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Guest Post: JaeRan Kim on Adoption Story Lines

Adoption shows up in fiction and other tales, and to explore this further, I had the pleasure of an exchange with JaeRan Kim, a child welfare specialist, researcher, and transracial Korean adoptee.  This is a timely discussion given all the public dialogue recently about Melissa Harris-Perry and her off-hand remarks as a TV host about  transracial adoption and adoptive families.

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Q. JaeRan, as a scholar and researcher in adoption and child welfare, what role do you believe fiction can play in the real-life intricacies of the adoption world?

A. I think as Erik Erikson theorized, one of the hallmarks of being human is the  experience of trying to figure out who you are and where you fit in the world; the whole “identity crisis” that most people experience is complicated when abandonment and adoption are at play. Fiction writers often seem to include abandonment and adoption themes in their stories because people understand the mental model/trope of the adopted person searching for their identity. It’s a short cut, although honestly sometimes I think it’s lazy on the part of the writer because it’s used SO OFTEN as a devise to explain a character’s “issues.”

Adoption themes in literature for some people who are adopted, birth/first parents, or adoptive parents (or extended family members of each) can be a source of healing, or a way to work through personal grief and loss, at a little more distance than say, going to talk therapy. It almost doesn’t matter if the experiences and themes of adoption as written in the story ring true for the reader with personal experience in adoption – whether the reader finds them to be honest and accurate portrayals of the experience or not, either way it can provide a starting point for reflection and deeper exploration.

For example, tons of great epic stories have adoption themes – these can be awesome for working with kids who are adopted or have experienced foster care. Movies/characters like Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, Harry Potter, all the superheros like Spiderman, Batman, Superman – all have lost their parents and are fostered/adopted, and the movies/stories I think do a great job of showing anger, loss, grief, search for identity, etc. So these can be normalizing for the adopted person because let’s face it, society expects adoptees to be grateful for being saved. So if a person is struggling with feelings of loss, grief, identity crisis – these stories can help normalize these feelings.

At the same time, it can be really frustrating to read a story involving adoption and feel my experiences have been completely misunderstood. I’ve read more than my share of stories with adoption themes and I get a pretty quick sense of whether I think the author did some real research and sought to understand adoption or whether they’re using it merely as a devise to get the reader to jump to certain conclusions instead of working on character development or plot rather than using the trope to do all the work for them.

Well-done adoption story lines can also open doors for those who don’t know much about the impact of adoption on those involved. I think there is the potential for greater understanding and compassion for just how much adoption has life-long ramifications for those of us with that experience.

Q. What would you hope authors of fiction consider when their characters or themes center around complex topics where related issues in the real world involve fierce politics, like in adoption?

A. I think you’ve just nailed it with your question actually – adoption is very complex and full of politics and most people, not just writers but most people in general, don’t know how diverse our thoughts/experiences/feelings can be. Nor do most know how political it is. I think authors include adoption themes for one of two reasons: they know someone with personal adoption experience (maybe it’s their own) or they want to use the adoption as a device in their story because adoption helps convey certain themes they’re after.

Either way, that’s limited information and I would hope that the author doesn’t fall into the trap that the single story (as Chimamande Adiche would warn us against) represents all our stories, and that the writer would do a lot of research. Read up on the orphan train movement, the Native American boarding school era; read blogs and memoirs and novels of adopted and fostered persons and birth parents. Read Regina Kunzel’s excellent book, Fallen Women Problem Girls. Read Rickie Solinger’s work about abortion, adoption, and reproductive justice. Until a writer understands the political, historical and social context of adoption during the time period of their story, they won’t really understand adoption and it might show in the way their story or characters are developed.

Q. As a reader of fiction, as a transracial adoptee, and also someone active in the political and social changes of adoption, do you believe it’s the author of fiction, or the reader, who carries the main responsibility to explore deeper realities in social issues?

A. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. The writer can write whatever s/he wants to write; the reader can interpret any way that they do. That’s the beauty of art. I am sure I’m more critical of stories involving Asian adoption because that’s my experience, because I have been involved in the Korean adult adoptee community for so long, because I’ve had limited but profound experiences working alongside Korean birth mothers, because I’ve professionally interacted with lots of adoptive parents, and because I’m a writer – so when Korean adoption or Chinese adoption is written in a story and they get all the smaller nuances wrong, it’s irritating. I might not pick up on those things if I didn’t have the community or the personal and professional experiences, etc.

Most writers don’t think of adoption as a social and political issue. They may not be aware for instance that every 2-3 years since 1999, there is an international conference of South Korean adopted persons where anywhere from 400-700 adult Korean adoptees from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, and Asia attend; they may not know that Korean adoptees living in S. Korea have been grass-roots organizing to change adoption legislation in the country, working with single mom groups to reduce stigma for single parenting, etc. They may not know that the U.S. sends hundreds of children (the majority of them are black or bi-racial) OUT of the U.S. in intercountry adoption placements to adoptive parents in Canada, UK, Europe. They probably don’t know that intercountry adoptees are being deported because their adoptive parents never obtain their U.S. citizenship. What I’m getting to is that many writers still see adoption as “birth parent gave up/abandoned/lost child, child was adopted by infertile adoptive parents” narrative, and so the story lines follow the emotional effects of this narrative.

JaeRan Kim blogs at Harlowmonkey.typepad.com and jaerankim.wordpress.com.

Happy 2014 from PRISON BABY

All the cliches come to mind for my New Year’s wishes for everyone: gratitude, healing and hope, purpose and pleasure. But I’ll take cliches when they’re authentic in the heart. So that’s what I wish for our world.

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In my corner of the world, my 2014 opened with one more step for  my memoir to reach hands of readers, an envelope from Beacon Press, the book jacket for Prison Baby, (March 4, 2014.) Here’s where my prison yarn toy meets the world.

As many copies of the book as I can get into prisons, especially for incarcerated mothers, and for girls in prison, even for prison staff, this is one of my 2014 dreams. I like to churn dreams into reality so I’ll keep posting here about my upcoming  prison tours and how you can walk with me as part of the dream of reaching our girls and women in prisons. I’ll ever grateful for all the support along the way for this book, for the prison work, for the vision of a better world. Thank you readers and supporters!

If you’d like to read some background on how Prison Baby found it’s way, here’s my new blog piece on Huffington Post.

Here’s a preview, the pile of drafts from 56 publisher rejections and 3 hard-working agents who exhausted their resources, before Beacon Press picked this up.PRISONBABYdrafts

Interview: Tish Cohen & The Search Angel

In the theme of adoption as it shows up in fiction, I’m continuing my interview series with authors whose novels touch the world of adoption.

TISH COHEN‘s The Search Angel  (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd) releases in July 2013. She’s the bestselling author of both YA and adult novels, including The Truth About Delilah Blue, Inside Out Girl and Commonwealth Writers Prize finalist, Town House. The last two works have been optioned for film.

At what point in your novel process did you know you’d want one of your themes and character(s) touched by adoption?

With The Search Angel, I actually had fully formed characters in my head before I had a theme. My protagonist, Eleanor Sweet, went from being a suicidal librarian to the infertile owner of Boston’s finest baby store after a family member went through the process of looking for her birth parents. This person’s story was particularly poignant to me because what she learned about her birth family was not at all what she expected.

I then became obsessed with the entire adoption process and what each person involved might experience. Can the adopted child ever truly understand her birth mother’s choice? How does the birth mother cope with her choice years later, especially after having subsequent children? What about the adoptive parents—what fears and worries might they face?

As I went further along in my research, I became fascinated by search angels—individuals who dedicate much of their lives to reunite people with their birth families. Search angels have often given up a child of their own and help search when the state or province can no longer be of help. Typically, search angels work for free. That anyone could be so generous has touched my heart in a big way.

So while The Search Angel is about adoption, even more it is about the relationship between Eleanor Sweet and her search angel, Isabelle Santos, and about sometimes families take unexpected forms.

How does anything in your personal or professional life influence the use of adoption in your novel?

I’ve always been fascinated by relationships in which a person’s attachment bond has been severed at some point in childhood. A mother’s decision to give up her baby seems as big a choice as one can make. The lives of everyone involved would ripple with aftershocks from that day forward. I had to explore that.

Also, as I mentioned above, a close family member started the search for her own birth mother when her own child’s health required in-depth family history. What she found was not at all what she expected. There was joy, yes. But there was also a great deal of pain and a truth she never could have foreseen. It was almost as if she faced being given up a second time.

If you’re not touched by adoption in your immediate family, or even if you are, how much, if any, did you feel the need to research adoption?

Aside from the family member I mentioned above, I do have several close friends whose lives have been touched by adoption and all were generous enough to share their experiences. I also spoke to women who have given up infants and read every real-life adoption story I could find, whether in book form or on online adoption support forums. The very best part of my research was speaking to a search angel. Her insight shaped the entire book.

Why adoption? Why this as a life force in your novel and characters?

To give up your own child seems to me the most unselfish thing a parent can do. The decision would be exquisitely painful and complicated. All of my novels so far have featured at least one decision with lifelong effects and I don’t expect that to end anytime soon.

 

Where Dreams and Love Usually Die… But Not Always

Before I ever knew any of my work would be published, before I ever spoke in front of an audience, before I un-muted myself and ever spoke much at all, I dreamed about—not a glamorous author event—but of a book launch inside a prison.

I was thirteen or something, scribbling typical teen girl poems and imitating e.e. cumings.

A girl who couldn’t stand up in third grade class to read out loud, I wanted to stand inside a prison and read my work. I didn’t do this with my first book because my mother was dying at the same time and it took everything in me to walk with her to her end. More like crawl.

I also didn’t know much about dreams then.

Through the giant generosity of friends, I’m being sponsored to launch Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus inside a a number of prisons, including Bedford Hills Prison for Women. Not the prison where I was born but the prison with the country’s oldest nursery for babies.

It’s a privilege to stand before the women I meet in prison and  spread love and dreams where dreams and love usually die.

As soon as I can, I’ll share the details. In the meantime please dream with me. For your dreams and mine.

I’m going here in one of my dreams, inside every U.S. prison to reach our 150,000 incarcerated women.