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Warp and Weft

Adoption and the writer

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

‘You had three mothers. The mother who gave birth to you, the mother who looked after you — and me!’ My mum would sit me on her lap, as a toddler, hold me close and tell me my first story: the story of my adoption.

As I grew up I was enveloped in family stories. There was, of course, my ur-story. But there was my granny’s too. She was partly English, partly Spanish, and had married a Bosnian Serb, spending the war years in Yugoslavia under German occupation. Seats in her bungalow were covered in scratchy woven rugs. Some had been sent from Yugoslavia; some she had woven, including one for each of us children.

Her black eyes would fix upon me, and out they would pour, her embroidered fantasies. She would tell me of her husband’s father, Kosta Božić, the Dean of Sarajevo before the First World War, who had absolved Gavrilo Princip for shooting Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria — or so her story went. Was it true that Prince Peter II of Yugoslavia had come to Cambridge, years later, and given my mother a bicycle, or that granny had typed Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus? (Very dull, she confided.)

More recent history was traumatic. During the Second World War, she had been forced to evacuate to a village outside Belgrade, to escape the concentration camps that had been the fate of her Jewish friends. She was apparently the only Englishwoman to survive the war there. When her Serbian husband deserted her, after the war, she flew back to England, pregnant and with my nine-year-old mother to be, as de facto refugees; English relatives had to pay the Home Office an immigration bond.

My mother was sent to school speaking nothing but Serbo-Croat. Later, she met and married a Yorkshire man and, three babies into their family, my parents decided to adopt. It was my father who said, casually to the adoption officer at the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society, ‘we don’t mind what colour the baby is’. And so a half-Iranian baby – me – became part of their family.

Not everyone thought that this transracial adoption was a good thing. My mother’s mother, despite all those family stories, would peer at me and say: ‘Of course you’re not really half Yugoslavian, like your brothers.’ And so I wondered: did her stories really belong to me? As I grew older, I started making my own stories: I fantasised that my Iranian birth father, a sailor, would fly down on his Persian carpet and take me away, across the water, to a place that I could call my homeland.

He never came, the Iranian Revolution fell like a curtain between Iran and the West, and I grew up divorced from my Persian roots. It was a good thing that my mum, like me, had a multiracial background. Those stories from abroad bound us together, and to England. There were other stories too, as I grew closer to my Yorkshire grandmother. I prized the long history of farming in West Yorkshire, on one hand, and on the other, the many generations of master huntsmen, the Smiths, two of whom had been painted by Stubbs. Granny’s house was full of hunting regalia — horns, pictures and painted china, upon which there were beautiful scenes of foxes being torn apart, on which we would eat a lovely tea.

My Iranian father never came but I did make my own escape, to university, and into journalism — the classic profession of the observer. Jeremy Harding, another adoptee, journalist and author of a delicate memoir, Mother Country, explains it well: ‘You start with these puzzles about who you are and who you might have been, and you ask similar questions about the world. It looks one way but you don’t take the evidence for granted. Adoption puts you on track to ask those questions.’

Perhaps being an outsider is our very condition, as adopted people. Both my nonfiction books document my own fascination with life on the margins. The first book uncovered hate crimes against disabled people, the second chronicled the life of Britain’s nomads. Harding has also written extensively about excluded groups. ‘If you realise, from your own experience, that identity is constructed, it’s a short step from there to realise that most identity is constructed, and to want to look at questions of, say, minority and gender politics.’

Adopted writers describe our otherness well. Jackie Kay, the first adopted writer I came across, writes that ‘it seems that the bundle of child that is wrapped in the ghostly shawl of adoption does have another layer of aloneness wrapped up in there.’ She, like me, was adopted across the racial divide, as her birth father was from Nigeria. Reading her work I felt a series of small shocks of recognition. And there was Jeanette Winterson, another adoptee, who wrote, pertinently, ‘adoption drops you into the story after it has started.’ No wonder we want to take up our pens, and write our own narratives.

Adoption and the wider theme of the abandoned child is a gift, both for adopted writers and writers generally. In Victorian times the lone child (adoptee, orphan, foundling) haunts literature. Jane Eyre is adopted by her cruel aunt and Pip in Great Expectations by his punitive sister. In George Eliot’s Silas Marner, a miser is transformed by his relationship with the orphan, Eppie. Orphans are a useful metaphor for exploring the free and unbound spirit. The adopted child or orphan can also be a malign force, because of ‘bad blood’. Heathcliff brings disaster on the Earnshaws. Much later, P.D. James’s thriller, Innocent Blood, characterises all in its adoption triangle as flawed, cold or bad. I couldn’t finish it. It’s somehow irksome to be fixed in fiction as a pathological figure by other writers.

Transracial adoptees arrive in literature relatively late. (Although Heathcliff, with his mysterious racial origins, could stake a claim.) Two intriguing treatments are Digging to America, by Anne Tyler, and The Bean Trees and its sequel, Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver. The two adoptees in Tyler’s story are both South Korean — but whereas one child enters a white-American family, the other joins an Iranian-American one, enabling Tyler to explore a textured tapestry of race, culture and integration. In The Bean Trees, Kingsolver creates a loving bond between an abandoned child and adoptive mother; in Pigs in Heaven, when Cherokee relatives find the child and want contact, the mother recognises their claim. Kingsolver pulls off a balancing act so that the child can make sense of her story — and be loved by both her birth family and mother.

Adopted writers, for our part, have been writing ourselves into literature since the mid-twentieth century — Jeanette Winterson, Jackie Kay, Bernard Cornwell, Edward Albee and our brothers and sisters in arms, such as Lemn Sissay, who was fostered and then sent back into care. Transracial adoptees have a double sense of displacement — not only relinquishing ties with a birth family, but a culture on top. Adoption, of course, cannot make you a writer, but it can help. As Cornwell says of his own failed adoption to members of a Christian cult: ‘when I was not telling lies I was fantasizing, another useful accomplishment for a novelist.’

My own journey to find my Iranian birth father took me decades, and eventually all the way to Iran. I found him in 2006. He had been tortured after the revolution, during which he was imprisoned and subjected to a mock execution. The day I met him, and had lunch with him, was the day that my fantasy of a dashing young man – and his one memory of a babe in arms – flickered and receded into history. There we were, instead, a mother of two and a middle-aged man, with a limp, from the Middle East. Later, to thank my parents for looking after my children so I could visit him, he sent a woven tablecloth from Isfahan.

I wrote a short history of my time in Iran, and of my adoption. More recently, recalling how my grandmother’s stories had embellished my childhood, I wrote a fictional account of the priest who may have absolved Gavrilo Princip. I plan to conclude what has become a trilogy with a fiction based on the hunting diaries of the Smith family. Then the warp and weft of my family stories will be woven together, at last.

Katharine Quarmby is a writer and journalist.

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