Queer Kinship in Jackie Kay’s The Adoption Papers (1991)

By Peter Ely

This article considers the role of queer kinship in Jackie Kay’s debut poetry collection The Adoption Papers (1991). I do not seek here a systematic explication of this theoretical approach, but rather follow recent scholarship in highlighting the capacity of “non-normative relational configurations” to challenge heteronormative kinship norms enculturated by the capitalist state (Mizielińska 2). This works as a critical rejoinder to the figure of transcultural adoption proposed by John McLeod’s recent study on literary representations of adoption. McLeod has sought to redress the under-examined nature of adoption in cultural and literary studies, placing special emphasis on its potentially “transfigurative agency” across cultural lines. Offering an optimistic multicultural vision, Mcleod’s text looks to adoption as a mode of kinship beyond nation, blood, or other originary notions of affiliation, which may lead us toward a “post-racial” horizon of possibility (McLeod 5). Despite this, McLeod assumes the structures of the family and the state as relatively immutable, paying little attention to their complex histories of development within heteronormative capitalist production. The family, notwithstanding its potential for transcultural dialogue, is not a neutral or natural category, but has developed alongside the heteronormative capitalist state as a site of social exclusion. This article develops a more radical approach to Kay’s relation to adoption, highlighting how she offers more incisive modes of refusal than have been discussed in her critical reception thus far.

Kay, who has Nigerian and Scottish heritage, was adopted by a white family at a young age and is often presented, in academic and non-academic sources alike, as a successful multicultural subject who has “adoption to thank for her success” (Warwick). Kay’s position as an author is sometimes conflated straightforwardly with her own biography, where both are taken as instructive case-studies in transcultural adoption. At times, this is the approach taken by Mcleod himself, who frames her poetry collection as a social document, which “did much to bring into literature the post-war phenomenon of transcultural adoption” (Mcleod 210). This quick and diminutive treatment of Kay’s early text, alongside his privileging of the merits of transcultural adoption, reveal two overlapping limitations to McLeod’s approach, which are symptomatic of a larger tendency in academia and wider discussions of adoption and the family. First, is the way that McLeod’s analysis is uncritical of the liberal state and its administration of kinship relations, which are perceived as wholly benevolent, and second is the way that Kay’s writing is instrumentalized to this position at the expense of the more challenging political and aesthetic positions her texts have taken. Beyond a passing allusion to queer critiques of the family in his introduction, McLeod’s perspective is rarely attentive to the various intersecting modalities of political subjectivity that make up kinship norms. McLeod’s core literary examples of Andrea Levy, Jackie Kay, Caryl Phillips, E.R. Braithwaite, and Toni Morrison reveal how transcultural adoption serves as a euphemistic analogue for the transracial at the expense of wider cultural intersections with gender, queerness and class. Furthermore, by limiting his study exclusively to “strong adoptions” where a “legal contract” ensures “irreversible and willing transfer of legal responsibility for an infant from progenitors to adopters” (104), McLeod’s view of adoption is drawn entirely through the auspices of the state, implicitly devaluing more informal and non-statist forms of adoption and kinship formation.

Image by HCA Chesterman under CC BY SA

Although this article cannot do justice to the wealth of literature which has developed around the deep imbrication of the capitalist state in the production of kinship norms, it is instructive to turn to theoretical approaches which challenge the perception of the liberal state as an accommodating and benevolent site of transcultural dialogue. A central contention emerges between McLeod’s view and those of the theorists I will consider in the following, hinging on their differing sense of the disruptive possibilities implicit within non-normative kinship. For Mcleod these are restricted to transcultural possibilities of legal recognition within the state infrastructure of “strong adoption”, whereas others question the structures of family and state as they are currently configured. At the heart of this tension is the question of whether non-normative kinship should aspire towards inclusion within existing, albeit potentially reformed, state infrastructure, or whether a queer, intersectional perspective on adoption and kinship must privilege more intransigent and subversive capacities of refusal.

In his landmark text Aberrations in Black; Towards a Queer of Color Critique, Roderick Ferguson questions the ability of the capitalist state to live up to its own accommodating, tolerant inclusive image. Despite the “ego-ideal” of the tolerant multicultural state (Ahmed n. pag.), whose accommodating reforms allow it to imagine itself as having largely overcome discriminatory practices based on race, gender and sexuality, such gestures of hospitality serve to strategically disavow the state’s own role in perpetuating exclusion and expropriation. For figures multiply oppressed along sexuality, gender and racial lines, the door to inclusion is often barred, most notably in the concept of home itself:

[L]iberal pluralism has traditionally constructed the home as the obvious site of accommodation and confirmation. Queer of color analysis, on the other hand, eschews the transparency of all these formulations and opts instead for an understanding of nation and capital as the outcome of manifold intersections that contradict the idea of the liberal nation-state and capital as a sites of resolution, perfections, progress, and confirmation. (Ferguson 3)

A “queer of color” critique implicitly abjures methodologies which privilege transcultural dialogue within state-sanctioned kinship relations, drawing attention to crucial intersections of oppression contained in the history and development of the nuclear family. Whereas the home is often the heart of nationalist and normative ethical constructions of accommodation and recognition, in reality there have always remained lives which are unrecognizable and intolerable to such structures. Family and kinship are not natural givens, and any demand for them cannot automatically assume a position of universality. Expropriative modes of slavery and colonialism formed the historic basis of the modern capitalist state, which systematically denied the structure of the family for racialized populations. The bourgeois, nuclear family was in fact partly established through the suppression of non-normative kinship arrangements in colonized and enslaved subjects. Ferguson gives the example of the Cuban context, where the “exclusively male families” of Afro-Cuban Slaves were dissolved in slave emancipation which “enacted a demand for sexual regulation and the abolition of nonheteronormative practices” (85). Recognition of legal subjecthood was contingent on a social contract which relinquished kinship networks outside of the state-sanctioned apparatuses, configuring the modern family as a racialized and normatively restrictive project.

Taking a more recent perspective, Melinda Cooper’s Family Values investigates the ideological and economic pact between social conservatism and neoliberal capitalism, examining the primary role of the family as the guarantor of reproductive labour which sustains contemporary society:

If the history of modern capital appears on the one hand to regularly undermine and challenge existing orders of gender and sexuality, it also entails the periodic reinvention of the family as an instrument for distributing wealth and income. (17)

Although the neoliberal state may present itself as a great accommodator of sexual, racial and gender diversity, the reality is rather more cynical. Commenting on the recent prevalence of same-sex marriage, which has notionally overcome sexuality-based discrimination and made it easier for queer subjects to adopt children and establish families with equitable legal and state recognition, Cooper notes the convergence of this reform with a precise economic function:

It is hardly surprising, then, that the demand for recognition of same-sex marriage – along with its legal forms of property transmission – asserted itself at the precise moment when queers were being welcomed into the market for consumer credit. (162)

Cooper and Ferguson offer distinct but overlapping accounts of the racial and economic limits to current forms of inclusion, highlighting the complex enmeshment of state and economic power that lays the foundation of the current configuration of the family. They demonstrate that it is not sufficient, as McLeod’s book attempts, to investigate kinship formations through an implicitly statist, liberal reformist lens, without further delving into the severe limits built into the capitalist state for accommodating non-normative subjects seen as unproductive or outside of its established norms of legitimacy. In this way, a queer understanding of adoption must register the capacity and power of the refusal of such structures, and the ways in which literary representations of adoption can gesture beyond their constitutive limits. The remainder of this paper will seek to demonstrate this alternate perspective through a close reading of an early text by Kay.

Image by University of Salford Press under CC BY SA

The Adoption Papers retells the story of Kay’s own childhood and adoption in a poetic narrative from three perspectives (a young adoptee, and her adopted and biological mothers). As with many of Kay’s texts, the problem of authenticity is a central theme. Each voice grapples with social alienation and misrecognitions which undermine their place within conventional kinship positions. This instability alerts readers to the profound symbolic weight attached to kinship, which generates the categories of the “natural” and the “real” as figures of strong subjective investment. Through inhabiting a non-normative configuration of the family, Kay’s text highlights the exclusions built into kinship norms, demonstrating how socially constructed imaginaries of belonging and kinship map onto the discrete forms of state recognition which establish the legitimate borders of the family. In this way, Kay’s depiction of adoption resonates strongly with the accounts of kinship offered by Ferguson and Cooper, representing the family as a site of contention between non-normative subjects and the capitalist state. Issues of race, class and political affiliation are foregrounded in her account, where each play a part in undermining the status of the adopted family. Kay relates the modes of gatekeeping which enact such exclusions, making clear how the adopted child’s parents had to affect an affluent social position and “keep quiet” about their Communist political affiliations to perform an ideal form of the family according to its implied normative function (Kay 14).

We see this most clearly in Chapter 6, “The Telling Part”, which alternates between the voices of the biological and adopted mothers, as well as the voice of their daughter. Here Kay plays with state-authorized notions of reality, reacting to the subjective erasure inflicted on her as a child, when her race barred her from being designated as a “baby” at all (Kay 14). This is experienced not only by the child, but also by her mother, who embodies a similar tension, negating her own kinship position in a contradictory and seemingly involuntary confession to her daughter:

I am not your real mother,
Though Christ knows why I said that

if I’m not who is, but all my planned speech

went out the window (Kay 23)

Here, it is not only race or transcultural anxiety which undermines the kinship bond; it is the perceived naturalness of this gender relation and its situation in the ideology of the heteronormative bourgeois family. But if this process of symbolic self-erasure is shared between both maternal figures in the poem, Kay nonetheless offers something like a queer, disruptive defiance to this process in the vocality of the child, where a youthful indifference to the material and symbolic exclusions of the state, allows for a form of subversive refusal:

Ma Mammy bot me oot a shop

Ma Mommy says I was a luvly baby

Ma Mammy picked me (I wiz the best)

Your mammy had to take you (she’d no choice)

Ma mammy says she’s no really ma mammy

(just kid on) (Kay 21)

This passage describes an encounter between the daughter and another child, where they relate their individual understandings of their status as children of biological and of adopted parents respectively. The adopted child’s claim is not only that her mammy the best, but also that she is the best as her mother chose her from amongst others. In this gesture, she does not demand to be included within the traditional structure of the family, but rather moves beyond this through a radical indifference to the grounding assumptions of the normative family model. What is privileged is an elective mode of kinship which is chosen in opposition to bonds of blood or nature. This framing implicitly resists the processes of property-transference, naturalization, and instrumentalization through which the capitalist state reproduces the family.

Image by Ben Brooksbank under CC BY SA

The adopted mother and child react to their non-normative status in very different ways, yet Kay unifies their position through shared rhetorical strategies. This may be seen in the child’s line, “my mammy is the best mammy in the world OK” (21) and her mother’s,“If I’m not who is” (20), which both eschew conventional punctuation. This linguistic device is part of the careful manner in which Kay evokes her poetic ambivalence to normative values about kinship and relationality, where the very answerability of the question within the current configuration of society is cast in doubt. Kay’s use of the question that refuses the mark of the question, and which in turn refuses the norms of its telling and asking, replicates at the level of the literary the material and political challenges of demanding recognition and rights in a political landscape marked by historic and continued racialized exclusion. This refusal works to guard a possibility in kinship relations which goes beyond recognition within the infrastructure of the liberal capitalist state, undermining its perceived naturalness, and gesturing toward alternate forms beyond their current existence. It is in this subtle but powerful queer moment that an alternate reading of Kay and adoption becomes possible.

Many readings of Kay’s text have foregrounded transcultural exchange as the political limit of her vision. Such interpretations, which overlook Kay’s attention to racialized capitalism and its heteronormative configurations in neoliberal society, do a disservice to a writer whose work builds on a far broader political imagination. Through the lens of social reproduction theory and “queer of color critique”, we have seen how, far from embracing liberal optimism in the capitalist state, Kay harnesses a capacity for refusal and transformation which works in implicit antagonism to its current configuration. As Cooper and Ferguson demonstrate, any political investment in queer kinship cannot assume a structural commensurability between the capitalist state and queer and racial difference. Recent radical perspectives (such as Sophie Lewis’ book, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family), which focus on the complex enmeshment of race, capital and sexuality, are beginning to offer accounts of the family which go beyond an investment in statist accommodation and transcultural dialogue, gesturing, in both literature and politics, to more liberatory communal futures of the kind Kay’s collection is palpably reaching for.


Peter Ely. “Queer Kinship in Jackie Kay’s The Adoption PapersAlluvium, 7.4 (2019): n. pag. Web. 22 August July 2019. DOI:  https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.4.04

About the author

Dr Peter Ely is a writer and academic based in London. His research explores the political significance of community in contemporary British literature.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. “‘Liberal Multiculturalism is the Hegemony – It’s an Empirical Fact’ – A response to Slavoj Žižek.” Darkmatter, 15 (Februrary 2008), n. pag., http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2008/02/19/%E2%80%98liberal-multiculturalism-is-the-hegemony-%E2%80%93-its-an-empirical-fact%E2%80%99-a-response-to-slavoj-zizek/. Accessed 31 May 2019.

Cockin, Katharine. “Rethinking Transracial Adoption: Reading Jackie Kay’s The Adoption Papers.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, 18:2 (2004), 276-291. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/08989575.2003.10815308

Cooper, Melinda. Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism. New York: Zone Books, 2017.

Ferguson, Roderick A. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Kay, Jackie. The Adoption Papers. Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1991.

Lewis, Sophie. Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family. London: Verso Books, 2019.

McLeod, John. Life Lines: Writing Transcultural Adoption, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Mizielińska, Joanna et al. “Editorial introduction to Special Issue: Queer Kinship and Relationships.” Sexualities, 21.7 (2018), 975-982. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460717718511

Warwick, Norman. “Literature Festival poet Jackie Kay has adoption to thank for her success.” Manchester Evening News, 5 June 2014, https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/local-news/adopted-child-poet-jackie-kay-7324061. Accessed 31 May 2019.

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