Review by Sarah Clouston
Jackie Kay’s novel Trumpet (1998) takes place in the aftermath of jazz musician Joss Moody’s death. Set in both London in 1997 and Glasgow’s music scene in the 1960s, it moves between the narrative of Joss’ life, and the events following his death. In a eulogistic style Kay’s narrative provides responses from several characters who knew Joss, with each providing different perspectives on his demise once his biological gender is revealed to be female. This revelation causes a media frenzy, and so Trumpet begins with his wife Millie, hiding from the paparazzi. The novel recognizes and explores the separation between a person’s biological gender and their identity. Joss’ adopted son Colman struggles to understand the news that his father was born biologically female and subsequently releases details about his father’s life to an unfeeling, self-serving journalist, Sophie Stones, who is ruthlessly seeking material for her forthcoming book. Meanwhile Joss’ wife, Millie, exhausted from the constant media attention, escapes to their Scottish seaside home to work through her grief alone. Colman ultimately decides to cancel the exposé on his father and finds some peace in accepting his father’s identity.
Kay has stated that the novel is loosely based on the life of jazz musician Billy Tipton, who like the character of Joss, lived the majority of his adult life as male, yet was biologically born female. Individual cultural identity or heritage is a notable interest throughout Jackie Kay’s work and Trumpet articulates many of the themes prominent in her writing: identity, adoption, displacement, beginnings, and gender. Sex and gender are positioned through the private and public spheres in which the novel takes place. Different accounts of Joss are given from his wife, his son, a journalist, a fellow musician, a doctor, a registrar and an undertaker. These multiple perspectives allow Kay to present opinions from a varied number of narrators, including those who did not know Joss well, in order to consider the reception of transgender persons in British society. Eventually, most of Kay’s characters consider Joss’ sexuality to be separate from his gender and identity.
Joss poses challenges to normative conceptions of gender when a doctor and funeral director both struggle to categorize him on his death certificate. Kay suggests a need to expound the myth that gender and sexuality are co-dependent, using a distinctive jazz aesthetic throughout the novel as a platform to explore the fluidity of gender, suggesting that the creation of identity can be continuously remade and performed. During a solo Joss becomes ‘a girl. A man. Everything, nothing. He is sickness, health. The sun. The moon. Black, white. Nothing weighs him down. Not the past or the future. He hangs on to the high C and then he lets go’ (136).
Questions and concerns surrounding race are also central to Trumpet. Born to a black father and white mother, Joss is disapproved of by Millie’s mother. Joss’ song, ‘Fantasy Africa’ invokes the African diaspora and experiences of displacement. Joss claims, ‘Every black person has a fantasy Africa’, but believes that to visit ‘the real Africa’ would have a significant ‘affect’ on his music (Trumpet, 34). Kay subsequently situates her readers within Black diasporic communities in twentieth-century Britain but, by connecting Joss’ heritage with jazz music, she suggests an improvisational approach towards identity. She reminds readers of Joss’ Scottishness in an attempt to recalibrate what it means to be Scottish, English, or Black British. Kay focuses not only on the issue of transphobia surrounding these characters, but also the impact of colonial histories within modern Britain.
Kay also explores the effects of adoption on the self, as Colman, struggling with his identity, feels that he doesn’t belong to either Joss, Millie, his birthparents, Scotland or England. Colman subsequently seeks company in the tabloid journalist Sophie Stones, who can only offer insult to both Colman and his father. Meanwhile, his struggles with identity are compounded by similar attempts to understand his own masculinity. Irene Rose identifies Trumpet as a ‘resolutely post-patriarchal display of multiplicity of masculinities’. Joss’ anatomy complicates Colman’s understanding of what masculinity should look like, but in his final acceptance of reading his father’s letter we are presented with how alternative masculinities may be expressed. Importantly, the letter between father and son is the first time Joss is afforded a narrative voice in Trumpet. Kay’s novel ends with a positive, openminded vision for countering social injustice as Joss tells Colman, ‘You will be my father telling my story’ (Trumpet, 277). Kay suggests the potential and productivity that can arise from both tolerance and creative writing if Colman challenges his energies into generative forms of storytelling, rather than fuelling a tell-all exposé.
Interestingly, each chapter of Trumpet is labelled after sections in a magazine or newspaper: ‘House and Home’, ‘People’, ‘Interview Exclusive’ etc. Here Kay crosses the boundaries between public and private lives and reflects upon a sensationalised tabloid press culture withinBritain. Constant references to the exposé nature of the novel which Stones intends to write about Joss reminds us of the media’s ability to present fiction as news. Learning about Joss’ life and choices through other characters’ narrative voices offers us, as readers, the opportunity to gain a more nuanced view of Joss’ personality. Kay’s choice of form further inscribes the separation between gender and sexuality as Joss’ sexuality is not connected to his gender until the newspapers tie them together after his death.
Ultimately, jazz culture binds this novel together. Jazz enables Joss to ‘lose his sex, his race, his memory’ (Trumpet, 131). Despite the unforgiving responses to Joss’ sexuality, his musical talent cannot be denied, and remains untouched by the media. The swinging London music scene of the 1960s provide a crucial setting for the liberation of the self, where identities can be remade and renegotiated. Kay brings jazz and identity most poignantly together when the registrar hands the pen to Millie to complete the ‘gender’ section of Joss’ death certificate: ‘It was as if the pen was asking her to dance’ (Trumpet, 81).
This novel is seminal to transgender thinking. Published just before the turn of the new century, Kay offers us, her readers, new non-binary modes of thinking about identity, sex and gender. Just as her chapters mirror the compositional technique of call and response, Trumpet calls its reader to action their understandings of non-heteronormative sexualities, racial differences and gender constructions. Kay denies any silencing of non-normative identities and in doing so has created a striking, thought-provoking novel.
1 Jackie Kay, Trumpet (London: Picador, 1998).
2 Irene Rose, ‘Heralding New Possibilities: Female Masculinity in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet’, in Posting the Male: Masculinities in Post-War and Contemporary British Literature, ed. by Daniel Lea and Berthold Schoene (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), pp. 144-6.
Sarah Clouston is a full-time postgraduate student at the University of Leeds reading an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature. Her dissertation researches the phenomena of Modernist magazine culture: ‘little magazines’, and the poetry of Mina Loy. Her other research interests include postcolonial Britain, indigenous literature and Modernist poetry. She holds a BA in English Literature from the University of Leeds.