In one way, I’d been writing the poems in The Adoption Papers for my whole life. I’d been making up an imaginary birth mother and father with my adoptive mother for years, since I was a kid. She would say of my birth father: “I’m picturing a Paul Robeson figure, Jackie, perhaps with a bit of Nelson Mandela mixed in.”
In another, I started writing the book when I was pregnant. It’s difficult when your writing infiltrates your life and vice versa, difficult to work out what actually happened and what didn’t. Your imaginative life is your reality.
I remember in 1988, after I attended, for the first time, a Caribbean writers’ conference in central London. I was 26. I lived off West Green Road in Tottenham, with three other lesbians. My housemate Gabriela Pearse, also a budding poet, drove me across London in her red Citroën Diane. I remember arriving at the large, beautifully tiled foyer where the Jamaican poet Jean “Binta” Breeze was performing her astonishing poem about mental illness, “Riddym Ravings”. I was transfixed by her voice and the voice she’d given to the radio, lodged inside her like a baby.
There were academics and writers there from all over the world. Gabriela had told me there was a free spot where anyone could offer to read. I got up on the stage and read two poems called pragmatically, “The Mother Poem One” and “The Mother Poem Two”. One was in the voice of the birth mother and one in the voice of the adoptive mother. Perhaps it was the sight of me stood there with my big pregnant belly, but the poems to my surprise got a wonderful response and people kept coming up afterwards – Italian, French, Trinidadian and American delegates as well as British – asking where they could get them. They couldn’t get them anywhere because they weren’t published.
They weren’t published for another three years after that. I had to go away and write them first. At the same time, I was tracing my birth mother. It was all mixed up: the truth and the fiction. Being pregnant makes you very curious about the woman who carried you – and there are questions you can’t answer about the bloodline! Strangely, when I sat down to write I found the daughter the hardest to write. The birth mother I made up, from snippets of things I’d been told from fantasy versions of her, and from some of my search. In a sense, in a literary way, I gave birth to my mother rather than the other way around. I wanted her voice to be lyrical, ethereal, not grounded in anything, not rooted. I couldn’t place her. She wasn’t in any sense my “real mother”. She would need to be my made up one. The adoptive mother, my “real” mother, I wanted to be the exact opposite: earthy, witty, grounded, bold. I based her on my adoptive mum, but she is made up too.
It took me a while to get the voice of the daughter right, perhaps because I was standing too close to her. I remember one night when I was in the middle of writing the book, I told my dad what I was trying to write. “It’s called The Adoption Papers and it is from three points of view: the birth mother, the adoptive mother and the daughter,” I said, perhaps a little pompously. My dad screwed up his face and said, “Have you no got a wee bit of a tip for yoursel?”
Which was a worry: will anyone else find it interesting? I remember when I showed my brother the manuscript of Red Dust Road, he said a similar thing. “Well, I found it interesting, but I can’t imagine anyone else finding it interesting that’s not in our family,” he said.
Around that time, in 1989, I got a letter out of the blue from a BBC producer called Frances Anne Solomon. She had heard that I was writing this book of poems and wanted to put them on the radio. She came to my house and I got out what I had. All the voices were separate then, typed out on my faithful Olivetti. I went out to get us some lunch at the Italian deli in West Green Road and when I came back Frances Anne had cut up the poems and pasted them on to the walls of my living room. She’d taken down all my paintings. I nearly passed out.
“You need to mix them up,” she said in her Trinidadian accent. When I finally got a publisher, Bloodaxe, to accept the manuscript, I decided to keep it the way it was for the radio play with the voices counterpointing and questioning each other. I wouldn’t have chosen to do it that way if Frances Anne hadn’t come along and ripped down the wallpaper.
Being adopted is like having a double life. Being a writer is like having a double life. You live in two worlds at once; your imaginary one and the so-called real one. When you’re adopted and you trace your original parents, those two worlds start to collide. I remember feeling a strange grief when I found my real birth mother. I grieved for the one I had made up, who had been in my imagination all along.
When my birth mother died a couple of years ago, my mum, who had never met her, but felt an adoptive mother’s debt of gratitude, was very upset. The district nurse called to give her insulin and found my mum in tears. “What’s the matter with you today, Helen?” she asked. “My daughter’s mother has died,” my mum said.
Sadly my mum died on 13 February – but it is too soon to put her into the past tense. She is so spirited. I am keeping her in the present tense.