- Alice Stephens
Three Years Later
October 16, 2021, will mark the three-year anniversary of the publication of my debut novel, "Famous Adopted People," depicting a Korean adoptee hero’s journey to identity and self-love.
It was a long and arduous journey to get to that day: four years from the first submission to acceptance, with over 60 rejections and the loss of a literary agent along the way.
Rejection is not easy for the adoptee, but I refused to give up. I knew my novel was important. While the theme of transracial adoption was trending in fiction ("Little Fires Everywhere," "The Leavers," "The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane," "Everybody’s Son," "Good Neighbors," etc., etc., etc.), very few of those books were adoptee-authored. And, it showed in the feel-good plots that reduced an incredibly complicated and nuanced subject into one-, or at best, two-dimensional stories. Rather than being the subject of the story, these books relegate the adoptee to the object, someone who is saved by others.
I wrote "Famous Adopted People" to upend those adoption tropes. Instead of undergoing an arduous search for her birth mother, my mixed-race Korean adoptee protagonist, Lisa Pearl, gets kidnapped by her. Instead of completing her, the reunion with her mother almost undoes her. Instead of being rescued, Lisa must rescue herself.
That did not resonate with editors, who wanted a more “traditional” adoption story featuring a “likable” protagonist with whom they could “connect.”
This is a common reaction that many adoptees face when they share their authentic experiences. Conditioned by the popular adoption narrative that is shaped by adoptive parents and the adoption industry, the public recoils at depictions of adoption that veer away from the expected heartwarming elements. They do not want to recognize that where there is light, there must also be darkness. They are comforted by the simple fairy tale and refuse to recognize that the subject is much more nuanced and complicated.
Which is a pity, because the adoption story is one that addresses the most elemental aspects of what it means to be human. It is incredibly rich and fertile material for probing our human condition, which is the reason why so many of the great works of literature, from Oedipus on, depict the orphan’s (or the abandoned child’s) journey toward identity.
Even after I lost my agent, I didn’t lose faith in my manuscript. I decided to submit to one last indie press.
I got my fairy tale ending. The publishing house, a well-respected indie called Unnamed Press, signed the book.
But, as with adoption, one ending is really just another beginning. Working with a wise and supportive editor, Chris Heiser, I moved quickly through the revision, editorial, and production process, publishing ten months after I signed the contract. On the one hand, it was almost instant gratification to see my book come into the world so quickly. On the other hand, it left little time for pre-publication marketing.
Thankfully, Unnamed Press solicited blurbs from adoptee and Asian diasporic writers, because as an adoptee I have a terrible time asking strangers to do me favors for fear they will say no.
Say no they did, and I did not get a single blurb.
Though Unnamed Press sent out Advanced Reader Copies of my book to entice reviewers, only a few publications reviewed it.
Most disappointingly, the rapturous reception I imagined from adoptee readers eager for authentic stories did not happen.
However, in doing marketing for the novel, I began to come in contact with adoptee groups. Though my thoughts on adoption had become increasingly urgent and all-consuming over the years, I had never been a part of an adoptee community. Adopted during the Baby Scoop era, when adoption was still secretive and shameful, I grew up in isolation, and didn’t meet another self-identifying adoptee until I was 13. I was in my late twenties when I first encountered another Korean adoptee. During my teen and young adult years, there was no social media to facilitate connections with other adoptees.
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First, I connected with a local group of Korean adoptees through whom I learned about an organization that ran homeland tours, which I went on, meeting other mixed-race adoptees and realizing that community was a crucial component to my adoption journey. On that trip, I learned to embrace the sadness, not to deny it, because grief is an inextricable part of the adoption experience. I learned to accept my vulnerability instead of bluster it away. I learned that it was enough to listen and recognize someone’s pain, that it wasn’t my role to downplay or fix it, but to be a witness.
Each adoptee connection would lead to another connection, like a link in a chain, until one day, I found myself a part of a community. Or rather, as adoptees are not a monolith, a part of various communities, including the hapa, KAD, adoptee rights, and adoptee writing communities. I feel a close and personal connection with a large number of people who I have never met in person, safe to share with them things that I haven’t told some of my oldest and closest friends.
I confess, I had hoped my fresh perspective on the adoption story would gain attention and literary acclaim, and therefore help to change the popular view of adoption. It is still my hope that Famous Adopted People will contribute to changing the narrative around adoption.
But I realize now that my reward for writing my adoption novel has been much greater than the rapturous reviews and literary acclaim that I initially envisioned. Instead of bringing the adoption community to me, my novel brought me to the adoption community.
Alice Stephens’ debut novel, "Famous Adopted People," was published in 2018 by Unnamed Press. She is the editor of Bloom and writes book reviews and a column, Alice in Wordland, for the Washington Independent Review of Books.