Given the overall paucity of novels about interracial adoption, it is striking that no fewer than three were published in 2017. In general, reviewers warmly received Shanthi Sekaran’s Lucky Boy, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. Ko’s novel was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Ng’s has been slated for a high-profile Hulu adaptation produced by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. The attention paid to the novels separately makes it equally striking that no one seems to have considered them together or asked why the subject of interracial adoption should almost simultaneously inspire these three different novelists—all Asian American, none themselves adopted. Why adoption, and why now?
It’s noteworthy that the adoptions featured in all three novels are interracial but not international. The conceptive mothers are themselves immigrants to the United States—documented but impoverished in Ng’s story, undocumented in Sekaran’s and Ko’s.
In Sekaran’s Lucky Boy, a young woman named Solimar Castro Valdez undertakes a harrowing passage from Mexico to San Francisco in pursuit of a more interesting and prosperous life; she finds on arrival that she is pregnant. Later, when her cousin runs a red light with Solimar and her son, Ignacio, in the car, the government places Solimar in a brutal immigrant detention center and Ignacio becomes a ward of the state. He’s given to Kavya and Rishi Reddy, second-generation Indian Americans who have been making arduous but unsuccessful attempts to conceive before turning to the foster system to become adoptive parents.
Ko’s The Leavers tells the story of a young man named (before adoption) Guo Deming and (after) Daniel Wilkinson, alongside that of his conceptive mother, Guo Peilan, nicknamed Polly, an immigrant from Fuzhou, China, scraping by in the Bronx. When Deming is in fifth grade, Polly vanishes without warning, and a family friend turns the boy over to the state. He is soon adopted by Peter and Kay Wilkinson, white professors at an upstate liberal arts college, with whom he grows up for the next 10 years. After a sequence of personal crises, Daniel/Deming delves into his past. In China he rediscovers Polly, who had been deported following an immigration raid on the nail salon where she worked in New York. Unable to find her son or reenter the United States, she has attempted over the intervening decade to build a new life for herself.
While each of these stories seems to hinge on questions of documentation, Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere suggests that events can proceed just as calamitously for an immigrant with papers in good order. Ng’s novel approaches adoption obliquely. The story centers on two white families living in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights during the 1990s—the Richardsons, a well-off two-parent family with four teenage children, and the Warrens, a single mother working as an artist and her daughter, who rent a duplex down the street from the Richardsons.
By making the conceptive mothers immigrants, these novels emphasize the question of their place in American society, as well as their children’s.
When Bebe Chow, a recent immigrant from Guangzhou, China, suffering from poverty and severe depression, relinquishes her infant daughter with a note on the stoop of a local fire station, a social worker places her in the custody of a white couple seeking to adopt who are longtime friends of Mrs. Richardson. Mia Warren, the artist, who moonlights packaging takeout at a Chinese restaurant, eventually realizes that the baby is the daughter whom her coworker Bebe has been frantically seeking to recover. The ensuing lawsuit sparks a controversy in the community that plunges the Richardsons and Warrens into acrimony.
Each of these novels foregrounds race and social privilege, and all three authors have talked about these issues at length in interviews on their respective works. Modern conversations on adoption voice a candid unease with the discrepancies of power between relinquishing and adopting parents, a concern that was far less common as recently as two or three decades ago, when the fact that a new home was wealthier or more secure was often seen as an uncomplicated defense for an adoption. These novels express a now much more commonplace discomfort with and contempt for that idea—especially when the economic positions of conceptive and adoptive parents are rooted in race or immigration status.
Ng articulates this advantage-based case at intervals throughout Little Fires Everywhere with an adept, distant irony that might also be read as suppressed disdain:
Mark and Linda McCullough, it was quite clear, had all the necessary resources for raising a child. Mr. McCullough had a steady, well-paying job; Mrs. McCullough had, for the past fourteen months, been a full-time mother to the baby and planned to be so indefinitely. They owned their home in a safe, affluent neighborhood. Overall they were in the ninety-sixth percentile financially. … (But the baby already had a mother. Whose blood flowed in her veins. Who had carried her in her womb for months, who had felt her kicking and flipping within, who had labored for twenty-one hours as she made her way faceup and screaming into the bright light of the delivery room.)
Despite Ng’s liberal use of close third-person narration, which might be expected to humanize both sides, it’s hard not to detect a prolonged sneer at the McCulloughs and their sympathizers throughout the novel.
When confronted with questions of conveying their child’s birth culture and heritage, the McCulloughs produce only cringeworthy moments: “Pearl of the Orient is one of our very favorite restaurants,” Linda stammers to Bebe’s lawyer in the courtroom. Bebe’s partisan Mia speaks with a generous sympathy rooted in her own experience of a surrogacy that turned into motherhood; in contrast, Mrs. Richardson, the McCulloughs’ staunchest defender, takes on villainous dimensions as the novel progresses, led by her own sanctimoniousness into a spiteful quest to slander Mia’s reputation that threatens to undo both families.
Though Ng vividly narrates the McCulloughs’ and Mrs. Richardson’s thinking, they receive the short end of the moral argument—and their clueless arrogance about their own advantages of wealth and race, coated in claims of blindness to race, is the most stinging reproach. There’s no real contest for the reader’s sympathies.
Sekaran’s Lucky Boy illustrates equally glaring inequalities. Solimar is a woman of titanic will and perseverance whose sufferings and exploits—surviving multiple horrific rapes, toiling endless hours as a housekeeper, stabbing a guard (also a rapist) at a detention center before escaping on foot only to indenture herself as a chicken butcher for months to raise enough money to find and retrieve her son—threaten to tip the novel into the herculean and perhaps also the maudlin.
In contrast, Ignacio’s adoptive parents, Rishi and Kavya Reddy, work, respectively, at a successful tech company and as a private chef. They feel occasional guilt (“This was not something that politically sensitive, culturally attuned Berkeleyites did”), but their attachment to baby Ignacio nevertheless swiftly transforms into parental territoriality. Sekaran’s treatment of Kavya is somewhat more generous than Ng’s attitude toward the McCulloughs, but the balance is always with Solimar. Solimar goes through hell for the child; Rishi and Kavya merely go through the legal system.
The adoptive parents in The Leavers are, while imperfect, a good deal more circumspect about the circumstances leading to Daniel/Deming’s adoption than their counterparts in the other novels; they’re also the most interesting as parents. Ko’s novel is the only one of the three that represents the adoptee as an older child or adult, and consequently it is the only one to depict parental decision-making about discipline, education, and the many other issues that arise as a person matures.
While the Wilkinsons know they don’t have all the answers—and, like Ng’s McCulloughs, they make a number of wince-inducing remarks—it’s obvious they care about doing the best for their son, even when they make missteps, and that their efforts to support him involve complexities that the Reddys’ love for their infant does not. There is no question of a Solomonic choice in The Leavers the way there is in the other novels: the decade of Daniel’s life as an adoptee is presented as an immutable fact. The Leavers is less interested in condemning any parent (conceptive or adoptive) than in exploring how all parties manage to deal with a fallen world, including its inequalities and injustices.
In each novel, the lesson seems to be that the American legal and immigration systems are brutal, inhumane, and wholly effective at deterring people from entering American society.
Interracial adoption is not only a way of bringing together questions of race, economic inequality, and heritage in a story, however. Adoption also allows each novel to dramatize and frame problems with the American immigration system and the treatment of minority immigrants. By making the conceptive mothers immigrants, these novels emphasize the question of their place in American society, as well as their children’s. This would not have been possible if the adoptions were international.
In making this creative choice, the novels highlight the failures their authors see in America’s immigration system—while simultaneously downplaying the international system implicated in many interracial adoptions. Even when the novels depart American borders, the focus is still on decisions made within the United States rather than interactions between the United States and the rest of the world.
Ko and Sekaran have both said that events they first saw in the news initially inspired their novels: for Ko, it was the case of Xiu Ping Jiang, and for Sekaran, that of Encarnación Bail Romero. Both were mothers separated from their children, who were then placed for adoption by the state. Long stretches of Lucky Boy are set in immigrant detention—which Sekaran, working off extensive research, renders as chambers of horror barely within reach of the law. (Solimar is repeatedly raped, moved without warning, denied access to counsel and contact with family, and deceived by detention officials.) Ko’s briefer depiction of Polly Guo’s time in detention shows a situation equally inhumane:
The toilets and showers were in a large open stall ringed by a low wall that came up to my waist. Most days there wasn’t any soap and often, no water. … In the middle of a tent was a glass octagon with tinted windows, where the guards watched us. They could see us but we couldn’t see them.
For both characters, the torture is compounded by the total inability to contact or even receive information about their children.
The adoption dispute in Little Fires Everywhere concludes when Bebe Chow, having lost her lawsuit, takes her infant daughter from the McCulloughs’ home while they sleep and flies to Guangzhou that same night—escaping beyond the representational boundaries of the novel, which declines to follow them into their new life. Having come to the United States in pursuit of a better life, Bebe undergoes a terrible ordeal in which the government denies her claim to her child. Then she reasonably decides that there is no place in the American social order for her and her family, fleeing back to the city of her birth.
It’s a pessimistic conclusion echoed in both Ko and Sekaran’s novels. At the end of Lucky Boy, Solimar, in a very similar turn of events, takes Ignacio from Kavya and Rishi’s home in the middle of the night, then escapes with him back across the border to Mexico. And for Polly Guo, there can be no return to the United States; she reinvents herself in modern China as an enterprising teacher of English, ultimately finding more personal fulfillment than she might have had in New York. In all three cases, the lesson unfortunately seems to be that the American legal and immigration systems are brutal, inhumane, and wholly effective at deterring people from entering American society.
While they hold out hope for redemption and settlement between individuals, when taken as reflections on the politics of our time, these three novels are bleak. They express no real hope that the law can come to a humane judgment regarding families divided by immigration policy; the closest approximation to justice they achieve is spontaneous vigilantism by the conceptive mothers. Even to highly imaginative authors, the idea that a disadvantaged single mother could break into a home unnoticed and escape across a border with a child in tow is more plausible than the idea that the United States would welcome an immigrant and safeguard the integrity of her family. That’s not a good sign for our society.
This article was commissioned by Leah Price.