Making Books and Art With Children in Ethiopia

If we fail to educate little children, if we fail to put books in their hands, then we fail to create a foundation for them to rise out of poverty and oppression. What will there be to build on?

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© Maureen McCauley Evans

We were a core group of 8, most of us artists or writers, 6 from the US and 2 from Ethiopia. Just over a month ago, we traveled together from Addis to Maji, a small, rural area about 350 miles southwest of the Ethiopian capital, then back to Addis. We were part of an Ethiopian Odyssey, one goal of which was to create colorful, culturally appropriate books for young children in Ethiopia.

While we were traveling to and from Maji, and during our week there, all of us were writing, sketching, drawing, taking photos, and reflecting on what and who we saw. Ethiopia Reads has been a trailblazer in raising awareness about literacy and libraries for children. Long time Ethiopia Reads leader and prolific author Jane Kurtz, a pivotal Odyssey crew members, spoke at a well-attended public lecture in Addis about the tremendous need for colorful, culturally appropriate books for pre-readers, the toddlers and little kids who can (must) engage with books that start them on the path to reading. The books for these early readers are scarce in Ethiopia, and we are hoping to change that.

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Jane Kurtz and Caroline Kurtz, a dynamic duo. © Maureen McCauley Evans

On Saturday February 6, we had an amazing book-making event. Children from the International Community School in Addis attended; they were Ethiopian, Canadian, American, Indian, Chinese, and more. Ethiopian children who are part of one of Ethiopia Reads’ Addis libraries also came for the “field trip” by bus. Some had lots of experience with art; some had none at all.

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© Maureen McCauley Evans

Our goal was to talk with the kids: How do we write stories? And then: Let’s make  illustrations! We worked with a Ethiopian proverbs, including “Turina keessatt killen millaan adeemti. By persevering, the egg walks on legs.” The kids did all kinds of drawings as they figured out how to tell stories.

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© Maureen McCauley Evans

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© Maureen McCauley Evans

I worked with dozens of children using tissue paper collage. They used their imaginations and their life experiences to make rockets, flowers, spiders, butterflies, mountains, trees, and more.

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© Maureen McCauley Evans

tissue paper collage

© Maureen McCauley Evans

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© Maureen McCauley Evans

Now our task is to take the stories and art of these young people and create books that will be in (we hope) at least two languages, English and Amharic, but also in many of the other languages spoken and read in Ethiopia. We will put the books in the libraries of Ethiopia Reads, and (we hope) in other sites as well. It’s a big, costly project. My fellow travelers on the Ethiopian Odyssey are up for the challenge. The art created and donated by Stephanie Schlatter, Troy Zaushny, Yacob Bizuneh, and Nahosenay Negussie as a result of our time in Maji and on the road will be exhibited and sold this fall.

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L-r: Nahosenay Negussie, Stephanie Schlatter, Troy Zaushny, Jacob Bizuneh; in Maji January 2016 © Maureen McCauley Evans

My photographs will also be donated for this fundraising effort to bring books to little children. This is one:

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© Maureen McCauley Evans

I will post more info about the exhibitions as we nail down dates and venues. On one level, this was a life-changing adventure by artists to create books by children for children in Ethiopia. On another level, it’s a way to create hope. It is, maybe, a way to build a world that is based in literacy and beauty. Small steps, I know. Still.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazing Resource for Young Adoptees: Creating Home

Anyone connected with adoption is aware of the need, value, and scarcity of post-adoption resources, especially for teens and college-age young people. It’s a complicated, vulnerable time for figuring out identity, independence, and values for any adolescent/young adult, and often especially so for adoptees.

How about an opportunity to be with other young adoptees as well as with adopted adults/mentors and accomplished artists from many fields, sharing stories, creating art, and building community?

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Creating Home will be a great new resource aimed at connecting young adoptees with artists (many of whom are also adoptees) to tell their stories and explore their realities in a safe, affirming way. The pilot project is beginning in Minnesota, and will hopefully be replicated in many other places. The need is there–let’s get this into action.

An excerpt from the Kickstarter page:

Creating Home is a multidisciplinary storytelling program for teen and college age adoptees, and is driven by the idea that finding one’s voice through the arts can be an empowering experience. The three month pilot program will feature world-class teaching artist mentors (like the artists, actors, and writers featured in our video), interactive workshops, performance opportunities, and much more. It will serve as a space to affirm identity and build community in whatever ways that makes sense to the participants. Whether through spoken-word, visual art, dance, or other forms, the teen and college age adoptee participants will be given tools and resources to tell their stories and talk about their thoughts and perspectives on their own terms.

Sun Mee Chomet: actor/playwright. adoptee, featured in Coming Home Kickstarter video

Sun Mee Chomet: actor/playwright. adoptee, featured in Coming Home Kickstarter video

As the adoptive parent of 4 now-young adults (all in their mid-late 20’s now!), I know that this program would have been embraced by them, and would have been extremely useful to them. It brings young adoptees together in a creative, active way. It’s a partnership with COMPAS (Community Programs In the Arts), Land of Gazillion Adoptees, and the hip hop artist/activist/slam poetry champion Guante. Creating Home meets a huge, gaping need in the adoption community.

And it needs your support! Please take a look at the Kickstarter page and make a donation. Adoption agency professionals, adoptive parents, adult adoptees, artists, performers, photographers, poets, anyone who cares about solid, appropriate, meaningful resources for young adoptees–please join me in Creating Home.

 

Telling Genuine Adoption Stories

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.

(L to R) Katie Hae Leo, Kurt Blomberg, Chad Goller-Sojourner, Marissa Lichwick-Glesne, and (facilitator) Kevin Haeboom Vollmers

(L to R) Katie Hae Leo, Kurt Blomberg, Chad Goller-Sojourner, Marissa Lichwick-Glesne, and (facilitator) Kevin Haeboom Vollmers

Click on the names to learn more about each talented panelist (poets, writers, dancers, playwrights, spoken word artists):

Katie Hae Leo

Kurt Blomberg

Chad Goller-Sojourner

Marissa Lichwick-Glesne

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.

Chinese Baby Girls and Terracotta Soldiers

China’s One Child law, which took effect in 1979, has meant that couples with more than one child would be fined or otherwise punished, There is a cultural preference for boys in China, and so girls have often been abandoned (or aborted or murdered). A trickle of adoptions from China began in the early 1980’s. Some 70,000 Chinese baby girls have arrived in the US for adoption since the early 1990’s. Thousands more were adopted to Canada, western Europe, and Australia. Most were under 3 years old, so most are now reaching adulthood.

The One Child law has created controversy in terms of ethics and economics; these controversies are familiar territory for international adoption as well. The policy has also, not surprisingly, created a range of responses from poets, filmmakers, writers, sculptors, and other artists, in China and around the globe.

You’ve perhaps heard of the astonishing Terracotta Army, a huge collection of sculptures buried underground in Xi’an with the first emperor of China, around 210 BC. They were discovered in 1974, and consist of over 8,000 soldiers, plus chariots, horses, and more. A Wikipedia article called “Terracotta Army” is here. If you are in Bern, Switzerland, you can see “Qin–The eternal emperor and his terracotta warriors” on display through November 7, 2013, at. The warriors will be on display at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in May 2014. The Indy museum is the world’s largest children’s museum, by the way. Of course, the best place to view the warriors is in Xi’an itself, of course. It was a TripAdvisor.com Travelers Choice 2013 Winner.

So what is the connection among art, Chinese baby girls, and the Terracotta Army?

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A BBC article “How Chinese art explores its one-child policy” explains. Here’s the introduction:

“Huiyun started her life in the garbage. As an unwanted baby girl, her parents abandoned her in the poor province where she was born in central China. There, a pair of refuse collectors found her with her umbilical cord still attached. They kept her, bringing her up as their own.

Huiyun is now 12 years old, and life has taken a turn for the better. This year she became one of eight models featured in provocative French artist Prune Nourry’s new exhibition Terracotta Daughters, now showing in Shanghai’s Gallery Magda Danysz. An exploration of China’s skewed sex ratio, the exhibition dishes up a new version of a national treasure − with a twist. Nourry has fashioned more than one hundred sculptures in the same clay, and using the same techniques, as the ancient Terracotta Warriors, the famous collection of sculptures representing the armies of the first Emperor of China. But instead of producing a brigade of soldiers, the artist has created an army of schoolgirls. They symbolise China’s millions of missing women.”

You can find the rest of the BBC article here.

I do want to note that while the title of the BBC article is “How Chinese art explores its one-child policy,” the sculptor of the Terracotta Daughters is a French artist currently based in Brooklyn. Prune Nourry in 2010 exhibited work titled “Holy Daughters,” which drew “parallels between the cow, sacred animal and symbol of fertility in India, and the depreciated condition of women.”

As a writer and artist, I find this work evocative and challenging.  “An army of school girls.” Terracotta Daughters: yet whose daughters are they? And of course, there is an army of Chinese adult adoptees as well, and I mean that in the most empowering and respectful sense. Baby girls, and adopted children, grow up. Some choose to travel back to China, to  explore the culture, to search for family, to re-connect as Americans, as Chinese-Americans, as immigrants to America, as Chinese adults.

The acclaimed documentary Somewhere Between follows 4 young women adopted from China as they consider identity, loss, ethnicity, race, and more.

We can learn so much by listening to their journeys and stories, as well as those of the Terracotta Daughters.

Listening, Learning, Honoring, Understanding: Many Voices

Public Radio International did a great interview with three writer/activists from Gazillion Voices, the new on-line adoptee-led magazine that debuted in August.

In the PRI interview, Kevin Haeboom VollmersLaura Klunder, and Shannon Gibney speak about being adopted, as well as about race, identity, and responsibility. Read about and listen to the PRI interview here.

Volume 3 of Gazillion Voices, the first adoptee-centric, adoptee-led, on-line magazine came out today, Wednesday, October 2, in honor of my granddaughter’s birthday.

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Well, no. I’m just exercising my grandmother prerogative here by posting that excellent photo. Z is not adopted, by the way; her mother, her aunt, and her uncles are. She has grandparents here in the US and in Ethiopia; she has an Ethiopian uncle in Seattle. She is surrounded by family who maybe don’t fit in neat boxes but who treasure her.

Gazillion Voices came out today in honor of Gandhi’s birthday, also October 2 (1869).

Well, no. Just a delightful coincidence, all of it.

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Still, it’s all pretty great, and a sign from the universe of an intriguing convergence. This month’s Gazillion Voices includes a powerful guest post by Lee Herrick titled “A Certain Shape of Home: Notes on How I Became a Poet,” “Imaginations of My Mother” by Jenni Fang Lee (LGA columnist; if you saw the documentary “Somewhere Between,” you saw Jenn/Fang’s story), a podcast with Dr. Jane Aronson (The Orphan Doctor), and many other fascinating articles and features.

Go read, comment, enjoy, be challenged, spark a conversation.

In the adoption community, we need to keep talking, listening, honoring, and learning.

Beautiful Women, Ugly Realities: Miss America and Miss Saigon

Anyone in any combination of interracial family (marriage, adoption, in-laws, godchildren, beloveds, whatever) becomes attuned to racism in a special way: when we love someone, it’s painful to feel they are being judged by race alone, or to see that their racial group is being disparaged, excluded, or condemned.

For those of us born, raised, and imbued in white privilege, awareness of racism has a particular poignancy–we don’t experience racism often ourselves. I know that I’m sometimes treated in a store very differently than how my daughters or sons are, for example. That’s a trivial example, in light of violent acts, civil rights violations, housing discrimination, and so on.

Yet that’s the point perhaps.  It’s the seemingly trivial things, the ones where people say “Oh, you’re overreacting” that add up and evolve into the big, ugly ones.

So as a nice, white, middle-aged woman, who has had her fair share of privilege just for being born white, and who loves beyond words her children and grandchild of color, I’m writing today about beauty and racism.

This one goes out especially for folks like me, adoptive parents of children from a mother of another color:

Racism is alive and well.

Two current examples:

Miss America: Nina Davuluri, our newly crowned beauty queen, was born in exotic Syracuse, New York. She won, and immediately a big, ugly, racist backlash began on social media.

Here’s a good article from the beauty pageant magazine Forbes: “Why We Need An Indian Miss America.”

It’s important to speak out, and also to listen.

Miss Saigon: This hugely successful play has been presented around the world since it premiered in 1989. It also has been highly controversial.

The poet/spoken word artist/more Bao Phi has written this beautiful, powerful post called War Before Memory: A Vietnamese American Protest Organizer’s History Against Miss Saigon.

Here is an excerpt, describing a recent protest against the upcoming production of Miss Saigon at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul, MN:

The President and CEO of the Ordway, a white woman, suggests that we all see the show so that it can provoke feelings in us. Though several of us have in fact seen the play, I can’t help it. “My entire family was almost wiped out in that war,” I blurt out. “You think I need to go see your play in order to have my emotions provoked?” There goes my resolve to avoid losing my cool.

 I feel raw. Can barely sit still. I want to vent, to rage, to add my perspective as a Vietnamese person, but I also don’t want to dominate the conversation. I listen to several Asian American women talk about how men assume they or their mothers are prostitutes, or see them as submissive sex objects who will do anything for a white man – a behavior that Miss Saigon reinforces. David Mura is there. His daughter has graduated college. My daughter, not yet four years old, is at home. Her middle name is the Japanese name of Esther Suzuki, who died shortly after the second protest of Miss Saigon at the Ordway.

His whole post is prose, it’s poetry, it’s powerful.

I had posted on my blog here about Miss Saigon, and the protest about its Ordway staging. Really, though, I was primarily writing about the production of “How To Be A Korean Woman,” the nearly sold-out, one-woman play, written and performed by Sun-Mee Chomet at the Guthrie Theater. I’ll be attending the play Sunday afternoon, and then participating on the post-play discussion panel following the performance. Here’s the blurb for the discussion: “Moving Forward: Grappling with Unknowns and Never-Will-Be-Knowns” with Michelle K. Johnson and Maureen McCauley Evans. Michelle K. Johnson works for the State of Minnesota’s 4th Judicial District (Hennepin County) as the Guardian ad Litem Volunteer Coordinator. Maureen McCauley Evans is an artist, writer, and editor who spent many years involved with adoption professionally.

Michelle is a transracial adoptee. I feel confident we will talk about race, adoption, and their intersection, as those are all parts of Sun-Mee’s work.

I recognize these are all hard things to talk about sometimes, but they are important. And I’m grateful to those who are speaking out against racism, and helping me learn.

I’ll close today with the words of a brilliant Middle Eastern poet:

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
– Rumi

 

Adoption Reform Collaborative Speaks Out About Re-Homing–And Not For the First Time

The membership of The Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative is, in their words, a diverse group of adoptee professionals, clinicians, researchers, educators, artists, and activists from across the United States. The mission is to identify, create, implement, and sustain ethical adoption practices through collaboration with other stakeholders.

Some members of the Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative

Some members of the Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative

In response to the Reuters’ series on “re-homing” adopted children, the APRC has issued a statement, available here.

Please note:

The APRC is a group of adult adoptees (US, international, transracial, foster care) who have joined together to promote adoption reform.

They spoke out about the issue over a year ago with staff from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute and others.

Their statement today includes these two important points (and more):

  • Many adopted children have been adopted and turned away from their adoptive parents’ homes before turning 18 or often shortly after. Youth shelters often have high cases of adopted teens/youth.
  • Reasons for displacements, disruptions, and dissolutions: lack of appropriate adoptive parent training and preparation, limited or no information about child’s history , absence of or minimal quality post-adoption support, marginal insurance coverage for major mental health services.

Much valuable food for thought here.

The APRC, by the way, is sponsoring the November conference “Reframing the Adoption Discourse,” a ground-breaking, adoptee-led event. I wrote about it here, encouraging early registration, for the conference and for the Minnesota Transracial Film Festival. There is still time, but both are filling up quickly. You can register here.

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Adoptee-Led, Adoption Reform Conference: Early Registration!

This is exciting.

Early registration is now open for the Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative’s conference: Reframing Adoption and for the Minnesota Transracial Film Festival, November 15 and 16 in St. Paul, MN. Adoptees, original/first parents, and adoptive parents are all invited to attend. Space is limited. Register now! I already did.

Why go? Because you have the opportunity to attend the Minnesota Transracial Film Festival on November 15. Among the films are the amazing Closure, which I wrote about here; plus Where Are You Going, Thomas? by Jaikyoung Choi; Tammy Chu’s Searching for Go-Hyang; and Ramsay Liem and Deann Borshay Liem’s Memory of Forgotten War. There will be a (no doubt exciting and powerful) panel discussion with many of the people involved in the films.

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And you should go because the film festival is the extremely tasty appetizer for this wonderful main course on November 16. From the Adoption and Policy Reform Collaborative page:


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Featuring: Jane Jeong Trenka, Marissa Lichwick-Glesne, Robert O’Connor, Katie Hae Leo, Liz Raleigh, Amanda Woolson, Soo Jin Pate, Lisa Marie Rollins, Kelly Condit-Shrestha, Susan Ito, Chad Goller-Sojourner, JaeRan Kim, Nicole Callahan, Susan Branco Alvarado, Joy Lieberthal Rho, Michelle Johnson, Sandy White Hawk, Mary Mason, Shannon Gibney, and many more!

Anyone who has been following adoption issues knows that these folks are among the motivated movers-and-shakers and the catalyst cage-rattlers in the adoption community, in the US and globally. Adoptee writers, advocates, poets, artists, academics, researchers, and others will be there. Change is in the air, and it’s definitely happening here. Come for the workshops, stay for the after-party. Serious conversations, serious partying. Be there.

Early registration is available here at AdopSource. Lots of people and organizations have been working hard on this conference, which will be amazing. A special shout out to the folks at Land of Gazillion Adoptees and at Gazillion Voices.  Well done.

Asian Adoptees: Poetry from Diaspora Dreams

I believe so much in the power of art and in its ability to liberate emotions and create new perspectives.  I’m also interested in the art of adoption, as I define it: the creative work and energy that evolves from adoptees. I wrote about it in Art of Adoption: Playwrights and Poets.

From the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, here is “Tending the Speculative,”  a thoughtful, provocative, evocative group of poems by adult adoptees from Asia (including Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines) who grew up in the United States. They reflect yet another dimension of Diaspora, those individuals united in separation from their roots.

A quote from the introduction:

“…unlike the witness who remembers history or who can turn to birth family or ethnic community to ask, the poet writing from an adopted diasporic condition oftentimes cannot testify to the events that orphaned her or him. These conditions retain an uncanny presence in her/his dream life.”

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Gazillion Voices– An All-Adoptee Led Online Magazine

While there are lots of articles, magazines, and policies about adoption, most are written by adoptive parents or adoption agencies. Very few are written by adoptees. Well, that’s all about to change.

Gazillion Voices will be the first All Adoptee Led publication addressing adoption issues from an adoptee-centric perspective. They’ve assembled an astonishing group of (US and international) adoptee writers, artists, academics, chefs, musicians, actors, researchers, change agents, activists, iconoclasts, and more. It’s gonna be great.

Its roots are in the Land of Gazillion Adoptees blog, and its branches are now looking for a little green.  The Kickstarter campaign launched today. Your donation will be well-placed. The magazine launches in August–I can’t wait.

Full disclosure:  My daughter Aselefech–the one who wrote the most viewed post on my blog ever–will be a contributing columnist. I will also be writing an article for a fall issue.