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Child coloring with a blue crayon. Photo Credit: D. Sharon Pruitt from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, USA. Wikicommons

Why I Teach the Literature of Adoption

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Child coloring with a blue crayon. Photo Credit: D. Sharon Pruitt from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, USA. Wikicommons


There is a fundamental link between stories of adoption and literature itself. How does our past inform our sense of story? Our sense of drama? And our sense of rhythm? 

For me, personally, adoption has been a big part of my life. When I was a child, I helped my family participate in a variety of foster care arrangements and in high school I interned at a foster and adoption care agency. Currently, I am an adoptive mother and through that experience I have worked with a variety of adoption organizations in the Bay Area - -sometimes as a client, sometimes as a speaker, sometimes as a donor, sometimes as a volunteer.

Adoption not only illuminates the structure of literature, it also provides a powerful lens to consider issues of race, class, fertility, trauma, and the family. While my seminar focuses largely on adoption in the U.S., given the statistical preponderance of international adoption rates in the past twenty five years, we also consider how trans-ethnic and trans-racial adoptive families treat “original” cultural histories in the context of attachment and bonding, and how that treatment influences literature/s of adoption. The course suggests that the practice of literature is intimate with the epistemology of adoption. Adoption joins literature’s propensity to reimagine life itself. To tell a story is to imagine a new story, a new life. 

For first and second year students especially, many of whom may be just beginning to get some perspective on their families, courses like mine showcase a range of perspective about birth families, families of choice, and the role of art in illuminating some of the most inchoate but strongest feelings we have.  I teach the literature of adoption not only because it is a topic that has influenced the development of (western) poetry, drama, the memoir and the novel, but because I hope to offer opportunities for students to consider their own family structure, critically as well as creatively. 

Peggy Phelan

Ann O'Day Maples Professor in the Arts and Professor of English

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