One of my personal goals this year is to read more books by authors of color, and to that end I’ve committed to reading only fiction by authors of color. I was excited to receive an advanced copy of friend and fellow Korean adoptee writer Matthew Salesses’ new novel, The Hundred Year Flood. I am a big fan of Salesses’ writing. I enjoyed Matthew’s books, I‘m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, Different Racisms, and his essays on the Good Men Project and recently published on The Offing. Matthew is one of the most prolific and productive writers I know! I don’t know how he balances all of his different projects (in addition to his teaching, his PhD candidacy and his family). I read The Hundred Year Flood on a recent weekend trip, mostly on the plane. I seriously paused a couple of pages into the first chapter to just savor and admire the poetry of Matthew’s prose. Matthew’s writing is beautiful. The main character in this novel is 22-year old Thomas, known as Tee, a Korean adoptee. The novel is set in both present time where Tee recovers in the hospital, and in flashbacks set in Prague where Tee has been spending the past year in search of himself and where Tee receive the injury that leads to the current hospital stay. There are now many memoirs written by Korean adoptees but I’ve been frustrated and disappointed with the limited portrayals of Korean adoptees in fiction over the years, particularly by non-adopted Asian American writers like in these novels. I think I’m always wary about how Korean Adoptees are presented in fiction because they often feel very stereotyped to me, and so focused on the adoption part that it seems there is nothing else to them. I feel strongly that adoptees are so much more than their adoptee identity and yet it has not been easy to find representation in either film or on the page that adequately gives us nuance and complexity. So I was appreciative that while adoption does play part of Tee’s journey, it is not all of it; finally we get to read a story about a person whose adoption status is one aspect of their identity and their story, not the sum game. I won’t say much more about the plot of the story in hopes you will get the book for yourself and read it. I will say that much of Salesses’ writing is just my cup of tea (sorry, couldn’t help it!) all the way around. I liked the splashes of magical realism and the unique and powerful imagery in the writing and was sad when I finished reading, wanting more of Tee’s story. Which is always a good thing, to end wanting more. The Hundred Year Flood will be available in August.
Memoirs are tricky business. I have known for a long time that I would never attempt to write a memoir because they are so difficult. They must draw the reader in, excite without being overly melodramatic and yet be approachable so the reader can relate and empathize. Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation by Soojung Jo, meets these criteria in both ways.
I first came upon Soojung Jo’s writing when she was blogging at Faith and Illusions. I’m not quite sure how I stumbled upon her blog, but I recall being interested in her take as both a Korean adoptee and as an adoptive parent. I was disappointed when she stopped blogging, but found her through other social media sites and remember when she reunited with her Korean family. Ghost of Sangju details her reunion but for me, it is her description of her childhood with her adoptive family that was most engaging and relatable.
The book begins with a prologue describing the horrific events that led to her birth and relinquishment and segues into how Soojung/Raina is found by her omma, her birth mother. The remainder of the book intersperses segments of omma’s letters to Soojung with narratives of her childhood, time in the military, and being a mom. As you get to know Soojung, little by little, you also get to know her omma. Like many Korean adoptees who were adopted to rural white communities in the U.S., navigating life as a perpetual outsider, even within a family’s enveloping love, was difficult. A few sections stand out in particular. Soojung describes her adoptive mother, in particular, with such tenderness that as a reader, I could feel that maternal love emanate from the page. As a mother, I also appreciated the way Soojung describes her pregnancy and new parenting as an adoptee.
Although I have not reunited with my Korean family, I have had many friends who have, so Soonjung’s descriptions of her reunion – while unique to her family – were strikingly similar to other narratives of reunions heard firsthand or read from intercountry adoptees. That Soojung’s descriptions in this book of feeling like an outsider, of compartmentalizing her emotions, of being overwhelmed with a birth family’s desire to make up for lost time, and dealing with hurt adoptive parents are similar to many Korean adoptees’ narratives speaks to how adoption practices have largely discounted and minimized the emotional tolls that relinquishment and adoption place on everyone involved.
In the prologue, Soojung writes, “Omma has had many years to live with her ghosts…she has tasted every flavor of loss, but she never swallowed bitterness. The only reason I know about her story – our story – is because she never sowed those seeds of hate and despair.” Soojung Jo’s omma has indeed had many years of living with her ghosts, as I imagine many birth mothers, birth fathers, and extended birth relatives do; and we cannot forget that adoptees also live with these ghosts whether or not we know them. From outward appearances, Soojung is a “successful” adoptee judged by her strong leadership and business skills, distinguished military service, loving parenting and even adopting herself – yet even all these accomplishments cannot erase the losses that are inherent in adoption. An important lesson is gained through reading this memoir: that grief and loss must be acknowledged, and secrets brought to light.
Ghost of Sangju is a valuable contribution to the adoptee-memoir canon, and I recommend that adoption professionals and prospective adoptive parents in particular read this book. It might be difficult to read and tempting to discount Soojung and her omma’s story as only one story; it is one story, but it resonates because it is, in fact, many of our stories. It is time that these narratives are honored and validated, so that birth families and adoptees do not have to exist, as Soojung writes, as “a spirit suspended between two worlds and two families, to be forever in between.”
Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation will be available soon through Gazillion Strong. For more information, click here.
Happy New Years to everyone!
Here in the upper Midwest we are experiencing the Coldpocalypse. -21 degrees as I type, with -40 windchills throughout much of my state. I am feeling incredibly fortunate to have a warm house with heat, food in my fridge and an employer who told me to work from home today.
I am also fortunate to have friends and fellow adoptee professionals such as Deborah Jiang Stein, author of two incredible books (Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus and the upcoming Prison Baby) with whom I can have invigorating conversations.
Deborah invited me to have one such conversation about adoption themes in literature. Please read it at her blog here.
While I don't believe in making "resolutions" I DO hope that 2014 sees more blogging here. I really miss it. And despite what is likely my most busy semester in the last decade coming up here, there are a lot of exciting things happening in my world that I hope to have time to share.
So Happy New Years to all!
Another repost from my other blog that was written during my hiatus.
Originally written March 25, 2011.
When you are part of a small and specific population, you tend to be hyper-aware of representations of "your group." So when I heard about Mia Tuan and Jiannbin Lee Shiao's book, Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race: Korean Adoptees in America, I immediately put out a query to my Korean American friends to see if anyone had heard of the authors or this book.
Since 2006, I have been keeping track of the "call for participants" for research on Korean adoptees that I've come across through different venues (most often list-serves and organization newsletters). Since I've started counting, there have been 23 calls specifically involving Korean adoptees and another five for transracial adoptees (ETA: that have put out widespread calls for participants- there have been several others I have been aware of that did not advertise or use the internet to find their sample).
Of those, 11 studies specifically involved looking at racial identity; 9 studies sought to understand the Korean adoptee "experience" and 4 were what I call "well-being" or "adjustment" studies. While I get that racial identity is a huge part of understanding the transracial/international/Korean-adoptee experience, I'm waiting for research that stops pathologizing us and am hopeful that more research like Eleana Kim's work will come out that centers the adoptee as the agent of change and action, not merely a passive subject of study.
There are many aspects of the Korean adoptee experience that are not being studied or researched. I swing between feeling that "my community" is saturated with research while at the same time acknowledging that there is so much more to be learned and understood.
Tuan and Shiao seek to understand how and in what ways Korean Americans identify themselves and how their identity/identities "are chosen, discarded, or revised over time (p.12). So here are my thoughts about this book and how I, as the "subject" (not literally, I was not a participant in this study, but I am part of the population being studied) view the discussion.
I'm always pleased when I read articles/studies that focus on the adult adopted person's experience (although once again, our voices are mediated through outsiders so some aspects of their analysis will be limited). Because so much of adoption as a practice is focused on the adoption of a child, people tend to think of adoption as an event. But as others have stated, adoption isn't a single-time event (that would be the finalization of an adoption) – adoption is something that affects adopted persons, birth parents and adoptive parents throughout all of their lives. Traditional studies look at outcomes for children, often fairly soon after placement although there have been some notable exceptions, and rarely has there been the opportunity for longitudinal studies which could follow a cohort of adoptees for a long period of time – especially adulthood.
I bring this up because we're so focused on making sure the immediate benefits of adoption are studied that we haven't thoughtfully delved as much into how an adopted person makes sense of their adoption experiences in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. Other than Brodzinsky and his colleagues, not much research has been conducted on the whole life experiences of adopted persons. An experienced adoptive mom (I call adoptive parents whose children are now adults "experienced") I know shared with me that she often tells newbie adoptive parents that the majority of their lifelong relationship with their child will be as adults and that pre- or new adoptive parents are often taken aback at this statement.
One of the aspects of the study I was disappointed in was the sample. The authors describe that due to their proximity to the Holt adoption agency, they chose to solicit their sample from families that had adopted through Holt (the authors do acknowledge the limitations of their sample and recruitment, which I appreciated).
In addition to the ease of securing participants for the interviews, having access to Holt enabled the researchers to have case files. I was bothered by this for a few reasons. First, it was never clear to me why the researchers needed the case files and how information they gleaned from the files added to their research.
Second, without understanding why and in what ways information from the case file was considered important for the study adds another layer of concern from the point of view from an adopted person who is unable legally to have access to my adoption files. It is disconcerting to know that someone else, through permission of my adoption agency, can have access to that information without my consent.
[ETA 4/19/11: I received an email from Dr. Shaio, informing me that he and Dr. Tuan did not look at case files. In the book (p. 15) they wrote that Holt "provided access to its placement records" and I incorrectly interpreted that to mean case files. I am happy to stand corrected and to know that case files were not accessed for their study.]
As a researcher myself, this is something that I have struggled with. I have participated in research in which I have access to case files that the subject of the files are not allowed to see for themselves. I hope other researchers understand just how privileged they are to have access to such personal information that as the client, I/we can never have. I'm not saying this is necessarily wrong in principle – but I am saying it is an ethical issue that researchers MUST think about. It's not the same thing as having one's medical records or case files used for research because when I go to the doctor I sign a form that gives consent for my records to be used in research. As an adopted person (or as a fostered alum would be) I am not given permission to withdraw my consent. I don't even get asked. Researchers go through the agency or the adoptive parent, not the adopted person.
The other thing I was sensitive to was that the researchers chose to contact the adult adoptees through their families. They sent out letters to adoptive parents, asking them to forward them on to the adoptee. This could only work if the adoptive parent and their adopted child were in contact and/or on speaking terms; and because not all adoptees ARE in contact with their adoptive parents (including some I know of personally who were adopted from Holt) this has the potential to skew the sample because it is dependent on the adoptive parent. Perhaps sending a call for participants through other means in addition to the adoptive parents that still have ties with Holt would have generated a sample that provided a more diverse voice. And once again, it is looking at the adoptee through the lens of the family (adoptive parents), even though the authors were quite clear it was the adult adoptees' voices they were seeking to understand. From my view, it appeared as though the authors chose not to engage with, or were unaware of, adult adoptee organizations who might have been able to help in soliciting participants.
Despite these concerns, overall I was pleased with much of the book. I especially appreciated that the authors problematized the adoptive parents' "colorblind" mentality about adopting a child of color – if that color were "yellow" and not "black." I really liked that the authors expanded David Kirk's theory of "shared fate" to analyze how adoptiveparents accept/reject racial difference in addition to adoption.
While the stories and words of the adopted Koreans that participated in this study rang familiar in terms of their descriptions of childhood experiences, their more recent discussions pertaining to race, culture, and constructing identity did not fully match the spectrum of adoptees. There was very little discussion of the networking (social and otherwise) of Korean adoptees around the world, which was interesting to me in light of the fact that Holt was the first to do adoptee camps and also have been big in organizing yearly "Motherland" tours. There was one mention of the Gatherings (1999, but not the 2004, 2007 ones), no mention of adoptee list-serves and blogs which have been around since the 1990s, and very little mention of books written by Korean adoptees (including memoirs, anthologies and scholarly work).
In the end I gave this book 3 1/2 stars out of 5. I think that the audience for this book is actually adoptive parents. There would be much for adoptive parents to learn, especially if they are not familiar with the concept of "shared fate" and I think the adoptee voices do, to a large part, mirror much of what I have heard from adult adoptees over the past 12 years I have been involved with the Korean adoptee community.
This is another re-post from my other blog that was written while on hiatus from this blog. People sometimes have asked me about adoption-themed books for children and young readers. Honestly I think most are terrible. I agree with my friend and scholar of children's literature, Sarah Park Dahlen, that most of these children's books on adoption were written more to satisfy and soothe adoptive parents than adoptees themselves. That said, this was my review of the book, Betti on the Highwire, which is one of the few I can recommend. For more of my book suggestions, please see my recommended reading page here.
Originally posted May 11, 2011.
This afternoon, a children's novel I ordered online arrived in my mailbox and a few short hours later I had devoured the book. Betti on the High Wire is the story of a young girl, Babo, living in an unnamed country devastated by war. Babo finds herself unexpectedly adopted by Americans (or "melons" as Babo refers to them because of their round, pink faces) and soon she is living in an unnamed town in the U.S. with a new name, new sister, new parents – and she vows to never "adapt" or forget where she came from.
Author Lisa Railsback was inspired to write the story from her work volunteering in a refugee camp. As a Korean adoptee, I am often skeptical about how international adoption is portrayed in novels, particularly the feelings and thoughts of the internationally adopted child themselves. Often I find children's books about international adoption to be largely about making adoptive parents feel better as much as they may be outwardly intended to reassure the internationally adopted child. Babo/Betti is a complex child and I found Railsback's conception of what Babo/Betti thinks and feels about her experience being adopted by Americans, and having to leave everything she has known and loved in her country – especially her chosen family there – to be the most realistic and complex portrayal that I have read.
Adoption books for children being what they are – that is typically all nicely resolved in the end, this book doesn't exactly challenge the dominant narrative about adoption. The unnamed country is, after all, portrayed in pretty stark terms, providing exactly the American-style justification for taking Babo away. Babo and the other children of course must be dirty, mostly illiterate, scavenging for food, etc., yet remain likable (i.e. not prone towards Reactive Attachment Disorder). And while Railsback does critique the consumerist, materialist and consumptive patterns of Americans to some extent, as well as portray how mean white American children can be towards children who are different, it is unlikely that a real internationally adopted child of this age would adapt as quickly as Betti does in the book. While the choice to make Babo able to speak some English helps the reader, it is pretty unrealistic in my opinion and serves more as a device to move the character through the story plot more quickly than it is realistic for most older, internationally adopted children (such as the little girl adopted in the movie Wo Ai Ni Mommy, who would have been close to Babo's age in the story).
Even so, I recommend this book for its most nuanced portrayal of an internationally adopted child's inner thoughts and feelings that I've read so far. If I were an adoption agency, I would require all prospective adoptive parents to read this book before any child adopted internationally was placed in their home.
A few years ago I stumbled across a call for submissions for a special issue for Demeter Press for essays about mothering and adoption. I was quickly disappointed, however, because in typical fashion the editors were only looking at how adoption impacts the birth/first mother and the adoptive mother. Nowhere in the call for submissions was there any acknowledgement that adoptees themselves may be mothers and that adoption deeply impacts adoptee's mothering. This is frustrating because Demeter Press is a feminist publisher that specializes in motherhood and alternative paradigms of motherhood. If Demeter Press doesn't even have the insight into how adoptees mother (and we haven't even discussed fathers yet) then it highlights that adoptees are further marginalized and considered perpetual children who never grow up. The finished issue of Adoption and Mothering is here.
At the time I had several conversations with adoptees that were also mothers and we often talked about how much being adopted impacted our parenting. This became more salient in the past five years because so many of my adoptee friends have become parents recently. My children are now in high school and college, so my new-parent friends were asking me questions such as "is it normal to burst into tears for weeks after my baby turned 6 months old, because that was the age I was when I was adopted? Or, "I was so worried I wouldn't be able to attach to my baby." Or, "I am so hypervigilant that I am constantly scared that something is going to happen to my baby." Or, "Is it normal to feel upset because my baby looks more like my partner than me? I have waited my whole life to have someone in my life who looked like me and I thought for sure my child would."
I talked to a few of my adoptee writer friends and I said, "why aren't we writing our own book?"
Well, apparently I wasn't the only one who had that idea. As with many of my intended projects that fell to the wayside when I began graduate school in 2008, I never got around to it. Fortunately, Kevin Vollmers and Adam Chau did – and they even asked me to be a part of it. The result is Parenting As Adoptees, a lovely book with 14 essays about being an adoptee and being a parent. With a beautiful cover by adoptee Kelly Brownlee, this book delves into the difficult terrain that can affect how one's adoption impacts one's parenting.
My chapter focuses on the challenges of raising my children to have a strong racial and ethnic identity, to embrace the diversity of the human condition and to be social justice focused when I had no role models in my own life for how to parent in this way. Other chapters discuss loss, grief, attachment, the meaning of biological connections, adopting as an adoptee (several authors have also adopted), seeing yourself mirrored in your children and much more.
This book was written to provide a meaningful resource for adoptees – both mothers and fathers - who find themselves thinking about how their own adoption may impact how they think, feel and perform parenting. But I truly hope that this book has a larger audience than just the adult adoptee population.
I hope that adoptive parents, social workers, therapists and counselors and partners of adoptees also read this book. There is a lot to learn from the experiences of adoptees.
From the book description:
Through fourteen chapters, the authors of Parenting As Adoptees give readers a glimpse into a pivotal phase in life that touches the experiences of many domestic and international adoptees – that of parenting. The authors, who are all adoptees from various walks of life, intertwine their personal narratives and professional experiences, and the results of their efforts are insightful, emotive, and powerful. As Melanie Chung-Sherman, LCSW, LCPAA, PLLC, notes: “Rarely has the experience of parenting as an adopted person been laid to bare so candidly and vividly. The authors provide a provocative, touching and, at times visceral and unyielding, invitation into their lives as they unearth and piece together the magnitude of parenting when it is interwoven with their adoption narrative. It is a prolific piece that encapsulates the rawness that adoption can bring from unknown histories, abandonment, grief, and identity reconciliation which ultimately reveals the power of resiliency and self-determination as a universal hallmark in parenting.” Moreover, despite its topical focus, the book will interest individuals within and outside of the adoption community who are not parents. “Parenting As Adoptees,” writes Dr. Indigo Willing, “contributes and sits strongly alongside books by non-adoptees that look at issues to do with ‘the family’, race, ethnicity and migration. As such, this book should appeal to a broad audience interested in these various fields of inquiry.” Authors in the anthology include: Bert Ballard, Susan Branco Alvarado, Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter, Lorial Crowder, Shannon Gibney, Astrid Dabbeni, Mark Hagland, Hei Kyong Kim, JaeRan Kim, Jennifer Lauck, Mary Mason, Robert O’Connor, John Raible, and Sandy White Hawk. Edited By Adam Chau and Kevin Ost-Vollmers
You can read more reviews on the Parenting As Adoptees blog.
To order the book for Amazon Kindle click here.
To order the book for Barnes & Noble Nook click here.
To order a hard-bound paperback of the book through Amazon Create Space click here.
The collaborators of HERE: A Visual History of Adopted Koreans in Minnesota will be presenting for a fundraiser at Children's Home Society and Family Services on June 22nd. 100% of the proceeds will go to support Russian orphans who will not be adopted. From CHSFS website:
to host the creative team behind the book, HERE: A Visual History of
Adopted Koreans in Minnesota.
Time: 7:00-8:30 pm
Location: CHSFS, 1605 Eustis Street, St. Paul, MN
community at Children’s Home Society & Family Services as the
agency hosts Kim Jackson, Heewon Lee, JaeRan Kim, and Kim Park Nelson,
the creative team behind the outstanding photography/oral history book HERE: A Visual History of Adopted Koreans In Minnesota. Attendees
will have a rare opportunity to hear from all members of the creative
team about: the process that went behind creating the book; what
projects, partnerships, and promotional activities are currently
underway surrounding the book; and thoughts about a future book
series. Refreshments will be provided.
age of 18. At the authors' request, all proceeds will go to the
Orphanage Assistance Endowment, which help support efforts that offer
orphaned children in Russia with a number of resources, from basic
needs to educational programs.
capita, of adopted Koreans in the world. Many of the 13,000 of us have
grown up isolated and have experienced little racial tolerance in the
urban, suburban and rural areas in which we were raised. Adoption is
often fraught with psychological and emotional tensions, and being
people of color raised in a racially Caucasian environment adds another
layer of complexity. We recognize an urgent need for us to see
ourselves represented, acknowledged, and celebrated. We are each
other’s touchstones, genetically and culturally. We are a living,
breathing part of Minnesota history. We are HERE.
starting in 2004, and through several generous donations and two more
collaborators, JaeRan Kim and Kim Park Nelson, during the evolution and
final publishing of the book project in March 2010, Kim Jackson and
Heewon Lee embarked on making their dream—a photographic portrait book
of Korean adoptees living in Minnesota—a first-of-its-kind book for its
community. This book also includes the Korean adoption history in
Minnesota and oral histories of selected participants.
and grew up in Northeast Minneapolis. She has traveled to Korea eight
times and began photo documenting her travels in 1998. She has worked
in the publication field for over 16 years and owns her own graphic
design business Dalros Design. She currently works full time as an art
director for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. She lives in Minneapolis with her
husband, two children, and one Beta fish.
immigrated to the U.S. in 1975. She has been a graphic designer for
over ten years. Heewon has also played taiko in the Twin Cities'
performing group Mu Daiko. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband,
son and two lazy cats.
teacher, and writer. She is currently a doctoral student focusing on
child welfare and adoption. She was born in 1968 somewhere around
Daegu, South Korea, and was adopted to Minnesota in 1971. She lives
with her partner and two children in Minneapolis.
Korean adoption, Asian American Studies, American race relations, and
American Studies. Between 2003 and 2006, she collected 73 oral
histories from Korean adoptees in the United States and around the
world. She also developed and taught the first college course on Korean
adoption in the United States. Her Ph.D. dissertation at the University
of Minnesota American Studies department is titled Korean Looks,
American Eyes: Korean American Adoptees, Race, Culture and Nation. This
research explores the many identities of adult Korean adoptees, as well
as the cultural, social, historical, and political significance of over
50 years of Korean adoption to the United States. She is currently an
assistant professor of American Multicultural Studies at Minnesota
State University at Moorhead.
I just came across a bunch of adoption-related books yesterday, one is "Blue Ribbon Babies and Labors of Love" by Christine Ward Gailey, which I'd never heard anything about! So I picked it up from the library yesterday afternoon (love having access to the university library system) and am looking forward to starting it this afternoon.
I also added/deleted some blogs in my blog roll and am working on updating my book/resource list too.
Hope everyone enjoyed the long holiday weekend break (those in the U.S. anyway). I know I'm looking forward to the summer!
I survived! I made it through a grueling year of coursework. One more class left and a lot of studying this summer for my exams next fall, but in the meantime, I hope to have time to catch up on some of the reading I have been collecting since last fall.
In addition to many articles and a few dissertations (by some awesome TRA scholars!!) I have this stack of reading I collected over the past year that I'm anxious to dig into:
If you are in the Twin Cities area this weekend, you are invited to the book launch of HERE: A Visual History of Adopted Koreans in Minnesota at Intermedia Arts. and sponsored by the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans. Correction: The date is April 17, not April 15, 2010.
The book is available at Yeong & Yeong and of course, there will be copies at the book launch.