Reading Jackie Kay's The Adoption Papers (1990-1991)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

27 Pages, Grade: 1,3




1 Autobiographical writing

2 Podoroga’s Phenomenology of Body

3 Daughter’s body
3.1 Body-object
3.1.1 Wounded body
3.1.2 Dead body
3.1.3 Being touched
3.1.4 Being commanded
3.1.5 Examined body
3.2 Body-“my-body”
3.3. Body-affect




What facts are known about Jackie Kay’s life? She is of mixed black-white African-British biological parentage, she was born in Edinburgh in 1961 to a white Scottish mother who worked as a nurse and a black Nigerian father. As a baby, she was adopted by Helen and John Kay, a white middle-class Communist Glaswegian couple. She grew up in Scotland with no black people around her apart from her brother. In The Adoption Papers, which was written by Jackie Kay while she was in the process of tracing her birth mother, she is primarily concerned with her biological ancestry and the physical details of her heritage. In interviews, she stresses again and again that the subject of adoption fascinates her and that she just cannot stop writing about it. In a way, Kay can be compared to Dostoevsky who just could not stop writing about crime. In both cases, it is singular personal experiences that determined the literary subject matter. What was the nature of Kay’s personal experience? Why does she keep writing about adoption? Why does she defer meeting her birth parents? Why does she admit in one of her interviews that she found it difficult writing the daughter’s voice in The Adoption Papers ? Although it is hardly possible to answer any of these questions, I will try and make a feeble attempt to address these questions in this paper and offer some conjectural readings and pointings that will generate even more questions. I intend to do so by looking at the different bodies that loom behind the verses of The Adoption Papers with a focus on the daughter’s body. The way that I will be looking at them has been methodologically worked out by a Russian philosopher and literary anthropologist, Valerij Podoroga, in his Fenomenologija tela (1995, ‘Phenomenology of Body’)[1]. His analytical work sets forth and elaborates the traditions established by Nietzsche, Bergson, Freud, Lacan, Artaud, Deleuze and Guattari, to name only a few, all of whom are male. The title of Podoroga’s monograph could thus be given a more precise name, e.g. Phenomenology of Male Body, for it does not explore such female experiences as e.g. pregnancy and it therefore cannot embrace the following experiences: I always wanted to give birth / do that incredible natural thing / that women do (10)[2], or I want the pain / the tearing searing pain (11), or, even wider, “I am starting to find that memory isn’t working exactly how it used to. […]. Maybe that’s the early menopause. The brain starts to go very soft, like it does when you are pregnant”[3]. Male bodies is something the reader has to look for carefully in The Adoption Papers, for it is a rare occurrence in the text that usually connotes something negative, e.g. light-headed, incomplete, or damnable: The time, the exact time / for that particular seed to be singled out / […] / amongst all others / like choosing a dancing partner (11), or, On the way back his face / was one long smile even though / he didn’t get inside. Only me (17), or the fucking seed (29). Still, the instruments offered can be applied to any piece of writing, especially though to literary texts since these are regarded to be the most intensive manifestations of anthropological experience and human existence on the whole (Čubarov[4] ). Although human body is a negative value, which means it cannot be referred to anything but itself and therefore cannot be defined, it is nevertheless assumed that a human being differs from an animal in terms of its peculiar body rather than consciousness. Literature is treated as a linguistic totality of anthropological experience. It embraces knowledge of a certain period expressed in accessible and expected sensuous images and conveyed with the help of a set of communicative strategies of a literary work. Reading a work of art then means studying the relations between the character and its own I, its body as well as the body of the Other. Their representation is always limited by the mimetic faculties of the writer, his or her perceptive limitations or superfluity that are a result of the writer’s protective reactions to the general condition of the perceptive patterns in society, cf. “[t]here’s always going to be a bench mark that you have and you’re never going to reach that, that’s all part of being a writer, you’re always going to want to do more and just got to accept that comes with the territory”[5]. It is therefore here that an attempt to formulate some principles of a writer’s singular parole can be made. Deformation – and further re-formation – of common parole is indicative of the writer’s conscious as well as unconscious attitude towards repressive bodily practices performed on his or her body in family and society. The overall approach requires an effort from the reader to leave the plain of narration, i.e. rhetorical, ethical, ideological values of the text as well as its plot, and turn to the plain of body and bodily experiences, which is usually made invisible by narration. Podoroga appeals to the recipients, mostly students, postgraduates, and philosophers, to try and see the things that must remain invisible and that do remain so due to the language’s highlighting and hiding effects. The sort of reality Podoroga seeks to make palpable exists beyond language, i.e. it is a-communicative and it does not presuppose its own visibility. Nonetheless, this reality always shows through where language is unable to hide or force it out into complete invisibility, it cannot be fully controlled by the writer (Podoroga 1995, 52), cf. “[a]nd the other thing that you may need as a writer is not to give yourself too hard a time about a thing, to accept that you write what you write, when you write it”[6], or “[…] I think if I analyze too closely what I do I may not be able to do it, so I just get on with it by instinct and see what happens”[7]. Looked at this way, any extension of Jackie Kay, by which I mean any interview she has ever had or any piece of her creative work, can be analyzed through such a lens, enabling the literary critic to give a partial answer to the following questions: why does Jackie Kay use the textual strategy of the multiplicity of voices in a number of her works? Why does she prefer poetry to prose when writing about herself?, etc. It is in this broader context of “autobiographical” writing that I intend to analyze The Adoption Papers, extending its limits and drawing on Kay’s other collections of poems that, as Kay admits, are among her favourite books that she has written, cf. “[f]avourite poems, again not one in particular, but I like […] Magic Midnight Forest, a poem about learning to swim because I learned to swim when I was quite old, one about a dare, something I was really dared to do when I was about six”[8], or “Christian Sanderson I was particularly interested in because she was from Edinburgh and I was born in Edinburgh and I was trying to think of how she would have spoken. So writing about her is in a way writing about myself only it’s different time-period” (Kay in Dyer 1999, 59), or “I wasn’t interested in trying to write about Billy Tipton. I wanted to make the character Scottish because I am, and it is often simplest to write about what you know. I was interested in trying to write about Scotland and England, and boundaries and borders and identity in this country” (Kay in Jaggi 1999, 53). Moreover, some parts of The Adoption Papers such as “The Waiting Lists”, “Baby Lazarus” and “The Tweed Hat Dream” are given as separate poems on the website of Poetry Archive[9], thus justifying my treating The Adoption Papers as a collection of autobiographical poems, or as instances of “autobiographying”, that can be dismembered or expanded by Kay’s other works.

Interestingly enough, there has been little critical attention to Kay’s writing. This state of things can partially be explained by the fact that too little time has passed and thus the critic lacks the necessary objectifying distance. While analyzing the aspect of body in The Adoption Papers, I therefore did some close reading of the primary text and “re-searched” the available extensions of Jackie Kay such as interviews (Jaggi 1999; Gyer 1999; Gish 2004; and many others available in the Internet), blogs, her other works[10] as well as secondary literature (Clandfield 2002)[11]. In the near future, there is to appear Prof. Mark Stein’s monograph on Jackie Kay with the (yet working) title Juggling Voices, Sharing Places: Reading Jackie Kay. I am grateful to Prof. Günter Lenz for this tip and a copy of the summary of the monograph. With respect to the texts by Gish and Clandfield, I would like to share the following observations: Gish studies Kay’s work primarily in terms of adoption, identity, language, and voice. In the interview, she asks Kay to define the terms of multiplicity, fluidity, and change (Gish 2004, 176), and after Kay’s explanations as to what these things mean to her, Gish goes on defining Kay. Clandfield is not much different in his approach, laying emphasis on identity, hybridity, Britishness, Scottishness, ethnicity, the racial issue, sexuality, gender, class etc. His article is tellingly entitled “Contemporary Black Scottishness”, the suffix –ness indicating a state, a condition, or a quality, i.e. something that is relatively stable and fixed, something contrary to the idea of fluidity and change so much lived by by Jackie Kay herself.[12] In short, most critics are primarily concerned with categorizing Jackie Kay, the most current labels being woman, Scottish, African-British, black, lesbian, socialist, adopted, thus moving away from her rather singular experience of how it felt having been adopted by a white couple and growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood and country, thus overlooking it.[13] In her turn, Kay complicates the game by categorizing herself as a black British woman writer yet more Scottish than African in terms of culture.


[1] My major problem while writing this paper was admittedly of terminological character. I had great difficulty finding proper equivalents to such terms as n. telesnost’, here rendered as ‘corporality’, or sometimes even ad hoc as “bodiliness”, or, n. čuvstvennost’, here translated as ‘sensuousness’, etc.

[2] Numbers in brackets refer here and hereinafter to the page numbers of the 1992 edition of The Adoption Papers, Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books Ltd..

[3] Jackie Kay’s Blog, entry of October 17th, 2006, at

[4] Here and hereinafter based on the lecture materials on the anthropology of literature kindly placed by Dr. Čubarov at the students’ disposal during the 2006-2007 winter semester at Institute of Slavonic Studies, HUB.

[5] Jackie Kay,

[6] Jackie Kay,

[7] Jackie Kay,

[8] Jackie Kay,


[10] It is of interest here that Kay uses explicit autobiographical materials when writing biographies of other black women, e.g. she inserts her poems.

[11] As a reader, I am well aware of the problem of under- and overreading these materials. As Abbott puts it, “they [the readers] will find types where none were intended, and there is no guarantee that adding to the narrative will remedy this” (Abbott 2003, 133).

[12] Clandfield does stress Kay’s category-troubling qualities (2002, 2; cf. further the following citation: “Without being ‘mixed up’ in the sense of being confused or incoherent, these works delineate complex emergent forms of racial and cultural identity that undermine fixed concepts not only of Britishness, blackness, or black Britishness but also of hybridity itself”), nonetheless, on the whole, he keeps using generalizing language such as “black Britishness” and “black Scottishness” (Clandfield 2002, 5).

[13] Cf. also Jackie Kay’s reaction to her critic’s common practice: „They do ultimately become very dull, those terms, because they tend to box you in and give people an expectation of you. It’s liberating to define yourself if you are the one that’s doing the defining, but when other people are constantly doing the defining and when all they ever do is define the Other in society, the black person, the gay person, the woman, then they kind of assume by that that the white person, the heterosexual person and the man are the norm and everybody else deviates from that. So there’s constant categorisation, because you don’t get the likes of Ted Hughes or Andrew Motion constantly being described as white, male, middle-class and heterosexual. And if every time they were written about they had to face these terms it would really be a pain in the arse for them, so why should I have to put up with it?“ (Kay in Dyer 1999, 57).

Excerpt out of 27 pages


Reading Jackie Kay's The Adoption Papers (1990-1991)
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
HS Gender and 20th-century Autobiography
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
579 KB
Anthropologische Literaturwissenschaft, gewählter Ansatz: V. Podorogas Phänomenoligie des Körpers (1995)
Reading, Jackie, Adoption, Papers
Quote paper
Maryna Zühlke (Author), 2007, Reading Jackie Kay's The Adoption Papers (1990-1991), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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