Alice Stephens Is Blowing Up the Traditional Adoption Story

Her thriller “Famous Adopted People” opens the door for stories that challenge the “good adoptee” narrative

There are not enough novels by adoptees about adoptees. When I saw the title of Alice Stephens’ debut thriller novel, Famous Adopted People, and found out she was a Korean adoptee like myself, I couldn’t wait to read it. I wondered how, among other things, she would tackle questions of agency for an adoptee protagonist.

In Famous Adopted People, two adoptees visit Korea: Mindy to find her birth mother, and Lisa just to have a good time. When a birth search and a romantic date go horribly wrong, Lisa Pearl finds herself in a secret compound in North Korea. Uncertain whether she is captive or guest, Lisa must keep her wits about her in order to survive — even thrive — in such a glamorous and terrifying dystopia.

I spoke with Alice Stephens about how her novel resists stereotypes of the “good adoptee” narrative and reorganizes questions of identity, loss, and empowerment surrounding adoption, how global politics influenced both her plot and characters, and what it was like to bring Kim Jong Un to life.

Marci Cancio-Bello: You not only destroy the tropes about adoption — which always centers around the triad: adoptee, birth mother, adoptive family — but also the whole lens through which adoption is comfortably viewed. We need stories about adoptees who are not interested in searching for their birth parents alongside stories about adoptees who are. I loved that while Mindy’s entire story is about finding her birth mother, Lisa doesn’t care.

People don’t want to part with the traditional feel-good narrative of adoption about the infinite capacity of the human heart to love someone who’s not of your family or even of your own race.

Alice Stephens: Thank you so much for saying that. I’ve encountered a lot of resistance. I think people do not want to consider this alternate adoption story. They find it disturbing, and don’t want to part with the traditional narrative of adoption, which is a feel-good story about love and the infinite capacity of the human heart to love someone who’s not of your family or even of your own race. They don’t want to think that adoptees have problems, and I think we all do. We all have identity issues and some sort of feeling about our adoption that isn’t 100% positive. I have a great adoption story, I love my family, they’re great, but I had this problem within myself because I was different from them. I have three siblings who are the biological children of my parents, and I needed to see myself in a story. I hadn’t seen myself in any story, so I decided to write it.

MCB: There are many references to plastic surgery and re-forming one’s identity for both Asian and non-Asian characters. One character even explores how to make a Western eye look more Asian. That moment struck me as a reversal of the constant whitewashing adoptees often feel.

AS: As I sat down, I knew that there were all these themes I wanted to include. I had been reading a lot about North Korea and really interested in that, and a lot of the identity themes transcend even adoption — how people allow themselves to be identified, how easily they can change their identity, how much they want to conform — so I had themes of consumerism and plastic surgery and that sort of thing in there, to hopefully make people think more deeply about identity.

MCB: Whenever I talk to people about North Korea, there is often a veil of disbelief that places like that can exist, that such stories feel too dystopian and bizarre to actually be real.

AS: It’s stranger than fiction.

MCB: Two-thirds of your novel is set in North Korea, and those were the parts I was most interested in. I followed her journey through South Korea, but once Lisa crosses into North Korea, I was hooked.

AS: Oh my gosh. That’s great, because I get a lot of reactions that are the exact opposite. Readers tell me they often start out thinking it’s going to be a light, fluffy jaunt in South Korea and a fun and funny story, and then it takes a sinister turn to North Korea and for some people, that shift turns them off. I’m so glad to hear that that hooked you. That’s really the heart of the story.

MCB: You do a wonderful job of blowing up the assumption that North Korea is isolated, because Kim Jong Un’s character moves about so freely, and we follow so many dark, underground threads from South to North Korea. You also build this terrifying cast of characters, the Gang.

AS: I very loosely based the two Americans on people who actually did defect to North Korea. One of them was Charles Jenkins, who eventually married a kidnapped Japanese woman — because North Korea really does kidnap people. Charles Jenkins was in a little bit of trouble in his home base of South Korea, and walked over the DMZ line to escape his problems, and seemed to survive, even thrive in a way.

Both Americans had a different experience than North Koreans because they were perceived as special. They starred in Kim Jong Il’s movies. Oh, that was another book I read, about Kim Jong Il kidnapping the most famous South Korean movie director and the most famous screen actress and taking them into North Korea and eventually having them make movies because he loved movies and wanted to make prestigious movies that would bring him awards and make North Korea into a place that people saw as a cultural center, and not just as some unpredictable dictatorship.

So all those stories mingled together. I made up the two wives. What I wanted to do was show that North Korea cannot exist without America. America is part of North Korea. The American political system, that Cold War and rivalry, were all complicit. The whole world has made this country. And so that was something that I wanted to make clear.

I also wanted to acknowledge with the two wives that North Korea is not the only place affected by these antiquated notions of right and wrong and the strange sorts of alliances that people build against their enemies. So I took two countries that were very badly managed — Zimbabwe was colonized, and that ruined the whole country, and after they became independent, Mugabe came in and was a terrible dictator, and his story is parallel to the North Korean story. So that’s why I included them. But I did want it to be international, to show that it’s not just North Korea, but the whole world can be encapsulated within the North Korean story.

MCB: I do have to ask how you tackled writing Kim Jong Un as a real, lively character.

AS: It was fun. It was probably the most fun part of the whole thing, just because he can be such a buffoonish character. I made him into a wannabe thug who enjoys looking and acting like somebody dangerous, which he really is, but in an American way. By having him be a large part of the story, I could also introduce readers to North Korea itself and the things that happened there. Also, going back to that theme of how North Korea does not stand by itself but is created by the political situations, to have him be really Americanized seemed really important in the way he acts and the things he likes to do. There are Americans like that. One of them is our president. Yes, he is a cartoonish character, he’s evil, he’s all these terrible things, but people are making him the apotheosis of evil, whereas our allies are just as evil. We have bad things that happen in our own country, and we support people who torture and execute their own people, so his character is just mixing up the morality in the book.

MCB: His relationship to Honey is such a perfect metaphor for two people playing each other, thinking they’re the one in control. I’m not sure who is more dangerous and devious in this story.

AS: Honey made Kim Jong Un and enabled him, giving him his sense of being invincible and special and great, but he has no more affiliation and loyalty to her than anybody else, and it’s all about him and his survival. I think she would do the same if she had to.

MCB: Honey is such an American “ideal” figure — blond, blue-eyed, beautiful, and pulling political strings behind the scenes. We keep coming back to the belief that you can form, re-form, or conform your own identity, and I find that epitomized in Honey.

AS: As I said before, I wanted to blow up the traditional narrative of an adoption story. Instead of some pure source of maternal love that’s going to save the adoptee, I wanted to make her the anti-birth mother who did not conform to that trope. I’m mixed race: my birth mother was Korean, and my birth father was Caucasian American, so I just reversed that. What if my birth mother was actually Caucasian? I based her on a lot of people and attitudes that I experienced growing up, of white privilege — people thinking that because they were wealthy or beautiful or have good taste, they’re more important to the world than anybody else.

MCB: One character I really loved is Ting. She’s so quiet, and yet so tough, even in the smallest moments. Something about her reminds me of the actress Bae Doona.

AS: I wanted to give Lisa an ally. You always need someone to help you, no matter what situation you’re in. It’s a rare person who can do something by herself. The person who you least expect, the person who is the least powerful, is the person who ends up taking that extra step. I wanted to make her female, I wanted to make her Asian, and I wanted to make her feel at first like a child or a minion to the others, but the whole time, she’s thinking to herself, she’s observing, she’s smart, and she wants to escape from her hellish life. She chooses the one person she sees as her best chance, but also as somebody that she can actually morally like.

MCB: I think the moment when Ting’s backstory is revealed, Lisa realizes that other people have suffered for a long time also. She’s also a foil for Mindy’s character.

AS: Yes. Ting is the anti-Mindy, and she’s very strong. She hasn’t had all the advantages that Mindy has. She knows what to do, she’s going to get it done, and she knows who to help. She’s a by-the-bootstraps strong female character. There are a lot of bad characters in the novel, and Mindy is a good character, but I wanted somebody who would actually be a good character and not the expected good character. I wanted somebody who would be a good contrast to Mindy and Lisa, and a good role model for both of them.

MCB: Speaking of role models, I’m really curious about Lisa’s “Famous Adopted People” list that she and Mindy compiled when they were young, and which she references throughout the book. Was that something that you researched specifically for this book?

AS: It was always part of the structure of the novel to have quotes of famous adopted people. Actually, in the first iterations of the novel, each chapter was named for an adopted person, and I connected them a lot more obviously to the story, but my very wise editor, Chris, said that’s too much, just dial it back.

What I wanted to do was show that North Korea cannot exist without America. America is part of North Korea.

I was adopted in 1968, so I was one of the first (what I thought was the first) transracial adoptees. There were people who came before me, but it was very, very uncommon when I was young. Adoption was still considered kind of a shameful thing, and people didn’t admit to being adopted. Some people didn’t know that they were adopted, so when I was growing up, I would always make note if I found out that somebody was adopted. Michael Reagan is Ronald Reagan’s son, a pretty obscure figure, but I remember when Reagan was president, I made a mental note when hearing that his son was adopted.

I would say about three-fourths of the list was made of people I knew about growing up. I wanted to include them and their words, and — in the earlier iterations — a bit more about their stories, just to show that adoptees are such a huge population with a wide variety of their experiences. Some people didn’t care about their birth parents, some people really did, and all had different ways that they dealt with being adopted. I wanted that as a counterpoint for something to show readers, again, that yes, this is one story, but there are all these other stories out there. I’d always been Googling famous adopted people, so when I was writing this book, I did use Google for some of the adoptees that I didn’t know were adopted, like Greg Louganis, Faith Hill, and people like that. I used the internet for that, but mostly the list was made of people I had heard about my whole life, to make their voices heard too, so that the reader would know that all adoptees cannot be put in one bucket. We are all individuals with our own stories.

MCB: The epilogue especially feels like a love letter to all adoptees. I appreciated that it addressed all these stereotypes, acknowledging that everyone is telling stories except for the actual adoptees, which I think is still mostly true in 2018.

AS: I do too. But I do see, nowadays, that there are more and more adoptees speaking out. I think it has a lot to do with that big wave of adoptees, of which perhaps you are one, that started in the 1980s and 1990s but really crescendoed in the 2000s. I didn’t meet my first Korean adoptee until I was in my late 20s, but now I meet them everywhere. When you’re more visible, you feel like you can speak out more. And I think adoptees aren’t taking it anymore. They’re saying, “Come on, we’ve got our own voices, and we’ve got our own stories, and we don’t want other people to control that.”

MCB: I do have to say that this book had a truly satisfying ending, at least for me.

AS: Oh, I’m so pleased. Actually, I have to confess I wanted to just end the book without the epilogue, but my editor said, “No, you’ve got to give readers something to make sense of it.” As usual, he was right.

I think that a lot of non-adoptees read this as a mad caper where the protagonist just happens to be adopted, but it’s really a thriller and I really did want to make it clear that this was a story about identity and adoptees, and how we make sense of the world.

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