Friday, March 17, 2017

Connecting the Threads: Reading Fiction About Adoption: Patty Yumi Cottrell, Boris Fishman, Lisa Ko

Did you ever notice how even when you're not actively interested in a particular area, your reading will inadvertently have a theme? I've written about this before, but it's happened again. It turns out that three recently published or about-to-be published novels are touch on adoption.

Despite a relative once telling me when I was young that I was adopted, and believing it for a bit, I am not - nor have I adopted children. But I've always had a good number of friends who were adopted and as I hit adulthood, a number of my friends and colleagues adopted as well. I was an adult before anyone told me that two of my cousins were adopted. I should have noticed that their sibling (not adopted) looked more like another mutual cousin than like his own brother and sister, but I didn't.

Just out this week is Patty Yumi Cottrell's Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, which features a Korean American woman struggling with the death of her brother. Helen has made a new life for herself in New York, but when her brother commits suicide, she returns home to Milwaukee to make sense of it. Or since she has a bit of a different sensibility about these things, she attempts to solve the case, detective style. The story has a disconnected alienation about it, and Helen's not a particularly reliable narrator. And while she sees kinship with her brother (they are adoptive siblings as well, not from the same birth family), sometimes it seems that their real bond is in their mutual lack of connection.

As Nathan Scott McNamara writes in The Los Angeles Times Review of Books: "The question of why Helen remains alive when her brother is dead is the book’s quiet obsession. Though estranged from her adoptive parents, Helen had stayed in touch with her adoptive brother via small exchanges. 'I began to scroll through our text history and I could say that many of his texts were very basic and practical. KOBE BRYANT!!! said one of them.' It’s not that the two of them shared their feelings — they basically didn’t — but they shared the understanding that there was someone out there that endured the same experiences and kept on going."

This led me to read Boris Fishman's Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo. It turns out Fishman's second novel, which was a New York Times notable book of the year in hardcover and is now in paperback, is also about adoption, from the perspective of the mother, and I think also touches on themes of alienation and connection. Father Alex is a Byelorussian immigrant while his wife Maya is a Ukrainian exchange student he met while she was studying in New York. They wind up adopting when they can't have kids.  Both are Jewish but when they ask for a Jewish orphan, the counselor laughs, and they wind up the parents of a boy from Montana. The only problem is that when he gets to be about eight, he starts acting a bit feral, running away into the winds, jumping in ponds.

Maya decides the only thing to do is drive to Montana and confront the parents, but she's also trying to get Alex out of his comfort zone, as the furthest west he's ever gone is to visit his cousins in Chicago. Like Helen, Maya has a mystery to unravel. How did their son Max get to be the way he is and why did the parents leave them with a parting plea, "Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo"? While Fishman's novel sets a different tone from Cottrell's, both sort of touch on adoption as a metaphor for our desire for connection, and the profound alienation that we're left with when the connection feels incomplete.

For the third perspective, the birth parent, I turn to The Leavers, the novel from Lisa Ko that is not coming out until May 2. I can't help it - there's already so much buzz about this book, and I desperately want to connect the three books. Don't worry - I'll have more to say about The Leavers when we get to pub date. But for now, I want to note that Ko's story is about a birth mother Peilan (Polly) and the son Deming that she leaves behind when she disappears.

Unlike the two earlier children, Deming (renamed Daniel by his adoptive parents) is older when he's sent to foster care and then adoption. He has vivid memories of his mother and can more easily verbalize his alienation of living in a small college town with his adoptive parents. That's also partly because he's an adult for much of the book, and can verbalize his feelings rather than running away into the woods. And when his childhood friend gives him a lead on his mother, now back in Fuzhou, China, he's able to act on it.

Of the three books, I found that The Leavers led me to more questions about the adoption process. Do foster parents rename their children? Apparently that has been the case if they are fostering with the attempt to adopt. Shouldn't you wait until you adopt? Or does this book take place long enough ago that we'd Americanize every name, continuing the tradition of Ellis Island where immigrant after immigrant would find themselves with a new identification when they landed. I know that the practice of taking on names is actually more common in China than other places, so I was surprised that Peilan was upset about Deming being called Daniel, even though she took the name Polly, but I think that's as much exacerbated by her situation of losing her son, and asserting his Deming identity was her way of keeping control.

Having read all three books in a short time frame, I tried to think back about other fiction about adoption, and it turns out that two of my favorite writers have touched on this subject. From Elinor Lipman comes Then She Found Me, a first novel about a woman reuniting with her birth mother. The book, by the way, has a lighter tone than the film. Then there's Anne Tyler's Digging to America, about two families adopting children from Korea. I didn't read it, but there's also The Red Thread from Ann Hood.

I remembered a novel by Michael Downing from 1999 called Breakfast with Scot, about a gay couple who take in the son of one of their sisters after she dies. Though I think the novel is old enough that adoption probably wouldn't have been the option for two men. But to me, it's a different and actually more culturally widespread story when a child is extended family.

So we'll see if my literary adoption journey will continue. And who knows what other thread I'll find in my reading.

The event details:
--Patty Yumi Cottrell appears at Boswell on Monday, May 20, 7 pm, for Sorry to Disrupt the Peace
--Boris Fishman appears at Boswell on Monday, May 27, 7 pm, for Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo, in conversation with Joel Berkowitz of the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at UWM
--Lisa Ko appears at Boswell on Monday, June 12, 7 pm, for The Leavers.

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