The following was delivered as a conference paper at the Northeast Modern Language Association Conference in Montreal in 2010. The panel was entitled The Adoption Memoir, and was chaired by Lindsay Davies of New York University.
How shall we interpret the adoptee Voice? Today, a simple recounting of the adoptee experience no longer suffices. To understand is that the dominant discourse promotes adoption not for the nominal reasons having to do with family creation or care of children, but because it fits into an economic and political agenda. As such, the purveyors of this discourse are well able to stifle debate, co-opt dissent, and render transient and meaningless stories or narratives that can easily be categorized outside of the mainstream, and thus marginalized.
It can further be stated that the publishing of such works for an audience coddled by this discourse elevates said writing to an esoteric mediated realm, and speaks only to the class of the adopter, not to that of adoptees, their mothers, or their originating families and communities. To overcome this, the adoptee discourse need ideally be grounded in the political and economic underpinnings of adoption; subjectively shifted from the personal toward the communal trauma thereof; and ideologically re-evaluated along the lines of dispossession and displacement. In refocusing the narrative in this manner, the adoptee stands to create a truly original, vibrant, and globally activist discourse; in writing thus the adoptee will at last move from passive dispossession to a literal regrounding, an active resistance.
Narrative and audience
In 2007, a French non-governmental organization named Arche de Zoë attempted to airlift a planeload of children out of Chad for adoption in France. The ensuing scandal made headlines, and much debate was generated concerning the role of such outside intervention in the developing world. Simply taken for granted was the name of the organization itself. This is quite telling, since this name—a play on the French words for “Noah’s Ark”—semantically reveals what has always been an interfering and missionary arrogance: There are children saved from their fate, and there are other children who are damned to their destiny of silent non-existence. The symbolism is potent, referring to the Biblical narrative of displacement and dispossession, of distance traveled, with an eventual salvation promised to those luckily removed from their former physical place and bodily delivered: cleansed of their past and their history; given a new start.
In the 60 or so years that the purveyors of adoption have been promoting this salvationist sentiment, the industry of adoption has not changed much except for countries of supply—including the internal “Third World” of adopting nation-states—in a disturbing parallel to the economic and political opening up of countries for plunder as defined by Marxist, localizing, and liberationist theories. Despite news stories that continue to reveal corruption, trafficking, and abuse of those supposedly lifted from their abject condition by adoption, the industry responsible continues to build on the mythologies that sustain it, aided and abetted by NGOs and charities, celebrities, television talk and reality shows, religious predication, as well as the disquieting mediation of adopted children and their determinedly predestined “paths”, “plans”, and “journeys” that can be found on hundreds of online blogs, chat boards, and discussion groups.
If we consider that the promulgators of this mythology—namely, the various advocates for the industry; the legal, medical, and social systems that promote it; the media that romanticize it; and the government that enables it—all require that the adopted child strictly adhere to such a narrative of salvation in order to maintain the myths concerning adoption, it becomes apparent that adopted children, in accepting their arriviste class position and place in society, are not allowed a true alternative to this discourse, but instead one which itself is conditioned and shaped by the cultural and societal norms in which they are raised. This is similar to what in other contexts would be considered obsequious, Uncle Tom–like, or compradorian. The irony is that unlike those in servitude or those colonized, this parroting of such a mythology comes from one who does not have the ability to rebel against this local culture, or their ethnicity, for the fact of having been bodily removed from such valid and validating reference points.
The physical, psychological, and theoretical bases that allow for this mythology all reveal a notion of distance: a physical distance from an initial place; a psychological distance from an originating community; and a theoretical distance from subjective reality. This is different from narratives of exile, for example, or of rebellion, in the sense that these still allow for the original connection, albeit now severed, or rejected, for whatever reasons. The adoptee does not have this luxury, and so for her to speak in a way which purposefully or naïvely upholds this mythology requires that she accept these distances in terms of who, how, and what they separate. No matter what the adoptee vocalizes, these axes of distance can be analyzed based on their mediation.
I use the term mediation to define a distance removed, and am expanding here from a base provided by Raymond Williams, most notably. There are various levels of mediation, determined by direct sensorial perception and/or the use of intervening tools, but the key concept is that of distance, and the problematic that distance brings, as well as the activism that is a natural result of attempting to shorten or bypass this distance. Mediation is thus defined as the distance from direct sensorial witnessing, on a spectrum that ranges from non-mediated to what I will refer to as super-mediated. As such, it comes with various levels of trust inherent to it, based on the communicator and the receiver, as well as various problematics, in terms of cultural filters, levels of seriousness, type of communication, theoretical framework, etc.
The concept of mediation can be further broken down into categories of non-mediated, super-mediated, and sub-mediated. Non-mediated is defined as spontaneous expression; the voicer of the unsaid. For example, the spontaneous verbal utterance or physical actualization in reaction to something witnessed, such as, say, a car accident.
Super-mediated is defined as expression that is designed, pre-selected, edited, or planned, possibly within the constraints of a given group, its ideology, its manifesto or tenets, that may or may not claim opposition to hegemonic discourse, but whose use of tools, languages, systems, and technologies in fact are meant to enable, sustain, and promote such a discourse. For example, the television show Cops with an episode concerning car chases, or drivers’ education movies shown in a high school, or an online discussion board on this subject. In super-mediation, the means of expression are often not owned by those expressing themselves.
Sub-mediated is defined as expression that stands in opposition to hegemonic discourse often in its uniqueness and its non-derivation from current customs or tropes, and which avoids the tools, languages, systems, and technologies of super-mediation. For example, the painted-white bicycles chained to signposts seen in various cities that represent a rider killed in a vehicular accident, and which represent both the particular individual as well as their collective whole.
Once thus defined, the chameleon-like nature inherent in the contradictory usage of these types of mediation becomes apparent, such that the super-mediated can take on the stylings, modes, and meanings of anti-hegemonic discourse (for example, viral marketing; corporate graffiti; staged History), provide a false sense of community (for example, Facebook; online discussions) as well as place a neo-liberal emphasis on the beneficial nature of individuality, or the ever-new and modern (for example, suburbia as valid urban renewal; Wired as rebellious magazine; Twitter as a tool for revolution). We can see that the adoptee has a definite choice of mediation as to how her words might be used, as well as how they cannot be divorced from their tools of use, their language, or their systems and technologies of delivery.
Our notion of mediated distance—beyond this distance of witnessing—also takes into account the axis of potential. Potential describes distance from the audience communicated to. This potential is defined in terms of the following:
Ability defines the basic skills as well as innate willingness to make a statement of some kind, in some media, directed at some audience; one’s inherently valid voice.
Audience defines to whom one is speaking; the direction of a manifestation; measured in terms of distance, or how far removed one is from one’s audience due to factors of accessibility, whether economic, educational, spatial, or political; social class; as well as theoretical positionings, such as that of the voyeur, the objectifier, the anthropologist, etc.
Right defines the legal framework of a locale, in terms of guidelines set down that describe as well as delimit such notions as free speech and assembly; this includes ideas of legal censorship, copyright, slander, etc.
Privilege defines the limitation of the scope of these rights; the imposed societal pressures or mores that frame one’s most-local existence, which may contradict one’s legal rights; this takes into consideration notions of anonymity, respect, religious or communal proscription, etc.
Luxury defines the ability to surpass, or expand on, or supercede any of the above, due to one’s social, cultural, political, or class status.
Having laid out these parameters, we now have the vocabulary to speak in terms of perceived equivalence of manifestations, as in: “having the ability, but not the right”; or “not having the right, but having the luxury”:
For example: “The Ku Klux Klan has the ability, the right, and the luxury, but perhaps not the privilege, to march through [the audience of] Skokie, Illinois”.
Or: “Adoptees have the ability, but not the right, nor the privilege, nor the luxury to post their opinions [to the audience of] the bulletin boards of the Canada Adopts web site.”
Examined in this way, it becomes obvious that the Ku Klux Klan is closer to manifesting an echo of hegemonic discourse than a “resistant” one. Similarly hegemonic is the output of much pro-adoption discussions online, which even more sinisterly, posit themselves as democratic, multicultural, and welcoming. Thus the systemic bias of this structured discourse becomes apparent, and applies, in our stated case, to those who would wish to communicate about their adoption experiences. And so before we even speak, we need ask ourselves: How am I limited before I utter a word? How much can I say before I am shut down? What is the extent of my ability to speak? Who am I reaching, and who is not hearing what I say?
The adoptee need keep in mind that one of the goals internal to a resistance discourse should be the equalizing of potential for all. To accomplish this, the distances imposed by ability, right, privilege, and luxury need be examined as to their nature and source. This attempt to equalize is necessary in order to counter the tactic of super-mediation which describes all discourse as balanced, a simple question of two equal sides, as in the framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or in the commercials for Fox News, or in such ignoble concepts as reverse racism. For the adoptee, this might mean no longer worrying about the reaction of the audience (family, class) she was adopted into, and instead speaking to the audience (family, class) she was adopted from; this might require borrowing from oral and other local traditions, as well as moving away from the solipsistic and focusing on the communal aspects of her originating culture.
This is, of course, no easy task, since to attempt to create sub-mediated works from within this hegemony of form and content is virtually impossible, and is a self-deceiving act. This deception is based on the imposition within such a discourse of a limited number of valid interpreters of events, and a certain valid audience—a false potential and a fabricated distance. The adoptee who wishes to challenge a given interpretation cannot do so within the very infrastructure that supports that interpretation. This space of false potential and fabricated distance is echoed historically in the “allowance” of ethnic studies, gender studies, and other permitted spaces. Hamid Dabashi, noting a reference to Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, states the following:
The entire function of Orientalism, and by extension Islamic Studies, or Chinese Studies, Indian Studies, Iranian Studies, etc., is nothing but “to explain” the foreigness of these languages and cultures to their “Western” readers. To explain something is ipso facto to constitute its foreignness, and thus by definition point to the quintessential inexplicability of the phenomenon in its own terms—and thus to constitute the foreign as the enemy and the enemy as the foreigner, as he who does not speak one’s language…and is thus outside the form of the political [polis] squarely in the realm of zoë or bare life.i
The “explanation of foreignness”—as in the specialization of minority studies, or, as we are discussing here, the mythologies of adoption—despite intentions, can be seen to echo the discourse of the dominant over the dominated by creating an internal foreigner; and that this alienation within a dominant culture fits into a functional aspect of that culture that seeks not to focus on or bring forward such studies and their represented minorities or their narratives, but to eradicate their agents—the “constituted enemy”; not to bring attention to these internal foreigners, but to co-opt and, ultimately and ideally, destroy them. Given our framework, we can see that to speak within this allowed space is to scream into a constructed abyss.
The role of Voice
Given the super-mediation of the prevalent adoption discourse, disconnected from reality on the ground and in the field, what then should be the role of the adoptee’s Voice in today’s world? What would make for a valid and activist adoptee discourse? Upon closer examination, the framing of adoption as a form of dispossession puts the adoptee in a powerful position in terms of their writing, if said writing does in fact “depart from the script”. In reducing if not removing the aforementioned distances in terms of originating source and place, as well as any objectifying distance, the adoptee becomes a focal point—a bridge—between two different worlds.
In bridging cultures, classes, ethnicities, religions and/or other defining markers that separate the adopted from their adopters, but which connect them with their families, the adoptee’s words have the potential to forge powerful coalitions along economic and political lines, beyond the adoptee’s culturally imposed and non-universal notions of individuality and nuclear family. The examination of the political and economic reasons for adoption, and the foregoing to a certain extent of the personal aspect thereof, allow for an empathy with and understanding of those who likewise have been removed from their place; who have themselves been dispossessed.
In this light, the writing of an adoptee takes on a new role. By examining not just the moment of adoption moving forward in chronological time but considering the obscured moments between birth and adoption, in acknowledging the adoptive family but also original family and community, and in framing this all in contrast to the given dominant discourse, the adoptee has the potential to activate readers along these societal lines of dispossession, instead of what simply amounts to entertaining them. Such writing, which takes the personal and renders it communal, has a great potential to not only advocate for change within the adoption industry, but in terms of society in general. To attempt to speak out from within a structured discourse that in and of itself is bent on stifling such expression is to be complicit in one’s own silencing. To engage with an audience that represents those who were responsible for one’s very dislocation is to destroy yet again one’s progenitorial community.
Adoption as a silencing
I say destroy, because adoption is, in and of itself, a violence based in inequality; it is candy-coated, marketed, and packaged—super-mediated—to appear to concern families and children, but it is an economically and politically incentivized crime, a treating of symptoms and not of disease; it is a negation of families and an annihilation of those communities not imbued with the intrinsic human value taken for granted by the adoptive for reasons having to do with race, with class, and with a preconceived notion of what makes for a valid life in this world.
The problematic of the dominant discourse of adoption is reflective of our lived Limbo—adoptees ungrounded in the adoptive space, yet unable to truly return to their roots—an eternal unwilled exile. Some examples of the inadvertent echoing of the dominant discourse in adoptee testimony can be found in films such as Daughter from Da Nang, or the documentary Children of the Cedars. Despite what might have been going through the adoptees minds when introduced to their mothers (or those claiming to be such), these films portray the chasm inherent in the class difference between child and mother to be insurmountable; a reiteration of the “savior” trope that the adoption industry wishes to perpetuate.
This plays into a mythologized desire of the adoptive society to maintain such distances, and to mark them as unbridgeable. And so the adoptee story, written with physical, psychological, and theoretical distances intact cannot but uphold the prevailing inherent discourse that perpetuates the original crime of her displacement. It is only by negating this distance that an adoptee might truly find her Voice, now mingled with others also dispossessed; a chorus of resistance.
A few years ago, during Ramadan, my upstairs neighbor brought down some home-made halawayaat—traditional sweets—eaten to break fast. Over the course of the next few days I thanked her profusely, as convention would have it. One morning, when my greeting to her was followed by yet another wave of thanks, she stopped me cold; she needed to express to me that such thanks were, in fact, not necessary within a familial context. “Yaa Daniel, enta ibni—Daniel, you are my son.” Given the back story of her loss during the Civil War, this is no idle statement.
She reminds me of the willful mother going up against all odds in Guatemala, and for whom a court judge has determined that her trafficked child, now an adoptee in Missouri, need be rightfully returned. She reminds me of the women in Argentina who march to keep the memory alive of their husbands who were disappeared and their children who were absconded with and adopted out of their lives. When I think of the colonial past of Lebanon and the neo-liberal interference upon its existence that matches in no small part that of these countries as well as every other supplying nation of children in the trafficking we euphemistically refer to as “adoption”, I realize the common nature of these women’s struggles.
There is a distance that separates adoptive mothers from these women, and it runs counter to everything that should have them showing common cause. I am reminded of a quote from Zeina Zaatari, in her article entitled, “The Culture of Motherhood”, originating from an age-old Arabic proverb that states: “The woman that rocks the cradle with her right hand rocks the world with her left.”ii Her article describes the women of southern Lebanon and the space that they carve for themselves within the greater societal structures, revealing a strength that is not overtly stated but is still sensed and felt; a presence that to an outsider seems marginal and hidden but which in reality is strong, patient, and resistant.
I have come to realize that most likely, somewhere among these women, is, possibly, my own mother. She is not actively present in my life as far as I can know, but as social convention has it, her presence is nonetheless felt by me among her commères, like my neighbor upstairs. In striving to understand their stories, there is a realization that they are in fact mine as well; the more I understand their narratives, the more I am revealed mine. For the personal comes from this political; writing about adoption along such lines reinforces the manifestation of the personal Voice, and extends a bridge to others likewise dispossessed. In reducing the distances of place, of time, and of social standing, an adoptee’s voice stands stronger, and in unison with others whose time for Voicefulness is now come.
Words into action
And thus these are my mothers, my family, my community; and I have come home. And though I am compelled to make our stories known, I see that this need be done on our terms, with our Voices, and with ourselves as audience. To “translate” for an outsider is to do these Voices great wrong. For once an understanding is reached, it moves to the realm of the unspoken, and here it must stay unless it can be stated in a way that minimizes mediated distance and maximizes potential.
Hindsight brings clarity as to the problematics I have described in this paper; in analyzing source, audience, and means of delivery a different approach to relating our stories emerges. For in this return to originating source, and initial place, we, adoptees might move from our passive dispossession to a literal regrounding; and an activated starting point. The promise of a symbolic grounding—an Ark’s landing—should not sway us; there are none saved unless all are saved.
This is the equalizing of potential. It is in this leveraging of our shared dispossession and displacement that we might advance an agenda of resistance that will actually be heard; and not just heard, but listened to. It is from this truly common ground, this now equal footing, that we might finally put our thoughts into words, and our words into action. In this reduction of seemingly unbridgeable distances, and through our Voices, those who originally rocked our cradles with their right hand might just yet, via our own words now actions, rock this world with their left.
i Dabashi, Hamid. Islamic Liberation Theology; Routledge, 2008.
ii Zaatari, Zeina. “The Culture of Motherhood”, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 2.1, 2006. pp.: 33-64.