Tag Archives: Adoption

my chinese roots

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI cannot begin to tell you how relieved I am that my second year in graduate school has just ended!  I’m now taking full advantage of some R & R. Over the summer, I plan to catch up on some reading. Before I explain more, I wanted to go back to my last post, “what’s in a name?“. I completed the paperwork to legally change my middle name to my given birth name, Hsiao-ling; however, upon filing the paperwork at the court, I was informed of a $340 fee attached to the process. I didn’t expect the fee to be so costly and will have to wait to finish this process at a later time. It’s truly disappointing.

Anyhow, I’m embarking on another small adventure. When I first learned about my true identity, I experienced many mixed emotions- shock, surprise, elation but I was also very confused. I know that my birthparents lived in Guangxi (广西), which is situated in the southern part of China. I don’t know when they moved to Taiwan, but know that I was born in Taipei in August 1966, the same month and year that China’s Communist leader, Mao Zedong, launched what became known as the Cultural Revolution. I also know that my birth father served in the military, but do not know to what capacity. I have so many questions, but the path to my past brings up very painful memories for my biological sisters. I am thankful for what my eldest sister was willing to share with me.

ghost brideI decided to take on a reading challenge and am reading books written by Chinese and Taiwanese authors, fiction and non-fiction, or books that depict Chinese culture or history over the summer. Although I was born in Taiwan, my birthparents were originally from China. I just finished reading “The Ghost Bride” by Yangsze Choo. I loved the story – it is a work of fiction with elements of fantasy, folklore, and Chinese culture that I very much enjoyed reading. I learned about some of the superstitions and beliefs in Chinese folklore, especially in regards to the “afterlife” and honoring one’s ancestors. I found it overall to be a very fun and entertaining read. Currently I’m reading “Peony in Love” by Lisa See. See is not a Chinese author, however her works often describe some period of Chinese history and culture. The story is based on actual historical events and goes back to seventeenth-century China after the Manchus seize power and the end of the Ming dynasty. I cannot imagine living under such oppressive conditions for women, who basically had no rights.

good womenI’m concurrently reading “The Good Women of China: hidden voices” by Xinran. Xinran is a Chinese journalist/writer. In the book, she captures through oral histories the voices of several Chinese women, all anynomous, who lived during decades of civil strife in a painfully restrictive society. It is an incredibly moving book. The stories shared by these women with Xinran are heartbreaking. I chose to read this book in order to understand how things may have been for my birth mother, who also suffered many hardships. She lived in China most of her life. I hope to gain a better understanding of what life may have been like for her. Perhaps her story could have been one included in Xinran’s book, but I couldn’t be sure.

The other books that I hope to read over the summer include, “Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love” also by Xinran; “When Huai Flowers Bloom: Stories of the Cultural Revolution” by Shu Jiang Lu; “A Dictionary of Maqiao” by Han Shaogong; “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” by Dai Sijie; “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China” by Chang Jung, and “The Third Son” by Julie Wu, a Taiwanese American author. I don’t know if I’ll get to all of them, but I’m going to try. I’m sure that there are many other Taiwanese authors whom I don’t know of but have written wonderful books. Grace Lin has written several children’s books, one of which I purchased awhile back but have not yet read, “Dumpling Days.”

My roots go back to China where my birthfamily first lived. I don’t know our complete family history, but I think that their move to Taiwan was not under favorable conditions. And I know that their lives in Taiwan were extremely difficult. By summer’s end, I hope to understand a little more about Chinese culture and indirectly about my own biological family or at least what China was like when my birthparents were in their youth. Sadly, I will not be able to travel to Taiwan this year with my own family as I’d planned to visit my sisters and extended family. There’s always 2015 – I do hope I can go back to see my family in Taiwan then. Until then, I will strive to learn more about my origins through reading and research.

what every adoptee wants to know

When I was growing up in Louisiana, one of the questions I was most often asked by others upon learning that I was adopted was, so who are your “real” parents? It was fairly obvious that I was adopted, as I looked nothing like my white parents. I had straight black hair, almond shaped eyes and skin the color of my dad’s morning cup of coffee. Nevertheless, I was always incredulous at such a question each and every time it was asked. My typical response was, “well my parents are my real parents.” Like, duh…My adoptive parents were the only parents I knew. The only parents I would ever know. I have no doubt that many adoptees have encountered such a scenario and perhaps felt the same sentiments. What strikes me now as most peculiar, 47 years after my adoption, is the lack of curiosity I had about my birthparents. It was an apathy I think perpetuated by the secrecy surrounding adoption at the time. My adoptive parents never ever talked about my birth heritage, including the family whence I came. When I was placed for adoption, it was the beginning of the end of my connection to my birth country and to the family I was born into, and after my adoption, all cultural ties were ultimately severed. I would never know that my birth parents were from China, but forced to leave the country and build a new life in Taiwan, that I had two older sisters and an older brother. I believe that my adoptive parents did everything possible to keep my past hidden from me, and for years, it would remain so. Then one day, the truth came out. And when it did, it was the beginning of a new chapter in my life, a journey of discovery. I have never turned back since.

This afternoon, I went with some friends visiting from California to see a movie, ‘Philomena,’ starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. In a word, it was extraordinary. What does a movie have to do with my previous ramblings? Mainly, adoption. It is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who, as a teenager, had a romantic fling with a boy at a carnival and became pregnant. Rejected by her own family, she is sent to a convent where she gives birth to her son, Anthony, and is forced to work in the laundry room with other young girls to work off the penance of their sins. The girls are allowed to see their children for only one hour a day. Here is the gut-wrencher – Philomena, one day, watches helplessly as her three-year-old boy is taken away by a rich American couple without as much as a goodbye. The convent was in the business of selling babies to wealthy Americans and having the young mother’s sign contracts that they could never find out the whereabouts of their children. Fifty years later, Philomena is still tormented by the loss of her son and the desire to find him. She unwittingly connects with a dejected political journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who agrees to help her find her son primarily for the tabloid possibilities of a human interest story. What follows is a tender story of loss, reconciliation, forgiveness and ultimately acceptance.

Judi Dench’s portrayal of Philomena Lee is heartwarming and simply outstanding, as is Steve Coogan’s. I do hope she wins the Golden Globe for Best Actress and Coogan for Best Picture and Screenplay. I loved the film. It’s depiction of the tremendous loss experienced by a woman whose child was taken away from her was so real, I felt the loss as if it were my own. So often adoption is portrayed as a happy event, yet rarely do we see the other side of adoption from the perspective of the birth mother who is forced to relinquish her child. I don’t want to give too much of the film away, but one of the most memorable lines comes when Philomena decides to go to America with Martin Sixsmith in hopes of finding her son. Philomena says, “I’d like to know if Anthony ever thought of me…I’ve thought of him everyday.” Since learning about my birth parents in Taiwan, I’ve wondered if my birth mother ever thought of me. How can it not be so? Philomena answered this question for me. The separation between a mother who is forced to give up her child and the child who is relinquished is a wound that, like all wounds, heals with time, yet leaves a tender spot. I will never know my birth mother – she and my biological father died before I had the chance to meet them. I have often wondered about her, like what her favorite color was, what kind of music she liked, what kind of personality she had, was she happy, did we bond at all while I was still with her? I was told by my sisters in Taiwan that she was a teacher, she enjoyed learning and classical music. Unbeknownst to her, her husband, my biological father, placed me for adoption without her consent. I often wonder how it all happened, if my biological father felt anything at all when he placed me for adoption. My sisters tell me that our mother never talked about what happened, but it deeply affected her. One woman’s sorrow became another one’s joy.

Philomena eventually learns that the life her son attains after his adoption is much more affluent than anything she could have ever provided for him. She recognizes this fact and is happy that he grew up having opportunities that he would not have had otherwise. This is the reason why many adoptees are placed for adoption, including me. It’s quite the phenomenon when you are given everything you could possibly need and want, yet still feel a hole somewhere inside of you, like there is a part of you that’s missing. It’s still there to this day, and it’s Ok. I’ve learned to accept it. There are many other things that make my life fulfilling.

I think that many adoptees wonder why they were given up or abandoned. Questions like, “was it because I was unwanted, was it forced, was I ever thought of afterwards?” are not uncommon. Unfortunately, many adoptees will never know the answers because of a lack of documentation (as in the case of abandonment). Finding my birth family brought me one step closer to the truth and to answering some of those questions.

In the movie, Martin Sixsmith quotes T.S. Eliot toward the end of Philomena’s journey, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  I thought how very apt this quote was. Philemona started her journey of discovery at the convent and, in the end, returns to it. This resonated deeply with me. My journey began in an orphanage in Taiwan. Two years ago, I returned to the city of my birth to be reunited with my biological family. I arrived at the place where it all started, yet only just began to know the place for the first time. Though I will never be able to meet my birth mother, I believe that she thought about me. There is no longer any doubt in my mind.

If you’re looking for an exemplary holiday film, go see ‘Philomena.’

‘Philomena’ Movie Trailer:

national adoption day

NADThe inclement weather yesterday did little to dampen the excitement of National Adoption Day in Maricopa County. On National Adoption Day, courts and communities in the U.S. come together to finalize thousands of adoptions of children. More than 300 events are held each year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving in November in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to finalize the adoptions of children in foster care. More than 40,000 children have been adopted from foster care on National Adoption Day (http://www.maricopanad.org/content/about-us).

The Maricopa County National Adoption Day Foundation was established in 2012. It is a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation, which fundraises, organizes, and runs the National Adoption Day event in Maricopa County each November. The Foundation’s Board Members are 100% volunteer, including all of the judges who preside over the adoption hearings.

This year, my daughter and I joined staff from the agency where I’m currently interning to volunteer at the event. It was a very early morning, as we had to check in at volunteer registration around 8:00 am. It drizzled all the way up to the Durango Juvenile Court Center in Phoenix. I got lost on the way there (typical me), so we were a little bit late. On the way in to the courthouse, we met a young law student, Kalin, who told us he was adopted. We began talking about adoption and about the policies that affect international adoption. We walked to the check-in area together. There were already what looked like hundreds of volunteers dressed in blue T-shirts hard at work setting things up as we entered the courthouse. L and I checked in. Oddly, they did not have me registered to volunteer, but thankfully had L listed. I told them that I had previously been assigned as a Court Guide, so the team leader randomly assigned me to Court #12 on the third floor. This actually turned out to be a small miracle.  L and I headed upstairs to the third floor.

After a briefing on the responsibilities of a Court Guide, L and I waited in front of Court Room #12 for families to arrive. Soon one family arrived and then another. I went downstairs to run a quick errand, and when I returned I noticed a Caucasian woman holding a little Asian girl I guessed to be around the age of one. I became curious because most kids adopted on National Adoption Day are in foster care, and very few Asian children enter foster care. I asked the woman where she adopted her little girl hoping that I wasn’t being too rude or intrusive. She replied, “from Taiwn.” No way! I told her I was also adopted from Taiwan. “I know,” she said, “I have read your blog.” What a surprise! The woman told me that she and her husband had attended our “Somewhere Between” film screening earlier this year. The woman’s husband and parents then arrived, and I immediately recognized her husband, who I remembered speaks fluent Mandarin. What were the chances of an assignment to the very courtroom where their adoption finalization would take place? We all caught up a little, and I thought about how much life had changed for the family since our film screening back in January.

Bolanders

Brian and Sarah’s daughter, Le Le, is 18 months old. They traveled to Taiwan in June 2013 to bring her home to Arizona. Le Le is absolutely beautiful. Within minutes, their attorney arrived and went over the court proceedings. She introduced herself to me, and we were soon ushered into the courtroom. I felt honored to be a very small part of the family’s adoption finalization. After the formal finalization, several pictures were taken by family and by their attorney. It was an exciting occasion, and everyone in the room was smiling from ear to ear. Afterwards, I escorted the family downstairs where a professional photographer was taking pictures of all adoptive families. Sarah told me more about Le Le’s adoption and birth mother, who they were able to connect with via telephone and also plan to keep in contact with. The courthouse had now become a sea of people, and the buzz of animated conversation filled the air. While the family waited to have their picture taken, I took their orders to be certified in the county clerk’s office. I watched as the clerk stamped and sealed their orders and then took the documents back to the family.

Meeting Brian and Sarah and their extended family made the event that more special. I am still blown away that out of all the courtrooms, I was assigned to the one where their adoption finalization occurred. Back in January when we held the film screening, Sarah and Brian were waiting to be matched with a child. Ten months later, they are now parents. I was also deeply touched by another attorney as she cried testifying before the judge on behalf of a 12-year old girl who was being adopted by a single mother. There was a mob of family members crowding the room and looking on. I’m so glad that the family has that kind of support.

National Adoption Day was a memorable event. The children who were being adopted were adopted for the right reasons – they needed loving homes and families due to neglect, abandonment or abuse. For these families, the waiting for finalization is over, but the adventure will continue on.

at the heart of adoption

Heart_ExtraSmallI’ve been interning since August at an adoption and foster care agency that specializes in placing children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned with foster and adoptive families. It’s been interesting. I think what I’m gaining the most at this time is a broadening perspective on adoption. In the past, I’ve been primarily concerned with inter-country and transracial adoption, especially adoption from Asian countries. At the agency, I’m learning about the foster care system and families who want to either foster or adopt children under the care of child protective services (CPS), otherwise known as the foster care system. It’s a very different institution than that of international adoption in many ways. However, in other ways, it’s similar. The similarities between international adoption and the adoption of a child  through CPS are primarily that children have been traumatized and need permanency and adoptive parents need education and support.

It’s been interesting, too, at the agency to encounter different views on adoption. For instance, some have difficulty comprehending why people would adopt outside of the U.S. when there are so many children here in foster care who need loving families. I don’t share that same attitude, however, the number of children in foster care in the U.S. is tragically high. In Arizona alone, one of the highest-ranking states of children in foster care, there are approximately 15,000 children in out-of-home care. On the other hand, it was estimated in 2005 by  UNICEF that there were over 132,000,000 children identified as orphans, children who had lost one or both parents, globally (sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean). UNICEF statistics do not include abandonment or sold and/or trafficked children, and I’m sure that number has increased over the years. According to data released in 2003, an estimated 8,000,000 boys and girls worldwide lived in institutionalized care (http://www.orphanhopeintl.org/facts-statistics/). Alternately, according to the latest available figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), there are about 123,000 orphans in America (http://www.orphancoalition.org/new/foster-care.php). The U.S. population is around 317,023,906 (U.S. Census Bureau). Any way you shake it, the number of orphans and children in out-of-home care world-wide is staggering. It’s an enormous issue of social and political concern.

Within child welfare circles, we often hear the phraseology, “in the best interest of the child.” But what does that mean exactly? Essentially it means that the health and safety of the child physically, emotionally and psychologically come first and foremost. I say that because I think that there are misconceptions about adoption. It is a way to expand families and is an option for couples who have experienced infertility, but, more than anything else, adoption should be for the child, not the adoptive parents. In other words, the motivation for those seeking to adopt should be to care for a child who has, through no fault of his or her own, come into adoption due to the circumstances of abandonment, relinquishment or maltreatment. That is and should be at the heart of adoption.

Adoption is often an exciting endeavor for families, yet there are many risk factors to consider beforehand. Most adopted children have experienced trauma and may have difficulties with bonding and attachment and/or problems with behavior and emotions. It’s a fact. As an adoptive parent, are you prepared to handle such challenges long-term? Are you willing to go above and beyond BEFORE the adoption to educate yourself on issues of race and culture if your adopted child is of a different race and ethnicity? How will you handle rejection, bonding and attachment difficulties, caring for a child with a physical and/or psychological disability? What tools and strategies will you equip yourself with  to help your adopted child face racism and discrimination, and how will you as a family respond? What opportunities will you seek to help your adopted child stay connected to his or her birth culture, and how will you respond to your adopted child’s curiosity about his or her birth family? How will you foster open communication with your child so that he or she feels comfortable approaching you about such issues? Most adoptive parents I talk with are unprepared for the task of raising a child adopted internationally, or taken by surprise by some of the challenges they’ve experienced, and some parents I’ve spoken to who have adopted children through CPS express similar sentiments. Parenting in and of itself is obviously a difficult task, but parenting an adopted child has special challenges. Proactive is always better than reactive.

November is National Adoption Month. Adoption provides permanency, love and stability for children who have been orphaned, relinquished or abused. But, what is disturbing is the naivete surrounding adoption and the lack of substantial support for adoptive parents post-adoption, at least for those families who have adopted children internationally. I’m happy that stricter policies have been put into place for inter-country adoption to ensure ethical practices by adoption agencies. But so much more could and should be done to educate adoptive families pre-adoption and support families post-adoption. It is my hope that positive changes will continue to be made legislatively for international adoption and that adoptive parents will proactively seek education and support both pre- and post- adoption.

an interview with author, mridula koshy

koshy authorIn my last post, I reviewed Mridula Koshy’s debut novel, Not Only the Things That Have Happened. I was so intrigued with the book that I asked Mridula if she would be open to an interview, and she graciously said yes. I hope that you will read the interview below in its entirety. Mridula shares not only her thoughts on the book, but on important social issues  especially as they pertain to women (including video footage). I would like to thank Mridula for taking time out for the interview. 

Could you tell us a little about yourself and what led you to writing?

I grew up hearing I would become a writer. This was presented as an inevitable future for a talker like me. What scared me was the other connection drawn – to my aunt, Mary John Thottam, a well-known poet in Kerala, India.  I was frightened by this idea of writing as a family trait surfacing in the same way a pudgy nose might every generation or so. What if my parents were mistaken and I wasn’t nearly smart enough to be a writer.

At thirty-five, it was no longer an option to turn my back on something that felt like my re-entry ticket to home. Back in Delhi after a twenty year stay in the US, this talker no longer knew anyone in a town so intensely alive with talk that ‘belonging’ depended on gaining entry into the conversation. I was home with my youngest child, my dear daughter who had just turned three a year after joining the family. It was too soon to enroll her in school and to seek full time work outside the home. I began writing as a way to enter the conversation and found to my relief that writing is no more dependent on inherited genius than it is on inspiration. Paper, pencil and disciplined engagement is all it takes.

What inspired you to write, Not Only the Things That Have Happened?

The ethical and legal problems with inter-country adoption were hard to escape once I became intimately aware of them through my experience of adopting my daughter. When I began work on Not Only the Things That Have Happened, I knew a critique of inter-country adoption would be one of the book’s reasons for being. I also knew this book would be would be a fictional work, that is to say it would not be my family’s story. In fiction I could access the historical and political story of adoption, and as well characters whose circumstances called for more courage and more imagination than I have ever had to summon.

In the story, “time” is a character. Can you talk about how this character is central to the theme of the story?

Toward the end of my protagonist Annakutty’s life she lies on her deathbed struggling to see her life. Her eleven-year-old niece, Nina, tells her that although the sun is indeed too bright and wavery and impossible to see, she can draw it. She draws the sun not by trying to see it as it is, but by trying to see it as she imagines it is. So she draws it “with two eyes and a nose and a smile on its face…by imagining about the sun.”

Not Only the Things That Have Happened is not a book about life as it is. It is about how I imagine life is – for Annakutty and Asa and a host of others. One reason the book is structured in a somewhat non-linear fashion is because linearity is only one way to imagine life. By imagining it anew I open myself to the possibility and usefulness of the many other ways in which it can be imagined.

Asa’s story is the story of someone plucked from the narrative of his life, displaced from the story he tells himself about himself first in his mother-tongue, Malayalam, when he is a baby, then in Hindi as a four year old street child in Delhi, and finally in English when he is adopted as a nine year old by his American family. Time is born and dies with each of these narratives as Asa is effaced again and again. There is no linear order for Asa and inevitably there can be none for the writer or the reader.

Can you tell us more about the title of the book and its significance to the story?

I remember the first stories in my life were always about ‘Once upon a time’ and this phrase I think is an important marker of the effort to contain the uncontainable, to contain the things that happened. The best of the stories hinted at or at least begged the question of what happened twice upon a time and thrice. They hinted at how untidy stories actually are.

The story of inter-country adoption is a contained and tidy story. It has a ‘once upon a time,’ the act of adoption, as its arbitrary beginning and permits itself no other ending but ‘happily ever after.’ This story of the things that have happened begs the question of what might be found if one were to look at ‘not only the things that have happened.’

Outside of literature, when a young adoptee asks the adoptive parent ‘Why did she leave me,” or “Will I ever see her again,” or “Is she alright,” and “my brothers and sisters, are they alright, do I have any,” the narrative breaks. The compassionate adoptive parent answers these questions with an attempt to comfort even as she imparts the painfully uncomfortable truth, “I don’t know.” In fiction, it is possible to complicate “I don’t know” with knowing. Though Asa doesn’t know whether his first mother lives or dies, the reader knows. Though Annakutty doesn’t know whether Asa thrives or suffers, we know.

The young Annakutty falls in love with a young man who does not marry her and then has a child out of wedlock. She experiences stigmatization and is ostracized by her family and community, her head is shaved and at one point her clothes confiscated to keep her under control. How common are such practices?  

Annakutty walks naked through her town in a dangerous act of defiance.  This cannot be characterised  as a common form of protest, but neither is it unknown. Here is a video of a woman who as an act of protest walked in her underclothes through the city. Notice the baseball bat in her hand. http://ibnlive.in.com/news/woman-strips-walks-in-city-against-dowry-demand/44089-3.html. Perhaps the most famous image of woman using their nudity to protest their oppression is this one in which a group of Manipuri women protest the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows the Indian Army to act with impunity in some parts of the country where civil rights have been suspended, resulting in rape and other atrocities by the army. http://www.commondreams.org/headlines04/0719-03.htm

It will take too long to answer the question of how women are oppressed in India. Suffice it to say patriarchy is alive and well here, as elsewhere, although it takes some unique turns here. But whether manifested uniquely or otherwise, patriarchy looks different in different parts of this huge and diverse country. For example, the birth ratio of baby girls to boys is skewed by selective abortions in one half of the country but not in the other half. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/oct/10/indias-women-mixed-truth/?page=2

Annakutty raises her son alone and eventually makes the heart wrenching decision to relinquish him around the age of four to tourists passing through. What is it, ultimately, that forces her to make this difficult decision?

The long answer to the question of what forces Annakutty to relinquish her son is in the 350 pages of the novel. The short answer is she relinquishes him because someone shows up to adopt him. She withstands a tremendous amount of pressure to be done with her child, pressure that includes an attempt to kill her child in the delivery room, and pressure that has resulted in her terrible isolation from her family and community, isolation she fears will be visited on her child as he grows. But until someone comes to adopt her child, she continues to struggle with the circumstances of her life, agonizing over what to feed him on his birthday as any mother anywhere of any circumstance will. Absent the pressure of adoption, she would in all likelihood have continued to struggle to provide for him.

Annakutty regrets her decision throughout her lifetime as she remembers and even tries to search for her son. How does this story speak to other birth mothers who are forced to relinquish a child(ren)?

Annakutty is left with little besides regret. What legal recourses does she or any birthmother have? How does her economic poverty and the beliefs of those around her equip her to fight for her child? It does not. Of course, as readers will find, Annakutty does not stop at weeping over her loss. She may not be able to rewrite the rules of the engagement, but engage she does with life, above all by grappling the question of how she will live with her loss.

I think regret is real for everyone in the triad. Adoptive parents are regretful and even remorseful that the very circumstances which allow them to become parents are also the circumstances which leave them unable to answer their children’s most anguished questions. Loss marks all the relationships in the triad, and this loss extends beyond the triad.  Recently, the Australian government apologized to women who were coerced in the past to give their children up for adoption. This coercion was cultural and political. The apology is an acknowledgment that regret is not just a birth mother’s obligation. It is from the owning up to our regret that we can step toward the kind of legal reform that is needed in inter-country adoption.

Annakutty suffers many losses in her life, yet possesses a certain strength and dignity despite her painful circumstances. From your perspective, what gives Annakutty such resilience in the face of her experiences? Would you consider her a heroine? If so, in what ways?

Annakutty’s powerlessness is not far from the experience of most women on the planet today.  I’d like to believe she is a heroine in the way most women are: she tells the truth, the complicated truth, regardless of her inability to command an audience for it. She does not, for example embrace the idea her neighbours offer her – that her child is lucky for being adopted,  that he has gone to “a good life such as none of us can give our children.” She fights for the return of her child whom she herself handed over to another family.  Gretchen, who is the child’s first adoptive mother, is another example of this courage I admire in women. Late in life she voices the difficult truth that “she made a huge mistake.” The child she saw calling to her in her dreams, the child she was forced to abort, cannot be replaced by a child she adopts. Gretchen has no one with whom she can share her regrets, no way to correct the mistake she made. Her courage is evidenced in the endless calls she makes to random toll-free numbers in India, an attempt to find the child she adopted and lost.
Asa, Annakutty’s son, struggles to remember the events that led up to his relinquishment and is frustrated by the lack of information available to him. This manifests in anger and a deep sense of loss, which greatly affects his life and relationships with significant others. From your perspective, how do the losses experienced by adoptees shape who they become?

I don’t believe Asa is condemned to a life of anger and nothing but anger. He is shown in the novel attempting to love and to be loved, for example in his relationship with his daughter. This work of loving which is painful and filled with risk for most of us is made more painful for Asa by the fact that he has no narrative to explain the loss of his first love, his mother.  Barred access to this narrative, he needs at least an acknowledgement of this loss if he is to ever sustain himself in the work of loving his daughter. Even given such an acknowledgment, many adoptees will struggle with anger as they encounter each new loss life brings them. Some of the new losses will be related directly to the original loss. Other losses (the loss of a lover or a job) may not be directly related to the original loss, but will recall its helplessness.  Some adoptees do not accept the idea of loss as a recurring event in life. Others are vocal in their acceptance of this idea. And certainly society with its celebratory embrace of adoption cannot accept the idea that loss is a part of adoption.

At the end of the story, Asa decides not to go to India to search for some of the missing pieces to his past, yet leaves the airport having gained some insights about his life. Do you foresee Asa returning to India one day to search for answers? And, in the book, nearly all of the characters experience some sort of loss, including Asa’s adoptive parents, Marge and David. How does loss factor into the theme of the story?

Oh my gosh, I really don’t know about Asa returning to India. I write to discover answer to the questions I don’t have answers for. I would have to write another story to find out if Asa ever makes it to India. In writing Not Only the Things That Have Happened, I wanted to answer a different question: how can a person live with profound loss and disruption? And of course I wanted to know, how can a parent leave their child? Can a child recover?  I found in Annakutty’s story a remarkable example of someone who lived and lived well by allowing loss to remain with her, to keep faith with that loss. She does not give in to the pressure to put it behind her. Whether Asa is scamming old ladies into adopting him or scamming himself into thinking that he need not be a parent to his daughter, his life seems to be a dizzying scramble to escape loss.

Readers will quarrel with the disappointment of not being able to see Asa return to India. Instead of the music soaring as the curtain falls there will only be the static of CNN’s botched weather report, the man snoring in the seat next to Asa, the whoosh of the revolving door ushering Asa out of the airport and  into the rest of his unknown life. In the first pages of the novel, Anakutty’s niece Nina exits the stories Anakutty likes to tell about her Lost Boy because Nina dreads the way they all end in the unknown.  I hope that forewarned by Annakuttys death on the first page, readers will know this is not a story about reconciliation. I hope readers will wonder as I did what one can take away from a story that ends in the unknown. Perhaps uneasiness. And uneasiness is useful. Perhaps a little bit of the sense I gained writing this book that even the unknown future is not entirely unknowable. Annakutty certainly believed in keeping faith with her loss, which cannot be read as anything but faith in her future.

What would you like most for readers to take away from the book?

Two things actually, the first is a political and the second a literary/philosophical objective. One, we need to reform inter-country adoption and two, our narratives must of necessity be as complicated as the stories we hope to tell.

Visit Mridula Koshy’s facebook page here

Purchase Not Only the Things That Have Happened on Amazon.com

book review: not only the things that have happened

“If it is real, you can remember not only the things that have happened, but also the things that are going to happen.”  —Annakutty Verghese

Harper Collins (India, 2012)

Mridula Koshy’s debut novel, Not Only the Things That Have Happened, is not a tale for the faint-hearted. It is a story that explores the impact of adoption, oppression, loss and identity. Koshy’s prose and storytelling is hauntingly beautiful and speaks directly to the heart. It is not a quick read, but one that invokes thought, and as such, is an important and compelling work.

At the center of the story is Annakutty Verghese, an aged, dying woman who desperately clings to life as thoughts of the son she relinquished 30 years ago linger within her memory. Annakutty was coerced into giving up her beloved son and regrets this decision the rest of her life. She constantly relives her brief time with him by telling stories to her niece, Nina. Annakutty’s greatest hope is that her Lost Boy, Madhu, will return to her, a hope that never diminishes even until her death.

Divided into two halves, the story takes place in Kerala, India and in the Midwestern U.S. and spans a period of 36-hours. The story of Annakutty is featured in the first half and that of Annakutty’s son, renamed Asa Gardner by his adoptive parents, in the second. We transition back and forth between the present and the past as the memories of various characters whose lives intersect are recollected. This can be a bit confusing, yet it is through this interweaving of past and present that Koshy so masterfully creates a multi-layered story of memories, loss and longing.

In Part 1, we travel back to Annakutty’s life as an adolescent. The sixteen-year old Annakutty falls in love with a young man from her stepmother’s village. Her family, particularly her stepmother, disapproves and Annakutty is sent away to a convent, but not without first suffering much degradation and scorn. At the convent, she has a child out of wedlock with a priest, which brings more shame upon the young Annakutty. Eventually, she is convinced to give up her son when he is four years old. She later takes in her niece, Nina, and even marries, which brings a certain happiness back into Annakutty’s life, though she never gives up hope of finding her Madhu.

In Part 2, we travel a world away to meet Asa Gardner, formerly Madhu, who is now a grown man. We learn that Asa’s life has been characterized by instability. After his relinquishment to a German couple visiting India, he becomes lost at the train station where he and his new family are to depart. We are led to believe, however, that this was not an accident. The young Asa soon joins a group of homeless boys, his “brothers,” who live on the railroad platform until he is rescued by agency workers. He is eventually adopted by an American couple. Asa’s struggles continue even after his adoption, and he has great difficulty assimilating to his new life. After a devastating family tragedy, Asa leaves home for good only to return to what is familiar- living on the streets and begging. Time passes and Asa marries, but becomes estranged from his wife and has a disconnected relationship with their young daughter. At the root of Asa’s turmoil is the lack of any tangible history, in essence, a lack of true identity. With only fragmented memories of his past, Asa wanders like a lost soul, searching for missing pieces and reinventing stories to fill in the gaps.

On a much deeper level, the story of Annakutty and Asa speaks to a larger issue, the social institution of adoption, and begs the question, is adoption really the best option for children from disadvantaged backgrounds? I have conflicted feelings on this issue. The point of contention for me begins with the separation of a mother and her child due to coercion, or because an unwed mother feels that she has no other options. Furthermore, that such exorbitant fees are required to adopt a child from another country is difficult for me to grasp. I cannot undo my own past and recognize that I had privileges growing up that I would not have had otherwise. On the flip side, I will never know my birth parents, nor ever feel fully integrated into my culture of origin. It is an emotional injury that rears its ugly head now and again. Although adopted children flourish in adoptive homes, the disparity between losses and gains is traumatic. Often the only picture one gets of adoption is a romanticized one. Some adoptees are Ok with this disconnect. For me, it is not that black and white.

In the end, my heart broke for Annakutty and Asa. They both lived on the hope that one day they would reconnect, and there is something to be said of Annakutty’s unwavering hope that her son would return, though this never occurs. I could relate to Asa in many way- his losses and struggle to put a narrative to his unknown past. An element of grief seeps heavily into much of the story, as most of the characters experience a great loss. I didn’t mind the sadness, quite the opposite. There was an underlying rawness that pulled me deeper into the story and gave it a true sense of realism. I encourage you to read Not Only the Things That Have Happened. It is a powerful read and one that will leave a lasting impression.

Not Only the Things That Have Happened may be purchased on Amazon.com.

Mridula Koshy is an Indian writer and lives in New Delhi, India and Portland, Oregon with her poet-school teacher partner and three children. She is also an adoptive mother. Please visit her website at http://mridulakoshy.blogspot.com/.

Koshy’s short-story collection, If It Is Sweet, won the 2009 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and was shortlisted for the 2009 Vodafone Crossword Book Award, an Indian literary award.

Next post, an interview with Mridula Koshy! 

life books

Last month at a training I attended for foster and adoptive parents, the subject of life books was discussed. The facilitators explained that for a child being fostered, a life book provides an important connection to the child’s birth family until he or she is reunified with them. Pictures of the biological family and special events are typically included in the book. The idea is that as the child grow, the foster family continues to add things to the life book. It is a link to the child’s roots and a history of his/her past and present.

During the training, a sample life book was passed around the room. I watched as prospective adoptive and foster parents thumbed through the pages. I then began to think of the overwhelming number of internationally adopted children who may never be privy to any information regarding their biological families. No pictures of their birth parents or siblings, no physical link to their cultural roots. A hollow feeling, one that I can now identify as loss, expanded right in the middle of my chest as I was reminded that I will never have the opportunity to meet my own birth parents. Yes, it is a tremendous loss even though my adoptive parents are who I consider to be my parents. I am grateful that my biological sisters gave me pictures of our parents when I was in Taiwan. Just to have a few pictures of my birth parents is something significant and that I now have a connection with my birth family is beyond words. I am truly grateful that my adoptive mom kept my adoption contract and many other things pertaining to my adoption, although they remained hidden for many years.

Before I left for my trip to Taiwan, I started my own “life book” mainly to share with my sisters. I included my adoption contract, some of the documents I found with it, and pictures of my adoptive family, school pictures, holiday photos, and pics of my husband and daughter. I remember that first evening in Taiwan and showing my sisters the album after dinner. They saw just a small glimpse of what my life was like with my adoptive family. The years my sisters and I spent apart and the disconnect between my cultural and Western roots suddenly became so very real. How can I express the significance of finding my birth family and establishing a connection with my birth heritage? To say that it was a pivotal turning point is an understatement.

My life as an adoptee began with loss. Though I don’t spend everyday thinking about or feeling such loss, every once in awhile I allow myself to go there. It doesn’t overwhelm me or send me into a huge state of depression – most of the time. It’s more a time of self-reflection. It’s an important part of who I am, and I accept that. Yet, it’s not something that can ever be easily captured in a life book.

australian government apologizes for forced adoptions

“Today, this Parliament, on behalf of the Australian people, takes responsibility and apologises for the policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies, which created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering…” National Apology for Forced Adoptions by Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia, March 21, 2013

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Photo: Lukas Coch, European Photopress Agency

Adoption has gotten a lot of rap in the media lately. Unfortunately, not the kind of rap that tells of happy “forever families.” They are stories of adoption that have gone tragically awry. I’m speaking of the Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (Veronica) and the Hana Williams cases, both heart wrenching in their own right. There is yet another story that has captured my attention and that of other adoptees. It’s of a national apology issued on March 21, 2013 by former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to birth mothers/fathers, adoptees, and others affected by forced adoptions that took place in Australia primarily during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The excerpt above is the opening sentence of the apology delivered by Gillard. I was intrigued, first of all, that a government would publicly take responsibility for their share in such a scandal and apologize, but also seek to make reparations to those whose lives have been irreversibly affected. Second, I wanted to know how these events occurred, what has changed since in adoption practice, what prompted the government to finally act, and what is currently being done?

“We deplore the shameful practices that denied you, the mothers, your fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children. You were not legally or socially acknowledged as their mothers. And you were yourselves deprived of care and support. To you, the mothers who were betrayed by a system that gave you no choice and subjected you to manipulation, mistreatment and malpractice, we apologise. We say sorry to you, the mothers who were denied knowledge of your rights, which meant you could not provide informed consent. You were given false assurances. You were forced to endure the coercion and brutality of practices that were unethical, dishonest and in many cases illegal. We know you have suffered enduring effects from these practices forced upon you by others. For the loss, the grief, the disempowerment, the stigmatisation and the guilt, we say sorry.” National Apology for Forced Adoptions by Julia Gillard, March 21, 2013

Recently, a national research study was conducted by a team of Australian researchers to examine experiences of past adoption practices as they relate to the current support and service needs of affected individuals. It was a mixed methods study utilizing a series of large-scale quantitative surveys and in-depth qualitative interviews with those affected by closed adoption (in Australia), including birth mothers and fathers, adoptees, adoptive parents and extended family members. The researchers also engaged with representative bodies, service providers and relevant professionals, including psychologists, counselors and social workers.

According to the study, adoption practice in Australia from the mid-20th century was enshrouded in secrecy, and the concept of having a “clean break” from the birth parents was idealized as the right solution. Unwed single women who were pregnant were encouraged–rather forced–to “give up” their babies for adoption. These women were stigmatized as “unfit” mothers due to their status as single, unwed and pregnant. The adoption practices at that time were referred to as “closed adoption.”  This meant that an adopted child’s original birth certificate was sealed forever and an amended birth certificate issued that established the child’s new identity and relationship with their adoptive family. Legislative changes in the 1960s tightened these secrecy provisions, ensuring that neither party, the birth mother nor adoptive family, saw each other’s names. At its peak in 1971–72, there were almost 10,000 adoptions in Australia. It has been cited that more than 250,000 Australian women had “relinquished” a baby for adoption since the late 1920s, although it is not known what proportion of these adoptions involved force, coercion, or other unethical or illegal behaviors (Kenny, P. Higgins, D., Soloff, C., Sweid, R. (2012). Past adoption experiences: National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices. Research Report 21. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. ISBN 978-1-922038-05-0).

Mothers who were coerced into closed adoptions were subjected to unauthorized separation from their children, later to become known as “forced adoption.” From the 1970s, advocacy led to legislative reforms that overturned the secrecy within adoption, such as mothers receiving identifying information. However, it was not until further changes were made in the 1980s (1990s in some Australian jurisdictions) that information on birth parents was made available to adopted children/adults. Further changes took place in 1976 when state/territory-based registers were established for both birth parents and adopted children who wished to make contact. And, in 1984, Victoria implemented legislation granting adopted persons over the age of 18 the right to access their birth certificate (subject to mandatory counseling). Similar changes followed in other states/territories.

In the study, birth mothers reported numerous accounts of maltreatment including, “experiences of abuse or negligence by hospital and/or maternity home staff, administration of drugs that impaired their capacity, lack of the ability to give or revoke consent, not being listened to about their preferences, and being made to feel unworthy or incapable of parenting, particularly from authority figures.” Physicians and nurses used highly unethical methods to prevent mothers from seeing their babies, such as not allowing the mother to hold or feed the baby. They frequently lied to mothers telling them that their babies had died, did not allow a mother to see the baby through active shielding with a sheet or other physical barrier during birth, or removed the baby or mother from the ward immediately after birth. The traumatization of these experiences caused  many mothers to feel emotions such as grief, loss, shame and secrecy surrounding their experiences. The next excerpt is just one of several accounts from young mothers who share their painful stories. Please be advised before reading it that the information contained here may cause distress for some.

“I have gone through my life feeling guilty about my daughter being given up to adoption … If only I was able to have more support instead of being forced … From the time my hands were shackled to the bed to stop me from touching my baby’s head while she was being born, and pillows and sheets being put over my face until I was in a drug-enforced sleep to stop me from being a nuisance … Then the memory of waking up in a ward with three other young girls, … all in the same position as me … That room had baby weighing scales in there … The nurses brought babies in there to weigh them … We would all sit up and try and see the babies … We were all told not to bother because the babies weren’t ours … I will never ever forget that!!! I couldn’t understand why we were in that room … How could another human being be so cruel to another … Such painful memories.” (Kenny, P. Higgins, D., Soloff, C., Sweid, R. (2012)Past adoption experiences: National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices. Research Report 21. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. ISBN 978-1-922038-05-0).

As I continued to explore the information available about this dark period in adoption history, it reminded me of other horrific events that have occurred in the past that were later brought to the surface. I know that no one was sent to the gas chamber, yet so many young, frightened women were tortured psychologically, emotionally, and even physically in a way that most of us have not nor ever will be. And that the Australian government was willing to acknowledge such abuse is quite amazing to me. I have to admit that I was somewhat skeptical as to why the government was now taking responsibility, but the fact that they did so is a step closer toward healing for all those many, many individuals affected.

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Photo: Lukas Coch, European Photopress Agency

“We recognise that the consequences of forced adoption practices continue to resonate through many, many lives. To you, the siblings, grandparents, partners and other family members who have shared in the pain and suffering of your loved ones or who were unable to share their lives, we say sorry. Many are still grieving. Some families will be lost to one another forever. To those of you who face the difficulties of reconnecting with family and establishing ongoing relationships, we say sorry. We offer this apology in the hope that it will assist your healing and in order to shine a light on a dark period of our nation’s history. To those who have fought for the truth to be heard, we hear you now. We acknowledge that many of you have suffered in silence for far too long.” National Apology for Forced Adoptions by Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, March 21, 2013

So what are the next steps? Following the national apology by Prime Minister Gillard, the National Archives established a project team to deliver a website, exhibition and education program with 2 main purposes: to increase awareness and understanding of experiences of individuals affected by forced adoption practices and to identify and share experiences of forced adoption. The Forced Adoptions History Project website was launched in March 2014. At this website, a link is provided for individuals who would like to share their stories, which may be included in the project. In 2015, an exhibition will follow to be launched at the National Archives in Canberra. And last but not least, as part of her apology, Prime Minister Gillard announced that $5 million (£3.4 million) would be provided to improve access to specialist support and to help records-tracing and mental health care for those affected by forced adoption. Surely this cannot repair all of the damage suffered by so many women. Yet it is a step in the right direction.

I hope that as a result of the national apology issued by the Australian government, mothers who were forced to give up their children find some solace in knowing that their pain, grief, and loss has at last been acknowledged. That they were in no way at fault, that their voices deserve to be heard, and that reparations must be made. I fear that unethical practices in international adoption continue to exist in certain parts of the country and that the only way to prevent this immorality is to advocate, advocate, advocate for ethical adoption practices. There is more that must be done. To birth mothers everywhere who have been forced to give up a child, I grieve with you and wish you a lifetime of healing.

Read the entire National Apology for Forced Adoptions issued by former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard here.

Read the full National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices: Final report here. It may take a few minutes to download, as it’s a large file.