by Terry Hong
“Everyone, it seems, is telling our story but us,” observes Lisa Pearl, the Korean-born, Bethesda, Maryland-raised transracial adoptee protagonist in Alice Stephens’ debut novel, Famous Adopted People, which hits shelves on October 16. The author, who describes herself as “among the first generation of transnational, interracial adoptees,” takes charge with a tale that will knock your expectations to somewhere both surreal and most definitely real.
Step into Villa Umma, a secret palace in North Korea to where Lisa has been “delivered.” She’s had a shattering fight with her BFF and fellow adoptee Mindy at a Seoul Dunkin’ Donuts about meeting Mindy’s birth mother. Rather than apologize, Lisa absconds to Jeju Island with the MotherFinders representative. The unexpected trip to Korea’s island paradise lands Lisa someplace she could never have even dreamed.
It turns out Mindy’s bioparent doesn’t particularly want her, but Lisa’s certainly does—not to reclaim 27 lost years but to further her Machiavellian plot to place Lisa’s half-brother at the helm of this fictional North Korea. Trapped in her biomother’s fickle, brutal, luxurious hideaway with a silent Chinese (minder) servant, Japanese (pedophile) chef, a South African (sycophant) assistant, and a Russian (butcher) doctor, Lisa must somehow survive long enough to escape.
Introducing each chapter with a pixilated propaganda poster overlaid with a quote from “famous adopted people” (Greg Louganis, Debbie Harry, Vincent Chin, and more), Stephens’ darkly comic, sharply irreverent, undeniably wise “Great Adoption Novel” is an unexpectedly timely, not-to-be-missed, epic wild ride.
Like her resilient protagonist, Stephens is Korean-born, adopted by a white family. The birth child of a Korean mother and a U.S.-soldier father, she became Alice Stephens at nine months old, arriving in Philadelphia to become the youngest sibling to three older biological Stephens children. By the time she was four, the family’s peripatetic adventures would begin—moving first to Botswana and eventually claiming four continents as home. While her addresses have changed continuously over the decades, the one constant in her life has been her writing.
Terry Hong: You’ve clearly been writing for—dare I say—decades? What was the impetus to finally write a novel?
Alice Stephens: Yes, I’ve been writing since I learned how to grip a pencil and have always wanted to be a writer. Famous Adopted People [FAP] was not my first manuscript, or even, dare I say, my first publishable manuscript. I had finished a historical novel set in Meiji-era Japan which was on submission when I started to write FAP but it never got picked up. Because it was such a personal story, FAP came to me in a hot gush and I submitted it to my agent shortly after submissions for the first manuscript were completed. She sent it out, but it didn’t get picked up. I put it away for a year or so, and then the political climate changed, and I thought that the time for FAP was finally here. So, though FAP will be published in my 51st year, I actually finished the manuscript when I was in my late 40s.
TH: I know you write extensively about other people’s books, most regularly for your book blog, “Alice in Wordland,” in Washington Independent Review of Books. What are some other things you did before becoming a published author?
AS: I have always tried to work with words and writing. I’ve been a teacher of English abroad (Turkey and Japan), worked at an academic publishing house and a company that buys books for libraries, as a copy editor and (non-writing related) at an educational travel department (at the Smithsonian).
TH: Beyond your own transracial adoption background, what else inspired your rollicking novel?
AS: There were many themes that I wanted to address with my novel, mostly stemming from my own search for identity, which led me to wonder how one forms an identity and what outside forces conspire to shape a person. Things like physical appearance, economic status, pride of nationality, and political views. I was concerned that the hegemony of American influence was changing the way the world thought, looked, and shopped. Differences were being altered so that we would all resemble each other, eat the same food, and watch the same movies.
So things like the plastic surgery trend in Korea and China with people trying to make themselves look more Caucasian and adhere to one narrow definition of beauty was worrying to me. As someone who has traveled the world, the disappearance of local restaurants for fast food chains was dispiriting, especially when it was clear that locals were infatuated with what they saw as the future, but what we in America now know is a bane upon society that increases obesity rates and litter. Also, it’s very clear to me that the wealthy and privileged of this world, which includes me as an American, are living our lives of leisure and ease at the expense of the billions of poor. The inequities in our society are so pervasive that it seems to me shocking that it isn’t a topic of more urgency to others—and nowhere better illustrates how the privileged few live off the backs of the oppressed masses than North Korea.
TH: As a non-myopic international wanderer, how did you conduct your research for FAP?
AS: I didn’t do much research for FAP because it is a story that resides within my very bones. I’ve been to Korea twice (not including when I was born), once for a day, and another time for a week, but those trips were taken before I even conceived of the idea of FAP. I did research things like Jeju Loveland, which I did not visit, and the Paradise shop in Pyongyang through the internet. Thank god for Youtube! And books! I read many North Korean-focused books, including Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, The Purest Race, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, The Two Koreas, and A Kim Jong-Il Production. I also researched famous adopted people, mostly through the internet as well, which is where I found most of the chapter-heading quotes.
TH: Now that you’ve created your own North Korea on the page, any interest in going there?
AS: I would love to go to North Korea, but I have deep misgivings about contributing to the economic coffers of such a brutal regime, no matter how small that contribution would be. Also, as the case of Otto Warmbier attests, once you are in North Korea, you are completely at the government’s mercy, and they like to pick up pawns as negotiating tools. I do hope that someday, the Kim regime will be gone, and the country will be opened up for ethical tourism.
TH: How Korean do you feel? And might I even differentiate—how Korean do you feel in the U.S.? How Korean did you feel during your short trips to Korea?
AS: I do not feel especially Korean. I am 100% American in thought and outlook. I was first introduced to Asian culture through China—my high school introduced Mandarin during my senior year and I dropped Spanish to take it. I have always felt an affinity for things like the food, the art, and some of the philosophical ideas that have come from the East. But I didn’t know much about Korean culture because, when I was growing up in the ’80s, it was not very evident in America. There were no Korean books at the bookstore or movies in the theater. My very first Korean meal was when I was an adult living in New York in the ’90s. So, it was kind of a circuitous route that I took to discovering my Korean roots, and to this day, I know much more about Chinese (I studied there in college) and Japanese (I lived there for four years) cultures.
TH: Would you say you’re more like careful Mindy or wild-child Lisa?
AS: I’m definitely more wild-child Lisa. Though, of course, she is not me, there are many elements of my life that show up in her story. I was a rebel during high school and had a rocky adolescence, just as Lisa did. And I could never be a doctor because I’m terrible at math and I don’t like blood!
TH: Have you searched for your birthparents? Or maybe siblings?
AS: I briefly considered searching for my birth mother when I was in my 30s. My mother was very supportive; in fact, I think she wanted it more than I did. But I was discouraged by the cost, and more importantly, I was just very ambivalent about it. In order to search for your birth parents, you really have to want to find them. I was concerned that it would introduce heartache and mess up the perfectly comfortable life that I already had. Why introduce into my life something that could not be controlled? Also, I really did need to figure out who I was and, even at that age, I was still struggling. However, I recently took a DNA test which revealed my genetic origins and connected me with someone who was a close relation of my birth father. Since then, I have found out who he was (he’s now dead) and the fact that I have half-siblings. I am going to meet my half-brother in two weeks.
TH: Well, WOW! We’re going to want to hear more about that!
In the meantime . . . reviews are starting to roll in. Since you’re a reviewer, are you planning on reading all your reviews?
AS: I do plan on reading all the trade reviews, no matter how ugly. A friend of mine who is also having her first novel published says she plans to employ her husband as a screener, so I may do that as well. But as a reviewer, I know that for every reviewer who doesn’t like your book, there’s likely to be another one who did. Tastes are different, and some readers will totally get what you are trying to say as an author while others will not. However, things like Amazon and Goodreads reviews, probably better to skip those.
TH: And speaking of reviewing … how did being a prolific reviewer affect/guide/influence you as a writer?
AS: From reviewing so many books, I understood what worked in novels and what didn’t. I have always been a prolific reader, and as an English major, knew how to parse a book for its meaning, but being a book reviewer meant that I had to examine structure, narrative arc, points of view, all the components that go into making a book readable. My critical reading of others books helped me to understand what makes a book tick-tick-tick along, or not.
TH: So I was wandering around the internet and found a few of your pieces—I admit being especially taken with the article about “[j]ade-and-silk drama”—you write: “It’s lazy and it’s easy.” Ha ha, so true! And then you do something soooooo daring, and had to endure 61 rejections. Many—most?—writers wouldn’t last until #62. What kept you going? And what advice might you have for other writers who know they have spectacular manuscripts but no contracts in sight?
AS: I did not want my book to cater to the preconceived notions of people rather than try to shake them up and make them re-examine their ideas. It was one of the most frustrating things about reading many of the recent publications on interracial adoption. They were all telling the exact same story!
So, that was what kept me going. I knew that my story was unique and necessary. I knew that what was standing in its way of getting published was the hive-mind mentality of editors who want to chase, but not challenge, the latest trends. I was also lucky to have support of people whose opinion I respected. I mean, if everyone had read my manuscript and curled their lip at it, I would have given up, but lots of people who read it thought it was important. And that wasn’t just my mom!
My advice to other writers is to believe in yourself, to never give up, to find a community of writers, to never stop practicing the art of writing because those skills need to be maintained every day. If you find yourself writing even when you’ve had your umpteenth rejection, you know that you are a writer. Oh, and most importantly, read, read, read, and learn from what you read.
TH: So now that you’ve got a novel about to hit shelves, are you feeling more marketable? What about that other first novel you mentioned above that you wrote before FAP that’s set in Japan? Will you be shopping for a home for that one again?
AS: It is amazing what a publishing contract will do to your marketability. Doors that were once closed are now at least slightly ajar. Also, my publisher is helping me to place pieces in prestigious venues (so much of it is who you know!), which will then open more doors to me.
And yes, I would love to get my first novel (The Twain) published. I have not given up on it, and I will not let it rest in peace. I am also working on another historical fiction novel, based on the artist Isamu Noguchi and his six-month stay in the Poston internment camp. I was given access to files at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City and got a lot of great primary source material.
TH: Your first-ever book tour approacheth! What are you most looking forward to? What might you be dreading?
AS: I have always wanted to be a writer, but I’ve also always dreaded the thought of having to get up in front of lots of people to talk. However, as a debut author, I do not have a book tour, but only one speaking engagement so far, the book launch at the illustrious Politics & Prose [in Washington, DC, on Sunday, October 28]. That will be filled with family and friends, so I will be at ease (I hope) and not sweating through my clothes. I am hoping to be on panels in book festivals, and perhaps if word gets out about my book, more speaking opportunities will present themselves. But at this moment, I am just so thrilled and excited that my book will soon be out there in the world, that I am trying not to fret too much about what will happen next.
Homepage photo credit: James Prochnik