Shannon Gibney‘s debut young adult novel See No Color (Carolrhoda Lab, November 2015) opens with a prologue. The six-year-old version of main character Alex Kirtridge is sitting on her father’s lap, obstensibly learning to fill out a score card for a baseball game, but really soaking up her father’s love and attention. It’s a poignant moment, and one that shows the reader from page one the close and loving relationship Alex has with her father. But it also shows that she wants to please him by pretending to learn quickly what he’s trying to teach her, even though she’d rather just color in the circles and squares on the page. The reader will see these themes threaded throughout See No Color, as sixteen-year-old transracial adoptee Alex struggles with knowing what will please her parents and finding what she needs to please herself and who she is becoming. Alex has been a baseball phenom, playing on the boys team her father coaches alongside her less driven younger brother. But just as Alex’s developing body in beginning to impact her game, she is also beginning to have more awareness of how her biracial identity impacts how she naviagtes the world. The novel explores Alex’s complex relationships with her parents and siblings without ignoring the love they share or sugarcoating the painful moments. A romantic subplot develops realistically and furthers Alex’s personal growth without dominating the novel.
In starred reviews, Kirkus said, “Transracial adoption is never oversimplified, airbrushed, or sentimentalized, but instead, it’s portrayed with bracing honesty as the messy institution it is: rearranging families, blending cultural and biological DNA, loss and joy. An exceptionally accomplished debut.” and Publishers Weekly said, “Debut novelist Gibney offers an unflinching look at the complexities of racial identity. . . . Readers will finish this engaging, layered novel . . . with plenty to think about.”
I’m happy to share this interview with Shannon Gibney about See No Color:
E. M. Kokie: Your main character, Alex, is a mixed race girl who was adopted by white parents who say that they “don’t see color.” You captured beautifully the moments when Alex begins to question whether her parents have done her a disservice by failing to nurture her racial identity. Her fear, her confusion, her anger, and her pain are all sharp on the page. It’s a perspective I haven’t seen represented very often in literature for children and teens. I read that you wrote this book for your teen self. Would you be comfortable expanding on that?
Shannon Gibney: As a teen, I didn’t see very much at all being written about mixed race identity — particularly in fiction that teens are reading. And I definitely didn’t see transracial adoption being dealt with in a nuanced, complex way that felt real to me as a young person living through that experience. Of course I didn’t have language for it at the time, but what I was hungering for was stories that tackled the intersection of race and adoption. Unfortunately, they just weren’t there when I was coming up, which left me feeling kind of like a freak, like the strangest person in the universe for awhile.
Reading James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and Richard Wright and Maxine Hong Kingston and Louise Erdrich as a teen really helped me process that intense sense of isolation that so many transracial adoptees feel, and identify it as part of a very specific experience of communities of color and other marginalized communities in this country, as well as part of just being a human being, in general (which we all know is not an easy thing). But it certainly would have been nice to see myself — even just once — in the imaginative world around me. So, that longing was surely part of what brought See No Color into being.
E.M.K.: As a follow up, I thought you did a wonderful job of balancing Alex’s anger and frustration and confusion with her genuine love for her family. Was it difficult to find that balance in a novel told from Alex’s adolescent point of view? Did you find the balance shifted between rounds of revision?
S.G.: Adoption is a messy business. Everything gets mixed up in everything else: love, anger, frustration, appreciation. And this should not be surprising; if we look closely and honestly at most of our intimate relationships, it’s all there, too. I think it was bell hooks who said that love can, and often does, occur in the context of domination. Which is something I think all of us would do well to reflect on more often, whether you are a white adoptive parent or transracial adoptee, or parenting in a more “traditional” context. Power dynamics matter in relationships. I definitely see this in a whole new way, as a mother to my five-year-old son. On those days when it is particularly difficult for me to mother him, for whatever reason, I try to stop and reflect on the fact that the parent-child relationship is one that is fundamentally unbalanced, that the parent(s) always dominate the dynamics.
So, in writing the story, it really wasn’t hard at all for me to get in all those disparate pieces, which might initially seem contradictory at first. Terry Kirtridge loves his daughter deeply and unconditionally, and it is this hard, blinding love which also hurts her deeply. Rachel Kirtridge’s love for her black daughter is what also makes her unable or unwilling to really see what a completely untenable situation she and her husband have put Alex in– that she has to effectively live in a black body while not admitting that, in order to make them feel better. Adopted kids are often put in this situation by their well-meaning, loving parents. And we/they love their parents back, because that’s how love works. And in a way, it is beautiful. And in another way it is manipulative and hurtful. All of those things are true at once.
E.M.K.: There is so much pressure on young athletes — especially athletes of color — to use high school sports as a springboard toward college and, ultimately, the pros. I was intrigued that Alex is dealing with both the unique pressure of being a girl playing on a boy’s baseball team and the question of who is she is she is not a star baseball player, especially considering her adoptive father is also her coach. Why this baseball-fueled plot?
S.G.: As many others have said before, baseball is a huge metaphor for American culture. It is our national past-time. It reflects all the anxieties and delights of being an American– from the sheer athleticism of the sport, to the brilliance of its players, to the blatantly racist, sexist ways in which it is played. It was such a rich testing ground for so many of the ideas I was working out in the book, and really showed the bond between Alex and her father, as well as her brother, and was a perfect way to explore her driving need to be accepted in this white male culture. The reader can see much earlier than Alex can that she is never going to be fully accepted in this baseball world, and that is a central tension that drives the story forward.
E.M.K.: Alex’s younger sister serves as a catalyst for Alex to question more consciously her identity, her place within her family, and even for the larger plot. At times she seems older than her years. What was your inspiration for Alex’s sister? Is she based on a person or persons you have known?
S.G.: Although race is the central difference explored in the novel, there are also other areas of difference that can be just as important. For Alex and her little sister Kit, I think their gender, as well as the fact that they both see the world through the eyes of artists (although Alex maybe doesn’t realize that yet), are both places that bring them together, and separate them from the rest of their family.
Kit was definitely the character who was the most fun to write, because she just kept on surprising me. She has this wisdom and insight well beyond her years, but I find that actually, many children display this in one way or another. People in our culture, as in many others, don’t really take children seriously in terms of what they know and what they can do. Kit is just an extreme example.
I was also interested in this notion of ally-ship, which is something that I think is grossly misunderstood in many circles. Kit is probably the one person in the family who is without a doubt completely on Alex’s side…but that does not mean that she is, or really understands what it is like to live in a mixed black female body for one second. And Alex let’s her know that. What Kit is good at is naming the way things truly are, at looking at things that no one else in the family really wants to see or admit, and then pointing it out to everyone else, like, “You know, this is really messed up, isn’t it?” In that way, I think she is most deeply an artist, even though she is only 11.
E.M.K.: I can only recall one other recent novel for adolescent readers that involved a transracial adoption, and I imagine books written for adults might not offer a point of view or reading experience especially helpful for young readers. Can you suggest some further reading?
S.G.: This question highlights the dearth of quality literature about transracial adoption, from the experience of adolescent adoptees. Unfortunately, there still isn’t much out there at all which really shows the complexity of the experience.
That said, I would recommend When the Black Girl Sings, Bil Wright. This YA novel has a mixed black female transracial adoptee protagonist, who is struggling to come to terms with her identity. I would have liked to have seen more exploration of how she does or does not “fit into” black culture, however. The anxiety that many adoptees feel when they cannot “perform” culture of their home community.
My friend and colleague Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science at St. Catherine’s University, studies diversity in children’s and YA literature, and also recommends North of Beautiful, by Justina Chen Headley. The book has a white female protagonist, and features a male Chinese American adoptee.
The problem is that almost all the literature for children and teens written on the topic is written by non-adoptees. It’s not that those who don’t come from this experience absolutely can’t understand its complexities, but rather, that they unfortunately often don’t. This is again why we have to talk about power in relationships and storytelling. Who is telling what stories, and from whose perspective? Who is the subject, and who is the object? What images and ideas get communicated over and over again, and what is left out?
E.M.K.: What are you working on now? (If you feel like discussing it)
S.G.: For better or worse, I am someone who always has multiple projects running at once. So, I am now in the middle of a YA novel about a Liberian American teenager who keeps on getting into fights with his black American peers, gets expelled from his high school in Minnesota, and is then sent “back” to Liberia by his parents, who feel they can no longer control him.
Then, I am also halfway through a family memoir, tentatively titled Love Across The Middle Passage: Making An African/African American Family. My husband is Liberian, so the book asks the question: “Can Africans and African Americans really come together — in family, in love, in friendship, in community and institution-building?” If you are interested, you can listen to an excerpt here: http://www.mprnews.org/story/2015/11/06/bcst-books-more-than-a-single-story . Click on “Part Two.”
Finally, for a number of years I have been working through a literary novel about three generations of a Liberian family. The book starts in the 19th century, with a family of freed black American slaves who are some of the founding members of the Liberian colony, then it jumps to 1925 and the forced plantation labor that many Liberian villagers endured, and concludes with the 1980 coup that led to the almost 15-year civil war.
Thanks for the interview, Shannon! And congratulations on the publication of See No Color!
Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of See No Color, a young adult novel. Her writing has appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Crisis, Gawker, and other venues. A Bush Artist and McKnight Writing Fellow, she lives with her husband and children in Minneapolis.