Book Of A Lifetime: The Adoption Papers, Jackie Kay

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

You know a book's made an impression on more than one person by its conspicuous absence from your bookshelf. Girl loves book, girl loses book, girl gets new copy of book delivered. I lent my original to a student who decided they could give it a better home. This morning I opened my package with joy. I'd kept a photocopy of the text, with my teaching scrawl, but without a cover it looked as unappealing as those original adoption papers must have looked, those papers that impact permanently on so many lives.

The Adoption Papers is a poetic sequence telling the story of a black girl's adoption by a white Scottish couple. Like many first books, it's autobiographical. It presents three narrative voices, daughter, adoptive mother and birth mother, each in a different typeface. At times these are separate monologues, at others, skilfully interwoven like plaits, like cornrows, creating a polyphonic symphony. The cumulative effect is of more than three voices. There's the ghost of the writer, who's not simply found her own voice but her own voices.

The Adoption Papers is more than the excellent title sequence. The second section, "Severe Gale 8", contains some fine poems in the voices of gay men, in particular "Dance of the Cherry Blossom", "Close Shave" and "Dressing Up". The last ends by contrasting the transvestite's celebration of his black stockings and feather boa "bright fucking red" with his mother's disgust: "I know what they call you, transvite./ You look a bloody mess you do./She had a black eye, a navy dress." I first heard these poems live at an Apples & Snakes reading. Re-reading them on the page, I'm struck by their painful honesty and formal beauty.

The Adoption Papers took many creative risks. It presented a delicate issue with high emotional intelligence – to counterbalance the poignancy, much of it is witty. It was polyphonic poetry that made an impact on both page and stage (it was broadcast on Radio 3) in a literary and performance climate where "finding your own voice" suggested one voice, one medium. It raised the literary bar. And in a Britain when it was a radical act to state in a poem, "I am a Black woman", Jackie Kay asked, "Mammy why aren't you and me the same colour". She spoke Scottish vernacular, Standard English, lyrical poetry. She spoke not only to people like me, young Black British writers who'd been adopted or fostered in a white family, but to all writers, all people. And with the current proliferation of Life Writing courses, academia's answer to "write what you know", her book continues to enrich the lives of all who adopt it. If you've bought a copy, don't lend it out. If you manage to steal or borrow one, don't give it back.

Patience Agbabi's poetry collection, 'Bloodshot Monochrome', is published by Canongate