"I must be adopted." "I hope I'm adopted." "Who are these strange people and how did I come to live among them?" Such thoughts cross many of our minds in childhood and adolescence, experiencing ourselves as totally unlike the other members of our families.
Shannon Gibney, now an award-winning Minnesota author, didn't have to wonder long whether she was adopted, since she was the only Black person in her family. Her parents were white, her brothers were white, and she was ... not. By the time she was 8, she had the strong feeling she was not the real Shannon Gibney. An avid devotee of the anime series "Robotech," her mind went immediately to a sci-fi type of solution. "But how do you know I'm not a robot?" she asked her mother.
When she was 19, she began a search for her birth mother that resulted in a letter from Michigan Child and Family Services revealing that, indeed, she had not always been named Shannon Gibney. On Jan. 30, 1975, a woman named Patricia Ellen Powers christened her newborn daughter Erin Rebecca Powers. Baby Erin was taken quickly into foster care and five months later joined the Gibney family, who gave her the name that appears on her final birth certificate.
Gibney's predilection for speculative answers to the questions of identity that have flourished in her mind ever since is one of two driving forces behind "The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be." As she puts it, "The tools of mainstream literary fiction are inadequate for investigating my questions. You can get to the edges of them, but not inside them. For that, you need a wormhole. And multiple timelines. Perhaps a Doppelganger."
In a series of vignettes, she explores the idea that Erin Powers continued life on a separate timeline. She uses the concept of wormholes to visit the father she never knew. She imagines the experience of her birth mother giving up her baby and coping with her loss in the years that follow.
The second force behind the book is almost the opposite of the speculative one: the assembling of a written record of documents, correspondence, and photographs. These are reproduced amid the memoir material and speculative fiction that run through the book.
Numerous handwritten cards from Patricia Powers to both Shannon and her mother, dating from the period after their (rocky) reunion in 1994. The death certificate of Boisey Collins, Jr., her Black father. The transcript of a phone call with Boisey Christopher Collins, his much younger brother. The handwritten pages of a short story written by Shannon at age 7 about an orphan girl who steals a horse. Documents relating to the author's experience with breast cancer.
This deeply felt and unusually creative book is recommended for readers aged 14 to adult, and will be an especially important resource for people of all ages with a connection to transracial adoption. The final section of the book, a group text thread including the author and other writers with this background, resonates with the solace of shared experience.
Marion Winik is a writer, memoirist and professor in Baltimore.
The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be
By: Shannon Gibney.
Publisher: Dutton, 256 pages, $18.99.
Events: Book launch, in conversation with Lisa Marie Brimmer, 7 p.m. Jan. 10, Moon Palace Books, Mpls.; in conversation with Sun Yung Shin, 6:30 p.m. Jan. 18, Red Balloon Bookstore, St. Paul; "Write Like Us," 6:30 p.m. Jan. 24, Minneapolis College, Mpls., register at https://bit.ly/3FEQWuq