Adoptee narratives

Over time I have collected a number of adoptee memoirs. The image above shows just a part of my collection that I have read. In this blog post, I wanted to highlight two additions to the growing body of adoptee memoirs, Susan Devan Harness’ Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption and Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know.

The transracial adoptee experience is still unique enough that when I share my own experience to those outside of my professional adoption world I often get that range of responses generating from a sense of pity – everything from “I’m sorry” to “Weren’t you lucky!” I know I am not a unicorn – but sometimes I wonder if because I’m so open about being a transracial/transnational adoptee that maybe it’s just that most people don’t talk about it much and that is partly why most of the general population has such limited information about what it is like to be an adult adoptee. As an adult, without the white adoptive family around, most people would not know we are transracial/transnational adoptees. We can finally blend in, the adoptee part of our identity no longer has to be front and center. At the same time, this can also somewhat obscure what is a big part of our identities and make it more difficult for others to see how our experiences affect us our whole lives.

download.jpgThis is why adoptee memoirs are so needed. My thoughts here are much less about the actual books than about some of the thoughts that they generated for me, in part because there are so many excellent reviews out there but also I want you to encourage you to discover these treasures for yourself without my giving too much away. This post is a strong endorsement for both of these memoirs – very different in style and tone – but both beautifully written. Chung and Devan Harness are skilled writers and that shows in the way they craft their narrative.

Both Devan Harness and Chung write about their birth family searches, and the ups and downs of what they discover. For many adoptees, the “reunion” is a Pandora’s box; for every question that is answered, three more come up. I’ve seen this with numerous adoptee friends of mine over the past 20 years. For better or worse, the break-up of the first family leads to chasms that often can’t ever fully be repaired.

allyoucaneverknow-final-1519426444.jpgBoth of these memoirs provide intricate and detailed descriptions of the complicated, but beautiful and touching, relationships that were built with siblings. It makes so much sense to me that the exploration of the often asked, “what if?” isn’t always fully answered and instead, could lead to tensions of who gets to say what “better off” means.  I don’t believe in predetermination myself. It’s not that if we had stayed in our birth families that we would have had the same experiences as our siblings; also we cannot say that if our siblings had switched places with us that their lives would have had the same outcomes as ours. There are so many random incidents, events and experiences that happen in each of our lives that any one thing can change our trajectories.

I have been searching for information about my Korean family for almost 20 years now. A dear friend of mine recently found her Korean family through a genetic testing site and it has brought back all of my feelings about searching again. I’m planning to be in Korea next summer and one of the decisions I’ll need to make between now and then is if I reboot my search. At this point, I’m not sure – but reading these books has given me a lot of things to think about.

The last thing I want to mention is how well both Chung and Devan Harness describe the experiences of being raised as a child of color in a predominantly white family and community. Their stories reinforce my belief that children of color KNOW – from a very early age – when people treat them differently because of their race, and they also know from a very early age whether their adoptive parents are going to be safe people to share their feelings and experiences of racism and discrimination. I will strongly push back on any white adoptive parent who swears their transracially adopted child doesn’t feel this deep in their bones. If your child doesn’t tell you about these experiences of being a transracial adoptee it’s not because they don’t have thoughts. They have decided, maybe unconsciously, that it’s not safe to talk to you or think you won’t understand.

If your child is not overhearing you talking to others about racism, racial injustice, prejudice, and discrimination, then how will they know you have the capacity to validate their concerns and feelings? It can be hard, but you must start the conversations. It’s not your child’s job to come to you first.




2 thoughts

  1. Do you have any favourite memoirs? I’m just starting to read a few, I’ve read Jeanette Winterson’s excellent Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal and Jackie Kay’s wonderful Red Dust Road and just recently A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley (from the film Lion), I’m interested to read more, so I like the look of your shelf and just wondered if there were any stand out reads for you?

    1. Hi Claire, I don’t really have favorites – I think all of them have aspects that inform me. I think overall there are two standouts, Jane Jeong Trenka’s “The Language of Blood” and Julia Scheer’s “Jesus Land” (the first parts) were memorable. You can go to the section on my blog on under For Adoptees > Memoirs for a larger list of recommended memoirs.

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