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On Transracial Adoption: A Conversation with Alice Stephens

By Tillman MillerDecember 16, 2018

On Transracial Adoption: A Conversation with Alice Stephens
AS THE AMERICAN EXPAT at the center of Alice Stephens’s debut novel, Famous Adopted People, sits at a bar on the side streets of Seoul, she’s nursing a hangover and her life is in dire straits. She’s socially adrift, her future is increasingly uncertain after being forced to leave a teaching position, and she half-heartedly agrees to let an adoption registry search for her Korean birth mother. Unafraid of any consequences in the wake of her recent fallout, Lisa runs through a slew of wild nights with the dislocation of adoption overshadowing her every move, and eventually she finds herself nursing another hangover at a strange estate in the backcountry of North Korea.

The estate is frequented by a mix of well-heeled North Koreans, and when Lisa learns that her birth mother is among its residents, things start to go inexplicably awry. With wry humor and mild contempt, Lisa begins to reflect on the nature of her identity and the discontents of adoption in a way so rarely depicted in American literature, subverting traditional story lines in favor of exploring the disorderly margins of familial legacies. Eventually Lisa must determine whether to stay at or leave the estate, and as she contemplates her options, Alice Stephens delivers a novelistic antidote to redemptive white-savior adoption narratives and provides a singular portrait of a young woman’s journey into the heart of transracial adoption’s darkness.

In the midst of launching her debut at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, Stephens took time to discuss the joys of creating a sardonic adoptee protagonist, how every adoption story is born of tragedy, and how in Famous Adopted People she reveals the “soft underbelly” of her soul.


TILLMAN MILLER: In the novel, Lisa must come to terms with how she’s no longer able to control the ways in which other people see her. She sees herself as being the same type of person as her neighbors and classmates, but they see her as a young Korean girl who was “rescued” by Americans. How essential was it for you to give a transracial adoptee like Lisa the ability to upend the traditional narrative of what an adoptee-protagonist can be?

ALICE STEPHENS: It was very important. It was why I wrote the book. There’s been a rash of books about transracial adoption recently that are not written by adoptees and tell the same story over and over again, as if there were only one possible narrative to tell about adoption. Those stories relegate the adoptee to being the object of the story, passively waiting for someone to save them, whether it be their adoptive parents or their birth mother. I wrote an adoption novel that made the adoptee the subject of the story. Lisa is her own hero, the only one who can save herself. In order to subvert the tropes of the “traditional” adoption story, I wrote a birth mother who is not full of pure maternal love and gave Lisa a “forever” home that is broken by divorce. There are millions of adoptees out there, and each one of us has a unique story. Famous Adopted People is mine in literary fiction form. And I do want to emphasize that it is literary fiction, which means the reader should expect to have to work a little to understand what they are reading. This is not a Hallmark Channel TV special or a spoon-fed morality tale.

For sure, and one of the more entertaining themes in the book is how Lisa exhibits behavior not typically associated with adoptees in American literature. She parties hard and makes youthful mistakes. Was it fun and challenging developing a character who’s a “sloppy drunk” and “an indiscriminate consumer of illicit substances”?

It wasn’t too challenging. Lisa is the person I could have been if life had gone another way. I enjoy a cocktail or three, and as a teenager, during the “Just Say No” era of Nancy Reagan, I rebelled by saying yes. A lot.

There were certainly many scenes of inebriation I had fun with, like Lisa’s visit to Honey-Do’s, and the night of the sushi feast in the compound. But the scenes where she went too far or failed morally were tougher to write. Self-destruction is a painful thing, and even when you are in charge of your character’s fate, you can be angry at her for making the decisions that she does.

To what extent is Lisa using these intoxicants to rebel against being a “perfect adoptee” and to blunt the edges of her insecurities?

I think Lisa is just sort of drifting along, as she has been drifting along her whole life. She lets life happen to her, does whatever is easiest. Her best friend Mindy, her boyfriends and lovers all choose her, she doesn’t choose them. Like a small moon in Mindy’s orbit, she follows her from city to city. She has a passive role in her own life because she doesn’t want to do the hard work of facing how adoption has scarred her.

Also, she likes to get high, she likes to get drunk. It makes her feels good. It’s easy to do. It’s something she’s good at (until she’s not good at it). It keeps her from feeling too much, it fills her loneliness, and it’s one of the legacies of her birth mother, who has her own addiction issues.

A significant portion of the novel takes place in North Korea. While being held somewhat captive in a mountainside compound, Lisa grapples with thoughts of grief, exile, and uncertainty, which makes the compound feel like an apt metaphor for the overall limbo of being an adoptee. Was that your intent? And how important was it for you to set part of the novel in North Korea?

Alright, now I’m beginning to think you’re adopted. I saw my birthplace of Korea as the perfect metaphor for the adoptee, a country that is divided in two, one a Westernized, prosperous success story, the other dark, closed, and secret. Lisa must confront the dark territory that resides within herself and the feelings of anger, alienation, and resentment that have basically paralyzed her throughout her adult life, so naturally she is kidnapped to North Korea. Kidnapping is a common practice of the Kim regime, so it’s not like I’m making up something fantastic.

But I do admit that things get a little fantastic in the compound, where Lisa is subjected to the slow dismantlement of her identity by her birth mother, who hopes to remake her into her own image. Just as when she was adopted, one identity is being erased for another one. I wanted the compound to be weird and surreal because growing up as a transracial adoptee is a weird and surreal experience, though I didn’t really recognize that until I was an adult. The compound is Lisa’s trip down the rabbit hole, her journey into the underworld, the strange, shadowy alternate universe of her adoption story where she must battle the darkness or else become the darkness.

As a Korean-born adoptee raised by a white family in the United States, Lisa has a childhood that in many ways is centered around whiteness. The circumstances of your own childhood were very similar to Lisa’s, so I’m interested in hearing about how transracial adoption can affect young adoptees who have their origins in other countries. To what extent does it cause adoptees to overlook and disregard the intricacies of their identities?

When you are raised from infancy in a white world, surrounded by white people who are your family, friends, and neighbors, you naturally absorb all the attitudes, mannerisms, and behaviors of white people. You may know that you look different on the outside, but in the innocence of youth, you think that everyone realizes that on the inside, you are just like them. The illusion lasts usually until elementary school, when classmates, who themselves are just beginning to realize their own tribal affiliations, tease you for being different from them. You realize that no matter how sharp your tongue or witty your retorts, there is no comeback for being called a “chink” on the playground when all the people around you are white. You begin to be ashamed of your race, to see it as an obstacle to equality and happiness. And you realize that you can’t escape it, it’s the first thing many people see when they see you with your white family. Sometimes it’s the only thing they see. Strangers feel free to point at you, ask you rude questions or give you their unsolicited opinion on your adoption. What follows is a drip, drip, drip of self-confidence and an increasing wish to be invisible. That essential core of who you are begins to be erased, effaced. Because you’re still thinking like a white person, you resent that part of you that keeps you from being one of them. You become alienated from those closest to you, and alienation can harden into anger, which becomes its own kind of identity, but one that keeps you from healthy personal development.

I grew up in Botswana and I was known as the youngest of the free-spirited Stephens children — I have three older siblings, all the biological offspring of my parents. I never doubted for a moment my right to be in that family, and mostly my world agreed. But occasionally I’d be reminded of my difference by strangers on the street who would pull their eyes at me and demonstrate their best karate kicks. However, it wasn’t until we moved back to America and I entered fifth grade that I was truly made to understand that I was not white, that no matter how much my family loved me and protected me, they could not make the rest of the world see me as I saw myself.

Did writing a work of fiction with a protagonist based loosely on yourself allow you to admit certain things that you never thought you would?

Once I sat down to write my #ownvoices adoption novel, it almost wrote itself, and I finished the first draft in less than a year. It turned out to be a very intimate story that divulged things I had never articulated to my family or friends, because who wants to bare the soft underbelly of their soul? And yet, there it was in the story, a story that I fought like hell to get published, so that the whole world could read the private things that I never told to those closest to me. My family members, in particular, would be learning for the first time that I did not view my adoption experience in a completely positive way, that it was difficult to grow up Asian in a white world, and that the trauma of adoption had reverberated throughout my life. “Trauma” is a strong word, and I imagine a lot of people are surprised that adoptees can think of an act of love as trauma, but people tend to forget that every adoption is born of the tragedy of a child being separated from her birth parents. Even the happiest and most heartwarming of adoption stories begin with that painful severance. Luckily, my family members are open-minded, empathetic people who have always been strong supporters of my writing aspirations, and my mom and sister were among the first readers of the manuscript.

I suppose the degree to which I did end up revealing myself in Famous Adopted People surprised me because I’m a fairly private person, as I think most adoptees are. But it couldn’t have been any other way if I was going to write about adoption.

When writing about adoption, you often use the “own voices” hashtag. Can you tell me more about how the hashtag got started?

#Ownvoices is a burgeoning movement to demand that minorities and other marginalized people be allowed to tell their own stories, rather than having them told for them, and so it was a perfect hashtag for Famous Adopted People. There has been a boom in adoption literature in the past decades, but so much of it is dominated by non-adoptees. If you Google adoption blogs, you will find that the majority of them are written by adoptive parents. The adoption sections in bookstore and libraries are dominated by memoirs, how-to manuals, resource books, and blow-by-blow accounts of the adoption process as told by the adopters, most of which end at the very moment that the adoptee’s story actually begins, when the adoptee arrives at her forever home.

In fiction, the publishing industry tends to favor novels written by non-adoptees, many of which follow the same story line of the adoptee as a lost soul who only needs to be reunited with her birth mother in order to find inner peace and a sense of her place in the world. Sometimes it’s a more “sociological” study of the effect of a transracial or transnational adoption on a close-knit society. But in all these narratives, again the adoptee is the object of the story, not the subject. They are passive bystanders in their own stories, waiting to be saved by someone else. Mainstream publishing loves to ride a wave and not make one, so there was a lot of resistance to my novel. I believe that many of the editors weren’t comfortable with a story that challenged the “conventional” adoption narrative. But what is the conventional adoption narrative? It’s one written by non-adoptees that glamorizes or sentimentalizes a very complicated subject. When adoptees look for themselves in literature, what they find is a morality tale or a tear-jerker, but not much that realistically captures the nuances, complicated struggles, and conflicted feelings of adopted people.

After readers have finished Famous Adopted People, where would you guide them for additional reading that challenges the traditional narratives of transracial adoption?

Unfortunately, my list is pretty small. As a book reviewer, I tend to read the Big Five publishing houses’ adoption stories, and I'm sorry to report that most are clichéd, sentimental drivel. One exception is That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam (which I reviewed for LARB), and it’s a subtle but piercing portrait of the white privilege that blinds many adoptive parents to the challenges facing their minority children in a hyper-racialized America. Nicole Chung has just published a beautiful, poignant memoir of interracial adoption, All You Can Ever Know. Julayne Lee’s Not My White Savior is a raw, searing, and powerful “memoir in poems.” Though Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes is not exclusively about adoption, there is a compelling section depicting a Chinese-American man’s contemplation of the ethical implications of his and his Caucasian wife’s decision to adopt a Chinese baby. Also, these three #ownvoices books are high on my reading list: Keurium, a novel by J. S. Lee; The Hundred-Year Flood, a novel by Matthew Salesses; and The Language of Blood by Jane Jeong Trenka, which is one of the earliest interracial adoption memoirs and has become a classic of the genre.

I’m sure that there are other excellent #ownvoices books out there by adoptees that don’t have the gargantuan publicity machines of mainstream publishing houses behind them to get the word out. And I’m confident that adoptees will keep on writing their experiences and making their voices heard, so that one day, there will be no “traditional” adoption narrative, but a sumptuous multitude of individual stories.


Tillman Miller divides his time between Southeast Asia and the American West. 

LARB Contributor

Tillman Miller’s essays have appeared in the Literary Hub, the Mekong Review, and Roads & Kingdoms. A former lawyer in Burma, he is currently at work on a novel.


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