by Julayne Lee
Several years ago I attended a conference in Minnesota with overseas adopted Koreans. One of the evening events was a spoken word and poetry showcase featuring only adopted Korean artists. I had been to several poetry readings but this was the first one where our perspectives and experiences were centered. My friend who had gone to poetry readings with me leaned over and said, “This is for us.” It was special, unique and amplified our voices and lives.
I moved to Los Angeles a few years ago and participated in Writ Large Press’ first #90for90. When I heard they would host #90X90LA again in 2017, I knew I wanted to curate an event, and I wanted it to center adopted people of color. On a very hot Saturday afternoon in September, we gathered at Cielo gallery, and I hosted Our Voices: A Reading & Discussion with Adoptees of Color. We believe it to be the first ever poetry reading by adopted POC in Los Angeles, which featured Lynne Thompson, Dr. Michael Datcher and Yun-Sook Navarre. I had let the poets know they could read anything adoption related or not but the majority of what they chose to share was about adoption. It was a powerful experience for the poets and the audience, some of whom identify as adopted POC. For some, it was their first time being in an adoptee-centered environment.
I knew the reading was the beginning of something but wasn’t sure what path it would take. During the discussion that followed the reading, there was agreement the momentum needed to continue. Ideas like an anthology, additional readings or a writing workshop were discussed. Whatever it would be, I wanted it to again center the voices and experiences of adopted people of color. Someone pointed out to consider also including adopted people who identify as racially ambiguous as some do not know their ethnic and racial makeup.
At the closing event for #90X90LA, we reflected on the summer and discussed what might come next. I expressed the desire to launch a writing workshop for those who identify as adopted people of color, indigenous adopted people or racially ambiguous adopted. There was support from the #90X90LA organizers and the venue host who said the reading had been one of their favorite events.
With support and interest, I began to plan the first workshop. Southern California is home to several adult adopted Koreans and my best guess based on facebook group membership is there are a few hundred of us from LA to San Diego to Bakersfield and Santa Barbara. Many of us have relocated here from our home states so spending time with family during the holidays isn’t always realistic. The holidays bring up a lot of things as people may be dealing with challenging family situations whether adopted or not. I think of it as forced socialization. In addition, the majority of us were adopted by white families, adding to the complexity of family dynamics. I’m a minority in my own family and have to confront racism regularly.
I launched the workshop series right before Christmas as I felt people would have a lot to write about and discuss if they were thinking about family. I had a letter writing prompt prepared and was ready to dive into the writing knowing a few people had committed to joining the first workshop. On my way to our first gathering, I was in a car accident. I was able to drive away but was delayed and ended up missing most of the session. Who did I call first? Not 911. I called a friend I knew was going to the workshop and asked her to take over. Writers have priorities!
The theme for the workshop is Healing through Writing the Unsaid. No writing experience is required and it’s a “writing” workshop not a “writers” workshop. I’ve been writing off and on for more than 15 years but only in the last few years have I called myself a writer and been more serious about writing. I think labels can be intimidating and limiting, and the workshop is about our words and our voices being validated. It’s not about craft or studying a specific genre or literary device.
Within the adoption constellation, the voices of adopted people are often silenced by the system. November is National Adoption Month which was established to increase awareness for the need of permanent families for children in foster care. It’s also a time when adoptive families celebrate adoption. However, in recent years, in contrast to a celebration, adult adoptees have reclaimed National Adoption Month and utilized the hashtag #flipthescript to speak their truth about their own experiences, how the system has failed far too many of us and to expose the corruption that continues to stain the adoption industry.
My experience is that only certain opinions and emotions are acceptable from adopted people. Anger and sadness aren’t validated because we’re often told we should be thankful we were adopted because our lives are so much better. I’ve often questioned what “better” means because it’s not quantifiable. I’d love to know how “better” is measured in terms of life. Yes, some think success is measured by educational and career accomplishments, economic status and material possessions but we all know that these things won’t bring true happiness. What is often not acknowledged is the loss, grief and trauma that adopted people experience regardless of success factors. When families are created via adoption, it also means another family was disrupted and divided.
Mental health and well-being for adopted people has been a common theme in recent adoption discourse, workshops and conferences. In the first half of 2017 there were at least five inter-country adoptees who died by suicide, four of whom were Korean. Quickly thereafter the website, KAD Suicide Prevention was launched by adopted Koreans. The theme for the 2018 Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN) conference is Caring for Our Community: Mental Health, Self-Care, and Advocacy, and Adoptee Solidarity Korean – Los Angeles (ASK-LA) will be launching a mental health series this year.
Silencing has rarely served the silenced. It is my vision for this writing & expression workshop to be a means for adopted people to express and share their truth and what they’ve felt they could not say. It is possible to be grateful for the opportunities adoption may have provided you and yet be critical of the system and your individual experience. Aspen Matis (Girl in the Woods, 2015) said “Authenticity sings.” For me, my truth is the music that will heal and sustain me and that is my hope for all adopted people.
Our Words: A Writing & Expression Workshop for Adoptees of Color will meet next on Saturday, February 17, 2 – 4pm at Cielo galleries/studios in Los Angeles.
To find out about future workshops, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @julayneelle on social media (fb, IG, twitter) or check Events at www.julaynelee.com.
Julayne Lee is the author of Not My White Savior (March 2018, Rare Bird Books). She is a co-founder and steering committee member of Adoptee Solidarity Korea – Los Angeles (ASK-LA).