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.

Famous Adopted People — the book!

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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.

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.

 

Review of Three Adoptee Memoirs Published in Hippocampus

Right in time for #NAAM2019, my review of memoirs by adoptees Nicole Chung, Karen Pickell, and Lori Jakiela appear in the current issue of Hippocampus Magazine. Each memoir is lyrical and insightful, and each presents a distinct experience of being adopted.

Hippocampus Magazine, by the way, publishes terrific nonfiction stories. If you are a writer of nonfiction looking to publish a piece, check them out!

From the review:

“With its built-in interrogation of what it means to belong to a family, adoption offers a rich context for memoir. Quests to locate mysterious origins provide deeply archetypal narrative arcs for adoption stories, too, and the specialized dialect of adoption invites stories that consider the impact of language on life.”

Click here for the full review — and check out these excellent memoirs!

Who’s My Daddy?

I don’t know who my father was — and maybe that’s why I got so riled up about a recent news story about “fertility doctors” scamming their patients who were trying to get pregnant by substituting their own sperm for donor sperm.

Of Fathers and Sperm Donors

Michele Sharpe
Aug 22 · 4 min read

Image description: Man and woman holding an empty diaper between them. Photo by Mon Petit Chou Photography on Unsplash

Try this timed writing exercise: First, make a list of the insults used only against women. Then, make a list of the insults used only against men. Compare your lists.

You’ll see that most derogatory terms for women have to do with promiscuity and most derogatory terms for men have to do with homosexuality.

I used this excercise back in the twentieth century when teaching college writing to women in a re-entry program. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate how language both creates and reflects cultural values. It’s very easy [surprise!] to come up with a long list of insults that get slung against women, but not so easy to write a list of insults slung only against men, especially if you don’t use slurs against specifically gay men. . . .

Read the rest of the article on Medium.

New Essay – A Short History of Fraud

This memoir excerpt about discovering I was adopted was coincidentally published during November, which is National Adoption Awareness Month. The piece is also about the “secret mission” my adoptive father went on when I was ten years old.

If you’re reading this as an adult, you may already guess that the secret mission was not the heroic event I believed in as a child, but a story fabricated by adults to cover up a shame. Much as some adoptive parents (ncluding my own) kept adoptions secret to cover their shame at infertility or some other perceived inadequacy, the secret mission was a way of explaining a long absence. Hint: it invovled the FBI.

If you’re a writer who aims to be published, take heart from the publication of this essay. It was rejected at least 40 times before finally finding a home at Signal Mountain Review. From the time I first drafted it out in 2010 to this month’s publication, it went through many, many revisions. To some extent, getting published is about being tenacious and walking the fine line between believing in your own work and being willing to consider criticism.

You can read the full essay here.

“Maternity Cave” for #NAAM2018

November is National Adoption Awareness Month, which began in 1976 in Massachusetts to promote awareness of the need for adoptive families for children in foster care. While the “celebration” has continued to promote adoption from foster care, it’s also been co-opted by the for-profit adoption industry.

Every adoption begins with the breakdown of a family, and for this reason, a national celebration of adoption can bring up feelings of loss and alienation for adoptees and first parents. Adoption is complicated, and its effects are lifelong for everyone involved.

In my family, there’s a rich history of mothers giving up their children — most often to other family members, though. “Maternity Cave” is a story about how that history, and the tragedy of family breakdown, has played out for me and for one of my nieces.

Click on the image to read the full story.

Maternity Cave

Writing Memoir: Where’s the End?

A girl reading a book with the title “Where the World Ends.” Photo by Annie Spratton Unsplash

Where do I end the world of my memoir? The ending keeps getting further away from me.

Some well-worn advice is to end on an image, or an action, or with dialogue, or (very carefully) with a reflection.

I’ll stay away from the reflection possibility because of my bad habit of wrapping up any story or poem with a cutesy little bow.

One of the best essays I’ve read so far about ending a memoir is Leigh Stein’s HOW TO END A MEMOIR WITHOUT
GETTING MARRIED
. It appeals to me because Leigh shows herself struggling against the neatly tied up ending.

I love it when a book’s conflicts and themes get resolved. But not too resolved.

Author and writing coach Lynette Benton agrees and asks whether resolution is even necessary:

Do readers earn the right to a snug, reassuring wrap up to a memoir? Must the narrative of a segment of a life (which is what a memoir is) unfailingly end neatly? And even if it seems to, neither we, nor the narrator, can know for example, if the recovering addict falls off the wagon the very day we sigh with satisfaction over the end of an addiction memoir.

I have to choose an endpoint, and maybe I should choose based on the memorableness of the end-point. So here goes with examples of how I might use imageaction, and dialogue to conclude my memoir draft. Coming up with these examples may prove helpful, but right now they are just making me more indecisive.

My first instinct is to end on an image. In one scene from the middle of my current draft, I’m on the Tybee Island beach at night and the ocean has turned phosphorescent. My aunt starts telling the little kids that it’s magic fairies in the water, but my uncle starts explaining bioluminescence to them. When his wife objects, he says “They make their own damn light. Isn’t that magic enough?” I’d love to return to that image.

Vultures in a tree. by Casey Allen on Unsplash

Writers are such vultures, by the way. Another reason I can’t decide is that events keep happening that make me think “This would be a great ending to my memoir!”

I have a very big family, and someone is always saying or doing something that relates to my themes of finding identity and figuring out what makes a family stick together.

Maybe dialogue would work. Like when I was with my nephew and two of my nieces just before Christmas. They had a playful argument about “whose story was best,” of the ones I’d written about each of them: Alan MichaelTheresa, and BeeBee.

The joking conversation they had touched me deeply. I’m very lucky that my family supports my writing unconditionally, even when they know I’m in vulture mode, thinking about how I can use something they’re saying or doing in a poem or essay. I could end the memoir with their dialogue about their stories!

Or maybe an action is how the memoir should end. I recently published a short piece with Shondaland about searching for an Elvis tapestry that belonged to the mother I never met. If I use that action — the searching — I might be able to slap that already-written-essay onto the end of of the 80,000+ words I’ve written so far. So tempting!

What are your thoughts — are stories best when all their loose ends are tied up? Or do you like some ambiguity at the end? What are some of the best endings you’ve read or written?