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Requested: Hannah Pool chooses Jackie Kay’s The Adoption Papers

I say to the man at the desk
I’d like to see my original birth certificate
Do you have any idea what your name was?
Close, close he laughs. Well what was it?

So slow as torture he discloses bit by bit
my mother’s name, my original name
the hospital I was born in, the time I came.

Outside, Edinburgh is soaked in sunshine
I talk to myself walking past the castle.
So, so so, I was a midnight baby after all.

Extract from The Original Birth Certificate from The Adoption
by Jackie Kay (Bloodaxe Books, 1991).
Now available in Darling: New and Selected Poems
(Bloodaxe Books, 2007)
Reproduced by kind permission of the publishers.

Aged 17, living in Manchester, enduring an adolescence made all the more awkward by the fact I was a black teenager growing up in a white family, attending a largely white school in a very white city, The Adoption Papers did the thing all great poetry does: it told me I wasn’t alone.

Written from the perspectives of three women in the adoption triangle, daughter, adoptive mother and birth mother, this beautifully honest extended poem has stayed with me ever since.

I still feel the same mix of fear and adrenalin when I read chapter headings such as The Original Birth Certificate, The Telling Part and Black Bottom.

My original copy, bought from the proceeds of a £1 an hour Saturday job in a local greasy spoon, has seen me through adolescence to adulthood, countless house moves, numerous partners and a journey back to the country I was adopted from.

In parts angry, in others witty and playful, Kay’s writing is as elegant as it is spare. The poem is the older sister I never had — funny, wise and always there for me.

My name is still written on the top right hand corner of the inside cover, next to a crude drawing of a pair of lips and a beauty spot, a doodle I was inexplicably committed to at the time (for this, and much more, I blame Madonna).

Around four years after reading Kay’s poem, I discovered almost everything I’d been told about my own adoption was false. I clung to Kay’s words, searching for clues as to what I should do with this new information.

Rereading nearly a decade later, after returning from my first trip to Eritrea to meet my birth family, it was as if Kay had snuck between the covers in the intervening years and added new lines that spoke to the joy and anguish I was now battling.

When I am stuck in a rut with my own history I’ll reach for The Adoption Papers and find a new line or verse that speaks to me as if for the very first time. The narrative may deal with interracial adoption, but this poem’s appeal is universal: it’s about the politics of identity, gender and feeling uncomfortable in your own skin. But above all, The Adoption Papers is about love.


*This article was originally featured in Magma 56 — The Poetry of Clothes* 

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