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This article is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.
Wormholes. Doppelgängers. Alternate realities. Parallel timelines.
Those are the literary devices Minneapolis author Shannon Gibney relies on to describe her life as a transracial adoptee in her latest book, “The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be.”
Gibney takes readers through her actual life and an imagined one—a “what if” set of circumstances that explore the unknown parts of herself that helped form her identity nonetheless.
First there is the true story of being raised as a mixed-Black child in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by Susan and Jim Gibney, her white adoptive parents.
In this genre-bending memoir, Gibney also speculates what about might have been if she stayed in Utica, New York, with her white birth mother Patricia Powers, who struggled with alcoholism. In that imagined life, she is named Erin Powers, the name her mother gave her as a newborn.
“The only way for people like me—adoptees—to express the truth of our lived experiences is to embrace that there are no singular truths,” Gibney writes. “There is no one reality. There are no stories without holes. There are only spaces to be breathed into. Sometimes, rewritten. Always, the spaces are revered. And feared.”
Following Gibney and Powers across multiple timelines, the novel mines the complexities of identity, race, and family history. Both characters look for a complete picture of their origins in a search for their Black biological father. The book describes Gibney’s limited knowledge about him growing up, although she later learned that he died when she was 6 during a police chase. Photos of vital artifacts pepper the prose: adoption documents, family photographs, health records and letters.
“What follows are other ways to tell the stories of Shannon and Erin, the known and the unknown, truth and speculation, to awaken the sleepers, to call forth the living, the dead, and those residing elsewhere,” Gibney writes in the prologue.
Gibney, the award-winning author of the young adult novels “Dream Country” and “See No Color,” is the mother of two children and a professor of English at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Published by Dutton Books, “The Girl I am, Was, and Never Will Be” is available for purchase here.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity and length.
“The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be” is a speculative memoir. In it, you weave elements of fiction and science fiction to explore your experiences as a transracial adoptee. Can you describe this type of genre and why you choose it to tell your story?
I feel like that genre chose me. I didn’t choose it. As I started writing the book, this was just the way that it came out.
I think, especially as adoptees, so much of what we know of our lives as the truth is speculative. It’s an invitation for readers to explore those kinds of tensions and figure out what that means to them. And I hope in some ways that the experience of reading through the book mimics the experience that we adoptees have trying to fill in all these holes in our own personal, familial, cultural, and racial backgrounds.
Part of what you do in the book is complicate our understanding of truth, family and stability. In the context of transracial adoption, what do you want readers to come to understand about these concepts?
The dominant narratives of adoption have been promulgated for generations by agencies and mostly white adoptive parents. I would say it’s only in the past 10 to 15 years that we’ve started to hear a lot more from adoptees. We still need to hear a lot more from us. And then we still hear almost nothing from birth parents. This narrative inequity really skews people’s views.
The idea that families are permanent in whatever constellation they’re put in, but especially if they’re created by the state, is just not true. We know that families, like everything else in life, are changing all the time. And that families are complicated. As adoptees we see how fungible these bonds and definitions are. People who don’t have that experience—of being taken from one family and grafted into another—they’re not going to see just how tenuous and changeable a lot of these things are.
Stability and security are always the words that are used by the state and the child welfare agencies—and even birth mothers—as the top things that they want for their child. You can have stability in terms of housing. You can have stability in terms of food, education, and middle class values, which I think we can agree we want for our children.
But what about stability in terms of racial and cultural identity, for, let’s say, a Black child? Somehow, that’s not in the same category. As an adult adoptee with children of my own who are Black, I can say that’s a problem.
Continuity shows up in the book in a few ways. As a mother, you write about the satisfaction of finally having a family that looks like you. You name your son after your birth father, who is named after his father and so on. Can you talk about the cultural loss of growing up as a mixed-race child in a white family?
A lot of folks who identify as mixed-Black as well, but are not adoptees, have come up to me and said they could relate to the racial isolation and the blatant racism that happens in white families. In this way, it’s not just about transracial adoption. It’s also about mixed families. They also feel that cultural loss from their connection with the Black side of their family and Black culture.
My parents made sure that I had tons of Black books. But it’s not the same as actual living Black people, and all the things that people bring with them through their culture. I think some of that comes through in the book. People have also told me that the book honors my birth father in it by recovering the Black side of the family that was lost to me.
I do feel like in my case, especially as an adult now, I’ve been able to make certain choices about living in a Black neighborhood, what my social sphere looks like, and all kinds of things. So, I feel like I’ve been able to recuperate some of those losses. But then there’s some of those losses that it’s just how it is. You just have to live with them.
Birth parents who relinquished their children for adoption have often been vilified, or not given the compassion they deserve. Can you talk about the process of writing about your birth parents, and how you avoided tired tropes or stereotypes?
I was very nervous about that, particularly with my birth mother, Patricia, who of course is the parent that I actually had the relationship with. The book hopefully shows the complexities of that relationship. For me, it was a very difficult relationship. There were many years that Patricia and I were not in contact. And so I wanted to be true to that. But then also, I’m very aware of the ways in which women who give up their children are flattened and maligned in stories, and I did not want to do that either.
With my birth father, I had a lot less to go off of. That was more imagination and less memoir. Unfortunately, I feel like my birth mother and her white family contributed to this trope of a dangerous, predatory Black man who wouldn’t have been good for me to have a relationship with. I’ll never know if that was true, but I’m very sensitive to the ways in which Black men get painted in these problematic strokes, especially as fathers.
You write that the authors of most books about adoption are “white adoptive parents who are psychologists, sociologists, creative writers, and professors.” Their work amounts to “a fictional genre” that adoptees find “fantastical as any space opera.” What do these dominant narratives miss?
Most of the stories that we see about adoption in popular culture really emphasize the benefits of adoption. Let’s be clear, there are plenty of benefits of adoption. Usually adoption is moving up in class. You usually get better access to education and other material things. Many times families are more stable.
But it misses, for instance, the racial and cultural losses. Shame is a huge piece for transracial adoptees—to look a certain way, like Black or Korean American, but not to be able to perform Blackness or Koreanness. Those are things that you don’t see in dominant portrayals of adoptees and adoption, and those are central parts of our identities.
I’m curious to know what reactions you have received from the book so far—either from people close to you or others. Also, what do you most hope the takeaway will be?
I knew that adoptees of color and transracial adoptees would connect with the book, and hopefully have a kinship with it. What I really wasn’t expecting is how much white adoptees have embraced this book. Because adoptee communities, like all communities, are separated by race. Also in terms of the genre-bending that I’m doing in the book, people find it really freeing, and anything that creates more freedom in the world, I’m for that.
I also want to say the book is not just for adoptees. It’s for anybody who’s experienced some kind of break, where there’s a discreet before and after, and they’re trying to heal themselves through storytelling in some way. And I feel like there’s a lot of us, regardless of whether we’re adoptees or in some part of the adoption constellation, that can relate to that.