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Disentangling The Issue of Identity and Sexuality with Jackie Kay’s Trumpet: A Review By Boakye D. Alpha

Disentangling The Issue of Identity and Sexuality with Jackie Kay’s Trumpet: A Review By Boakye D. Alpha


“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.”

— Erik Erikson

It is a known fact that most people (if not all) want other people to “get them” and appreciate them for who they really are; what makes their being. In striving to achieve such relationships, we typically assume that there is a “real me”—who we really feel we are and what we want to be known as or for. But how would we

recognize who we are? That is where the issue of identity comes in and that is also where Jackie Kay’s Trumpet comes in. One of the major themes in the book is Identity.

An important part of any individual, being a mature person (or a living being actually), is creating a sense of self—an identity. The self-conception of each individual is a peculiar synthesis of several identities: identities as broad as being female or male, Christian, traditionalist or Muslim, or as narrow as being a member of a certain family, school group, association, etc. Although self-identity can appear to align with a single human being, identities are far broader than that, in reality.

They are social as well — identities spread to nations and cultural groups so that when other people sharing the same identity are injured or killed, people feel hurt. People are often also ready to risk their individual lives to maintain the identity of a group or sect they belong to. A well-publicised example is suicide bombers.

Now, the big question is (now that we have a fair idea what identity is), “why is the issue of self-identity important and why must it be the subject of an entire novel?”. Well, it is profoundly disorienting and isolating not to be able to express yourself truthfully and be welcomed by loved ones. In some instances, it also contributes to feelings of self-harm and suicide—to feel not accepted for who you want to be. Most people don’t feel or associate themselves with the identity they grew up with. Many do not feel safe conforming to what society wants to identify them as and not what they really want to be. Some are bold enough to assume the identity they want (like Joss Moody). That’s how people come to change their sexuality, others change their names or even assume a whole different identity altogether.

In Trumpet, Jackie Kay doesn’t only explore identity as broad as it is but rather, narrowed it to identity where gender and sexuality is concerned. (Sexuality is about how you see and affirm yourself sexually— like who you have a crush on, who you want to go out with, and who you want to have sexual experiences with.) Since time began many have been struggling with the issue of sexuality. Many discover their sexuality and start hating themselves because they wish not to be that. Others discover their sexuality and they have to conceal it because they won’t be accepted in the society they are in. In the case of Joss Moody, he was bold enough to go for what he wanted.

Trumpet is about the life and death of Joss Moody, a popular, Scottish African female-born jazz musician who masquerades as a man. The book is about the discovery after his death that he wasn’t actually who he lived as.  He was a transvestite—a woman who lived as a man. The book is a contemporary piece of fiction that took place in 1997, albeit with memories of the 1960s.

The book records society’s shock and its numerous responses after the truth about Joss’ gender became public.

Themes of social inclusion, identity crisis, prejudice and racial inequality are beautifully presented. And all these are accompanied by what I call the drive of the novel—Jazz. Jazz (the trumpet particularly) doesn’t only become a musical instrument Joss played while he lived, but it became a part of the book and a symbol as the author achieved the goal of giving the book a musical feel. Kay’s style of writing renders the book to sound rhythmic at times to give Joss and his music a better feel.

Millie, Joss’ wife, is the only one with an awareness of Joss being transvestite but only after she fell in love with him thinking he was actually a man. She married him though even after discovering the secret (and even helped him keep the secret). She decided to let love win. Since his passing, though, Millie is in a state of utter heartbreak and grief; she is devastated that the existence of the two has been exposed. And now, for all the wrong reasons, people will chastise her. She’s scared that people would think she’s a freak or a lesbian. To avoid the media hysteria (a situation Kay describes vividly and beautifully where you get to really feel the pain and anguish of Mille.), she flees from London and returns to her cottage in a remote village in Scotland to find peace and to recall her life.

I wouldn’t want to give out all the details about the book but you must really find a copy to read.

Death, Loss, the aftermath of death—what secrets people leave behind when they die, how their loved ones feel after they’ve lost them, how to deal with the loss of someone you love— are other big issues Kay explores in the book.

“Loss isn’t an absence after all. It is a presence. A strong presence right next to me. I look at it. It doesn’t look like anything, that’s what is so strange. It just fits in.”

“When the love of your life dies, the problem is not that some part of you dies too, which it does, but that some part of you is still alive.”

These two quotes should say something. The book is self-reflective.

Death and its notion are certainly empty. They say when you try to look or think about it, “No picture comes to mind.” The concept of death has a use for the living, while death itself has no use for anything. All we can say about death, really, is that it is either real or it is not real. If it is substantial, then the end of one’s life is a simple ending. If it is not, then the end of one’s embodied life is not true death, but a portal to another life—that’s where the belief in the afterlife comes in. However, whatever may be the truth, Jackie’s book deals with the concept of death in a very delicate manner. The book at least gives its readers a feel of death… it gives life to death. You get to think about it and reflect on your own passing. How will things be when you are gone? Among other obvious questions.

As I mentioned early on, I would outrightly recommend this book to everyone and not just because of the subjects it treats but also because of the incredible writing style, creativity and musical feel. And, well, also because I want you to read.

There is one burning question at the end of the book.  There is this question of “why” —why Joss Moody did what he did. Why would he go through all that trouble just to change his identity? Was it because he couldn’t play the Trumpets as a woman back in the 60s or was it just that he didn’t really feel like being a woman so wanted to be a man? Well, that’s a question that you get to find out at the end of the book and I would like you guys to help me answer the “why”. Why did he do it?

This book was a part of #GhanaMustRead’s September Book of the Month.

Find Ghana Must Read initiative here.


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4 thoughts on “Disentangling The Issue of Identity and Sexuality with Jackie Kay’s Trumpet: A Review By Boakye D. Alpha

  1. Akanbi Odunayo Rhoda ( Zoe)

    When you said the book was self reflective,you were right. The book is thought provoking. Sigh. I’m certain my mind would try to make sense of so many bits of the book. It’s s book that would continue to longer after a long time in my mind. This review is beautiful, Alpha.

  2. I have just been pushed to get a copy of this book. I love the theme and the review is just on point.
    Thank you Alpha

  3. Anthony Enahoro Okupa

    A great review I must say and a lot to learn about our sexuality and identity. In the long run death can be anything to anyone not just the cessation of life but cessation of an identity.

  4. Such a beautiful and wonderful review. Jackie Jay will be proud of you wherever she is.
    Welldone Alpha

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