- Adopting America: Childhood, Kinship, and National Identity in Literature, and: Claiming Others: Transracial Adoption and National Belonging, and: Kin of Another Kind: Transracial Adoption in American Literature
"Are you sure you don't want new birth certificates?" the Clerk at the court house asked us a second time as we completed the formal adoption of my sister's children. She looked a little worried. But our newly adopted children were aged fourteen and fifteen: they had always known their first parents and where they were born in Europe, and they also knew that we, their aunt and uncle, had raised them in the U.S. since they were six and eight years old. For us, it was logical to turn down documents that would claim that each child was born to us, here—with one birth occurring before my partner and I had even met.
The adoptive birth certificate still strikes me one of the more bizarre elements of the American way of adoption. In what other situation is a legal document created that everyone knows is, by the normative terms of our culture, fiction? On these documents, first parents' names have no place: they become, legally, "strangers" to their children, who are now "born" to the adoptive parents—an "as-if " status which, Mark Jerng notes, serves to [End Page 98] reinforce the primacy of "biological" kinship. Further, in many states, old birth certificates are sealed, and adoptees themselves may have little or no legal access to them for the rest of their lives.
Given this fictionality and the implications of this secrecy for narrating lives, it's almost surprising that adoption has only recently become a serious subject for literary scholarship, with major books on the topic emerging in the last decade in tandem with the rise of the new field of adoption studies in the humanities. Particularly since Marianne Novy's key work, Reading Adoption—which took on the range of Western literature from the adopted Oedipus to stories by Shakespeare, Dickens, Kingsolver, and Albee—was published in 2007, new books have been coming in waves. The three works reviewed here were released within six months of one another and focus on adoption in American literature, with Callahan and Jerng specifically focused on transracial adoption. All three demonstrate, in ways that I can not do justice to here, that attending to adoption stories and the history of adoption can shed new light on and, Callahan especially notes, even give a new kind of coherence to literary texts that otherwise have seemed unclear.
While none of the three works is strictly focused on American literary naturalism, naturalist themes and the turn-of-the-twentieth-century period are central to adoption history. Adoption became formalized and streamlined under new state laws during the late nineteenth century and simultaneously ceased to be framed as primarily a charitable act facilitated by religiously-affiliated organizations. State agents, often operating under eugenicist notions, began using scientific means to determine whether prospective parents and children were "fit" for adoption and to match them to one another, with especially intense anxiety around racial matching. Records were more scrupulously kept and birth records were sealed for the first time, reflecting both the stigma of illegitimacy that surrounded adoptive children and the desire of adoptive parents to have a "clean slate" for their family-making.
As a result, literature from this period plays a key role in each book's analysis—it concludes Singley's book, marks the beginning of Callahan's period of interest, and sits squarely at the center of Jerng's. Faulkner's Light in August figures in all three texts, along with other writers from the period, including Wharton, Chopin, Chesnutt, and Sui Sin Far. (Callahan covers the...