The Fictional Family

Novels, adoption, and the power of imagination


Two of my favorite topics converge in November, which commemorates both National Adoption Month and National Novel Writing Month.

Fiction has always felt like a home to me. I know I’m not unique, and there are legions of readers like me who live parallel lives through books, but I can’t help but think that my own deep affinity for fiction is partly attributable to the fact that I’m adopted.

After all, adoption is a form of fiction, an alternate reality. It asks the world to accept something that is not true.

The dominant paradigm of the nuclear family unit is that a child has one set of parents from whom she is the direct genetic issue. By introducing a genetic stranger into a traditional family, adoption subverts the paradigm, and literature loves a subverted paradigm. Adoption appears in our earliest stories: the ancient Greek tragedy of Oedipus, the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, the Old Testament story of Moses. (It could even be said that Jesus was the adopted child of Joseph.)

Children’s stories are heavily populated with orphans and foundlings, and so early on I recognized myself in fiction, even though the orphans and foundlings were usually in dark, scary situations that were nothing like mine. The contrast between the dramatic circumstances of the storybook orphans and fairy-tale foundlings and my comfortable and happy life made clear the enormous influence of chance in the life of the abandoned child.

While children who are raised by their biological parents tend to regard their life story as immutable, adopted children perceive that life is like those books where the reader can choose between different outcomes: If Baby is adopted by humble weaver Silas Marner, turn to page 25; by Polybus and Merope, king and queen of Corinth, turn to page 27; by the Earnshaw family of the Yorkshire moors, turn to page 29.

I always knew that my life was just a plot twist away from an entirely different story. If I’d stayed in my birth country of Korea, I would have been discriminated against and marginalized for being mixed race, and likely led a life of misery and shame. Or I could have been a lot less fortunate in the parent lottery, subjected to a childhood marked by neglect, abuse, and other hardships. Or I could have grown up in an evangelical family; in a small Midwestern town where everyone looks alike but me; under the hot klieg lights of Hollywood. The variations are endless, and the imaginative adoptee spends a lot of time exploring them.

I don’t know if any studies have been done on adoptees and imagination, but in my case, my ability to construct elaborate stories in my head is largely attributable to a lifetime of imagining myself into the true child of Caucasian parents and the actual sister to three sandy-haired, hazel-eyed siblings.

Because I am adopted, I have learned not to judge a book by its cover, as I have so often been judged by mine. Being an adoptee has made me more adept at reading peripheral clues, considering context, and paying close attention to details, as I know that it is only the fool who takes things at face value. These skills are also invaluable in critical reading, and it is the observant reader who makes a good writer.

I don’t know if I would have wanted to be a writer if I had been consigned a different life narrative. My family raised me to be a reader, provided me with an abundance of books, and guided me toward sophisticated literary tastes. Throughout my childhood, my grandmother, who cherished the notion that I would become a librarian, gave me diaries, the first step in cultivating writing. My parents always encouraged my ambition to be a novelist.

Is my compulsion to write due to nature or nurture? None of my siblings have writerly ambitions. Are any of my genetic half-siblings in Korea laboring away at a novel now, as I am doing? Is my American biological father cranking out all-caps manuscripts on alien abductions and life on Mars? Does my birth mother write elegant poems of loss and regret?

These are questions that I may never know the answers to. The mind abhors a vacuum, and where there are unanswered questions, the imagination takes over, and vivid imagination is the first step of writing a novel.

Every month is write-a-novel month for me, and adoption is always on my mind. I read it as a sign from Fate — that hoary old storytelling device that is featured so prominently in foundling stories — that they are celebrated together.

Alice Stephens’ column, Alice in Wordland, appears monthly in the Independent.

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