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Aya Ghanameh

 

Seeing Myself in Unexpected Places

Edited by Lian Xia Rose || Narrated by Sophia Uy || Produced by Katalina Watt
Spoilers for “Estranged” by Ethan M. Aldridge
3600 words

Clarifications of how some terms will be used in this review:

  • Fay is used here to refer to mythical creatures in folklore drawing from or similar to those found in multiple cultures across Europe.
  • When I say transracial and/or transnational adoptee, I’m referring to “the adoptions of children of one race by parents of another race… [and] the adoptions of children with citizenship in one country by parents with citizenship in another.” I am not referring to people who claim they’ve transcended race and switched from one racial and/or ethnic identity to a different, usually non-white one. Transracial is a term pertaining to adoption across racial lines and has been used in this manner for decades.
  • Adoptive parents refers to people who, through a legal process, provide a permanent home to a child with the intent of forming a familial relationship. Birth parents refers to people who specifically gave birth to a child.
  • Where I shorten and simply use adoptees, for the purposes of this review I am referring to transracial adoptees, though there is likely overlap with in-race experiences. These are terms that I personally am comfortable with but recognize that other adoptees use different ones. We are not a monolith. Please respect whichever terms an adoptee asks you to use when interacting with them.

• • •

As a transracially and transnationally adopted woman of color, I generally don’t enjoy “adoption” stories—with adoption as a defining character trait or plot point—by non-adoptee authors. But books have a wonderful ability to pleasantly surprise me when I’m least expecting it.

When Ethan M. Aldridge’s graphic novel, Estranged, came across my Twitter feed, I was drawn to the beautiful illustrations: pen-and-ink drawings with watercolor washes—one of my favorite styles. I came for the art; I stayed for the story. 

I love kidlit and graphic novels, so a middle grade fantasy about a changeling and his human counterpart going on adventures to save both the human and the fay worlds sounded like fun, even though fay and urban fantasy aren’t usually my jam. I wasn’t expecting a story written as a metaphor for queer identity and family struggles—including the need to hide who you truly are—to resonate so strongly with themes of adoptee identity. I wasn’t expecting to “see myself” in this book about fay written by a non-adoptee.

I am a Korean American adoptee with white adoptive parents, a white adoptive older sister (our parents’ biological child), and a Black adopted younger brother. I was born in 1987 in South Korea and adopted shortly thereafter to live in Washington state. My parents strove to nurture an inclusive household and provide opportunities for my brother and I to interact and engage with our ethnic roots. Given the difference in skin colors, it was obvious that my brother and I were adopted, and no effort was made to dissuade talk about it. From the stories I’ve heard from other adoptees, both in person and in written accounts, this openness is uncommon. That I have birth parents who are different from my adoptive parents is a fact that was impressed upon me for as long as I can remember. I can’t count the number of times my mother said that if I wanted to do a birth search, then all I had to do was ask, and my family would fully support me. I had Korean dolls and a Korean flag and a book on Korean folktales. My mother arranged play dates with other Korean American adoptees when she could. She begged me to go to Korean culture camp (I refused). I had other interests, namely horses and soccer. 

For a transracially adopted kid in the late ’80s (and unfortunately, still today in the 2020s), this level of opportunity, support, and freedom of choice is uncommon. It is only now, as an adult, that I can appreciate the work my parents put in. That I was able to say with utmost tween/teen exasperation, “Moooooom, I know; I’m adopted,” is a gift. It’s also a product of luck, of chance, that I ended up with parents who cared and put that care into action. When talking with my brother about my plans for this essay and about transracial adoption in general, I’ve found that despite our “good” experience, we’ve also both grown to be skeptical of adoption. To be clear, we are both glad that we were adopted, we don’t regret it, and we’re not anti-adoption as a whole. But our family is an outlier, and the beast that is transracial adoption is something so complex—involving many entities beyond the triad of adoptee, adoptive parent(s), and birth parent(s)—and so, so often detrimental to the adoptee, that neither of us can answer, “Do you like adoption, y/n?” It’s not that simple.  

It is important to note all of this before digging into Estranged, because while this review will focus on how I found elements of adoptee identity in the graphic novel and how wonderful it was to see myself in a work of speculative fiction, too many adoptees won’t see themselves in these pages. For many, adoptee identity is so wrapped up in trauma and pain that the positive elements in this book will seem curated to the point of being offensive, because it’s so far removed from their lives. We are not a monolith. Although I have found this story to be encouraging, I also acknowledge that for others it is not. Those feelings are absolutely valid, because another thing that is grossly common when it comes to discussing transracial adoption is a desire to think of it as a binary, good or bad. I had a “good” experience, and so white prospective adoptive parents want to use me as an example to assuage whatever guilt or worry they feel. As if that’s all it takes.

My parents weren’t perfect. My life isn’t perfect. Estranged isn’t perfect, either.  

From the start, the adoptee identity elements jumped off the page, and I was wary at first because I’ve been down this path, and the adoptee representation is always grating. We meet the Human Childe, the baby the fay monarchs switched with their fay son when the boys were a year old. We see how the Childe is treated like a novelty, and though he knows he’s inherently unlike them, he protests that he’s more than just someone to be paraded around simply for being human. But then he struggles to name any of those things that differentiate him from a mere label. So, we have transracial adoptee feelings of being adopted for reasons other than because the parents wanted to welcome a child into the family. Check. An adoptee proclaiming to be more than just an adoptee but struggling to find the words to explain? Also check.

White adoptive parents displaying their adopted children of color as proof of self-sacrifice or to garner praise is not a new phenomenon. I cannot collect all the accounts from adoptees who’ve said that it happened to them. I can tell you that strangers who were not adoptees have said it to me, often followed by some form of the “grateful” speech, which I’ll get into later. And the Childe’s floundering to prove that he’s more than just a novelty? I’ve been there, every time someone has asked me, “What’s it like to be adopted?” or implied that I must think about being adopted for every moment of my existence. It’s exhausting, especially when you’re a kid and sick of people looking at you as if Adopted is stamped on your face. I am adopted—it will always be a part of my identity. But I’m more than that word, too. So, when the Childe is complaining about how he’s more than just a human but then can’t think of how to express that? I see you, Childe. 

We also meet Edmund Carter, the fay princeling masquerading as a human boy.  His anxiety over his fay identity compares well to that of transracial adoptees. He jumps to conclusions when he overhears his human dad telling his mom that he (Ed) doesn’t seem like their son. He hears, fay! Not like us! when they meant that teen angst and puberty are affecting him. And when he confides in a friend, they say, “He’s right, isn’t he? You’re not their real son.” Oh dear. The real word. Real child. Real parents. Possibly the most fraught word in adoption discourse. And though Ed insists that he has a right to be their son, that he’s “just as human as anyone!” and that the humans are his family, he’s also full of self-doubt. Just as I felt a connection to the Childe, here, too, I felt a connection with Ed. I have been confronted with the real word all my life. So many times as a kid, I’d point to my parents and be told, “No, I mean your real parents.” 

The Estranged characters’ emotions are handled with care and empathy; it’s what made the book for me. The Childe and his golem friend, Whick, seek out Ed because they need a fay’s help in saving the Below—the fay realm—from usurpers. At this point, we’ve already seen the Childe get mad at Ed when Ed tries to make him leave their human home. He (the Childe) says, “This was meant to be my home. My life, and it was taken from me before I was even old enough to remember it.” This was reminiscent to me of times when I’ve been told that I don’t get to claim either my Korean or Asian ancestry. As the Childe struggles with whether or not he feels at home in the Below with his fay parents, this complexity of being torn between two cultures rang true for me. 

I heard echoes of adoptee identity again when Ed lashes out at Whick: “What about me? No one helped me. I’ve had to figure out how to fit in here on my own!” Where Ed is talking about how hard it was to fit into his human family when he always knew he was fay, I saw a transracial adoptee struggling to accept his difference while always feeling that he was Other. My adoptive family is white, I’m East Asian, and my adopted brother is Black. Clearly, we don’t look like one another. But my mother was adamant from day one that different was not inherently bad, and she put in the work to the best of her ability to see that we weren’t made to feel Other. I won’t say that she was always successful, or that I grew up with a rock-solid idea of “this is what it is to be Korean American,” but I didn’t have the sense of being unsupported that I see in Ed. We see the loving, everyday quality to Ed’s family, yet still he feels like an outsider. Love isn’t enough without the work. Ed has to hide a part of his identity and deal with it alone. He’s terrified his parents won’t understand and that he’ll lose them. The parallels between Ed’s fears and the very real threats adoptees have faced of being “sent back” as a form of punishment are harrowing.

In the argument between Ed and the Childe, I saw so much of myself, of feelings my brother has expressed, of emotions and longing that I’ve heard from other adoptees. The Childe talks of loss and how he’s dreamed about what his family would be like, contrasted against Ed’s bitter, “They dumped me without a second thought.” Feelings of abandonment are intensely personal to each adoptee. The story many of us have been told is that we were given up for our “best shot” in life. I can’t emphasize enough how harmful this can be, or how often it’s weaponized against adoptees and used to instill shame and a sense of unconditional gratitude toward the savior figures that are the (white) adoptive parents. My brother and I were told this story. The difference in how it was told to me versus how I’ve heard it told to others is that my mother always spoke respectfully of my birth mother. If the word grateful arose, it was in how my mother felt grateful to her for allowing her baby to be raised by someone else. That my birth mother knew I wouldn’t have my best shot at life if she raised me. Since I don’t have a time machine, I’ll never know if this story is true or not. My brother and I agree that in our specific cases, we believe that our adoptions gave us the best opportunity to be successful in life from both physical and mental health perspectives. That doesn’t mean we’ve never felt abandoned, experienced racism within our family, or wondered about our birth families. In the Childe I see echoes of my brother, who was curious about people out there in the world who looked like him, and who always wanted to find his birth family one day (he did, Dear Reader, and says that his life is infinitely richer because of it). As a kid, I was loudly uninterested in doing a birth search. I’m somewhat mellowing in my old age, but have not taken the plunge. 

While family reunification is an element touched upon more in the sequel, The Changeling King, there is a character in Estranged who provides on-page acceptance and bridges both biological and adoptive family gaps: Alexis, the boys’ human older sister. She’s the best, but her initial reaction to finding out she has two brothers made alarm bells go off in my head. Via his magic, Ed appears to have the Childe’s face, and upon seeing them side-by-side, Alexis asks, “Which one of you is my brother?” She then asks the Childe, “So, you’re my real brother?” That pesky real word again. If you could break a heart in one panel, it’s with the Childe answering “Yes,” and looking ecstatic—we know how much he’s yearned for this recognition and this family—and then seeing Ed so dejected next to him as seemingly all his fears come true. 

The emotions keep running on high as Alexis tells the boys that she’s going with them to try and save the fay kingdom. When Ed protests the danger, she says, “Look, I don’t really understand everything that’s going on, but I don’t care what you are. You’re still my brother.” She goes on to give some actual, sisterly reasons like babysitting and helping with homework. Then she says, “I’m your big sister. I’m going to protect you.” Ed cries and hugs her, and it’s the sweetest thing. It’s a conversation that could’ve veered into cringe territory—how many BIPOC have heard the “I don’t care what you are” line turn from a supposed compliment into “I don’t see color” nonsense? But it gets even better. Because then Alexis turns to the Childe and says, “I guess I don’t really know you. … But you’re my brother too. Just more of the ‘long-lost’ kind, I guess. Like I said, I protect my brother. My brothers.” A lot of adoptees don’t receive this kind of acceptance, either from adoptive family or biological. In many ways, like Ed and the Childe, my brother has found both.

I saw pieces of myself in Ed as he tries to explain to Alexis that he’s uncomfortable using his magic, being fay. Being himself. “It makes me feel… different. It reminds me, you know, of what I’m not.” I feel this in my bones. As I got older, every hesitant attempt at engaging with Korean and/or Asian cultures resulted in bitter discouragement, in so-called compliments ranging from “Oh, so you’re Asian now?” to “You’re like that because you’re Korean.”  I think I rebelled against all of my mother’s attempts at acquainting me with my ethnic culture in part because people always wanted to put me into a box, to check off attributes from their imaginary list of what a Korean/Asian American girl is meant to be. If I deviated from it, I wasn’t a real Korean/Asian person. It’s hard to push past those old wounds and remember that I’ve met many generous, welcoming peers in the writing community. I still feel the sting of being told by third parties that I’m not “Asian enough” because I’m adopted, that I don’t share the same (apparently monolithic) upbringing as my fellow Asian Americans, to the point that being around other Asian Americans reminds me that I’m inherently different. I see you, too, Ed.

When Ed and the Childe voice some of their adoptee feelings to each other, they find similar yearning mixed with fear. The Childe admits that his fay parents were good to him, “but they didn’t really feel like family.” And Ed confesses that while his human family has been great and didn’t Other him in the manner that the Childe’s fay parents did, “it’s hard to feel like a family when they don’t know who you are, you know?” He admits that he’s wanted to tell them about his identity before, but, he says, “I think they would freak out or feel hurt or betrayed or something.” There’s so much relatable content just in a few panels. 

This is the part of the graphic novel that reminded me of how gratitude is used against adoptees. All too often, adoptive parents are made out to be saviors who exemplified their selflessness by taking in the poor waifs, whether they be orphans or children born into wretched circumstances. Those babies whose “real” parents didn’t want them. Charity cases deemed undesirable because of their race or gender or disability. And how dare any adoptee voice one iota of criticism. “You should be grateful!” we’re told. Be grateful that someone took you in and fed and clothed you. As mentioned earlier, these demands for gratefulness were often followed by an implication of “or else.” Or else you’ll be sent back. Or else we’ll dump you at an orphanage. Or else you’ll end up on the street. I see echoes of that adoptee identity in how the Childe carefully prefaces his feelings by first listing how good his fay parents were to him. In Ed’s worries about upsetting his human parents, I see transracial adoptee guilt over daring to want a connection with their heritage. I remember adults (and sometimes my peers) trying to make me feel ashamed because they thought that I wasn’t considering my parents’ feelings, that my parents would think that I thought that they weren’t enough. That I was selfish. Never mind that my parents were always encouraging of me seeking any connection to my ancestry. The gratitude speech can come from all sides, and I saw a lot of myself in Ed and the Childe.

In the end, Ed decides to stay in the Below and figure some things out for himself. This decision echoes the sentiments of many adoptees who’ve returned to their ancestral lands, whether foreign or domestic. He says, “I feel like I can finally breathe for the first time. … I want to know what it’s like living with others like me.” I’ve met several Korean American adoptees who have made trips back, though they choose to call the US their permanent residence. They speak of Korea and a sense of belonging one feels there in esoteric terms that imply words can never convey the lived experience. My brother talks about how Seattle may be home, but it can’t compare to how he feels when he’s in his birth city of Atlanta, Georgia, surrounded by “his people.” 

Despite the work my parents did to surround me with examples of and access to my heritage, I struggle to think of a time when I felt like I saw myself represented in media. The doll and the flag and the books of my childhood were about being Korean. I’m Korean American. And though I have some general relatable moments with Asian Americans, I feel like there’s a disconnect when you’re an Asian American adoptee, regardless of exact ethnic roots. Even as an adult, seeing discussions on social media about being an immigrant, calls for representation from the diaspora—I never knew where I fit. I am both of those things, but there’s diaspora and then there’s being adopted and diaspora. Most (all? I can’t remember one but surely it had to exist) of the adoption stories presented to me when I was younger were either using adoption as a plot point and written by a non-adoptee, or nonfiction accounts that presented adoption as a rosy, perfect experience. Even now, most of the Own Voices work I find is nonfiction. There’s precious little fiction—much less commercial fiction—by adoptees about adoption in comparison to the amount written by non-adoptees. And though speculative fiction has plenty of tropes with elements of adoption (changelings, orphaned Chosen Ones, etc.), I never came across one that felt like I could see myself in it. Until I read Estranged

Although Estranged doesn’t break the mold of “adoption story told by a non-adoptee,” I think it spoke to me because it wasn’t trying to be that. Aldridge has said that he’s always been drawn to changelings, and the metaphor for queerness evolved naturally in the telling. It’s in that exploration of queer identity, of not knowing how you fit into a family even if you love them and they love you, that I found echoes of adoption.

In this book about a fay boy and the human who replaced him, I found the experiences my friends and fellow adoptees and I have lived. These aren’t universal experiences or indicative of the One True Adoptee Experience, because such a thing doesn’t exist. In Estranged, the themes of love and acceptance across racial borders prevail, and though they won’t reflect everyone’s lives, it’s my hope that adoptees can read this book and, like me, find a bit of themselves in an unexpected place.

Jaime O. Mayer is a Korean American adoptee, tea drinker, and avid hobby collector living in the Seattle area with her husband and their two cats. Her fiction has appeared in Cast of Wonders and Cicada Magazine. Her nonfiction can be found at The Learned Fangirl, Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, and the anthology Invisible 3. You can find her online at jaimeomayer.com.
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