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.
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.