Famous Adopted People — the book!

39010828. sy475
Cover of the novel FAMOUS ADOPTED PEOPLE by Alice Stephens

FAMOUS ADOPTED PEOPLE by Alice Stephens (@AliceKSStephens) kept my attention riveted from start to finish, like a roller coaster ride through a kaleidoscope. It’s a book that switches gears a lot, and the author manages the transitions very well, partly because the novel is told through the perspective of a single protagonist who has a distinct voice. Lisa, a multiracial international adoptee from Korea who grew up with white adoptive parents in America, is a hard-drinking, work-shirking young woman whose close friendship with Mindy, another international adoptee, blows up when the two young women are traveling in Asia. What starts out as a story about friendship and identity becomes a crime mystery/political thriller/cultural criticism story with a little magic realism and a good bit of humor thrown in.

This was a very satisfying read for me. It kept me up at night and it kept me thinking. The whiplash ways of this novel seemed to me to be a meta-metaphor for the situation of transracial and international adoptees whose lives, like all adoptees’ lives, begin with the emotional whiplash of family separation and are further complicated by the cultural whiplash of being raised by a family that is obviously not their family of origin.

I love reading stories about adoption — fiction or nonfiction — because I was separated from my family by adoption as an infant, and I need stories that represent my experience. As a domestic adoptee, there are significant differences between my experiences and those of Lisa, the novel’s main character, but I still identified strongly with her questions about her own identity and her sense of alienation.

If you’re looking for a riveting read to take your mind off of COVID-19, I highly recommend this novel. And if you’re looking for insight on the adoptee experience, I highly recommend it for that reason, too. More great reads by adoptees or recommended by adoptees can be found at Karen Pickell’s wonderful Adoptee Reading website.

Marriage Fragments

Two purple plums hanging from a tree limb.                                Image by andreas N from Pixabay

My brain, like everyone’s, has its ruts. One of the mostly deeply ingrained of these is iambic pentameter: da-DUM da-DUM da- DUM da-DUM da-DUM.  Free verse (poetry without meter or a given form) doesn’t come very naturally to me.

Habits aren’t bad, but experimenting with new patterns is, IMHO, good for the brain. To break out of my habitual poetry patterns, I sometimes mimic other poems to start one of these experiments.

When I read the very fine “Portrait of Reality in Fragments” by George Alexander, I was entranced with the pattern he used and also with the conversation in his poem between the self and a younger version of the self.  I was eager to try writing a fragment poem with bits of memory juxtaposed, and the result is “Marriage Fragments.”

Originally published by the remarkable journal The Sunlight Press. The editors publish poetry, fiction, essays, and visual art. If you’re an artist or writer looking for a place to publish your work, I recommend them.

The Sunlight Press

Marriage Fragments

I wanted to love him
like my fifteen-year-old self:
lips unsplit, nose unbroken,
face without a mark
on it, my tongue tasting
of plums.

*

Seneca thought luck happened
when preparation met opportunity.
I’d like to think it was the plums’ sweetness
that prepared me
to taste the bitterness,
the differences.

*

In this marriage, my mother’s skin was,
assuredly, my own:
craving, drenched with knowing
touch and never enough touch
and never enough.

*

Rivers froze where I grew up,
and spring shattered them.
He liked to say
he un-bitched me.
Maybe so, or maybe fish
leapt from the river as sleet.

*

His father took him fishing
on Ozark rivers under
yellow honeysuckle. I wouldn’t
recognize those rivers, only
his hands, circling
a canoe paddle and his sex.

*

He asked me to marry him
the first time we had sex,
asked so easily, as if it was
his habit. I waited
him out. My river, his spring,
my differences.

***

 

Writing About Our Dead

Fireplace-hand with shell fragments
An open palm holding tiny shells and shards

It’s an honor to hold the ashes of our dead.

Some of my brother James’ ashes are in a box on the top of a bookcase in my house. The ashes of a full-grown human being are heavy, enough to fill a half-gallon jug.

His daughters and I released some of his ashes on the beach at Tybee Island two months after his death, on a cold day when the wind was sweeping up sand. His ashes mingled with the sand and the salt wind.

We have vague plans for the ashes in the box, maybe to take them to the mountains he loved and scatter some there. I’ve already scattered some in my garden. James, like me, had an affinity for the plant world.

This poem was originally published in Atticus Review , along with the image above.

Atticus Review
Fireplace

Bananas love ashes in summer.
Time to spread some in the yard.
The fireplace grate is empty.                                                                                          

It’s easy to put things off. Even fire.
No one was diligent like my brother,
who sifted broken shells for hours

looking for shark’s teeth. Once, he held
his hand out with a shattered sand dollar
to show me little bones inside.

His other hand flew up and fluttered—
he said the bones were white doves, the peace
that passes understanding. He believed

in omens and Jesus and that one thing
could also be another. Time to feed
plants? At the first thunderclap.

The grate is empty, the urn is full.
His ashes scatter under the banana trees.
Rain dissolves fine particles, but not
the shards that passed on through.

Writing About Worry

worried

I’m not prone to anxiety. Maybe it was all that LSD I took in middle school. I’ve heard it’s helpful for similar issues.

But I do worry about the young people in my family.  I love them so much, and so many of them face obstacles that seem insurmountable.

Here are two poems about those worries that were originally published in the Winter/Spring 2020 edition of Wordpeace

For audio versions of the two poems, click below.

Michele Sharpe

Michelle Sharpe poem for WP word-page-0

 

Michelle sharpe poem 2 for WP

 

Writing About Shame

grey and brown fox on open field near herd of deer
Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

I’ve denied shame exists, but that’s wrong. And one thing that makes me feel deeply ashamed is being wrong. Just imagine how I felt when at 21, I found out I was adopted! I’d been wrong about quite a few things.

Here’s a poem that touches on the experience of shame, published in February, 2020 by the wonderfully daily poetry journal SWWIM.  It’s an honor to be included in their river of poems.

For Sure

Books for Giving & Forgiving

adult blur books close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Have you been reading more during the COVID pandemic? Or thinking about reading more? Here’s five quick reviews of some favorites among the books I read in 2019. Looking back, “Books For-giving” makes sense since all of these books have some element of forgiveness to them, whether it’s forgiveness of another person, a culture, or oneself.

Many years ago, Gloria Steinem published Revolution from Within, which was my first introduction to the idea of holding your previous selves with love and forgiveness. It’s easy to judge our own trespasses more harshly than we judge others’ behavior. Steinem (as I recall) recommended visualizing your “old” self  as a fallible human being and forgiving any wrong-doing or wrong-thinking.

But that’s a book I read thirty years ago. Here’s what occupied my mind in 2019:

25241883The book that wowed me the most in 2019 was Kia Cothron’s novel, THE CASTLE CROSS THE MAGNET CARTER. That’s not a typo, but I’ve wondered if this weird title has something to do with the sad fact that this book didn’t win every single major literary award the year it was published. Or maybe it was the length. If you’re someone who isn’t scared of long books with even longer threads of moral complexities, this is for you.

As others have noted, Kia Cothron’s book is a masterpiece. Brilliant language and dialogue, unforgettable characters, and a complex narrative arc all inform this magnificent historical novel. The last hundred pages broke me open like I was a pomegranate, all ruby red and full of seeds.

 

 

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. KendiIt’s barely three years since publication of STAMPED FROM THE BEGINNING, Ibram X. Kendi’s comprehensive history of racist ideas and policies. Since then, Dr. Kendi has taken a position at American University as director of the new Anti-Racist Research and Policy center, and he’s written this brilliant new book, HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST.

Interweaving the history of his own changing ideas about race from childhood to the present with the intellectual history of social and political theory and policies concerning race during the same time period, this book is a must read for everyone interested in healing the wounds of racism in our country.

Dr. Kendi’s logic is concise, beautiful, and convincing for me — and even, I think, for people who are not as ga-ga over syllogisms as I am. I listened to the audiobook (read by Dr. Kendi) and then bought the print version to re-read and use as a reference.

Longbourn

Somehow, even as a lifelong fan of British women novelists, I’d never read anything by Jo Baker until this year. It’s especially surprising that I never picked up Longbourn, her riff on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of my childhood/young adult faves.

Baker has the particular storytelling gift of exposing cultural lapses in logic and compassion, and similar lapses in individual readers. In other words, she sets you up like a bowling pin for your own personal epiphany.

Longbourne  parallels the plot of Pride and Prejudice by prefacing each of its chapter with a quote from P & P. These function as a sort of shorthand for the where and when of the main characters of Longbourn: Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, Mr. Hill, the butler, Sarah, the ladies’ maid, and Polly, the char. The acts and concerns of the gentry, however, are as the acts of insects — utterly insignificant, except when they happen to sting. And sting they do, in surprising, devastating ways, often with less consciousness of cause and effect than an insect.

The focus is on the hearts and minds of the people employed by the Bennett family. It is their secrets, their desires, their thoughts, and their concerns that move the novel forward. In the precarious and changing economy of early 18th century England, these characters are as concerned with stability and security as the Bennett daughters, and they make a host of distinct sacrifices to stay afloat. This is a page-turner with a deeply embedded treatise on class division.

 

Good Talk: A Memoir in ConversationsRead this one nearly nonstop, and it is the book I wanted to give everyone in my gift list! I picked it up because I thought there might be some scripts or pointers I could use to talk with conservative family members about politics and race. I either got that idea from a review or from my misinterpretation of a review. This book has no easy answers about that.

The story is expertly braided around “uncomfortable “ questions Mira Jacobs’ young son asks her, beginning when he becomes obsessed with Michael Jackson. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.

I was amazed not only at how much the illustrations (is that the right word?) added to my enjoyment of the book. Jacob reproduces the same image of each character over and over again, yet each drawing seems to change expression to match new text. How did she do that??? Miraculous!

40956710. sy475

OMG, I haven’t read so many books by men in one year since I was a kid on a Dostoevsky binge. That’s because so many books by men have irritated me to the point of rage. Men, y’all are leveling up.

I’ve been consumed by issues of race this year as many people have been. Ruffin’s very original take on one possible future of race-based policies and race relations is scary, even (or especially?) for me, the old 97% white lady. I had a hard time getting past the narrator’s hinky voice, but believe me, it’s crucial to the story line.

 

 

 

I’m always looking for my next book, so if you have any recommendations, please post a comment!

My #BlackHistoryMonth Reading List

I tweeted out a list of favorite African American writers this month, which included a few writers I NEED TO READ. February has an extra day this year, but it’s not nearly long enough for this project or to honor #BlackHistory.

The image below contains the first couple of tweets. I’ll post more, but you can also go to my Twitter page for the full list. https://twitter.com/MicheleJSharpe

Unfortunately, the links in the tweets are not live because the image is a jpeg. : (

The image, though, is linked to my twitter page and you can find the links there. Octavia Butler’s affirmation journal entry is just too cool.

BHS list 1

Writing about Family for NYT

Last Friday, the New York Times published a short essay I wrote about meeting up with my brother James in Boston. As mentioned in the piece, I was our mother’s first child, born when she was fifteen years old, and whisked away in a secret adoption.

I’d only known James for about ten years at the time we met up in Boston, having reunited with my mother’s family when I was 34 years old. She had died the previous year, which left a hole in my heart that the wind still blows through. But I’ve been incredibly blessed to have had five brothers, a sister, and many nieces, nephews, cousins, two aunts and an uncle, all kind and loving people. Because of who they are, they’ve always been very supportive of my writing, too.

I’m so grateful to them, to NYT Editor Roberta Zeff, and to all the kind people who’ve taken the time to post comments on the piece.

One Drop

For #NAAM2019, I’m rewinding a piece from 2017 on finding ethnicity (more than once) as an adoptee. Originally published in Argot at https://www.argotmagazine.com/first-person-and-perspectives/one-drop

One Drop

 

Publish D   [Image description: a close-up microscope image of blood platelets.]
Image description: a microscopic closeup of blood platelets
I used to be Italian and Jewish, the product of what was called a “mixed marriage” in the mid-twentieth century. Although that made me different in a bad way from other kids, the good news was all religious holidays were mine to exploit. Good Friday and Yom Kippur, Ash Wednesday and Rosh Hashanah, all of them freed me from school. I could be religious at will.
At twenty-one, I turned into Nothing. A cousin told me I was adopted, and no information was available about where I came from. I became the question mark, the blank page, the space between these words. A bit of a nihilist at that point, I found living in uncertainties felt liberating.

When the State of Florida, where I was born, sent me the non-identifying information allowed by law, I turned into the daughter of a fifteen-year old girl who was Irish and Native American.

Few people know the whole story of their lineage; for adopted people, answers about ethnicity can zigzag wildly. Occasionally, a casual acquaintance has asked me, “What are you?” as if they’ve observed my perma-tan with suspicion. My answers to that question have changed depending on what I thought I knew at the time. But I was raised white, and I’ve passed as white all my life. Aside from a gang of Irish neighbor kids beating me up while yelling “dirty Jew” when I was eight years old, white privilege has protected me from racist violence all my life.

At thirty-four years old, I reunited with my blood family thanks to a private investigator. Except for one aunt, no one knew I’d even existed. But my family recognized me because I looked so much like my mother, who’d died the previous year.

I was a surprise, a long-lost sister for my six siblings. ­­ I also gained two aunts, an uncle, a dozen nieces and nephews, and eight first cousins on my mother’s side. No one knew who my father might have been. They did know, however, that my mother’s father was not the man named on her birth certificate – her real father was a Jewish man that my grandmother worked for. So then I turned into an Irish, Native, and Jewish woman.

My new relatives were very open about stories many families regard as secrets, and my siblings were puzzled my birth had been hidden. Everyone knew my grandmother had given up two babies before bearing my mother, and everyone knew about the anxiety disorders, addictions, hospitalizations, and incarcerations that plagued our family. At a funeral, one of my mother’s childhood friends revealed I was the third baby my mother had given up for adoption. That meant my mother had been pregnant at least three times by the age of fourteen.

I started thinking I might be a product of incest, maybe a big enough secret to hide. Elton, my mother’s stepfather, had been a violent man according to my aunts and my uncle. My grandmother had divorced him soon after I was born. If Elton was my father, that meant my aunts and my uncle were also my half-siblings.

I spun another paternal theory, too. My mother became pregnant with my sister Belinda just two months after I was born. Maybe, I thought, Belinda’s father was my father, too, and our mother and her husband hadn’t wanted to tell their six other children they’d given an older sister away. If that was what happened, then my half-sister Belinda was my sister on both sides.

Either of these theories worked for me. I loved my new-found family so much, the thought of being even more closely related to them was appealing, even if that meant my mother had suffered. The years went by, and I thought about these theories from time to time, but there didn’t seem to be any way to check them. My adopters were silent, and the laws of Florida, where I was born, still keep adoptees’ original birth certificates secret.

Then in the spring of 2015, my sister Belinda, my aunt Rose, and I all spat in our individual tubes and sent our DNA samples off to 23andMe. When we got the results back in June, they showed Rose was still only my aunt, and Belinda was still only my half-sister. Both of my paternity theories were shot down. I started imagining the happier possibility that my mother, at fourteen, had simply been caught up in a youthful passion.

My family believed we had American Indian blood, and Rose and Belinda’s results both showed a fractional percentage of Native ancestry. My results showed a slightly higher percentage. And, I learned I was 1.2% Sub-Saharan West African. Just a bit over one drop.

One Drop laws, a feature of the systematic American racism of the twentieth century, enforced a binary, either/or definition of race. In states with One Drop laws, people were officially defined as either white or black for purposes of census-taking, voting, employment, and all matters related to segregation. One drop of Sub-Saharan African blood, or one African ancestor, made a person subject to all the racist restrictions imposed against African-Americans. And because there was no room for a third or fourth or fifth designation in that white or black system, the One Drop laws resulted in a paper genocide attack on many Native American tribes.

These laws were in effect when I was born, when ideas about “racial purity” were still in vogue. Were my adopters, with their mixed Catholic and Jewish marriage, allowed by the state of Florida to adopt me only because I, too, was mixed – the bastard child of an Irish-Native-Jewish-African bastard? And now that I know the truth, am I a transracial person?

I hesitated to claim that identity. Cultural appropriation has felt icky to me since the New Age phenomenon took off in the 1970’s. And coincidentally, right before my DNA tests came back, a regional NAACP executive was outed as a white woman in a series of national news stories. The executive’s mother and father came forward to tell the world that their daughter, who’d been posing as African-American for about ten years, was a white woman. At the time, I thought the story a particularly wackadoodle example of cultural appropriation.

Then, soon after my DNA results came back, a scholar and college professor who’d represented herself as Cherokee in her life and her work, someone I’d met, spoken with, and had personally admired, was also outed in the media as white. Questions about her true ethnicity had circled around for years, and it seems she’d tried to develop proof of a Native identity, but hadn’t been able to find even that one precious drop of Indian blood.

People still ask me the “What are you?” question. Today, if I felt like answering, I’d say “Irish, Native American, Jewish, African.” Maybe I’ll start saying “Not quite white.” I like the rhyme.

I feel a sense of pride knowing that some of my ancestors survived American racism, at least for long enough to have children of their own. But I’ve felt uneasy about identifying as African or Native, and can’t help questioning where this uneasiness comes from. Maybe it’s from my belief that identity is so much about experience and emotion.

When people of color experience racism and express rage, anger, frustration, disgust, and fear, I may listen with respect and feel empathy or outrage on their behalf, but the primary emotions do not belong to me because I’m not a target of racism. I can’t pretend those primary emotions are mine, and if I did pretend, I’d be no better than the wannabe-African NAACP executive or the wannabe-Indian professor. I’ve passed as white for good reason – DNA analysis shows I’m 97% white.

But if I hang on to my identity as white, what does that mean? Am I intentionally passing at the expense of others? Am I complicit in silencing the mixed-race truth of the American population? After half a life spent separated by adoption from my family, my culture, and my history, and the other half navigating through a new and complex identity, sometimes I long to once again be Nothing, the space between these words.