I used to think a story had a beginning, middle, and end. If I have learned nothing else in my decades as an adoptive parent and in my work as an advocate, it’s that a story has multiple beginnings, middles, and endings. It’s rarely a neat package. It’s mostly a work in progress, fluid, subject to change.
Adoptive parents often struggle with telling their children about how and why the children needed to be adopted. Their stories are, by their nature, filled with loss, and often with abuse, poverty, violence, and neglect. How these stories are held, honored, and told can be complicated.
An additional enormous complication is whether the stories are accurate. Another is whether the stories are available to the adopted person, who may search for the people and details that made up his or her life before adoption. What was thought to be The Story can turn out to be something extremely different.
On November 16, I attended the amazing, adoptee-led, adoptee-centric “Reframing the Adoption Discourse” conference sponsored by the Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative and AdopSource. Held in Minnesota, also known as the Land of Gazillion Adoptees, it was a day filled with panels, ideas, and insights.
All the panels (Research, Policy, Mental Health, Performance, Advocacy) were wonderful, and I’ll write about each of them over the next weeks.
Today, I’m going to start with the Performance Panel.
Click on the names to learn more about each talented panelist (poets, writers, dancers, playwrights, spoken word artists):
I’m starting with this panel because they spoke most about stories: not only their own, but also about the nature of stories and storytelling. Katie, Kurt, and Marissa were adopted to the US from Korea. Chad was born in the US, and is African-American. All are transracial adoptees. All are now adults, who have chosen to tell some of their stories through poetry, plays, spoken word, and dance.
I’ve written about Katie before, having seen her powerful one-woman show, N/A.
Here’s a quote from the Minnesota Star Tribune article about Katie:
“All she has is stories, some of which she has made up.”
Katie is an adult. She still doesn’t have the full story of her origins, something most of us take for granted. This lack of information has been particularly complex for Katie around medical issues.
Katie, like Chad, Kurt, and Marissa, has used art as a way to tell and understand her adoption story, even in its incompleteness.
We aren’t talking about Choco, or Horace, or foxes, bears, or the moon anymore. These are the genuine stories of adoptees, who are now adults, still working on understanding and processing the realities of how they started out in one family and were moved to another. In some cases, the doors seemed to have shut firmly on the first family, though the search for truth remains.
For these four, art has been a form of activism around their adoption stories, and around adoption generally. Katie talked about how meeting other Asian-Americans in theater work helped her to better understand herself, and created a community of creativity. Kurt participated in group sports in high school, and said that helped him handle group identity. It was dance, though, that genuinely allowed him to see his body as an individual, to further gain a genuine sense of self. The power of the arts, said Kurt, is that we remember, we create stories, and we create a platform then for talking about stories.
Chad said that, as a black child in a white family, he’d “been performing all along,” and that, for him, “things make sense on stage.” Performance and the arts create an “empowerment narrative,” a storytelling that can be liberating from the harsh realities of racism and isolation, though those are a core part of the story.
Telling stories, according to Katie, is “an interruption, an intervention, to the dominant narrative” of adoption told through other voices in our society, such as adoptive parents and adoption agencies. We need more adoptee voices telling their stories through their art: “we want more intersections” of truth, art, and personal stories, because that “brings strength.”
Marissa spoke about the power of stories to educate, and how telling stories can evolve into activism. When she is in the United States, she said, she is Korean American. When she is in Korea, she is American Korean. That difference informs her art, informs her story, informs her sense of self.
Brilliant, powerful, challenging. So important to be open to deep listening, even of painful truths.
And as Kurt said, “I hope we all dance soon.” Dancing through pain, dancing through closed doors, dancing through joy and healing.