The Challenges of Writing Representations of Adoption in Fiction by Daniel Ingram Brown
As an adoptive dad, author, educator and academic, I have spent some time thinking about representations of adoption in fiction. My new book, Bea’s Witch: A ghostly coming-of-age story, has an adopted protagonist, an eleven-year-old girl called Beatrice, who runs away from home only to encounter the ghost of England’s most famous witch – the 16th century prophetess, Mother Shipton. So, I approach the subject of representation with practical questions: How is adoption currently represented in fiction? What are the pitfalls of writing about adoption as somebody who isn’t themselves adopted (albeit somebody with first-hand experience of the adoption system)? And, as an author, what are the challenges of seeking to write both a compelling and entertaining book as well as one which is authentic and truthful?
Recently, I read an article by the poet and playwright Lemn Sissay in which he pointed out that “we can celebrate the nature of children and care inside popular culture, inside literature...”, citing the examples of Harry Potter, Superman, Jane Eyre and Heathcliff, all as being fostered. Yet, despite this proliferation of characters with care experience in popular culture, the academic Susan Parsons and her team of teacher-educators found that there were “limited choices” of adoption literature in schools. They suggest that, in a classroom context, adoption is often “a silent diversity.” And so Parsons and her team decided to undertake a critical analysis of thirty-seven contemporary, realistic fiction books about adoption for young adults, to help guide teachers in their choice of books to open up conversation. What they discovered was a complex picture in which familiar archetypal motifs and structures served as “capsules for complex meanings,” which when used intentionally by writers could “tap into the human psyche and, thus, tell stories that connect to and resound powerfully with an audience,” but were often used unconsciously and uncritically, meaning they were also “rife with negative stereotypes.” She concludes that meaningful opportunities to explore adoption and what it means for individuals and families are limited.
As an author writing a book with an adopted protagonist, I read this research with a feeling of trepidation. How many negative stereotypes had I unknowingly smuggled into my story, disguised by the archetypal plot structures I often draw on? As I read Parsons’ research, I found myself asking “Do I do this in my book?” For some things, the answer was “no” – and a sigh of relief. In fact, I often found I was working against the stereotypes identified. For instance, in most of the books Parsons studied, the adoptive family was pictured with male and female married parents, whereas, in Bea’s Witch, Beatrice is adopted by a single woman. For other stereotypes, however, my answer – with a sinking heart – was “yes”. Were there ways I could change or adjust the narrative, I asked myself? For a few of the stereotypes identified, I was able to make edits. For example, I decided to consciously present a more hopeful relationship between Beatrice and her birth mother, aided by Bea’s adoptive mother. Other stereotypes, however, were more ingrained in the text and so harder to change. For instance, Parsons identifies that adoption in fiction is “largely a female story focused in many ways on mothering.” I had chosen to make my main character a girl, partly to distance her from my son’s real-life story, and I had also chosen a historical character called ‘Mother’ Shipton, chosen as she’s a fascinating local character. And so the story had evolved to focus on mothers and daughters. I had also chosen to press into this theme, as Mother Shipton had been branded a witch, with lords being sent from London to silence her. Because of this, in Bea’s Witch, the male figures became a symbol of patriarchal oppression. In the end, this was a stereotype I decided I would have to live with. Perhaps it did play into some of the stereotypes of adoption fiction, but it also highlighted other complex issues motivated by a sense of justice.
Perhaps one of the things to reflect on here is the sort of knowledge story creates, a knowledge which is subtle and complex. The author George Saunders suggests that “an artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art.” He describes the writing process as a series of small adjustments: having an instinct, initial writing, reading back as if you’re a first-time reader, editing, and then repeating that process, until “like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.” He sees this process of investigating the specifics of characters, of their situations, struggles, histories and personalities, as directing the writer’s and reader’s gaze to become more loving – gentler, more nuanced, understanding and complex. This is different to didactic knowledge, in which an argument is made, boundaries are drawn, and people choose a side. But because of its complexity, it’s also difficult to achieve purity. As Saunders says, “Any work of art quickly reveals itself to be a linked system of problems. A book has personality, and personality, as anyone burdened with one will attest, is a mixed blessing… Almost from the first paragraph, the writer becomes aware that a work’s strengths and weaknesses are bound together, and that, sadly, his great idea has baggage.”
I think, perhaps, one of the hardest tensions to hold when writing representations of adoption in fiction is between wanting to recognise the unique challenges adopted children face, and yet not wanting to stigmatise adoptees by presenting adoption as inherently problematic. To provide a faithful representation, fiction does need to acknowledge the challenges. A report by Adoption UK in 2018 stated that adopted children are “falling dramatically behind” in school. The report highlighted a gap in understanding, empathy, resources and attainment, leading to 79% of adopted children feeling “confused or worried at school”, two-thirds of those at secondary school being teased or bullied for being adopted, adopted young people achieving half as well as their peers in examinations and being twenty times more likely to be permanently excluded. These challenges directly affect the life chances of adoptees and are often unseen or misunderstood – good stories can do something to shed light on this and bring change. In Bea’s Witch, I spotlight the struggle Beatrice faces when she’s told to write about her family history in an English class at school. The event leads to her feeling anxious and unsure of her identity. Such events are not uncommon – in fact, the scene uses a real lesson plan, one that hadn’t given much thought to diverse family histories. But Parsons provides a helpful balance to consider. In most of the books she analysed, adoption was presented as problematic or a corruption, a view that stigmatised adoption and often presented it as a shameful secret. She points out that such a picture is out of step with the current social environment, in which adoption has become increasingly open. She says, “Repeatedly in these stories, parents knowingly and actively lie and scheme to maintain secrecy, seemingly to protect a family structure portrayed as fragile because of adoption”. She also highlights a temptation writers have to “pile on” the negative to create drama, rather than to present more accurate representations of daily life. “Too often accuracy and authenticity”, she says, “are lost in pursuit of a gripping tale”. Bea’s Witchdoes take place at a moment of drama and does draw attention to the problems Beatrice faces as she transitions to a new home, but there is no sense that her experience is something to hide. In fact, the central point of the story is that she can accept her whole self, her whole history, without the need to hide or be ashamed.
In a story, complex and meaningful archetypes may be interwoven with uncritical stereotypes. Stories also only present a selective view of reality – they are not the full story. In Bea’s Witch, the few weeks the reader encounters do not reflect the whole of Bea’s life, let alone the whole adoption experience. At the end of the book, I show Bea at an older age. The reader glimpses how the dramatic events have been integrated into her life, how they have led to her growth. But even this is only a snapshot. One story cannot show anything more than a partial, imperfect view of reality. All stories are a construction, even ones that present themselves as mirrors of reality. Peter Hunt in his Introduction to Children’s Literature points out that “realistic is a label we apply to those novels that seek to provide a convincing illusion of life as we normally think of it.” But it is still an illusion, created by a writer with their own perspective and social position. A story can never be a fully accurate representation.
If totally realistic representation is impossible, how can we then judge whether a particular representation is authentic? Peter Clough, an academic who uses story to articulate his educational research, suggests that narratives can be judged not by an appeal to objective representation but by their “emotive force or their capacity to engage the reader emotionally in the story being told.” In other words, does the story connect with a reader, to their reality, in a way that feels truthful and authentic? This test means that receiving feedback on early drafts can be helpful for honing a book’s ability to represent accurately. I sought feedback from those involved in the adoption system as part of my writing process – did they think the story was accurate, authentic, truthful – did it resonate with their experience? As with Parson’s insights, the feedback I received from the adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents, social workers and teachers, led to further edits of my story.
One adoptee I approached for feedback – a blogger who wrote about the subject – expressed scepticism that I, not being an adoptee myself, would be able to write a story that captured the complexity of the adoption experience. I understand the concern, and yet writers are always having to step into shoes which aren’t their own – that is the whole process of writing fiction. It is a task that will, on some level, inevitably fail. In a recent radio programme about Unreliable Narrators, the comedian Nish Kumar said something I found helpful in regard to this. He was talking about Bob Dylan’s early songs, written about events that happened in the black community. Kumar suggests that “these songs were expressions of solidarity rather than cultural appropriation,” and again points to emotional authenticity and the ability of the work to resonate with audiences as a test of that distinction. My hope is that Bea’s Witch will be seen in this light – as an act of solidarity. On a personal level, it is an act of love for my son, an attempt to understand his reality in a deeper way.
In the end, a book’s authenticity will only become clear when it’s released and meets its readers. What will they make of it? What truth or otherwise will they find? This is a scary prospect for a writer – particularly when dealing with a subject as important as adoption.
But whatever people feel about one particular book, genuine representation can only be found on a communal level. One story can never encapsulate the whole of the adoption experience. For a subject like adoption there is a danger here, because, as Parsons identifies, there are limited choices, and so each individual book “has the potential for providing “the” take on adoption that a particular reader may get.” What we need for better representation are more stories, more varied experiences voiced, stories told from multiple perspectives. We need a culture that allows and enables many different people to tell their tale. We need adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents to write the stories that are close to their hearts, that distil their own experience and understanding. My hope is that Bea’s Witch will take its place as part of that process, balanced by other stories in a wider cultural conversation.
Poet and playwright Lemn Sissay urges children in care to be ambitious after receiving OBE, 2021 https://www.wigantoday.net/news/people/poet-and-playwright-lemn-sissay-urges-children-in-care-to-be-ambitious-after-receiving-obe-3270099
Representations of Adoption in Contemporary Realistic Fiction for Young Adult, Sue Parsons et al., Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 2017
What Writers Really Do When They Write, George Saunders, The Guardian, 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write?fbclid=IwAR2FCcdH04MPUdSs7HBjY94I42P7F7ULwKDeeDSsN6Zwfgscwb7Zq2mKcRc
Bridging the Gap, Adoption UK, 2018
Introduction to Children’s Literature, Peter Hunt, 1994, Opus
Archive on 4: Stewart Lee: Unreliable Narrator, BBC Radio 4, 2021