Three Asian Adoptee Poets Reflect on Craft, Adoption, and Anti-Asian Violence
Tiana Nobile, Ansley Moon, and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello chat about poetry, their experiences of being Asian American adoptees, and more
CLEAVE How to Bury the Dead Hour of the Ox
Craft in the Real World
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents
Tiana, the Gibson quote on loneliness reminds me of the connection between adoption and mental health. It also reminds me of your poem, “The Stolen Generation,” where you too name the interminable grief many adoptees face: “The word ‘cleave’ means both to cut and to cling. / The child cleaved to her mother / The child cleaved from her mother / The difference a word makes in the forest of our longing.”
Adoptees face higher rates of depression and suicide than non-adoptees.
To answer the second question, I wish that more people knew that the adoption-industrial complex is a global, multibillion-dollar industry that removes children from their families. The United States is the biggest importer in the world of children from other countries. We cannot talk about transracial adoption without discussing its ties to whiteness and family separation and to colonization and erasure. I cannot stop thinking about the recent finding of a mass grave of hundreds of Indigenous children in Canada. These children were forcibly separated from their families.
In her book Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, the Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat notes that “all artists, writers among them, have origin stories that haunt and obsess them.” What are your origin stories, your obsessions, your haunts?
AM: So much of my work is haunted by loss and violence, by those who are no longer here. For years, I have been researching the 50 million girls and women in India who have gone missing due to gender-based violence and infanticide, and I’ve also been tracking family separation in the United States.
I’m interested in who we are when we learn to live with our ghosts, especially those ghosts we have created.
MCB: I’ve always been interested in what makes people tick, what leads a person to make the smallest flutter that creates the hurricane. I wonder about what shapes a human’s worldview: folktales and lullabies, hymns and superstitions, language and historical events, relationship dynamics, etc. Because of this, I often work in a persona as a way to explore the fractures of my life, to better understand the decisions other people have made about my life.
TN: I think the ache of loss imbues all of our poetry so profoundly—Ansley’s work with the missing girls and Marci’s elegies, for example—and it’s fascinating to see how we each approach it in our own way. When I first started writing poems, I was obsessed with the body, skin, bones, faces, and masks. As a young person who was beginning to explore my own body and sexuality and as an adoptee who grew up surrounded by white people and struggled with my physical appearance, that all feels pretty apt.
I just made a word cloud using the text from my book, and the most prominent words were mother, body, mouth, time, and tongue. Some others included hands, light, skin, eyes, wonder, and night. I guess I’m still haunted by the same ghosts; they’re just wearing different clothes.
Tiana, could you discuss the interplay between the mother poems in CLEAVE? We have the mother (definition) poems, the mother in abstractions (ghost, mother without a face, foster mother, dreams of motherhood), and the mother of poems (letters, rock, cloth, wood, wire). Do you see these poems in conversation with each other? And what might the poems say about motherhood more broadly?
TN: Writing the mother poems gave me space to start a dialogue with myself about motherhood and explore the various iterations of mother I’ve encountered, imagined, and lost. In some poems, I worked to meld them all into one figure, and in others, I fractured them, sometimes splitting one entity into smaller pieces across several poems. Writing them was an effort to unravel the many layers of mother from my perspective as a transracial adoptee. There are so many literal mothers in my life—biological, foster, adoptive, found, and chosen—I used the poems to look at them closely, to find where they intersect and diverge.
As a result, I was able to enact a kind of personal myth-making and accountability process that’s rooted in my experiences of love, loss, and trauma. I wanted to be honest and fair, and I thought deeply about what it means to be a mother—my dreams, aspirations, disappointments, grief—to paint as full and nuanced a picture as possible.
As adoptees, there are countless documents involved in our coming to be, some legal, others transactional. There are also the many papers that we know are missing—gaps in our history that we must contend with daily. What do different kinds of documents mean to you as an adoptee? How have you approached intertextuality in your work?
MCB: Documents are sometimes the only thing adoptees have to connect us to our points of origin and figure out what happened to us. I was told over and over again that if I had not been adopted, I would have had a terrible life—a speculation fed to me by people who wanted to believe my life started when I arrived in America, and not before. My adoption paperwork was the only proof I had of certain pre-America facts.
How terrible, then, to discover that many adoptees’ documents have been falsified in order to make them less traceable and “more adoptable.” What is fact, whose fact is it, and who has access to it?
We live our lives in relation to others, write in response to the world around us, and keep each other’s secrets. My skepticism of textual certainty has taught me to wonder about the story beyond the curation or redaction, which often can only be pieced together painstakingly, from scattered and obscure sources. Because of this, it often feels like my poems are the knots trying to bring together disparate threads of information to articulate a larger narrative.
AM: Marci, you describe the role of documents so beautifully. When I began researching my adoption, I realized how little information existed. My adoptive family and I had almost nothing tangible, and I began to braid my own creation myth from the few facts, images, fragments, and documents I had. Much of the earlier work that I began writing were ekphrastic poems about photographs that were either missing or never existed, like a picture of me being held by a foster mother at my orphanage. These were all images that I had never and still have never seen.
Since starting this research, I have been interested in what it means to create my own origin story, and I’ve written a series of poems about these legal documents that we need to move through the world as humans. These were documents that I did not have when I immigrated here: birth certificate, affidavits, etc.
I later learned that my adoption story had been altered to make me “more adoptable,” which is another form of erasure and silencing. This has led me to explore more intertextuality and documentary poetics in my work. What if we, as adoptees, create our own myths?
TN: You’re both so right—the issue of documentation is such a sticky one and so often opens up more questions than reveals answers. I think approaching our files with skepticism is critical, as we’re interacting with information that has omitted us to the point of literal removal. There’s such power in us filling the vacancy of our origins with our own poems and myths.
In a speech entitled “Ancestors: A Mapping of the Indigenous Poetry and Poets,” Joy Harjo observes that “each poem has ancestors, and maybe even an origin story.” Who are your poetry ancestors?
TN: The concept of ancestry is so barbed for me. Not being able to situate myself within a long and chronicled family history has always been a source of grief, and throughout my life I’ve searched for replicas elsewhere, particularly in my writing communities. What’s special about this question in terms of literary ancestors is that we get to decide who has nourished and fed us.
Because of issues around representation and access, though, most of what I’d call my poetry ancestors are more contemporary. In high school, I was taught almost exclusively the work of dead white men. Since college, my reading list has significantly diversified, and I’m proud to name many BIPOC writers as a part of my poetry’s lineage. It was through Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager, Philip Metres’s Sand Opera, and Solmaz Sharif’s Look thatI learned about erasure and incorporating found text in my work. Martha Collins’s Blue Front and Anne Carson’s Nox were brilliant models on how to write about complicated familial history. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Barbara Jane Reyes’s Poeta en San Francisco taught me the power of integrating the personal and political. That’s not to mention the pure awe I feel reading poems by Federico García Lorca, Yusef Komunyakaa, Joseph Legaspi—just to name a few!
Reading these poets’ work taught me how to make my poems stand on their own. They taught me how to lean into vulnerability and write without fear.
MCB: Tiana, I love what you said about getting to decide who has nourished us and how complicated lineage is. It seems we rarely have agency over who gets to make decisions about us, as Asian Americans, as women, as adoptees. For me, a writer’s worldview is as important as their poetry. These are the only ancestors I can name.
I have to echo your mention of Claudia Rankine and Solmaz Sharif. Ai’s poetry took the top of my head off and reassembled it. Joy Harjo, Tracy K. Smith, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil demonstrate how poetry integrates with the rest of life. Natalie Diaz and E. J. Koh are brilliant thinkers, writers, and humans. I return endlessly to Don Mee Choi, one of the wisest and most gracious people I know, whose work and translations are my lighthouses. Both of you, Tiana and Ansley, along with Leah, are my poetry sisters, and I’m forever grateful for you, and for all the adoptee poets who have come before us, all of us pioneers.
People have been focusing a lot on self-care, especially as we check in on each other in the midst of a global pandemic, political upheaval, and rampant hate crimes. How have you been tending to yourself and your work these days?
MCB: To be honest, I have not been great at taking care of myself this last year.
AM: I relate to that, Marci. As someone with a chronic illness, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to survive, especially during a pandemic. For the first time in my life, I was able to receive medical accommodations to work remotely, something that I have never before been able to manage as an educator. While this has been an incredible privilege, I spent the majority of the pandemic just trying to stay alive. I wrote very little.
Towards the beginning of the pandemic, the poet Amy Meng wrote this incredible article that challenges companies to continue to support their disabled and chronically ill employees beyond the pandemic by extending and reimagining accommodations. Just recently, I received word that my work-from-home accommodations will expire soon. I am so worried.
Amy ends her article with a call to action, which is a good reminder for all of us right now: “And for all us, in this moment of pandemic, we are learning about ourselves as individuals, as members of a community, and as people capable of compelling change in institutions and organizations that would otherwise resist change indefinitely. Even when the pandemic is over; even when the vaccines have been distributed; even when we trickle back into schools and offices; remember this time when you fought to help people, to be a good citizen and an inclusive neighbor. Then do it again.”
Adoptees so often have no choice but to move through the portal of their immense loss and grief. And yet, the fact that we are all writing as a way to reclaim our stories is a reckoning.
TN: Ansley, I’m so sorry to hear that your accommodations are about to expire. Why is it so hard for institutions to meet our needs? Why does it take a state of terror for our needs to finally be heard, and how does that all get forgotten so quickly? I mean, we know why, right? It’s infuriating how capitalism’s preoccupation with profit and productivity determines our level of safety over what we actually need. I wish institutions would value their workers enough to treat us with dignity and hold space for us to thrive.
While I definitely experienced the anxiety of quarantine and the overwhelming fear of Covid, I’m privileged and grateful for being able to work from home and maintain a relatively comfortable life in my bubble. Also, during lockdown, I fell in love, and my partner and I built a cozy nest full of cooking elaborate meals, growing our own vegetables, and covering every inside surface with a houseplant.
As the world begins to reopen, I feel a bit like a groundhog emerging from hibernation. Eager yet tentative. I’m tending to myself by constantly checking in with myself: Am I ready for this? Do I want to do this? Do I need a snack? More than anything, I care for myself by doing my best to prioritize joy and rest, so that when it’s time to do the work—whether that be writing a poem or teaching my students or showing up for the people I love or dismantling white supremacy—I’m ready.
AM: I love that. Your final line reminds me of an Arundhati Roy essay that was published early on in the coronavirus crisis. “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew,” Roy writes. “This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
So much of this quote speaks to the experiences of adoptees. Adoptees so often have no choice but to move through the portal of their immense loss and grief. And yet, the fact that we are all writing as a way to reclaim our stories is a reckoning.
MCB: I agree, Ansley. Roy’s quote makes me wonder what stories and poems we will choose to carry with us into the future. I wish I had had access to each of your poems growing up, but I am grateful to carry them with me now and hope they will serve as lighthouses for others in the years to come.
TN: Yes! Being in community with you both and reading your poems gives me hope. It makes me feel brave.
Tiana Nobile is the author of CLEAVE (Hub City Press, 2021). Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello is the author of Hour of the Ox (University of Pittsburgh, 2016), which won the AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, and co-translator of The Lightest Motorcycle in the World by Korean poet Yi Won (Zephyr Press, forthcoming 2021). Ansley Moon is the author of How to Bury the Dead (Black Coffee Press).