I was an adopted only child who taught myself to read at the age of three. Books were my world, my companions and my solace. I gravitated towards stories of orphans and foundlings, of characters who were displaced and lost and seeking home. I felt loved and cared for in my family, but there was an infinite knot of restless questions inside me. I was transfixed by the picture books Are You My Mother? And Put Me in the Zoo, about a spotted creature who longs to fit in at the zoo but really belongs in the circus. I felt a deep affinity for the little bird who hatched alone, then set off to search for his mother. He did not know what his mother looked like. He went right by her. He did not see her. He inquires after a kitten, a hen, and a dog, wondering if they might be his mother. I often wondered if I passed my birth mother on the street, would we recognize each other?
When I got my own library card and learned to peruse the blond wood drawers of the card catalog in the town library, I searched for titles listed under the term ADOPTION. I discovered my first adoption memoir at the age of thirteen, and it set me on a lifelong path of reading about other adoptees’ experiences. Each one of them has provided me a sense of kinship and community. Even though many of them were different from mine, there was always a spark of recognition, a mirroring of what I myself felt. These stories taught me so much about the immense variety in adoption experience as well as the core things we held in common: a feeling of bewildered displacement, even in the most loving of homes. A deep well of questions and secrets that were out of our reach.
This list contains many adoptee authors, but there are others whose experiences have resonated with me and made me feel less alone. They have formed the beloved community that has sustained me my whole life and kept me company. Each year, more adoptees tell and publish their stories, and their words feed me.
The Search for Anna Fisher by Florence Fisher
This was the first adoptee-authored memoir that I read at the age of 13. This book stunned me to my core. It introduced me to the existence of an adult adoptee who also had burning questions about her heritage, her identity, and past. She taught me about sealed original birth certificates and searching for birth family. Florence Fisher went on to found the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA), which was listed at the end of the book. I wrote to them immediately to ask for help, and they sympathized, but said I would have to be 18 before joining. Five years later, I found myself on a bus, headed to the first meeting that would change my life.
Twice Born by Betty Jean Lifton
Betty Jean Lifton was another early activist and adoptee author, and this book was one that I found in my college library, and renewed over and over until I purchased my own. She was a fierce advocate for open records. She was one of the first to point out that generations of adoptees grew up with a void where their personal histories should be. She wrote: “I say that society, by sealing birth records, by cutting adoptees off from their biological past, by keeping secrets from them, has made them into a separate breed, unreal even to themselves.” Unreal even to themselves! Goose bumps, there. Twice Born, as well as her subsequent titles, Lost and Found and Journey of the Adopted Self, are all bedrock of the early adoptee canon.
The Adoption Papers by Jackie Kay
This slim book of poetry by Nigerian/Scottish adoptee Jackie moved me immensely, and I included excerpts of it in my 1999 anthology A Ghost At Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption. She incorporates the voices of adoptee, birth mother and adoptive mother into a beautiful, searing and complex tapestry. She was one of the first writers I read to describe the experience of a transracial adoptee.
The English American by Alison Larkin
Alison Larkin was one of the first adoptees I met, at an American Adoption Congress conference. She was doing a solo performance, which I would later explore. She hilariously embodied her experience of being both/and—of being born in the US but adopted and raised in England. Her work resonated deeply and inspired me. Later, she published it as a “fabulously funny, deeply poignant debut novel.” In her fabulous British accent, she taught me that humor has a place in family drama!
The Harris Narratives by Susan Harris O’Connor
I first met Sue O’Connor when she performed “Come Celebrate My First Birthday” at a family camp for adoptive families. An imagining of her first year of life as a Black infant girl, spent in foster care before she was adopted by a white Jewish family, it intersperses racist social worker notes with O’Connor’s own speculations about her “baby-self.” It is a fierce and loving reclaiming of that early narrative, and brought me to tears as I contemplated my own lost, unknown time in foster care. Hearing O’Connor narrate this piece in her unmistakeable Boston accent brought me to tears, and it is the centerpiece of a collection of powerful narratives on race and adoption.
Joy Castro’s memoir of being adopted by abusive Jehovah’s Witnesses is a chilling testimony to religious hypocrisy and fundamentalism. Ironically, she is raised to follow the tenets of the Truth book and admonished to always tell the truth. As an adult survivor of abuse she took these words to heart to share her own story. A brave and powerful memoir and a fierce advocate for storytelling as way of breaking free.
The Language of Blood by Jane Jeong Trenka
This was one of the first memoirs I read by a Korean adoptee, and it opened my consciousness to the different and profound losses that intercountry adoptees experience—loss of language, of homeland, and with that the many difficulties of searching and communicating with birth families. This book incorporates letters, fragments of plays and other forms, which I found inspiring and liberating.
Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal by Jeanette Winterson
I was already a fan of Jeanette Winterson’s fiction, but reading her memoir blew my mind. Described as “Witty, acute, fierce, and celebratory . . . a tough-minded story of the search for belonging—for love, identity, home, and a mother.” I ate up the story of her search for her birth mother and the effect it had on her mental health. I saw her, and I felt seen.
Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption by Susan Devan Harness
This beautifully rendered memoir of a biracial Native American adoptee, adopted by a white family, opened up my mind to Native adoptees, who are in many ways both “domestic” adoptees and “intercountry” adoptees. It taught me about the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which was enacted to ensure that Native children were placed with their own kin or communities. “Making sense of her family, the American Indian history of assimilation, and the very real—but culturally constructed—concept of race helped Harness answer the often puzzling questions of stereotypes, a sense of non-belonging, the meaning of family, and the importance of forgiveness and self-acceptance.” I also appreciate this author as a fellow adoptee “elder” who has, along with me, contemplated the lifetime arc of adoption.
Without A Map by Meredith Hall
Adoptive parents’ stories have long dominated the adoption discourse, followed far behind by adoptee narratives. But the least-heard stories are by birth parents, and I have a deep appreciation for this memoir of a birth mother’s experience. It depicts the deep societal shaming that resulted from an unplanned pregnancy in the 1960s, and the silencing and lifelong grief that followed. So many media narratives insist that relinquishing a child for adoption is an easy, selfless alternative to abortion, and this is brave, unflinching testimony to the contrary.
Scar And Flower by Lee Herrick
This poetry collection by California Poet Laureate and Korean intercountry, transracial adoptee Lee Herrick is stunningly beautiful and heartstopping. His poem, “How Music Stays in the Body,” does not fail to bring me to tears. “I’ve been told Mothers don’t forget the body./I can’t remember your face, the shape or story,/or how you held me the day I was born, so/I wrote one thousand poems to survive.” Herrick embodies truth in his infinitely moving poetry.
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
This is one of the first adoptee memoirs to truly break into the mainstream, and for good reason. Her voice is wonderful. It’s like having a kind friend confide in you, with honesty, candor, and compassion. I appreciated the many ways that her story echoed mine, as an Asian adoptee who was born and raised in the US. “…a profound, moving chronicle of surprising connections and the repercussions of unearthing painful family secrets—vital reading for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out where they belong.” YES.
The Girl I Am, Was and Never Will Be: A Speculative Memoir by Shannon Gibney
This book just came out this year, and it made me wish that I’d come up with this idea. A speculative memoir! Of course! This is all adoptees do: speculate on what might have been, the other lives we might have led, if not for the randomness of placement. A brilliant, original and amazing take on the adopted life.
If there is a phrase that pretty much every adoptee has heard, it’s this. Angela Tucker unpacks it in every which way, and calls it out as the microagression that it is. Her white parents must be saviors for adopting her, a Black child with a disability! She shines a light on the nuanced “layers of rejection, loss and complexity” that are often-ignored parts of the adoption experience. A combination of multiple stories, context and history as well as Tucker’s own personal memoir, I found myself shouting, “Tell it, Angela!” as I turned the pages. An outspoken advocate and activist for adoptees, especially transracially adopted ones, Angela is a force to be reckoned with.
Owner of a Lonely Heart by Beth Nguyen
This book was just recently published, and I read it in two days, underlining passages on almost every page. Even though Nguyen was not adopted, she was separated from her mother at an early age, and struggled with that absence for much of her life. This book raised huge questions of what it is to be, or have a mother. It resonated with me so deeply.
Susan Kiyo Ito is the coeditor of the literary anthology A Ghost at Heart’s Edge: Stories and Poems of Adoption. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies. A MacDowell Fellow, she has also been awarded residencies at the Mesa Refuge, Hedgebrook, and Blue Mountain Center. She has performed her solo show, The Ice Cream Gene, around the US and adapted Untold Stories: Life, Love, and Reproduction for the theater. She writes and teaches in the Bay Area.