Two New Books by Adoptees for Spring 2021

The world, and especially the U.S., needs more #adopteevoices.

The U.S. adoption industry operates now and historically as a money machine rife with corruption, misogyny, oppression, racism, and exploitation. All of these institutional characteristics work to silence adoptees. So when a book by an adoptee gets released, I celebrate!

Cover of Cleave

Cleave is a poetry collection of magnitude and fascination. I started reading it one evening after dinner and stayed up late with it, still reading. As one critic notes, “With breathtaking lyric beauty and formidable formal range, Nobile details the intimate effects of the international adoption industrial complex on children and parents caught up in a system’s unrelenting hunger. This is a book of remarkable compassion and real horror. Its stories will be news to many and all too familiar to others.”

I’m a domestic adoptee, and Tiana Nobile identifies as a Korean American adoptee, so there are important distinctions in our two experiences of adoption, but her stories are “all too familiar” to me.” Most, perhaps all, people who are adopted by strangers experience feelings of loss, alienation, of not fitting in.

Adoption doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The adoptee experience of loss and alienation can be exacerbated in transnational and transracial adoptions in a country like the U.S., where racism and anti-immigrant hate poison communities, families, and individuals. Tiana Nobile’s poems place a personal experience of adoption in that wider community and in a historical continuum. This is a critical book for critical times.

It’s also an aesthetically rich book, full of sensory delight in language and provocative use of many traditional elements of poetry like internal rhyme, organic form, alliteration, and startling imagery.

The poems in Cleave make expert use of a wide variety of intriguing formats. For example, in “Where Are You Really From?” Nobile employs a prose poem format that’s a list of place names in the U.S. that create a mystery narrative — one that illuminates the the empty past of people separated from family, culture, language, and history. A series of poems titled “Abstract” begin with white space, illustrating the absence of knowledge. The famous “monkey love” science experiments that separated newborn monkeys from their mothers is a recurring source of images.

Many of the poems mine science (or pseudo-science) for information on the mother-infant bond and details about fetal and infant development, a technique shared by the writer of the second book discussed here. Nobile’s poem, “Lost First Languages Leave Permanent Mark on The Brain, New Study Reveals,” uses this headline format to to introduce a meditation on what is lost:

How do I translate

the sound of my mother’s

moaning? It’s a soft wail

I hang on the wall

of my windpipe

Published on April 6, 2021, Cleave can be purchased directly from the publisher or wherever books are sold.


* * * * * * * *

Cover of The Guild of the Infant Savior

Megan Culhane Galbraith‘s genre-bending book, The Guild of the Infant Savior also kept me reading late into the night. I finished this 300 page collection of essays and visual art in two sittings. Galbraith’s artwork consists mainly of compositions of dollhouses and dolls from the 1960’s, the era in which she was born and then adopted. The visuals work in conversation with the text, but also with the history of women and motherhood.

The text often relies on poetic devices like juxtaposition and repetition to create meaning without overt explanation. But there are also plenty of insightful and direct observations about the adopted state, like these:

“As an adopted child, I’d felt like a thing to be played with instead of a person with her own identity.”

“Many pro-life groups use the term proadoption, but I am not their poster child.”

“I continually try on identities and feel like an actor in my own personal theater productions of The Good Child or Don’t Ever Leave Me Again or See, I Am Worthy of [insert here: Love, Kindness, Joy, Pleasure].”

Like Tiana Nobile, Galbraith explores historical and scientific beliefs about maternal separation. Her installations of period doll houses and dolls (photographed for inclusion in the book) re-create a “mothercraft” degree program at Cornell University in the 1960’s that used infants from orphanages as “practice babies” for students. Like the creators of the “monkey love” experiments, the architects of the Domecon program demonstrated a callous disregard for the emotional states of their subjects, in this case human babies who were put under the care of a rotating series of undergraduates. These babies were seen as in need of middle class remediation, and were later adopted anonymously. Galbraith herself was not a “Domecon baby,” but she spent her first five months in foster care wearing a mechanical brace to correct a medical condition before being adopted anonymously. The parallels are apparent.

The Guild of the Infant Savior publishes May 21, 2021. Pre-order the book here

Many thanks to the publisher, Mad Creek Books, for providing an advance review copy.

When Families Get Sober

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

One of the happiest parts of aging for me has been seeing many of my nieces and nephews get free from addiction.

Addiction is truly a family disease — not only a genetic predisposition that people can inherit, but also a disease that can thrust a whole family into chaos along with the individual who is actively addicted.

All five of my brothers died young from addiction-related conditions. Those that had children passed addiction on. When the first young person in my family got sober, it had a domino effect. It showed others that being free of drugs and alcohol was possible for people in our family, and that life could be immeasurably better.

Here’s a friend link to a story about addiction and incarceration in my family.

Handbags Have More Legal Protections than Most Women

Display of off-white handbags in what looks like a department store

Last week, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned a man’s rape conviction because the victim, a woman, was voluntarily intoxicated. Minnesota laws (and the laws of 39 other states) do not include voluntary intoxication as a circumstance that can make consent impossible.

Yeah, that pissed me off.

Modern American laws against rape can trace their origins 2,000 years ago to the Romans. The laws were enacted to protect men’s property interests in their chaste wives and daughters, and it’s been a shitshow ever since. Even with the positive changes to sexual assault laws (thank you, feminism!), in Minnesota and 39 other states, rapists can declare open season on people who choose to get drunk

Here’s a friend link to get you past the Medium paywall if you’d like to read on.

Review of Rising and Other Stories by Gale Massey

Rising and Other Stories by Gale Massey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Everything you’ve heard is true: Gale Massey’s characters are filled with desires, ambitions, misgivings, and the whole range of human emotions. They are people whose fates you need to know.

Massey’s figurative language is often stunning and powerful, contributing to each story’s plot, characterization, and emotional tone. The opening of “Racine,” for example, describes the inevitability of the story’s conflict and its stoic emotional tone with “The minutes gather at her feet, pooling there like water seeping through a crack below a door.”

This collection illuminates many of the dark corners of what it means to be a woman in a time and place where women are [still] at the mercy of woman-hating policies, whether those are governmental, individual, or family policies.

In artistic terms and in terms of human relevance, Massey’s stories deliver. The short form gives her characters and themes the right amount of space to entice and then surprise. Most of all, these intense short stories succeed as literary page-turners readers will find irresistible.

Thanks to NetGalley for an advance review copy of this short story collection.



View all my reviews

Past Everlasting: Fallout of Violent Trauma

Trauma changes the human brain. My experience is that those changes are permanent. I used to be one of those people who believed in “getting over it,” but I’ve come to realize that’s impossible, at least for me. Other people’s anger, loud noises, and sudden movements near my head don’t cause me physical pain, but they cause a profound fear response. The muscles in my neck and shoulders tighten, rage spreads up to the top of my head, and my feet are ready to run. It’s a non-verbal surge, part automatic fight-or-flight response, part memory of black eyes, broken nose, split eyebrows, split lips, and welts inflicted on me decades ago when I was a child and a young woman.

Like a lot of women and girls, I was beaten because of my gender. The violence was personal, but it was also systemic. We live in a culture that accepts brutality against women. It’s been important to me, as an adult, to argue against this brutality, but sometimes, in conversations, the traumas I experienced have stopped me cold. I’ve been unable to reply to people who dismiss violence against women with phrases like “If it was so bad, why didn’t she leave?” It’s a failing beyond the sort of “I wish I’d said X” when we think of a snappy comeback to someone after the fact. The changes in my brain take over and silence me.

Accepting that my gut reactions can be beyond my rational control has been difficult for me, but talking with and helping other women who’ve been victims of misogynist violence has led me to a place of compassion for myself and my failings. The final chapter in the memoir I serialized this year on Medium is one story of arriving at that place. Here’s a friend link to the story that will get you past the paywall.

Serial Stories

Screenshot of timeline showing publication dates of famous literary novels (Count of Monte Cristo, Vanity Fair, Uncle Tom's Cabin, North and South, Madame Bovary, The Woman in White, and A Tale of Two Cities.

Would you read a longform story if it was divided into shorter pieces published once a week?

(Image credit: Books On the Wall)

In the nineteenth century, serial publication was common. Authors and magazines released long stories bit by bit, enticing readers to stay tuned. Often, each piece of the story ended on a cliffhanger, which left readers and listeners eager for the next installment. Perhaps the most famous serial author is Charles Dickens, who somehow kept up with a grueling production schedule to produce classic novels like The Tale of Two Cities — and without the convenience of digital tools.

Advertisement for Great Expectations

Are today’s readers too accustomed to immediate reading gratification to be interested in works in a serial format? Or are our attention spans and free time limited in a way that makes the serial format convenient and manageable for us?

This month, I’m experimenting with the serial format by publishing one chapter per week of Walk Away, my 2016 Kindle Singles memoir of my experience with teenage intimate partner violence.

Here’s a “friend link” to the first installment that will open Medium’s paywall for you. Meanwhile, best wishes from my teenage self — who survived with the help of her friends.

New Poem at YesPoetry!

Webpage image of city street with headline: YESPOETRY – MICHELE SHARPE – THE DEAD’S MISTAKES

I was inspired to submit to YesPoetry because it published a fabulous poem by my dear friend Michael Carter.

In my plantophile investigations, I became mildly obsessed with plants from the mint family. Most are what gardeners call “deer resistant,” meaning they don’t appeal to ravaging herds of deer who can mow down your garden in the blink of an eyeball. Doing research for the poem, I discovered that in botany, bisexual flowers are referred to as “perfect.” How nice!

The poem’s title is “The Mint Family,” but the editors chose another line as their graphic headline. Published December 28, 2020.

THE MINT FAMILY

Upright, with bisexual (or perfect) flowers, open

for business to bees. Aromatherapeutic against

memory’s dead hand. Other uses: teas, salads, salves

for stings. A shield for other greens against rapacious deer.

A shared geometry: stems near-perfect squares

in cross-section. Called Lamiaceae now, meaning deadnettle,

meaning not-a-nettle. Or possibly to nettle without sting,

like jolts of memory that don’t make one shrink.

Their long-dead name was Labiatae, as in labial.

Lipped, moist, impressionable. Easily stung,

yet they overrun gardens in bee balms, spearmints,

and sages. Re-member: no family’s perfect.

Some harp on the dead’s mistakes instead

of their memories, but The Mints come close

to perfect, modeling refreshment and courage,

their flowers unafraid of stings, open to all the bees.

A Perfect Pandemic Novel

The perfect pandemic novel is a short novel, since our attention spans may be diminished by panic, or loss, or involuntary isolation. It is a novel set in a predictable world unlike the one we now inhabit, in order to offer us temporary relief from the 2020 shitshow.

Piranesi, the title character, lives in a labyrinth that offers the peace of solitude among beauty, interrupted only by brief interactions with “the Other.” He sets himself tasks, some wholly pragmatic, and some philosophic. His ongoing task is to know his world. Our task, as readers, is to discover how he ended up there.

The novel we need now might be one with an innocent protagonist like Piranesi because we ourselves may have become jaded by daily reports of infections and deaths and the callous responses of our government. We may need a likeable protagonist, too, because isolation may have made us unlikeable. Or perhaps the people we live with have become unlikeable, or even intolerable.

A perfect novel for this dark winter has a strange plot, original enough to be compelling, with just enough touchstones to invite us to try making sense of it. And because it is a novel, in the end we find a way through the strange yet familiar labyrinth. We reach a resolution. Sort of.

This is the book that kept me awake in the good way of reading because I believed whole-heartedly in a world, as opposed to the bad way of doomscrolling for jolts of “I cannot believe this bullshit.”

Piranesi, it turns out, is a man who can change his opinions when the facts demand it – a good lesson for us all in challenging times.

Stop the Police

group of heavily armed police officers
Police in riot gear. Photo by ev on Unsplash

#PoliceAbolitio#DefundThe Police

Police officers have had racism’s back in the United States since the beginning. In colonial times, law enforcement was sometimes made up of volunteer police officers or private individuals who were hired by a community to keep order. It wasn’t until the 1850’s that the first municipal police departments were organized, but all these types of police have one thing in common:

From the first time an officer of the peace arrested a black person who’d escaped slavery or looked the other way when an overseer or plantation owner murdered a black person, to all the unprosecuted lynchings of the Jim Crow era, to Emmett Till, to the mass incarceration of black bodies that began in the late twentieth century, right up to the police murders of unarmed black people captured on cell phone videos in our current era, law enforcement has enforced racist terrorism.

Today, with the increasing militarization of police departments across the country, law enforcement is, more than ever, literally dressed to kill. Military grade weapons and equipment get to local law enforcement through the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, which facilitates transfers of surplus. A series of studies found “a positive and statistically significant relationship between 1033 transfers and fatalities from officer-involved shootings across all models.” In other words, departments with access to military grade weapons are more likely to kill civilians than departments without access.

When someone shows you who they are, believe them. When an institution shows us who they are, we must believe them. The institution of policing is a deadly source of racist violence. No matter how many community policing trainings take place, no matter how many people of color are hired and promoted by police departments, law enforcement continues to kill innocent citizens. It continues to act out its racist policies. As an institution, it is not going to change. It must be abolished.

Let me say that again. Law enforcement has proven it supports racism for the last four hundred years. Law enforcement is not going to change, so it must be abolished.

It is the nature of law enforcement to support the status quo, and the status quo in the United States is racism. That status quo needs to go, and law enforcement needs to be swept out with it.

Who am I to say that? Just an informed citizen, an old, middle class, 97% white lady, the sort of person law enforcement is often depicted as protecting, and I would not call the police to my home or my neighborhood because there is no telling who they might kill or hurt, or what trouble they might cause.

Disempowering law enforcement won’t happen instantly, but many strategies exist to help make policing, and especially racist policing, a thing of the past. Like most big changes, the work can start at home. Locally, we can support and vote in candidates who have a more constructive vision of what community safety looks like. At local city, town, and county meetings, we can speak out on police budgets, and police hiring, and policing alternatives.

Following the police killing of George Floyd, which came hot on the heels of the police killing of 26-year old Brionna Taylor, members of Congress from both parties have proposed legislation to limit police powers including a ban on choke-holds and limitations on military grade weapons. It’s too soon to tell whether these proposals are mere pandering to voters during an election year, or whether these representatives mean business. Letting candidates know which pieces of legislation you support is crucial, as is telling them when their proposals don’t go far enough.

Or, as Dr. Ibram Kendi recently suggested, we can join with other citizens to amplify our individual voices, to “ask the question, ‘Well, who here is challenging the policy that is leading to these racial disparities?’ . . . Every single individual has the power to do that.”

Defunding police budgets might be another way to do abolish the violent, racist policing that’s tearing the U.S. apart. As Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris pointed out in an opinion piece recently, if police departments are defunded, more targeted services can be expanded:

· We don’t need cops to intervene in disputes. We need unarmed mediators.

· We don’t need cops to sweep people who are homeless off the streets. We need affordable homes.

· We don’t need cops to bust low-level dope dealers, or drug users, or alcoholics. We need substance abuse counselors who’ve been there who can share their experience, strength, and hope.

An important step in the abolition process is to bring police departments to an accounting. It’s clear that police forces in the U.S. are dangerous sources of anti-citizen violence, but data about those deaths is notoriously unreliable — because there is no national database keeping track.

According to one source, Mapping Police Violencepolice killed 1,099 people in the U.S. in 2019, and a disproportionate number of those victims were Black people.

Keep that fact in mind, and what it implies: Work toward disarming and abolishing police forces must be based in anti-racist policies.

Blood-fed, engorged female lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum (Linnaeus). Photograph by Lyle Buss.

Blood-fed, engorged female lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum (Linnaeus). Photograph by Lyle Buss.

This work is not, by any means, the sole responsibility of Black people. American racism has benefited white people for centuries, and white people must step up now to make amends. A good first step in anti-racist work is to examine one’s own underlying assumptions and implied biases about race and the systems of racism.

In American society, racist ideas attach themselves to people like ticks. The ticks embed under our skin and suck our blood, and unless we see them, we can’t shed them. Reading Black authors, watching Black films, and listening to Black people sharing their experiences can help anyone see those racist ideas, analyze them, and rip them out of our lives. For good.

For the good of all, work to abolish the racist institution of policing.