Alice Stephens is passionate about writing and adoptee voices. She’s spent her life honing her writing skills and adoption knowledge, making her an essential figure in both spaces. Her debut novel, "Famous Adopted People," challenges the traditional adoption narrative. As part of the first generation of intercountry adoptees and a well-traveled adoptive family, she offers a unique perspective through the lens of someone intimately familiar with what it feels like to be an outsider. But, she didn’t always possess the awareness and skill she has now.
Alice knew she wanted to be a writer from an early age, saying, “I had the desire to be a writer before I had the ability.” She loved to read and wrote silly stories throughout high school. Continuing to pursue her love, she majored in English in college, then got a job in academic publishing in New York City. After a time, she realized it wasn’t the profession for her and decided to take on writing her own novel. She and her partner moved to New Mexico, where she wrote that novel. “It sucked. It was really terrible. But I did it, and it was a very good learning experience. It was also very discouraging. I stopped writing for a long time, but I didn’t stop having the desire to write,” she confessed. In addition to needing space from the discouraging experience, she started a family, which consumed all of her time.
While Alice took a break from writing for herself, her work was always based on writing. Once her children were older, the family moved to Japan. Alice’s husband gave her the idea for a historical fiction novel based on a mixed-race Japanese man. After seven years and a lot of research, she had a product she was proud of. They moved back to the United States, where she got in on the ground floor with the Washington Independent Review of Books. She started writing book reviews, her first public-facing pieces, and to date, has over 100 reviews and her own column, Alice in Wordland. “I think that’s a really important first step: to have that confidence to say ‘I wrote this!’ and be really proud of it,” she reflected.
Her success with the book reviews and column did not translate into success for her historical novel. She got two agents, who believed in her and her work and sent her novel to some of the top publishers in the U.S. None of them picked it up. She decided to tuck that away and write about what she knew: adoption. Unlike the historical novel that took seven years, her novel came out in only 10 months. Alice’s agent relentlessly sent her book out, but couldn’t get anyone to publish it. In a last-ditch effort, Alice sent the novel to an independent publisher, Unnamed Press, on her own.
In what felt like a fairytale, Unnamed Press published her book, "Famous Adopted People" (read more about the journey here). This achievement not only validated that her story was important and she had the skill to tell it but also prompted her to write more about adoption.
Born in 1967 to a Korean woman and an American soldier father, Alice’s fate was cast before memory could capture what was happening. She was adopted by a white family in the United States, to whom she attributes her solid self-confidence. “I was a lucky adoptee. I was adopted into a family that told me that I was very smart and always gave me confidence in my mind. In fact, they told me I was the smartest one in the family. That’s an incredible gift to give an outsider child.” Although her confidence in her capabilities was high, like many adoptees, her confidence in her personality and ability to gain friends was not. She experienced the same types of racism most Asians face in America. Writing provided a refuge because she could get her words out into the public without being physically present.
Alice’s family traveled extensively when she was growing up. Those experiences, in tandem with her transracial adoptee identity, gave her a fearlessness in exploring the world and discovering how vast the range of human experience is. “Traveling the world is wonderful because it opened my perspective on life, so I understood there’s more than just black and white. Like adoption, there are so many nuances and complexities to everything.”
Speaking of nuances and complexities, although Alice said, “I’m a lucky adoptee,” she by no means subscribes to the traditional adoption narrative. She owns that her life couldn’t exist without adoption: If she had been a mixed-race baby left in Korea in the '60s, she wouldn’t have the life she has today. She said, “I’m not anti-adoption; there is a need,” but she also believes, “the more you learn about adoption, the more rotten it becomes.” The first thing that set her alarms off were all the stories she read about adoptees that painted them as helpless objects. “It’s not that adoption is wrong; the narrative around adoption is wrong.” That’s why she wrote "Famous Adopted People." She was tired of all the fairy tales, sappy stories, and false narratives.
The adoption landscape has changed quite a bit since Alice was a child. As part of the first wave of adoptees, she was incredibly isolated and didn’t come across another self-identified adoptee until eighth grade (around 14 years old), or a Korean adoptee until her 20s. All the social media communities, conferences, books, and podcasts we have now weren’t options then, so she had no support or reason to wonder why she felt bad about herself; she just figured she was a rotten kid. Looking back on it, she recognized the deep sense of alienation, self-loathing, and desperate attempts to get people to see her the way she wanted to be seen. She had no idea the adoptee community existed until she published her novel, which connected her to this community that provided more context, language, and support for her experience as an adoptee than she ever had before.
Alice admitted that "Famous Adopted People" didn’t garner the grandiose success she hoped for, but she also knows she shouldn’t have been surprised, possessing the knowledge of the publishing world as she does. Her novel doesn’t follow the traditional narrative, which makes people uncomfortable. But, Alice isn’t concerned with making those who uphold the status quo comfortable; she’s on a mission to shift the narrative—both through her own writing and helping other adoptees publish their stories.
Writing has shown her how people think about and interrogate their past. She mused, “One of the gifts of being an adoptee is that we can look at our lives and say, ‘oh, I’ve changed my mind,’ and that’s ok. The world is changing all around us all the time, every day.” After perusing Alice’s work, it may not seem like she runs into creative blocks like the rest of us, but she assured me that she does. A lot. Working through them includes being part of a writing group, where prompts help to either spark something for her current work-in-progress or simply give her a nice piece, temporarily assuaging the frustration of not making progress on the main piece. Another way she works through the writing block is to not write. She suggests, “Take in other art, not just reading but movies, media, painting, sculpture, nature, whatever. Just kinda let your mind wander, but wander in a good way, in a way that focuses your mind on what you’re trying to write through.” Swimming also helps her empty her mind, making space for ideas to come up.
Writing presents numerous challenges, including motivation to get going, finding a balance between being disciplined and too tough on oneself, and perhaps the hardest of them all, rejection. Alice notes, “The rejection is really hard. It happens a lot, and it happens even to famous writers. That’s the most difficult, but that goes back to self-confidence. You always have to have some sort of confidence if you want to be published.” While there are challenges, writing is also immensely rewarding. Alice’s face lit up as she enumerated the myriad benefits: it’s great for introverts because all she needs is power and the Internet, she loves creating stories and seeing them take shape on the page, having a finished product she’s satisfied with, seeing her work out in the world, reading what others write, and she especially loves the writing community and nurturing those fruitful exchanges. “That helps as a writer to know you’re not alone, having others who support you and genuinely want to see you succeed.”
Due to countless situations, many adoptees are afraid to tell their stories. Her advice? Write your story and worry about the fear after it’s written. Just get it out of you first. If finding the words is the hard part, she said, “That’s a little trickier. The big thing about writing is organizing your thoughts, and the way to organize your thoughts is to write. So it’s kind of a circle, but the only way you can start that is by sitting down to write. You have to sit down and write and refine it and refine it and refine it until it makes sense and flows well. That takes time. Don’t get discouraged. Take writing classes, become part of a writing group, submit your work and see what people say when they return it. There are lots of ways to get better just by practicing, but really, you have to sit down and do it. That’s the first step.”
Practicing what she preaches, Alice not only participates in writing groups, she’s also a co-facilitator in one, Adoptee Voices Writing Group, founded by Sara Easterly. Alice got looped into the group after Sara heard her on Haley Radke’s podcast. She admits she was skeptical at first, but after the first cohort, she was blown away by the adoptees and their stories. Though she facilitates, the experience helps her as a writer too, providing a broader view of the adoptee experience, which translates into her ability to write fuller characters. As a participant in this group myself, I get to witness the empathetic support, strategic feedback, and profound value she brings to the table, providing a safe place for adoptees to learn how to effectively tell their stories and hone their craft.
Aside from her role as a co-facilitator in the adoptee writing group, Alice always has several irons in the fire. Her goals moving forward are to get two historical novels published, complete the current novel she’s working on, and maybe, just maybe, write a memoir. She also partnered with poet Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello to facilitate the Adoptee Literary Festival on April 9, 2022. The full details are still in the works; however, you can look forward to hearing from the keynote speaker, Nicole Chung, during the event.
Alice is an inspiring example of an adoptee who’s boldly shifting the adoption narrative while guiding and supporting other adoptees to do the same. She’s already made a profound impact, and she’s nowhere near finished.
Cover photo: Bruce Guthrie