…When I look in the mirror/ I don’t see a foreign face… Blog post by Zoha Hussain


“What Is In My Blood?” This quote encapsulates the essence of these poems. The Adoption Papers is a unique and honest volume of poems, that uses three different narrative voices, daughter, adoptive mother, and birth mother. Each part manifests into an internal monologue, highlighting the themes of race, gender, belonging and naturalness. This poetic sequence tells the story of a black girl’s adoption by a white Scottish couple; thus this becomes an amalgamation of fiction and reality as the story behind these poems reflects Kay’s own life. I think this adds a certain layer of poignancy and depth to each piece, becoming a sort of poetic revelation, the poet laying bear her/his soul to the reader; we, thus, become privy to the internal landscape of the poet’s mind. Kay said in an interview, “a poem is a physical thing you make” this quote is reflected in the structure of the poem; each part, each chapter is a representation of an experience that the three characters go through. I feel like it is a dialogue form, this is why i think it is written in free verse, there are some AABB rhythmical structure but it is seldom seen which seems to mimic or is emblematic of the real life conversation or experience one goes through.


The quote mentioned in the opening brings to light the theme of belonging.As Kay tells in her interview and through her poem that “colour matters to the nutters” but the racism that the little girl experiences in the segment Black Bottom, which prompts her to question her sense of naturalness and to ponder over what makes her different. It is not her but the society which is at fault here. She has the poster of Angela Davis on her wall, a strong female who said “we have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.” This is very important towards understanding the character of the daughter who feels that if “I could be as brave as her when I get older/ I’ll be OK.” The full stop after this sentence highlights the finality of this statement, she knows if she is strong she will able to fight against such overt racism and self-deprecating views that are created by the society around her. She forgets the colour of her skin and looks in the mirror and gives her self “a bit of a shock/ and say to myself Do you really look like this?” When reading this, I felt Kay is being a bit satirical here, she wants to show the society how ridiculous it is to be surprised if a white family has a coloured child. Kay recalls the incident when she went to the market and the saleswoman was shocked to see her the child belonging to the white-coloured mother with her. This looking in the mirror, while satirical, but also a potent motif used throughout Literature, and Kay says in her poem Longitude that
When I look in the mirror
I don’t see a foreign face,
no Heart of Darkness
These words highlight how colour should be a determining factor in a person’ life, gender, race, or another element is a part of one’s being and we should not let anyone tell us that it is not. And if we do well then we let them ‘other’ us and overpower us. As Kay says
People mistake you
you mistake yourself





14 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ruzina on November 21, 2017 at 10:33 pm

    Great post! It’s very interesting how you pointed out The Adoption Papers as a reflection of Jackie Kay’s mind. I agree that her writing has an emotional tendency and immediacy to it. Although these poems do not encounter a central figure in the sense of a traditional hero/protagonist (the narrative is diffused over three viewpoints), this story is still deeply personal and intimate. Kay’s ability to create authentic voices in an engaging style is what draws the reader in. In an interview with Laura Severin -Kay says, “For myself, I like poetry to be accessible…It’s very important to me that readers do find the way into my poetry. I want my readers to have the key so that they can open door, be in the house of poetry, and find their way around in that house.”


  2. Wonderful job, Zoha. I completely agree with your final point about how someone’s skin colour, race or ethnicity will affect the way they experience life. In ‘Black Bottom’, the adoptive mother says that she forgets about her daughter’s skin colour except in cases of ‘racialism’. I think this shows an ignorance of how life is different in a more general way for people from BME backgrounds and disregards personal experience. Kay’s inclusion of this idea shows us that she is trying to give the reader an accurate sense of what it was like to grow up in a multi-racial family in the 1960s, even if it portrays her mother in a less positive light.


  3. Posted by Rachel Chandar on November 22, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    This is a great blog post Zoha! As you mentioned at the start, I also agree that The Adoption Papers continually addresses the theme of belonging through separate internal monologues. The question of ‘What Is In My Blood?’ is continually at the fore because of the daughter’s confusion surrounding her heritage, ethnicity and adoption, further leading to the question of ‘what makes a mother?’ Kay addresses the stigma surrounding not only adoptive mothers, but mothers who may not have the maternal instinct, and so are deemed a failure to society for deciding to not raise their child. Through the daughter, we can see that blood ties are to an extent meaningless, as the adoptive mother is ‘closer than blood. Thicker than water’.


  4. Posted by Lily Money on November 22, 2017 at 8:26 pm

    This is such a great post, Zoha. I liked the first thing you talk about, the three different narratives from the daughter, birth mother and adoptive mother. You get a sense of each struggle and how it highlights the different themes of race, gender and belonging. I found her poster of Angela Davis was what gives her strength to fight racism she experiences. A young girl growing up in Scotland with two white parents was hard for her but the image of this strong woman who she can identify with is what lets her know it will be okay.


  5. This is really well written and Insightful, I enjoyed reading it. You’re right about the autobiographical nature of the poems, which I think adds to the message as it is sensitively and personally written. I also liked that you pointed out the fact that a voice is given to all three of the women involved in the adoption, so often it is just the birth or adoptive mother.
    Your belief that Kay is being satirical with the mirror is interesting, I had not thought of that motif, instead I thought it symbolised the struggle black or mixed-race women feel.


  6. Posted by Bronagh on November 22, 2017 at 9:10 pm

    Fabulous post Zoha! I also found the frequent reference to ‘What is in My Blood’ really interesting. The blood as an image is something which belongs to Kay and is her own, yet what it is made up of, is external and foreign. I think that this is a really interesting image that highlights the tension between ‘the self’ and ‘heritage/ethnicity’.


  7. Posted by Sara on November 22, 2017 at 9:21 pm

    This is a really well thought out and interesting blog. This poem clearly has autobiographical elements where Jackie Kay produces a poem that reflects the voices of the people heavily involved in the adoption process.
    With the scene with the mirror, I think that it was not satirical but instead it reflects the way she felt incomplete because she does not know her biological mother and the society she belongs too. this is emphasized through the way she continually voices out the way the color of her skin does not match her own parents and thus she feels somewhat different.


  8. Posted by Fern Dalton on November 22, 2017 at 11:37 pm

    Wonderfully written, really enjoyed your blog! I love how you’ve mentioned the three different voices that we’re presented with, it allows us to open our minds to a different way of thinking, casting aside generic ideas of a mother and her child. As well as this, as you’ve mentioned it’s written like a dialogue, it gives us almost an inside view, it’s conversational and we’re open and ready with a reply.


  9. Posted by Carmen Luis on November 23, 2017 at 12:16 am

    Great post! I particularly liked that you brought forth the idea that the scene in which she is addressing her reflection in the mirror can be somewhat satirical. I myself had thought differently of Kay’s intentions were during this moment, thus reading your own view on it was very refreshing. The fact that poem feeds from Kay’s experience makes the poem much more personal therefore causing readers to feel sympathetic whilst reading the poem.


  10. Posted by Hannah Mitchell on November 23, 2017 at 8:27 am

    I find it interesting how the poems are written from the three perspectives and like how you have picked up on that fact that all three are affected by similar social injustices. Through the complex process of adoption, I think the impact it has on certain individuals is played down or forgotten and I think Jackie Kay has managed to portray the pain/love through them all.


  11. Posted by Georgia on December 11, 2017 at 11:51 am

    I agree with the comments above, and thought it was a really interesting and honest representation of what it’s like to be adopted. I thought the use of different typefaces to indicate conversation was a really smart move. She also was very smart when thinking about the tone and pacing of the poems to reflect real speech. The use of Scottish vernacular is also a very nice touch when bringing the poems to life.


  12. I really enjoyed reading your post Zoha. I agree with the style being a lot like dialogue and I think this only helps Kay make the three characters appear more realistic. We are able to follow their story fluidly through this style, heightening our emotions when reading. Discussing themes like race through different voices strengthens our involvement in the story-line and also highlights how they were depicted at the time she wrote the poems.


  13. Posted by Ella Bukbardis on January 19, 2018 at 4:07 pm

    Hi Zoha, great post. I feel like your comments of how race affects Kay’s poetry were very insightful and effective, the last section was especially truthful on how the colour of a person’s skin effects their life- a comment which definitely shines through the collection of poems.


  14. Interesting post Zuha. I like that you included the quote “colour matters to the nutters”, as I feel it is a nice summary of the voice of The Adoption Papers. Kay’s own experiences really added a necessary layer of depth to the poems, and her voice is clear throughout.


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