Announcing the Adoptee Literary Festival
- Alice Stephens
- January 31, 2022
An event that centers marginalized voices is born.
It started with a tweet.
The tweet got 101 likes, which is a lot for me.
But actually, as every adoptee who has ever tried to find her origin story knows, there’s always a backstory to the story.
So, maybe this story started in late 2018, when the poet Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello interviewed me about my novel Famous Adopted People. As befits two people who experienced similar upbringings that challenged their notions of identity and turned to literature to make sense of their worlds, Marci and I had a deep and instant connection.
When she saw my tweet, she got in touch with me to volunteer her considerable knowledge and talents to make my offhanded comment (born, as many of my best ideas are, while swimming laps) into a reality.
This is the power of the marginalized joining together to make their own community and traditions. By validating my crazy idea, Marci gave me the confidence to believe we could get it done.
Marci, I need to mention, isn’t just any old literature-loving adoptee. Not only is she an award-winning poet of the gorgeous collection Hour of the Ox and the chapbook Last Train to the Midnight Market, she is a translator, the recipient of many grants and fellowships (including a 2022 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts), and a founding member of the PEN America Miami/South Florida chapter, along with many other accomplishments. She also has experience in literary festivals through her work with the Miami Book Fair. She is the brains behind our festival, and I am the requisite chicken running around with its head cut off.
First, we composed the following mission statement:
“The Adoptee Literary Festival brings together writers who self-identify as having been adopted, fostered, or otherwise genetically displaced to share their stories, make their voices heard, and reshape the narrative of adoption which has for too long been dominated by adoptive parents and the adoption industry. Covering all genres, the festival highlights writing that makes adoptees the subject, rather than the object, of their own stories. Respectful of diverse opinions, we recognize that every adoption story is different, and celebrate all genuine voices that seek to educate, engage, and nurture.”
In short order, Marci forged a partnership with PEN America, and I had signed on my local independent bookstore, adoptee-owned Loyalty Bookstores, as the bookseller.
Other than some (greatly appreciated) funding from PEN America, the Adoptee Literary Festival has a budget of zero dollars. But it’s crucial to us that it be free and accessible to all. Using the pandemic to our advantage, we decided the cheapest and most effective way to bring the festival to the adoptee and adoptee-curious masses was by holding it online. Our mission is to empower adoptees to write their own stories, and we do not want to leave anyone out.
We recruited a dream team of adoptee writers for our advisory board and…quickly ran up against our own ambitious timeline.
We would’ve liked to have asked for submissions from potential panelists, but in terms of time and budget, we realized that was not feasible. As a DIY, all-volunteer event, we had to work within our limitations. So we decided for the inaugural event we would use our adoptee writing community network to assemble the panels, restricting panelists to those who had published during the pandemic.
The enthusiastic and immediate response from invited panelists encouraged our belief that this was a much-needed service to our community, whose members face higher hurdles in getting publishing deals on their adoption-related work than non-adopted writers who write about adoption.
There is strong societal resistance to reframing the adoption narrative from one of saviorism and fairytale endings, and it is highly likely that our panelists have received editorial rejections that display shocking indifference to the adoptee experience (my favorite example is, “We already have a book about adoption on our list” — just replace “adoption” with “slavery” or “the Holocaust” to see the discrimination — and the authors cited are never themselves adopted).
One of our goals is to attract the attention of agents, editors, publishers, and other literary gatekeepers and let them know that they dismiss adoptee voices at their own peril. We are advising both the industry and the public at large that we will not let others speak for us. We will not acquiesce to the exploitative use of our stories. Through the collective power of our words, we are bending the narrative arc our way.
But our most important objective is to let adoptees know that their voices and stories matter, and to give them the courage to center themselves in their own stories.
The Adoptee Literary Festival features panels on creative nonfiction/journalism, middle-grade/young adult, poetry, fiction, and memoir. Our keynote speaker will be Nicole Chung, who will be in conversation with Matthew Salesses. All panelists and moderators will be adoptees, fostered, or otherwise genetically displaced.
We hope you will join us on April 9, 2022, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (EST).
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, co-facilitator for the Adoptee Voices Writing Group, and co-founder of the Adoptee Literary Festival.