ethnicity as potential causes which determine the acceptance of certain members within a social group. Nevertheless, it should be made clear that these stories are the exception rather than the rule, as Kay’s short fiction is characterised by a postethnic approach, that is to say, by the elliptical characterisation of the ethnicity and race of her characters throughout her short fiction (Jansen 156).

Outsiderness and the Short Story

3The examination of relationships between self and Other has been a central philosophical concern. According to philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose work has deeply influenced “philosophical and ethical writing” (Hand 5), the widely accepted term “outsider” is the perfect example of the identification of the Other as a “Stranger” (40) who threatens group homogeneity. Levinas challenges the abstract categorisation and generalised idea of the Other, shifting the focus onto a “primordial indebtedness to the other” (5); in other words, Levinas recognises the human tendency to try to impersonally “nullify alterity” (39) when pluralism is identified. The general definition of the term provided by the Cambridge Dictionary also reflects upon the relationship between the Other and a community, as it defines an “outsider” as someone who is not “liked or accepted as a member of a particular group, organization, or society and feels different from those people who are accepted as members” (“Outsider”). When defining those “particular groups” and “accepted members,” one cannot help but quote Benedict Anderson’s views on nationalism and the configuration of national identity. As Anderson argues, society is formed by different nations which he identifies as “imagined political communit[ies]” (6)—the use of the word “imagined” is significant, as it suggests that, even if its members are unable to know all of the members within their group, they tend to identify distinctive characteristics which create a mental “image of their communion” (6). Therefore, communities would define themselves through the way their members imagine themselves and recognise a common origin and shared characteristics within a group (Hall 1).

4Nevertheless, defining and understanding communities as closed is problematic, as it automatically associates membership with specific identity features, which limit and determine community belonging (Hall 2)—a sense of distance is created between its members and those who do not fit within “imagined” and shared categories (Anderson 6). As Beth Crisp suggests, “belonging necessarily creates a situation of insiders and outsiders” (123) located inside or outside mentally constructed borders. This is how “the norm” is created, which explains how certain patterns of behaviour and attitudes are considered as normal and lead “to some relationship—hostile or friendly—with society as a whole” (O’Connor 16). Thus, the term “outsider” was coined to define those who are “outside” the norm and do not fit in this monolithic representation of a group. Outsiderness means being deliberately excluded from your own community or, as Jackie Kay claims, being constantly labelled as “the Other” due to factors such as race, gender or sexual orientation in a society where “the white person, the heterosexual person and the man are the norm and everybody else deviates from that” (Jaggi and Dyer 57).

5In this line, Irish critic and short story writer Frank O’Connor examines the correlation between alienation and the short story in his seminal study on short fiction. The connection he draws between the genre and its suitability to foster the articulation of “outlawed” voices “wandering around” (19) social borders has deeply influenced the theoretical study of the form. O’Connor highlights how the short story offers readers “an intense awareness of human loneliness,” stressed by the genre’s ability to encapsulate “our own attitude to life” (13). Throughout his analysis, O’Connor emphasises the genre’s potential to question hegemonic discourses (20). In the process, he defines outsiders as those who are part of a “submerged population group” (20), and whose isolation is enhanced due to the genre’s especial sensibility to articulate alienation. He also states that the configuration of outsiderness is determined by the “material considerations” and “absence of spiritual ones” (18) which writers focus on. Thus, O’Connor acknowledges that the causes which determine the characters’ isolation depend on the characterisation developed by each writer.

6Nevertheless, O’Connor is rather ambiguous when referring to the reasons behind characters’ outsiderness, as he does not pay attention to social constructions such as race or gender. Seeking to rectify this myopia and placing the existence of multiple social borders at the centre of her analysis, Clare Hanson builds upon O’Connor’s theorisation by claiming that the genre “has offered itself to losers and loners, exiles, women, black writers” (Introduction 2). Hanson expands O’Connor’s theory by establishing a relationship between genre and gender, as she highlights that the short story offers “a particularly appropriate vehicle for the expression of the ex-centric, alienated vision of women” (3). In fact, the emphasis laid on the exploration of gender in relation to the short story is, as Emma Young and James Bailey highlight, the object of study of the “third wave” of criticism of the genre, which started in the 1990s and which followed the feminist movement in Britain developed in the 1970s and 1980s (3). There now remains to examine how the depiction of outsiderness in Kay’s first collection and her articulation of non-normative discourses create a unique aesthetic of outsiderness which defines her short stories.

7Kay’s short fiction is in tune with this tradition. Her collection illustrates how socio-cultural factors like race or sexuality can influence the configuration of the identity of her characters (Hanson, “Postscript” 196). When discussing her understanding of the short story, Kay acknowledges that the topic is pertinent to the form as she believes that the genre is the perfect vehicle to examine human isolation from the mainstream (Rustin). She claims that the short story “suits people who feel displaced or misplaced or who don’t fit in, people who feel their very bones are lonely” (Rustin). Moreover, the Scottish author recognises the power of the short story to present “quirky” (Rowell 271) ideas and characters, due to the intensity and brevity of the form. As Kay argues in an interview with Charles Rowell, form and idea are interconnected in the creative process (270). Thus, when Kay wrote “The Woman with Knife and Fork Disorder,” included in Why Don’t You Stop Talking, she knew it had to be a short story because a novel could not sustain as the core of the narration the story of a woman who is obsessed with her cutlery (Rowell 271). As Kay goes on to explain, if this story had been a novel, it would have been “too tedious, too long” (271). Therefore, the short story genre enables the author to imagine outsiderness while articulating and giving readers access to how characters placed outside “dominant culture” (Hansen, Introduction 5) experience and cope with isolation. In doing so, the collection illustrates the “intensity and tension” which characterise the nature of the short story (Patea 11), while stressing the genre’s capacity to allow the examination of “a fragment, an incident, a single small-scale event” (10).

8As Clare Hanson claims, the short story form provides an apt vehicle for the discussion of “gender and race . . . and the effects of globalisation” (“Postscript” 197), themes which clearly run throughout Why Don’t You Stop Talking. Hanson also argues that the genre is eminently suitable for expressing the “uncomfortable or disturbing” (196) points of view of those who do not belong to mainstream culture. Illustrating Hanson’s argument, in the introduction to her short story collection Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (2001), Helen Simpson claims that the genre offers “huge imaginative advantages” (xi) and the perfect opportunity to render the “complexity of life” (xi). As a case in point, throughout this collection, Simpson challenges the widespread “conspiracy of silence” (ix) regarding how motherhood affects women.

9Kay’s understanding of the short story form and the presence of characters pushed outside socially constructed borders in her work suggest that the author’s interpretation of the genre has some affinity with O’Connor’s and Hanson’s remarks. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that O’Connor’s and Hanson’s arguments have been revised by recent scholarship on the short story, mainly as regards their strong emphasis on the marginality of the genre. Lately, the short story has received more and more “public and scholarly attention” (Long 129) both in and outside Britain; and current discussions on the form have stressed the need to upend conceptualisations of the genre as a “form of the margins” (Hanson, Introduction 2; also see David Malcolm 56-70). One of the most interesting challenges to O’Connor’s ideas relating to marginality is articulated by Achilles and Bergmann’s approach to the short form from the perspective of “liminality” as they argue that “the short story can be considered the liminal genre par excellence” (4).

10Why Don’t You Stop Talking is used by Kay as a medium to give visibility to what is neglected as “part of official or ‘high’ cultural hegemony” (Hanson, Introduction 2). As a result, this collection confirms the continuing tendency of the genre to counteract hegemonic discourses. As Kay outlines in an interview with Charles Rowell, her writing is characterised by the exploration of “borders and the borderlines that exist between one state and another and one country and another, one state of mind and other” (268). Her identification as a writer working “from that border country” (268) shows her interest in the renegotiation of social and personal boundaries and the provisional stages which they create. Kay focuses on isolation through the exploration of different configurations which enable her to pay attention to social borders. The emphasis laid on emotional and social isolation can also be explained through Sara Ahmed’s study The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2014). According to Ahmed, “what is relegated to the margins is often, as we know from deconstruction, right at the centre of thought itself” (4). The exploration of borders and alienation are recurrent themes which define Kay’s short stories, as her other short story collections are also characterised by the great emphasis laid on individual social and emotional isolation. Through focalised narrators who illustrate the emotional consequences of outsiderness, Kay aims to give visibility and voice to the margins. Therefore, Ahmed’s argument is in line with the main concern in this short story collection which is to bring outsiderness to “the centre” (4) of the stories. Kay articulates isolation moving across issues of identity in relation to class, gender, race, sexuality, nation and the ways in which normative values and assumptions have operated across these categories, which in the collection are viewed from different perspectives, but especially from the point of view of the isolated. As a result, these narrations negotiate visible and invisible social constructions and borders, as they become less fixed and more open to reconstruction.

Configurations of Outsiderness in Why Don’t you Stop Talking

11Drawing on this theoretical approach to the short story form, I will now move on to explore the prevalence of outsiderness in Why Don’t You Stop Talking. As Bettina Jansen argues, in Kay’s first collection, “characters are being united through shared marginalisation” (174). Departing from this premise, the following analysis is mainly based on the different configurations of outsiderness found in Why Don’t You Stop Talking, and on how Kay attempts to articulate a variety of marginal voices, addressing the social and emotional isolation which these characters experience. Within the collection, some protagonists can be labelled as traditional outsiders, whose marginalisation is based on such variables as race, gender or sexual orientation (Jaggi and Dyer 57)—factors usually linked to social exclusion. Kay suggests other configurations of outsiderness caused by the absence of love and psychological problems, which make these characters feel the consequences of exclusion in their daily lives. The different configurations of outsiderness shown in the collection illustrate the gradual “increase and diversification” (Weedon, “Black British” 40) of social concerns explored in black British writing since the 1980s.

Racial Outsiderness

12According to Chris Weedon, racism plays a key role in shaping the identity of members of the black British community (“Identity” 74). As such, the first factor that I will analyse in Kay’s configuration of outsiderness is social exclusion due to racism. The protagonist in “Trout Friday” is the perfect example of how, when establishing relationships between members of a community, labelling plays a key role to define “the Other” (Jaggi and Dyer 57). Even if the dominant theme in this narration is the loneliness which the protagonist experiences after the loss of various family members, the story also illustrates racist attitudes towards its main female character. Melanie symbolises the shared struggle of those whose mixed-race identity is regarded as a way of identifying them as outsiders. As writer Charlotte Williams claims when quoting Sugar and Slate, “‘to be mixed race is not to be half of anything; mixed but not mixed up’” (qtd. in Scafe 152). Nevertheless, throughout the narration, Melanie cannot find herself beautiful and she constantly describes her physical appearance as a “mixture of the two” (Kay 71). Furthermore, her inner struggle is intensified by the labels other characters use to describe her mixed-race background; and, in fact, she rejects being called “mulatto,” “half-caste” or “beige” (71). Her condition as an inbetweener and her outsiderness is verbalised by a stranger who tells her: “Must be hard for you lot, the blacks don’t want you and the whites don’t neither” (72).

13Similarly, “Out of Hand” can also be seen as representing another example of outsiderness caused by racial and national discrimination. Its protagonist, Rose McGuire Roberts, is part of the Windrush generation, one of those “four hundred and ninety-four Jamaicans [who] came ashore from the Empire Windrush” (165), who came “home” to help the country’s economy. However, they soon realised that their expectations did not match the hard reality, as they were not exactly welcomed in England. Rose becomes an outsider in a country which she had considered her home—a “skilled nurse. Highly qualified” (167) who is doomed to “all the rubbish jobs positions, all the jobs she shouldn’t be doing” (167) due to her race and ethnicity which are used to justify her imagined and socially accepted inferiority. According to Anderson, national belonging is one of the factors which tend to stand above others when shaping an individual’s way of behaving and thinking (6). However, this clear differentiation between nations can sometimes lead to racism when the idea of nation is conflated with race and when communities imagine themselves as racially homogeneous. Anderson’s views are illustrated in Kay’s story when Rose is verbally attacked by the locals who constantly reinforce her position as an outsider by telling her to “Go back to the jungle” (Kay 169) or to “Go back to your own country!” (170). Moreover, Rose is used as a scapegoat for all the problems of the country: “It’s all your fault. You’ve brought your diseases with you” (169). The narrator voices Rose’s thoughts which could be representative of what the whole Windrush generation might have experienced when they were invited “home” expecting a “huge fiction” (171), yet had to face the attitudes of those who “did not expect the colonials to come, to stay, and to expect the same life that the Anglo-Saxons themselves enjoyed” (Arana and Ramey 1).

14While racial discrimination is central to the short stories examined above, Kay’s short fiction is also characterised by the author’s postethnic approach, in other words, her tendency to omit explicit racial characterisation in the description of the protagonists of her stories (Jansen 156). As Jansen argues in this respect, Kay’s postethnicity is a distinguishing trait of black British short stories which can also be found in the short fiction written by such authors as Hanif Kureishi (156). This strategy is a technique used by the writer to actively encourage readers to deconstruct essentialist ideas about communities, such as how national belonging is “grounded upon a specific skin colour or ethnicity” (159). Throughout Kay’s collection, only “Out of Hand,” “Trout Friday” and “Why Don’t You Stop Talking” emphasise how racism leads to social exclusion and isolation. Yet, the initial academic interest which this collection has generated is mostly restricted to the examination of this selection of stories. Studies focusing on Why Don’t You Stop Talking are mainly published as individual chapters in edited collections exploring black British literature and culture, where issues surrounding the configuration of black British identity and national belonging are addressed (see Zimmermann; Williams). Despite the unquestionable importance of such matters for the black British community, these approaches limit a wider understanding of the author’s short story production.

Sexual Outsiderness

15As Kanika Batra suggests, Kay “declare[s] and normalise[s] gay and lesbian relationships by bringing them within the ambit of the everyday and the ordinary . . . despite external threats of violence and ostracism” (164). Why Don’t You Stop Talking, like Kay’s other short story collections, includes numerous examples of the author’s desire to normalise homosexuality. Most of the stories within the collection, such as “Big Milk” and “Married Women,” present these relationships as “real” and “normal” (Batra 163). “Physics and Chemistry” stands as the only example throughout Kay’s short story production where outsiderness and otherness is the result of prejudices against members of the LGBTQ community, as the story focuses on how the protagonists are fired from their jobs as science teachers due to rumours saying “they had a lesbian relationship, shared a house, a car, a bed” (Kay 225). The story narrates how Physics and Chemistry are trapped in a situation where they have to publicly keep appearances and hide their true selves, as they are unable to discuss “the nature of their relationship” (221) with anyone. The fact that Physics and Chemistry are teachers is also significant, as the main cause of their ostracism, which is their “sexual otherness,” is seen by others as a threat. Despite being considered as “exemplary teachers” (226), their sexual orientation is treated as potentially contagious, thus making them unfit to be around children, as a parent in the story claims that he does “not want a lesbian teaching his daughter, especially out of school hours” (225).

16Physics’ words “Why go out? Why ever go out?” (221) reflect how the characters’ public personas in the story—as the “Science Spinsters” (218) of the school—control the intimacy they experience in their private sphere, as they are unable to discuss “the nature of their relationship” (221) or their sexual encounters with anyone. Through the use of a rhetorical question, Physics also highlights her position as an outsider trapped in a domestic space to avoid a situation of social discrimination. She even claims agency over the potential otherness she may experience by conveying a sense of disinterest towards a community which categorises her, as if her rejection of the outside world was a preparatory experience for the otherness she might soon find herself in. At the end of the story, the characters are finally in control of their identity and they call themselves by their real names. When they stop performing, they finally feel a “spark” (227) which symbolises intimacy and passion between them. This change suggests that the protagonists feel a sense of “relief” once they are “out of the classroom” (227), highlighting the dangers of the imposition of normative behaviours which were responsible for their emotional alienation.

Outsiderness and the Perception of Reality

17Kay also gives voice to characters that are outsiders due to their psychological difficulties to perceive reality, such as the protagonists in “Shark, Shark,” “Timing” and “The Woman with Fork and Knife Disorder.” In this regard, Victoria Arana notes that Kay’s characters are “exceptionally unselfconscious about what is problematic about their personas” (253). As such, the protagonists in these stories feel a sense of belonging despite being considered as outsiders by others (Crisp 124). Nevertheless, their mere feeling of belonging does not necessarily guarantee them membership and acceptance within a group. This is the case of the protagonist of “Timing,” who suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder and as a consequence, her whole routine is based on getting “the timing right” (Kay 55), so that every morning she can walk past the same people whom she calls “my families” (58). Despite not actually knowing or speaking to any of them she feels “involved” (59) in “the kiss of the century” (58) between two women she hardly ever sees during her daily walks. After having witnessed their kiss, she experiences a sexual awakening and cherishes its memory, wishing to feel that involvement again. However, when she is finally reunited with one of the women and plucks up enough courage to talk to her, her answer does not match the protagonist’s expectations, as she looks at her as if she was “stark raving mad” (66). Hence, this short story highlights how her sense of belonging does not mean “connectedness,” that is to say, “participation in societal organisations or social networks” (Crisp 124). Despite her wish of becoming an active participant in the situation, she is not aware that her mental disorder is the source of her alienation, as even if she feels an ephemeral gratification after briefly meeting others during her walks, she is unaware that she is just an observer, an outsider who has a false and imagined idea of her social acceptance and connectedness (125).

18In discussing this configuration of outsiderness, Kay’s narrative choices should be emphasised, as they enhance the theme of isolation and her negotiation of social borders. As the author states in an interview with Rowell, the vast majority of her work is “voice based” (273). She clearly highlights her wish to make those who are denied a “voice” in society be heard. According to Paul Simpson, the perspective selected by the author to tell the story is an essential “stylistic dimension” (26), as the mode of narration does influence “the feel, colour or texture of the story” (27). Stories in Why Don’t You Stop Talking are written in the first person or in a “focalised third person” (Williams 50). The ones written in the third person have an “internal focalisation” (Barry 224)—in other words, the perspective from which the stories are narrated is permeated by what “characters think and feel” (224). For example, in “Trout Friday,” “The Woman with Fork and Knife Disorder,” “Shell,” “Out of Hand” and “Physics and Chemistry,” Kay uses a third-person narrator whose point of view reveals the characters’ thoughts to the reader, as well as their emotions. Kay’s selective omniscience always focuses on the characters’ inner realities, regardless of whether the stories are written in the first or the third person. By so doing, the author highlights the complex psychology of her characters by choosing a narrator who renders not just the mere unfolding of events, but also voices their “psychologically nuanced portraits” (Arana 253). Moreover, as Emma Young states, the emphasis laid on the narrator’s point of view enables Kay to give her protagonists “agency” over the events taking place, while also enabling them to reaffirm their “identity” (14), despite being pushed by others outside social borders.

19As choices in style play a key role in the interpretation and organisation of texts (Simpson 22), it can be argued that there is a deliberate reason behind the change in the mode of narration within the collection. Kay’s use of the first person participant-narrator reveals a particular pattern: Kay uses this narrator when giving voice to those characters that clearly struggle to be heard as a result of their deviant behaviour and whose inner reality might not match their outer façades, due to their problematic psychological state (Arana 253). The references to the outside world and comments made by other characters in stories such as “Timing” and “Big Milk” suggest that the characters’ mental problems might make them see reality from a unique perspective. This mode of narration compromises the reliability of the narrators, as the events that are being described are the product of their distorted image of reality.

20As Clare Hanson suggests, Kay articulates in her short stories “the perspectives of those who are marginalised” (“Postscript” 196). “Why Don’t You Stop Talking” is a good illustration of outsiderness due to a problematic understanding of reality. The protagonist’s interpretation of events makes readers question the accuracy of her account. In the title story, Thelma experiences isolation due to her inability to control her “tongue” (Kay 41) or, to put it bluntly, because of her unrestrained use of language. Throughout the story, the protagonist cannot differentiate the situations where she has to talk out loud or where she has to remain silent: “Sometimes it even feels like the words are not my decisions, like somebody else is talking with my tongue” (41). In her reading of “Why Don’t You Stop Talking,” Ulrike Zimmermann argues that Thelma’s outbursts are “the result of too much loneliness which makes her crave for human contact and communication” (128). Because of this, the difficulties Thelma experiences when communicating with others are the direct consequence of her social isolation.

21According to Arana, the alienation experienced by Kay’s protagonists makes them “cope poorly in normal situations” (253). Arana’s argument is also exemplified by Thelma, whose isolation determines her reactions when interacting with others. For example, Thelma tries to have a conversation with a woman in the supermarket and she ends up asking her if she is “a stuck-up cow” (Kay 40) to “coax” (40) a reaction from her. The woman finally tells Thelma to get “a shrink” (41). Secondly, Thelma is verbally attacked by a stranger who threatens her to “belt [her] on that fat mouth” (45), and she is finally “slapped” and called an “interfering cow” (46) when trying to save a child from abuse. After experiencing such trauma, the ending of the story narrates how Thelma decides to silence herself by cutting her tongue to stop “living on [her] tongue’s edge” and to prevent “more risks” (51). The implications of this lonely voice silencing herself are that Thelma will deny herself the possibility of future interaction and, therefore, she will be trapped in her isolated state.

Outsiderness and the Absence of Love

22Another significant aspect of Kay’s focus on social borders and her representation of outsiderness is the importance given to love in her work. While discussing her novel Trumpet (1998) in an interview with Maya Jaggi and Richard Dyer, Kay makes it clear that for her “love is just the most important thing” (56) as “love changes you. Love makes you different and love gives you security” (56). The absence of love characterises Kay’s exploration of isolation. As such, it is one of the principal causes of alienation and outsiderness among her characters. According to Williams, Kay gives visibility to “bodies that society does not like the look of; which it undervalues, marginalises and ignores, as it increasingly and obsessively, valorises the young, the beautiful, the thin, the visibly healthy” (54). Even if Williams’s work solely focuses on Why Don’t You Stop Talking, his remarks provide illuminating insight into Wish I Was Here and Reality, Reality.

23Examples of “overweight, unloved, unattractive, aging and dying” (54) bodies which do not follow conventional beauty standards are found nearly in every story in the collection under scrutiny here. However, social and emotional isolation as a result of the absence of love becomes particularly noticeable in “Timing,” “Making a Movie” and “Shell.” The latter narrates the cold relationship between a mother and her teenage son, who is incapable of realising that his mother is growing an actual shell. The protagonist wishes for a lover to explore “her body, her rolls of fat, her big thighs, her fat dimpled arms” (148). Nevertheless, Doreen denies herself the possibility of having a lover because she believes that her son would not approve of it, which only reinforces her sense of alienation and non-belonging. She has neither love nor human connections in her life, and the only moment when Doreen experiences a “relief, close to euphoria” (Kay 157), is when she completes her gradual metamorphosis into a tortoise at the end of the story. In fact, her transformation is symbolic, as tortoises are said to be solitary animals with no maternal instincts; this significant change enables her to escape from her responsibilities as a single mother and her state of isolation.

24As Williams notes, the protagonists in the collection can be defined as “problematic” (54). Because of this, when analysing the reasons for their current position as outsiders, the driving force behind their alienation can be identified. Throughout her stories, Kay illustrates how outsiderness can also be triggered by a combination of factors such as the impossibility of communication, the absence of love and the psychological difficulties experienced when it comes to interpreting reality. “Big Milk” shows this point clearly, as it reflects upon the absence of maternal love experienced by the protagonist, an adoptive being who has not experienced an emotional connection with her biological mother. In an interview with Maya Jaggi and Richard Dyer, Kay highlights the importance of paternal love and intimacy within the family by claiming that children who have been loved during their childhood are very different from the ones who have not experienced paternal love at all (56).

  • 1 The exploration of the theme of adoption is recurrent in Kay’s prose and poetry—see her first poetr (...)

25The change in couple dynamics, caused by the maternity of her partner and her intense connection with the baby, has completely alienated the protagonist in “Big Milk” who feels like “the baby is taking everything” (Kay 25) and even “transform[ing] the adults around her to suit herself” (26). This radical alteration in her life leads the protagonist to seek that recently lost sense of belonging in her biological mother. Readers discover throughout the story that the character was actually “transracially adopted” (Jaggi and Dyer 54), like the author herself who introduces the theme of adoption as a possible cause affecting her characters’ identity and sense of belonging.1 In fact, this configuration of outsiderness mirrors Kay’s memoir Red Dust Road (2010), the author’s autobiographical journey to find her biological parents, described by the critic John McLeod as “the most significant representation of black British adoption aesthetics published to date” (221). Nevertheless, despite the character’s wish to redefine her identity by re-establishing a connection with her past, the ending of the story suggests that her quest does not have the resolution she was hoping for. When she gets to her birth mother’s house and drinks the symbolic milk by the door, the taste is “sour and lumpy” (Kay 36).

26In conclusion, this article has aimed at examining the recurrence of the theme of outsiderness in Jackie Kay’s first short story collection, Why Don’t You Stop Talking. The stories and the topic of outsiderness were approached through critical figures such as Emmanuel Levinas and Benedict Anderson, whose views on isolation challenge the imagined social construction of the Other. On the one hand, the study of social borders has focused on how the theme of outsiderness is the anchor which draws together these short stories, as well as on the different assumptions and social constructions which cause isolation among the protagonists. Even if loss, isolation, family and generational fractures run like threads throughout Kay’s narratives, thematic coherence in the collection is achieved through the presence of characters whose social status hinders their sense of connectedness and belonging.

27On the other hand, this exploration of outsiderness has analysed how Kay’s understanding of the short story form highlights and further illustrates the intimate connection between the study of social borders and short fiction. Most stories in Why Don’t You Stop Talking are defined by the emphasis on social margins, stressing the genre’s potentiality to welcome discourses from outside mainstream culture. Kay’s main concern in this short story collection is to give visibility to the existence of social borders as well as voice to those who occupy a position as outsiders. As such, Kay presents non-normative characters whose isolation emerges from a problematic and restrictive understanding of the community. These short stories focus on complex topics regarding race, gender, the LGBTQ community and “other effects of globalisation” present in contemporary Britain (Hanson, “Postscript” 197). Throughout these stories, Kay explores how outsiderness can have different configurations and answer to factors other than race. In so doing, Kay’s fiction moves far beyond ethnic and racial concerns, thus illustrating the diversification of black British literature (Weedon, “Black British” 40). Kay creates symbolic characters who are Othered because they belong to an ethnic minority or fall outside heteronormativity. In addition, in her definition of outsiderness, Kay includes protagonists whose unstable mental state has led them to perceive reality in a non-realistic way, which is the main cause of their ostracism. Kay also brings to light how marginalisation from society can be caused by the absence of love and emotional connectedness.

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1 The exploration of the theme of adoption is recurrent in Kay’s prose and poetry—see her first poetry collection The Adoption Papers (1991).

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Ana García-Soriano, « Configurations of Outsiderness in Jackie Kay’s Why Don’t You Stop Talking (2002) »Journal of the Short Story in English, 75 | 2020, 191-207.

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Ana García-Soriano, « Configurations of Outsiderness in Jackie Kay’s Why Don’t You Stop Talking (2002) »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 75 | Autumn 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2022, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL :

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Ana García-Soriano

Ana García-Soriano holds a BA in English Studies from the University of Alicante, where she carried out a research fellowship entitled “Contemporary Female Short Stories in English Language: New Voices of the Post-Millennium.” She then received funding to undertake an MA in English Literature (Modern and Contemporary Pathway) at the University of Leeds. She is currently the recipient of a grant from “La Caixa” foundation to write her doctoral thesis at the University of Leeds, under the supervision of John McLeod and Tracy Hargreaves. She is interested in the examination of intimacy in contemporary short stories written by black British female authors.

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