Academic journal article MELUS

Recognizing the Transracial Adoptee: Adoption Life Stories and Chang-Rae Lee's A Gesture Life

Academic journal article MELUS

Recognizing the Transracial Adoptee: Adoption Life Stories and Chang-Rae Lee's A Gesture Life

Article excerpt

At the heart of Chang-rae Lee's 1999 novel, A Gesture Life, is an adoption story in which the protagonist and narrator, Doc Hata, recounts his struggles as an adoptive parent of a mixed Korean girl named Sunny. The ambivalence within the adoptive parent-child relationship can already be heard when Hata, in anticipating his adoption of Sunny, describes himself as a "hopeful father of like-enough race and sufficient means" (73). The odd phrase "like-enough race" in particular raises, at the same time that it resists, the attempt to make adoption "natural." Indeed, the phrase sits uneasily among the terms of contemporaneous debates between proponents of same-race (a policy of matching the racial background of prospective adopters and adoptees) or transracial (a policy of adoption based on the "best interests of the child" irrespective of race) adoption placements. The reference to some notion of racial compatibility only illuminates the inability to define race both between two persons and within a single person. Hata himself is an ethnic Korean who was adopted by a Japanese family. Is he of "like-enough" race so that his daughter can relate to him better, so that others will not see a difference between them, or so that the adoption can be approved in the first place? These dynamics of adoption in the novel unfold a series of psychic crises around the unsettlements of race, nation, and domesticity, which pervade larger issues in the representation of transracial adoption.

The narration of Hata's adoptive relationship with Sunny links the novel to the project of recognizing and representing transracial adoption in other forms of adoption writing, in particular, a growing literature of anthologies, memoirs, and documentaries that attempt to portray and represent how transracial adoptees themselves articulate and negotiate who they are. As political and legal debates around adoption have grown more intense, stories of adoption have proliferated. As Barbara Melosh has shown, a whole set of conventional narratives, often in relation to political debates around adoption, have emerged to codify and express the conflicting issues of adoption. (1) But the particular intersection of political and aesthetic representation that I am interested in here has to do with the recognition of the transracial adoptee as such, and how narrative crucially shapes the terms of that recognition.

Both A Gesture Life and this growing literature of transracial adoption share the problem of how to make sense of transracial adoptees as they emerge within intersecting processes of racialization, naturalization, and nationalization. By analyzing the narrative processes of this recent fiction and non-fiction, this essay addresses the problem of representation posed by the emergence of the transracial adoptee: how to narrate the subject of adoption when narrative structures often rely implicitly on assumptions of biological genealogy for coherence and continuity? (2) How to represent the situation of transracial adoption when the given languages of kinship and race often fail to accommodate such a movement from one race to another?

Recent documentaries like Outside Looking In: Transracial Adoption in America, Daughter from Danang, and First-Person Plural, and anthologies like In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Own Stories and Seeds from a Silent Tree: An Anthology of Korean-American Adoptees, mark a specific attempt to hear the voice of the transracial adoptee. (3) As their titles suggest, these texts emphasize the point of view of the adoptee; they are characterized by the desire to transform transracial adoptees from objects of discourse into subjects of their own discourse. As the introduction to In Their Own Voices notes, the purpose of the book is for transracial adoptees to "tell their stories in their own words" (Simon and Roorda xiii). Taken together, these works manifest the implicit demand to recognize the experiences and to acknowledge the interests, status, individuality, and identity of transracial adoptees through their acts of representation and narration. …

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