An Interview with Alice Stephens

  • By Janet A. Martin
  • June 18, 2019

The novelist's long-ago list of "famous adopted people" led to her debut by that same name.


When a book browser cracks the spine to begin Alice Stephens’ debut novel, Famous Adopted People, s/he lands in the opening scene at a Dunkin’ Donuts in downtown Seoul, where two Korean adoptees raised in America argue about finding their birth mothers.

Lisa Pearl, an American teaching English in Tokyo, isn’t sure the idea is smart, chiding, “She sent you across the Pacific Ocean to a foreign country to ensure that you’d never come around again, but you’re too dumb to take the hint.”

Mindy, her friend from childhood, retorts angrily, “Go back to Japan. You’ve wasted your life away, every opportunity that has ever been given to you. Your parents gave you such a precious gift, and you just threw it in their faces.”

This combative launch jumpstarts the author’s aim to “write a novel that upended the noxious adoption tropes [to] present a more nuanced perspective on the subject.” Like the author, the fictitious Lisa wants to write the “Great Adoption Novel” to reveal the complexities surrounding adopted children most often portrayed as “lifeless victims” rescued by well-meaning parents who eagerly and naively set out to give them, literally, a new life.

Stephens asserts that adoptees are depicted as the object — the character who gets saved — rather than the subject of their own stories. She adds, “There are approximately five million American adoptees, each with a unique tale to tell.”

Lisa springs from the page as a bombastic, irreverent searcher for her true self. Her mission twists off track when she is kidnapped and housed in a North Korean compound dominated by a nightmarish female who calls herself “Honey.” Horrified, Lisa discovers that this woman, an American, is her birth mother.

Villa Umma, the compound, is filled with phantasmagorical figures who enjoy taunting one another with senseless activities and degrading attacks. A sophisticated, 1984-like surveillance system monitors the characters’ daily actions and then replays them as jokes. Despite surreal surroundings reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, Lisa maintains her sanity.

Stephens uses her own Korean background and historical research to lampoon the political landscape of North Korea, including via the character “brother Jonny,” a fictional portrayal of Kim Jong-un. While she wrote the novel five years ago, today North Korea is a “hot topic,” which Stephens attributes to the Trump administration’s dealings there.

The author clarifies her artistic motives: “My birth country of Korea was the perfect metaphor for the divided identity of an adoptee: one half a modern, westernized success story; the other, a dark and unknown territory ruled by fantasies both light and dark.

“Growing up as a transracial adoptee — white on the inside but not on the outside — is a bizarre and surreal experience, so it only seemed proper that most of the plot take place in North Korea. A lot of the details about North Korea in the book are real: state-sponsored kidnapping, mass surveillance…hidden compounds. There was very little I had to make up.”    

Stephens was 9 months old when she arrived in the U.S. to become the youngest and only adopted child of the Stephens family. Growing up, she didn’t meet another adopted person until the eighth grade; she didn’t encounter a fellow Korean adoptee until her late 20s.

Often lonely, Stephens kept a list of well-known figures who were adopted, some of whose names function as section markers in Famous Adopted People. Wanting to be a writer, she majored in English literature and held jobs associated with the written word in fields like marketing and educational travel prior to becoming a reviewer and columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

While all human beings yearn for self-actualization, Stephens claims adoptees “harbor profound questions about identity and belonging…constantly being reminded by strangers, peers, and family that they are different [and] don’t quite belong.”

With Famous Adopted People, the author seeks to answer some of those questions.

[Photo by James Prochnik.]

Janet Martin is a journalist and developmental editor who helps authors create their life stories as memoirs. She lives in Virginia and is the author of The Christmas Swap.

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