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  • On Constructing Fictions and Families
  • Sarah Park Dahlen (bio) and Lies Wesseling (bio)

Fictions and families are closely related. As Sigmund Freud argues in his 1909 essay on the pervasiveness of the foundling fantasy in Western fiction, “Der Familienroman der Neurotiker,” the process of individuation often implies a phase in which children find it difficult to believe that their parents are really their parents: is it not in fact the case that they are foundlings or adoptees, and that their real parents reside elsewhere? Every neurotic is thus a novelist or fiction-maker in embryo, Freud suggests, and those who have set their pen to paper as professional writers have narrated many a foundling fantasy. Adoption has proved to be a veritable “fiction-generating machine,” to quote Margaret Homans (114), ranging from the biblical tale about the foundling Moses who was adopted by an Egyptian princess, to the classical myth about Oedipus who was reared at a foreign court, up to Harry Potter who was raised by his aunt and uncle and then by his wizarding community.

The foundling fantasy has received a new impetus from the modern phenomenon of intercountry and transracial adoption. While adoption is of all times, the idea that one would adopt a child from a completely different region to which one has no familial ties whatsoever is a relatively new notion, and stands in need of explanation. By representing the figure of the foreign adoptee through the familiar trope of the orphan, authors have persistently attempted to meet this need for legitimation, so much so that “orphans” and “adoptees” tend to be regarded as synonyms. Consequently, these two terms figure side by side in this special issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, although we would like to approach their equation in a critical manner. [End Page 317]

In the wake of seminal works by Homans, Marianne Novy, and Claudia Nelson,1 we now more fully understand that the adoptive family is generally subject to the biopolitical norm of the genetic family, as an “as-if-begotten”2 mode of kinning, and that this sphere of make-believe is the very domain of fiction-making itself, in the literal sense of “making, constructing, fabricating” rather than “lying.” In addition, adoptive kinning has had to come to terms with several unknown variables. Whenever and wherever adoption with sealed records constitutes the norm, birth parents and even birth histories are likely to remain unknown, which makes it tempting to construe the adoptee as an “orphan,” inscribing him or her into the rich literary tradition of orphan narratives.

In the case of intercountry adoption, the culture of the origin country tends to be unknown as well because of the substantial linguistic and political barriers between sending and receiving countries, which opens up another opportunity for fiction-making, generating birth culture fictions. Such fictions allow those in the receiving countries to construct images of the sending countries that underscore the “need” for intercountry adoption. Furthermore, fiction-making has come to the rescue as adopters and adoptees grapple with various paradoxes inherent in adoption. As the North American sociologist Sara K. Dorow points out in Transnational Adoption: A Cultural Economy of Race, Gender, and Kinship, international adoption is dogged by at least three “impossible contradictions”: the fact that the adoptee is both a commodity to be exchanged and a “priceless” object of freely dispensed care and compassion; the incongruity that adoptees tend to have two sets of parents, although their biological parents are somehow not to be considered the “real” parents in kinning practices that simultaneously subscribe to the biopolitical norm of the genetic family; and the precarious nature of adoptive citizenship, with adoptees being both citizens and foreigners in the countries in which they grow up (17).

As adoptees become aware of the ways in which they entered their families, they have to learn how to deal with the fact that they have two (or more, for children may live with foster parents before being adopted) sets of parents, rather than one. Fictional strategies assist them in discriminating between “real” parents and parents who are not “really real.” And if they do not want to create such hierarchies...


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pp. 317-321
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