I’d never heard the phrase transracial adoptee until I read Shannon Gibney’s young adult novel, See No Color, yet it describes something I’ve known about for a long time. Alexandra Kirtridge, Gibney’s protagonist, is fifteen, a biracial child adopted in infancy by a white couple who also have two biological children–a structure that mirrors Gibney’s own upbringing in Ann Arbor. Even though I am not a member of the ideal audience for any young adult novel, I appreciate the effort of these books to create contexts for young readers. And I, too, can learn from them. I certainly did from this one.
Alex’s adoptive father is a former professional baseball player, and the sport is the center of the family. But while Alex is a nationally ranked center fielder, things are changing rapidly for the teen. Baseball is becoming a bit less of an obsession, she is becoming more sexually aware, and her difference–her blackness in a white culture–is becoming an issue. She realizes that no matter how many times her adoptive family tells her that they don’t see color and don’t acknowledge her race, the culture she lives in doesn’t allow that.
Alex’s first boyfriend, a young black man, tries gallantly to understand the issues that confuse and overwhelm her. At one point, in tears, she tells him, “You don’t know what it’s like to wake up every morning and not know if your skin is really your skin. You don’t know how it feels to look like a whole group of people who you’ve never even fucking spoken to, much less feel a part of … Yes, I’m a white black girl, okay? Are you happy?”
While I read this, I wondered whether writing for young adults allows Gibney to confront issues more directly than she could have in adult fiction. The difference is most striking in a succession of chapters near the center of the book. In one chapter, Gibney writes of Alex’s sexual awakening and beautifully describes a scene of uncertain young love. It is the kind of scene that could be very important in a novel written for adults. But Gibney follows it with two chapters where Alex is finally learning to deal with her hair, learning things from black women that her white mother couldn’t teach her. At first I wondered about the balance of these chapters, until I realized that this is exactly right–this is a mirror of what’s important for this character. Gibney has a wonderful sense of that experience.
Gibney, who now lives and teaches in Minneapolis, returns to read from and discuss See No Color at Nicola’s Books on Wednesday, July 6.