by Alice Stephens
I truly appreciate Jan Beatty’s honest and forthright interview on her memoir American Bastard. We adoptees are not a monolith, as our conversation illustrates.
Alice Stephens: Bloom celebrates writers who first publish at 40+, as well as those who experiment in a different genre in their later years. With six full-length collections of poetry and two chapbooks, you fall in the latter category with the publication of your memoir. However, I hesitate to classify American Bastard as prose, rife as it is with lyrical interludes, fragmented text, brief meditations on cultural and societal practices, and actual poems. How do you classify this hybrid piece? Why the turn from poetry toward prose?
Jan Beatty: Thanks, Alice, for the opportunity for this interview. If you’re talking about 40+ as the “later years,” you must know something about life expectancy that I don’t. For the last 15 years, I’ve directed the Madwomen in the Attic workshops at Carlow University for women ages 18-95. My Tuesday morning class had a median age of about 75, with women in their 80s and 90s. Our small press, MadBooks, just published two books by women in their 80s. So, when I think of “later,” I’m thinking of 40 as the starting gate.
I definitely regard American Bastard as nonfiction. It won the Red Hen Nonfiction Award in 2019 and was published in October 2021. I don’t think of it as a hybrid book, but a book of lyrical prose. Although hybrid work and the labeling of “hybrid” seem to be in vogue, I’m not a fan of the word as an accurate descriptor. At its worst, it seems to be used as a catch-all label for some work that’s not integrated or organically related in a significant way. At its best, it seems to be used as a general term for crossing genre lines within a piece of writing. But, with its easy use, especially with emerging writers, it can sometimes invite a lack of dedicated work or an ill-advised shortcut.
With American Bastard, I didn’t make a turn from poetry to prose, but I knew that I needed to write a memoir to tell the story. While I’m drawn to the compression, the image, the leaping nature of poetry—I was compelled to write the story of my beginnings, and I knew that poetry could not explain in clear detail what that was.
AS: Some of the most effective adoption memoirs eschew the traditional memoir narrative and instead are told in fragments, as yours is. Did you collect these pieces over time and compose them into one coherent book, or did you write them with a memoir in mind?
JB: I have no issue with traditional narrative, since each writer needs to find the best form for whatever it is they’re writing.
I wouldn’t say that my book is told in fragments. It took me over 20 years to write American Bastard. I was compelled to write about adoption because of the cultural whitewashing of the subject, but I first needed to grow as a writer and a human. In 2000, I published a short piece about adoption in Creative Nonfiction. Around the same time, I drafted a book proposal for a memoir, but never sent it out. Every time I sat down to write about adoption, I would run into paralyzing emotional issues or the brick wall of: How to say it, where to begin? Although I had been in therapy for many years, I needed to focus on the work of adoption in therapy. At the same time, I needed to continue to develop as a writer and reader.
During these years, I wrote notes in many journals—not the sections that would later become part of my memoir, but any ideas, lines, dreams, etc. that would arise about adoption. Poems about adoption started to rise up, and a few of these made it into my books. Even then, I realized that I needed to work on any writing about adoption when I was at home in Pittsburgh. Initially, I had written some poems at writer’s residencies. At Ucross in Wyoming, I remember working on an adoption poem and getting really unhinged. The emotional digging to access the trauma of adoption got me out of balance, and the experience of trying to search for details of who I was, living in an orphanage, meeting my birthmother, etc.—was too much, especially in a different landscape with nothing familiar to ground me.
Over many years, I finally decided to try to actually “write” the text of the memoir, or at least try to start a first draft. By this time, the mountains of the West had become a home for me, as I had traveled there most every year. At the Brush Creek Ranch residency near Saratoga, Wyoming, I began the memoir, working from many journals and a topographical dictionary. The bits and lines from my journal did not become the sections in American Bastard, but they helped to jump-start ideas, to evoke memory and leaping.
AS: Each chapter and many sub-chapters are introduced by quotes from a wide variety of sources, from Luis Alberto Urrea to Betty Jean Lifton to Patrice Staiger, the name on your original birth certificate. Many describe the physics of a water- or landscape in its scientific nomenclature, such as a “misfit stream,” “storm beach,” and an “eater, or swallowhole.” What is the significance of these epigraphs?
JB: When I traveled to Brush Creek, I took a big topographical dictionary with me: Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. I didn’t give much thought to it, just grabbed it and packed it. I had no plans to use it for the memoir. But when I sat down to begin the actual writing, I was stuck again. I picked up the dictionary and started reading, and found some of the phrases and definitions that gave me grounding for the book: infant stream, misfit stream, etc. Placing one of these definitions as an epigraph, I was able to metaphorically leap to a moment or memory in my life. I needed a “ground” that was actual physical earth or water.
I can’t really explain the leaping, but I continued to use these definitions to get to parts of my story. Some of them might have a clearer “link” than others to what follows. For example, in the section about my time as a social worker in Moundsville Penitentiary, I used a more “disturbed” part of landscape as an epigraph: A particularly chaotic type of river hole, a cauldron, is characterized by ‘big, squirrelly, boily water…’ I remember consciously choosing this epigraph to support the brutal content of maximum security. Other epigraphs in the book reflect what I call my “family of strangers”—writers and musicians who I love and whose work has made me feel alive.
This connection to dictionaries springs from deep roots in my childhood. I kept a huge dictionary in my clothes closet as a child. It was beautiful—about a foot thick with a red leather cover and silver rivets holding it together, a present from my aunt. I read it and read it as a way to learn, and as a way to locate myself as an adoptee. I was here, reading. The weight, the link to what seemed like the whole world was in there—a way to survive, not knowing who I was or where I came from. The red dictionary was home. And strangely, the Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape, became my guide to my original home in the writing of American Bastard.
AS: A common trope is that an adoptee searches for her mother, who first harbored the adoptee in her body and then relinquished her (though we know that it was generally under unbearable duress, and sometimes without the mother’s consent). After you reunite with your mother, you go on to track down your father, who is not the man listed on your original birth certificate. As someone who found her birth father first and is still desperately searching for her mother, I was struck that it was in your first father’s hometown of Winnipeg that you find peace, and in him that you most see yourself, despite the fact that the first time you meet your mother, she is wearing a dress that you own.
JB: I take issue with the way you characterize this question. It’s generalized in a way that feels dismissive. I know that it’s difficult to enter the zone of adoption with specific language, but not all birthmothers experience “unbearable duress”—or at least we can’t speak for them. I have a problem with the word “relinquished,” which is a word used by many in the adoption community. It’s a euphemism here—as I say in my book: You have “relinquished” your child. That’s what they call it. Let’s get real—you gave that sucker away.
I understand that you’re referring to your own experience here: “As someone who found her birth father first and is still desperately searching for her mother…” When you say that I found peace in Winnipeg and see myself in my birthfather, although when I met my birthmother, we were wearing the same dress—I think that you’re assuming a lot and oversimplifying. There were many moments and layers of finding peace in my search and meetings, and I’m still not at peace with many parts of the process.
Why should I connect with my birthmother more than my birthfather? Because of a dress? As you know, as an adoptee, it’s a deep and challenging process to search for one’s birthparents, and of course, it’s different for every person. The complexities of that process are hard to grasp, which is one of the reasons that I wrote the book—to try to complicate the cultural conversation about adoption.
AS: As an adoptee who has faced strong resistance when I tell my side of the story, I loved the introduction, where you address the general public and their tendency to center the adoption narrative on their unadopted selves. Did you take into consideration these attitudes while you were writing the memoir? Was your imagined audience them, or adopted people, or did you write it just for you?
JB: I’m glad that you liked the introduction. Years earlier, I received advice from another writer to write a “welcoming” introduction, so that readers would feel embraced by the book—not put off by anger or resentment. I wrote a “warm” introduction, and then trashed it. It was boring, and I couldn’t live with “trying to make things more palatable for the readers.” It felt a little too familiar, as in what we adoptees often do to survive: say the nice thing, do the acceptable thing to fit in. It was challenging to write that introduction, but I’ve been surprised that many people respond positively to it.
One of the driving forces in writing the memoir was to break down these attitudes held by a majority of people—that adoptees are chosen babies who owe a great debt of gratitude to their new loving parents. Yes, I was very aware of that while writing. But also, I wanted to speak to adoptees who have searched or are thinking of searching. I wanted to write the book that I’d been looking for my entire life and never found. So, I wrote it for myself, for adoptees, for birth and adoptive parents, and for anyone else who might be interested.
AS: What was the path to publication for American Bastard?
JB: It took about four years for American Bastard to find a publisher. I was familiar with the poetry world, but not so much with publishing nonfiction. I tried connecting with an agent by working with referrals from writer friends. Although my work was looked at by some respected agents, they all had a similar response, “The work is powerful, harrowing. But, could you make the format chronological?” I was encouraged by their responses, but I knew I couldn’t make the book chronological. I didn’t remember huge parts of my childhood, and I didn’t want an orderly, time-driven book.
In response to this feedback, I revised my memoir nine times. I did decide to rearrange some of the sections to make them a bit more linear and clear in their progression. I added some development in some sections to support a sense of time and clarity, and I started to submit the manuscript to national contests rather than agents.
After four years, I was ready to give up on publication. Then, two things happened. I had a conversation with an Irish writer friend who asked me if I had been submitting my book to only male editors. Although I’m usually very aware of the politics of gender, I said yes, that was true. Since I had been working through referrals, I hadn’t even been thinking of how to narrow down my submissions in that way. My friend said, “Why don’t you try some women?”
The second thing that happened was a visit to my astrologer, who asked me about my memoir. I told her that it was dead, it wasn’t going to happen. “Oh yes it is,” she said, pointing to my chart. “Look right here, here it is. Send that thing out.” After those two events, I sent my manuscript out to Red Hen Press, whose Managing Editor is Kate Gale, and it won the Nonfiction Award, judged by Nikki Moustaki.
AS: Do you have any advice for aspiring adoptee memoirists or other adoptees writing about adoption?
JB: I would suggest that they take their time, making themselves and their mental health their first priority. I’d suggest that they push themselves to find the truth—and then push themselves to write the truth without trying to please anyone or cater to anyone else’s wishes.
AS: What are you working on now?
JB: I’m doing readings from American Bastard and The Body Wars around the country. I’m doing some private manuscript work on a freelance basis.
I have a chapbook, Skydog, that is scheduled to be published by Lefty Blondie Press in April 2022. I’m near completion on a new book of poems, as yet untitled, which I hope to submit this year. Also, I’m working on a book of essays related to gender and violence.
Thanks, Alice, for opening up these issues and for your willingness to make room for a range of perspectives.
[Editor’s note: Jan Beatty will be appearing on the memoir panel of the Adoptee Literary Festival on April 9, 2022.]
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, editor of Bloom, a book reviewer, co-founder of the Adoptee Literary Festival, and columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books.