Writing against the (Main) Stream
- Alice Stephens
- February 27, 2023
Why I’ll always stay true to my work.
You know how when you’re climbing a peak, and the top is so tantalizingly close, and yet every time you look up, it’s as far away as ever? That’s where I am with my work-in-progress.
Yet, even as I labor on, forging ahead word by word, I despair for the publishing prospects of my manuscript. It does things that writers are strongly advised not to do, like telling and not showing. In fact, the narrative is mostly dialogue. There isn’t much action or physical drama, most of the scenes take place inside, the two main female characters aren’t particularly likable, and transracial adoption is depicted in a way that may make people uncomfortable.
Not an easy pitch. And remembering the deafening silence that met my previous manuscript, I don’t have much hope for what I am grandly calling “my next novel” ever making it to print.
My last manuscript, a historical novel, was very long. Though I knew the word count was prohibitive, I still hoped that someone would recognize the power, beauty, and importance of the story and would help me edit it down to an acceptable length. It had happened before (twice!), but this time, there wasn’t a flicker of interest.
This current manuscript will be a more attractive length; the shorter, the better. Shorter doesn’t mean that it takes less time, though. I am as verbose as ever but am working the delete button hard, birthing darlings and killing them with the ruthlessness of a stone-cold assassin.
A Korean adoptee, I write with a double-consciousness, in a voice that is true to me but won’t alienate those who may be disturbed and even repelled by my message. I’m not just imagining shocked reactions to my perspective; I have the receipts. (Yes, I save all my rejections. Don’t you?)
Editors have come right out and said they preferred a narrative written by an inauthentic voice, or they already have an adopted author on their list, or they published a title about adoption a few years ago that didn’t sell to expectations. Editors would never say that they preferred the slave narrative written by the white person, or that they already have a gay author on their list, or that the last book they published about the Holocaust didn’t sell as well as they hoped. But adoptees are so marginalized that society doesn’t even acknowledge our assertions of marginalization.
While I write for everyone — and hope that everyone will read my work because my themes are universal ones of identity, belonging, and the meaning of family — my ideal readers are not white gatekeepers, or even the general public, but adoptees. It’s not a small, niche target; there are millions of us out there, and many millions more who are part of the adoption constellation, which includes everyone whose life has been touched by adoption.
But I am working against a deeply entrenched narrative that romanticizes orphans, fetishizes foundlings, and has shaped the modern adoption story as a sentimental tale of heartwarming happily-ever-afters. Many people are just not ready to hear that the adoption story is complicated and nuanced, and that the adoptee can hold conflicting attitudes toward adoption; she can appreciate everything adoption has given her (if she’s fortunate) while mourning everything it has taken. The sappy adoption narrative has been so deeply embedded in our culture that even people who have nothing to do with adoption get upset when that narrative is challenged.
Also, gatekeepers are much more likely to be adoptive parents than adoptees, and adoptive parents have long perpetuated the happy adoption narrative and fiercely resisted other interpretations. The only time I’ve received pushback from a book review was from a white adoptive mother furious at the way she was portrayed in a book and my review of it. Like many white people (look at the reaction to the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools), she couldn’t bear losing control of the convenient, flattering narrative she’d spun.
The book I’m writing demands to be created whether it gets published or not. My voice will not be muted by ignorance, prejudice, or market considerations. I know there is an audience out there for this current manuscript, readers who will understand why the book shows through telling, why it’s mostly a narrative in dialogue. I write for them, for myself, and for those who don’t even realize what it is that they’re missing.
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, co-founder of the Adoptee Literary Festival, and a book reviewer.