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The adoption papers by Jackie Kay (Bloodaxe Books, 1991)

September's Poetry Library Book Club had us marking 20 years of Jackie Kay's The Adoption Papers, a collection which has been described by Patience Agbabi as her "book of a lifetime" and saw one of our biggest Book Club turnouts with 18 attendees.

Jackie Kay was born in Edinburgh in 1961 to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father.  She was adopted by a white couple at birth and was brought up in Glasgow, studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and Stirling University where she read English.  The experience of being adopted by and growing up within a white family inspired her first collection of poetry, The Adoption Papers (1991).  The poems in the title sequence deal with an adopted child's search for a cultural identity and are told through three different voices: an adoptive mother, a birth mother and a daughter.  The collection also includes poems exploring sexuality, Scottishness and what it means to be working class, and again, like "The Adoption Papers" sequence, make use of the monologue technique.  The collection won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award, the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award and a commendation by the Forward Poetry Prize judges in 1992.

Our Book Club focused on "The Adoption Papers" sequence.  We had prepared two other poems from the collection to talk about but the discussion "The Adoption Papers" sequence inspired kept us talking all evening.  Several of the attendees had experience of adoption, both personally and professionally, and their openness in talking about their experiences added another dimension to our appreciation of the book.  However, other attendees were able to respond to the sequence with their own experiences of parenthood and childhood, confirming that this is a book for everyone.  As Pascale Petit wrote in a Poetry London review at the time of the book's publication:
"The voices in the title sequence... are so authentic, that I'm invited right into her world, feel I know what it's like to be adopted by a white Scottish mother.  This is poetry at its best, conveying a formative experience in the poet's life, generously, directly, using no distancing devices... Not only am I informed but I'm entertained in the process, by Kay's natural wit..."

We looked closely at the following sections from "The Adoption Papers" sequence:

Chapter 1. The Seed p10-12

1. Why has Kay chosen to start the poem sequence with the adoptive mother's voice?

2. The title of this first section "The Seed" refers to the actual seed that creates the baby but what else could it refer to?

3. What effect do the short couplets alternating between the birth mother and adoptive mother's voices create?

4. What about the use of the "I"?  The adoptive mother uses the "I" more strongly than the birth mother.  What does this suggest about their personalities?

5. How do you feel towards the birth mother and adoptive mother after reading this opening section?

Chapter 3. The Waiting Lists p14-16

This section follows a description of the speaker going to the registry office to find her birth certificate, and some text from the birth mother's experience of the birth and days following it.

1. This is chapter 3, itself divided into three parts. Could anyone describe what the structure of this chapter is?

2. In the first section, the fifth agency says they have "no babies" and then a chance statement shows that in fact they have Black infants waiting to be placed.  How does this experience make you feel? How would you describe the way the poet enables you to arrive at this feeling?

3. How do you think you would feel on receipt of this information about your unknown birth mother?  What information would you feel you needed?

4. Moving onto the section about the mother's preparation for the social worker or adoption worker, has anyone else had a similar experience of trying to make their house acceptable for a particular visitor?  How did it feel and how does Jackie Kay portray this experience in the poem?

5. At the end of the poem, the mother's honesty and commitment to her values has to be maintained.  Political beliefs and parenting can clash - think of Diane Abbott's story of sending her child to a school outside the state system, or parents' religious beliefs preventing medical care for their children. Has the mother here got this right? What is the poet's view?

6. This is from a time when taking the Daily Worker and having peace badges indicated you were a certain type of person.  How does this compare with political commitment now?  What sort of things would prospective adopters feel the need to hide away in a contemporary setting of this poem?

Chapter 7. Black Bottom p24-27

This section of the sequence is about the implications of a white woman adopting a black child and how the black child is treated by her white schoolmates and teachers.  It won a Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem.

1. Do you think the child's adoptive mother has been naïve in terms of her child's racial identity?

2. Does the way Kay cuts between the mother's musings and the child's very physical life at school surprise you?  What effect does this have?

3. Two thirds of the way through this section the birth mother speaks.  Why bring the birth mother's voice into this section - is it necessary?

4. Had any of you heard of Angela Davis before reading this poem?
More information on Angela Davis can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angela_davis

5. The poem starts to take a different direction when the child tells us about Angela Davis.  Why does Kay conclude this section of the poem in this way?

Chapter 10. The Meeting Dream p32-34

1. How do the title and the first line affect how you read the poem?

2. Whose voice is most present in the sequence as a whole and whose is the most and least present here?

3. What do people think of the lines "We are not as we imagined / I am smaller, fatter, darker / I am taller, thinner"? Who is doing the imagining in each case?

4. Does the language change in this Chapter? How do you find the more poetic metaphorical language side by side with "stuff like that" and "cuddle"?

5. What else lies behind the poem if this is a false picture that "hurts less"?

6. What do you think of Jackie Kay ending the poem here? What other endings might there have been?

7. Is the birth mother going to write to her?

General questions

1. Has anyone read Red Dust Road, Jackie Kay's memoir? What does telling the story in a poem offer over a narrative memoir?

2. How do people feel about the different typefaces? How else could this be achieved?

3. Alastair Niven reviewing The Adoption Papers in Poetry Review said that it "could well become a key work of feminism in action, and it manages to be so without more than glancing references to men".  Were you aware of an absence of men when you were reading it?  Do you think Kay made a conscious decision not to include the men in the story?

As well as her poetry collections for adults, including Darling : New and Selected Poems published in 2007, Jackie Kay has published award winning poetry for children, collections of short stories, the novel Trumpet which won the Guardian Fiction Prize, and the memoir Red Dust Road about the search for her birth mother and father which has recently won the Scottish Book of the Year.  As one attendee of the book club said, "20 years of The Adoption Papers" was the perfect title for the book club because reading Red Dust Road she felt that she had been with Jackie Kay on a journey these last 20 years since the publication of The Adoption Papers as Kay continues to explore her adoption and heritage.

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