Seeing Ourselves in the Stories we Read
In the books we read, my daughter said, how come none of the kids are like me?
She was only five at the time, but those words stayed with me as she grew. Ethnically, my daughter is Chinese. There are some terrific children's stories with Chinese protagonists – Paul Yee's, Grace Lin's – yet it's true that she almost never saw her family dynamic represented in books. Like more than 100,000 other children, my daughter is a Chinese adoptee, living in a North American family.
A couple of years after she spoke these words, I found myself alone in a small village in Mexico. A tsunami had devastated the place weeks earlier. The road to the village had been washed away, so my cab drove across a field to reach it. The beach was strewn with concrete slabs that had been the walls of seafront restaurants. Yet no one had died, and all around me, people were supporting one another with courage and affection as they fought to rebuild their lives.
I was down in Mexico with the intention of starting a novel. Sitting on that devastated beach, my back against a concrete slab, I recalled my daughter's words. There were few (if any) novels that reflected the complex experience of an international adoptee growing up outside their birth culture. Many of these children face typical growing-up challenges – bullying, parental divorce, the search for identity and so on – yet they are bound to respond in a different way to most young people, because in their brief lives they have already known abandonment, cultural dislocation, the loss of identity. The coming-of-age experiences of an international adoptee would be ones with which all young people could identify, and yet the perspective would be unique.
Over the course of that week in Mexico, I wrote the first draft of The Finding Place. I sat among devastation, watching people rebuild and redefine their lives, and I knew that the strange atmosphere of that place was infusing itself into the story as I wrote. My protagonist – Kelly – was a settled, happy adoptee, growing up in a loving family – until the day, shortly after her thirteenth birthday, when her father left without explanation. Difficult for any teen, this situation led Kelly to question the meaning of family and identity. She had already been abandoned once. Could anyone be trusted? Was it ever safe to love? She had lost her Chinese identity – now as her Canadian family fell apart, she was forced to question who she was and where she belonged. In the second half of the novel, I sent Kelly on a trip back to China. There she would reconnect with the culture of her birth, unlock the secrets of her father's disappearance, and begin to rebuild a relationship with her mom.
Being an adoptive parent has given me some insight into the challenges faced by international adoptees, but recently, an adoption practitioner challenged my right to tell this story. I was not one of them, she said, and neither qualified nor entitled to interpret how 'they' might feel. I could appreciate her point of view, but it still surprised me. Isn't that what all of us do when we write fiction? Attempt to empathize with and understand other people whose experiences differ from our own? Characters don't exist to represent groups – at least not in realistic fiction. Kelly is not just an adoptee but a daughter, friend, urban teen, graphic novel fan, artist, person. Her responses to situations reflect her character more than they reflect anything else, even when she grapples with issues other teens (and adoptees) would understand. I'm glad you wrote this story, a middle grade reader told me last week. I'm adopted from China, too. I don't react to things the way Kelly does, but it's nice to see someone like me, in a book.
Julie Hartley's novel for middle grade readers, The Finding Place, was published in Canada by Red Deer Press in September, and will be released in the States on 15 November. She is currently working on two more novels for middle grade readers, and a dystopian YA novel, The Hibernators, set in a world where no one sleeps. Julie's poetry and short stories have appeared in literary journals in Canada and in England. She is the director of Centauri Summer Arts Camp, an overnight program for artistic youth, and she runs a creative writing school for teens in Toronto.