Assignment | Interview
Interview with Author JS Lee
JS LEE IN CONVERSATION WITH REBECCA DRAGON ‘23
ART BY JS LEE
In 2016, after taking a DNA test from one of those large online genealogy companies, I found myself catapulted into my own biological context, something that had been an enigma to me for my entire life. Adopted people, like myself, are often completely in the dark about their origins. Many have never looked into the eyes of someone that they are biologically related to. We are, for all intents and purposes, mysteries even to ourselves. We are state secrets, any salvageable information about our originating identities and families locked away in a courthouse or in the case of much intercountry adoption, lost in a “flood” or a “fire.”
Imagine living your life with only your imagination to fill in your missing gaps or to justify the profound loss that you had to endure to become the legal child of unrelated strangers. Now imagine being told that this loss you suffered doesn’t matter, that all that really matters is that you are where you are now. You are washed clean in the salvific fountain of a legal process called “adoption.” You are made anew by the perceived sacrifice of people who “took you in,” and “loved you as if you were their own.” Adoption is seen as an altruistic good, a win-win situation that gives the “unwanted” value through its process, But it’s not so simple. Especially not for those who have lived their lives through adoption, the adopted person.
When I found my originating family, and was finally able to solve the mystery of my Self, I was catapulted into an experience known among adopted people as “coming out of the fog.” I felt all the more profoundly the complexities of my own experience. It was overwhelming, and I needed camaraderie and understanding that was unavailable even in my closest circles of family and friends. So, I did what many of us do in this modern age. I went online to find other adopted people who I could turn to for mutual support. What I found was an entire community of adopted people who were speaking out loud about the reality of their experiences. Through my relationships with other adopted people, I was given words for unexpressed feelings and thoughts that I had held my entire life, but never had the courage to truly examine.
JS Lee (Jia) was one of the first connections that I made in what is colloquially called “Adoptionland.” We met in a closed adoptee-only group on Facebook where we vented about things that happened in our personal lives, but also about the ignorant and often cruel things that were said and done to adopted people speaking openly and honestly online. Jia immediately struck me as open and kind, thoughtful and empathetic. She is still, to this day, one of my favorite para-social relationships, and these relationships, even though existent only online, are essential for adopted people trying to make sense of how adoption has truly affected them.
Jia was also the first adopted person I had a connection with that was a “real writer,” having published at least one book and several essays/articles. At the time I met her, it had never occurred to me that an adopted person could write about anything related to adoption except what is societally expected of us: that adoption is a blessing, and that adopted people are “chosen” to be “gifts” given to “better people” for a “better life.” To my uninitiated eyes, it seemed inconceivable to memorialize anything outside of that narrative on paper or a social media platform. When you live your life as a “gift” that was given to others, it can create an extra hurdle to recognize and employ your own inherent gifts and talents. I was struck by the bravery that I imagined it took Jia to be able to think, write, and exist outside of this narrative. In this way, Jia was one of my first mentors (whether she knew this or not), and her work inspired me to find and express my own voice, not only in Adoptionland, but beyond its borders into the great wide-open space of the non-adopted and those with no exposure or experience with adoption at all. It is my pleasure to be able to share this interview and expose more people to this talented writer and fellow adopted person.
What is your relationship to adoption?
I’m beginning to realize and accept that all of my identity markers are constant, but dynamic rather than fixed. “Adoptee” has been one of the most in flux. These days, I feel more displaced than adopted. My purchasers have been out of my life for eight years now and I’m in very low contact with their kids, despite my affection for most. Not having a sense of family on either end decenters the sale of my infant body and highlights my solitude. Despite that, I don’t think I can ever let go of my adoptee identity because of how it connects me to so many wonderful community members in the same struggle. I’m proud of how we unite and survive.
What role has writing played in your life? Have you always been a writer, or did writing come from a deeper impulse (like, did you find writing because you needed a place to process or express?)
Both, for sure. I started writing stories, poems, and songs in early childhood before I could spell or scratch out the alphabet properly. Looking back, it’s obvious that I used to write for outside approval. Now we know “people pleasing” is a common adoptee trait out of fear of re-abandonment. But the bulk of what I made, no one ever saw, and it was deeply therapeutic. I honestly don’t think I’d have survived childhood had I not had my creative outlets. Dissociation and the creative flow has kept me alive.
For me, my writing process is erratic. It comes in fits and starts, and I spend much of my time frozen and stuck. When I am frozen and stuck, I will indulge in a bit of self-pity and vaguely self-destructive behaviors until I get sick of myself, then I will force myself to sit and just write something, anything. Often that will open up the gates, then the next step in my process comes: the FLOOD. I have been learning to work with my innate design and flow instead of fighting it, and I think it’s really important that writers work with themselves instead of against themselves. That’s going to look different for everyone. With that in mind, can you describe your writing process? How do you move from idea to page, then from page to finished work? What do you struggle with in this process and how do you push through these struggles to the other side of something?
I’ve never experienced a writing freeze or block until more recently. There are around a hundred pages written for each of the four books I’ve started in the last two years. They’re all currently on hold as I prioritize other things and grow into the person who can give them what they deserve. Usually, once I start writing, I can’t stop. It’s hard for my fingers to keep pace with the flow from my head. I typically write a full first draft within three to twelve months. Sometimes I complete one book and start editing the prior one—which usually takes 1-3x the time as the first draft. I love when it works out that way because it allows a refresh of perspective. With the current four in progress, things have been different, though. I underwent some major life changes two years ago. I disconnected from my partner of nearly fourteen years, moved to a new city alone, and changed my name. All of which thankfully improved my chronic health issues, so I’ve been celebrating this self-reclamation by feeding myself lots of joy. It’s like I have a physical aversion to swimming in my sadness these days. I’ve written so much about my traumas and need a break. I don’t want to live so entangled with them after all the deep inner work I’ve had to do to get here. I know I have plenty more to share so I’m not worried. I’ve taken multiyear breaks and then published four full length books and two kids’ books within the next six, so I trust I’ll know when I’m ready. I was telling someone recently that I don’t let myself force doing what I love because then I’ll associate it negatively.
You and I have known each other since 2017 …you were one of the first adoptees I came into contact with via a small closed group that (thankfully?) no longer exists. Even though some of my foundational relationships were made in there, I think that closed group was mostly used as a base camp for adoptees who were coming to terms with what we were learning about ourselves and our lives as lived through adoption, and then taking that to a public conversation. We would share posts and groups where some heated discussion or argument was happening, or where adoptees were being silenced, and we would suit up and jump in with and for each other (often with harmful or self-injurious outcomes if I am to be honest). I think a lot about how the online landscape for adopted people has morphed and changed in these past few years (in both good and positive ways). Can you tell me a bit about how/when/why you started connecting with other adopted people, and using social media to talk about adoption and its impact on your life more openly? Do you have any thoughts about the growing discourse about adoption – perhaps some observations of where-we-were to where-we-are-now?
My first adoptee friend was also Korean Transracial Intercountry with the same first name as the one I was given. I fictionalized it in my novel “Keurium”. I’m eternally grateful for our time spent together in our early teens and we’re still connected even though we’re not actively in contact much in the present.
Many years later, I kept a blog when visiting Korea in January of 2006. That same year, I received a string of emails from other adopted Koreans around the world who were looking into their histories. We all passed through the same orphanage and my blog was one of the few that came up in the search results. Forming an online community for us meant a lot to me and I viewed us like a family. From there, we found larger Korean Adoptee groups, conferences, and gatherings. That’s when it became clear that beyond our histories and families, we lost our language, homeland, and culture. I think these shared losses and understandings created accelerated bonds—mostly for the better but some for the worse.
In “my” early days of broadly connecting to adoptees, there weren’t many speaking out on the injustices or against public perception. I was thankful to have people like Jae Ran Kim, Jane Jeong Trenka, Deann Borshay Liem, Kevin Vollmers, and others in my peripheral who were more heavily involved. They helped challenge my thinking. From interacting with group posts and comments, I eventually got asked to write pieces for online pubs. This prompted me to learn more about the history. I realized I needed to dive deeper and explore wider. Through writing, we’re called to articulate and inspect, so it helped me untangle a lot. As I expanded my network to domestic adoptees, same race adoptees, former fostered youth, and donor conceived people, I was surprised to see how much trauma we all had in common.
It’s been wonderful yet a little bewildering to see how many are willing to speak out and educate folks today. I’m here for it. Sometimes I think the nature and ease of social media can be overwhelming. Opinions can be rushed and co-opted. At times, it’s like witnessing a competition—which is odd, considering the heavy topics. But, ultimately, it’s valuable for our all-too-silenced population to put ourselves out there and be heard. It’s okay to form and grow our perspectives out loud. Our oppressors certainly do. For us, the process itself is a catalyst for growth—individually and communally. I can’t look at it too closely these days for reasons I shared above, but it’s nice to see progress. It helps knowing others have it covered so we don’t feel guilty for stepping back. We all need rest.
I have read your books Keurium and Everyone Was Falling (as well as some of your personal essays), and clearly adoption and also where adoption intersects with other aspects of your experience such as race and sexuality are outstanding themes. Can you speak about your motivations in writing each of these pieces, and what you hope is conveyed to your reader in each of your books? Or maybe “convey” isn’t a full enough word — maybe what do you hope a reader experiences as they read your work?
Thanks for reading so much of my work. That means a lot to me. As selfish as it sounds, I first write for myself because of a burning need to do so. If no one else reads it, I know it will satisfy something in me. Then I write for my people—the ones who don’t quite fit the cleaner, tidier personas that are more widely represented. I like my main characters to be complex, a little messy and subversive. When someone says it’s the first time they’ve really felt seen and represented, my whole life feels somewhat validated. That’s not because I still need outside validation, but it reinforces that staying alive through my darkest hours benefitted me and someone else, too. My eyes get all teary and my heart feels hugged, but all I can ever say is something trite-sounding like, “That means so much,” which can sound cliché. I’m not too bothered by people who don’t like my work. I don’t believe we should write for the approval of our critics. Nothing’s for everyone and I don’t want to water myself down to be more palatable. I’m sure, from their perspective, their opinions are valid.
You write both non-fiction essay and fiction, I am wondering if you can speak about your relationship with each of these genres? When do you turn to one vs. the other? Once you get me situated in some of the foundational motivations for these works I am going to delve into some themes that I noticed in the two books that I read and pick your brain about them.
I find more freedom in fiction and love the creativity of it. One of the books I mentioned earlier takes place in an alternate plane of existence. With it, I can explore so much more than I could with nonfiction. With nonfiction, I often feel more of an instant catharsis, which is sometimes just what I need. It depends how direct I want and feel I can be. Some think writers hide behind fiction—but in many ways, I feel more exposed with it. Even though things are funneled through characters, I’m still the one writing it. It still came from me.
Everyone Was Falling had some serious plot twists and intrigue, so I am going to be very careful and not spoil any of that. But I think we can talk about how the beginning of this story is an enormous tragedy, a mass shooting that happens at a 20-year reunion for your main character, Lucy. Lucy was adopted from Korea and raised with white parents in all-white town, the only other BIPOC a Black family who had a daughter, Donna who became Lucy’s friend at school. Donna, Lucy, and their friend Christy were the only survivors of the shooting, and each of them have a radically different outcome. Lucy is offered an opportunity to tell the story of the shooting, for a large sum of money. This creates what I see as one of the central conflicts and questions in this book: who has the “right” to tell a story? I think a lot about this question in my own writing as well, and I also bristle when I see someone telling a story that I feel is out of their scope to tell. What are your thoughts about this question?
This is such a complex question and one I’ve wrestled with a lot, given that two of the secondary protagonists had identities that weren’t my own. Because we live in a White dominated society and that’s the “culture” I was steeped in, I wasn’t worried about writing White characters. I spoke with a lot of Black writers in one of my writing groups about my concerns about Donna’s character beforehand and along the way. I actually wrote the whole book in first person with alternating narrators before rewriting it solely from Lucy’s perspective. Despite the consensus that it was fine as it was, it didn’t feel right to me in the end. The rewrite was hard. I had to give up so much insight into Donna and Christy, along with several scenes I really loved, but I think I made the right choice. I hired a Black writer whose work and opinions I respect to decrease any damage I might unknowingly cause otherwise, and she helped put my fears of overstepping or causing harm at ease. The question of who has a right to tell a story became a sort of mirror inside a mirror since I was grappling with it myself.
As hard as it can be to navigate knowing we’ll all misstep sometimes, I’m glad we’re having this discussion. Those with more power and resources cause a lot of injustice to those disempowered, regardless of intentions. Maybe someday I’ll feel I did that with this book.
In the book, there was more of a question of power and profit—two of the main ingredients for exploitation. I don’t want to give anything away, but in general, I do believe they make a difference. I’m of the mind that Asians are in the same fight with Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other People of Color against white supremacy. I think folks miss the fact that the reason many marginalized characters in the mainstream are written by those with more privilege is because of access and resources. It’s not isolated to networking and publishing, but born from the path that creates it.
Expanding on “who has a right to tell a story,” I want to ask you about the “cost” of telling a story. In Everyone Was Falling, you weigh this cost very carefully for each character as they face the telling of their perspectives of their shared experience of the shooting. “Cost of speaking” is also prevalent in Keurium where the main character literally loses her voice and capacity to speak. Each of your characters has a cost for speaking, whether that cost should rightfully be paid in the name of justice and truth (Christy), or if the cost is unfair and cruel (for Lucy and Donna). How would you characterize your own cost of speaking (writing)? Has that been something you have had to face in your work? How does it show itself, not just to you individually but more generally within the communities you are a part of?
I love that you picked up on this. I was raised in a house that had surveillance cameras and intercom systems all over the house—including the bedrooms. There was no privacy. My diaries were always read, sometimes out loud with disgust. I’d have to endure it in silence, filling with shame. This conditioned me to write to please others. When you’re constantly feeling like a disappointment, approval and praise are like hard drugs and I was addicted. But luckily, in toxic environments, the goal posts are always moving. The more that happened, the more I learned that trying to please others was a losing game. People’s requirements and opinions can and will change. Once I started getting real and honest, I unintentionally fell out of favor with those who needed the comfort of my disillusions. Thankfully, my true self connected me to all the people I love in my life at the present. That’s not to say there’s not still a cost. Things can get heated and tricky sometimes with friends on the same side with varying degrees of nuance, depending on communication styles. And, of course, when speaking from the heart without pandering to the public at large, there will always be those who try to punish you for it. Some people on the internet wield their anger because it’s the only way they can feel any power. It’s pretty sad, but also dangerous. Sometimes you have to privatize or shut down accounts and avoid events. There’s a lot more I want to share about that another day.
Another theme I noticed that was strung throughout both of your books is “identity.” As I personally related to this theme as a fellow adopted person perhaps a more specific and raw way to say it is “who the fuck am I?” Adoptees are raised in a container of external expectations and narratives, and in both of your books you show very clearly how the intersections of race and sexuality also exist in these containers of externally imposed narrative, compounding the complexity of the adoptee experience. You cultivate a palpable tension between the internal world and experience of your characters and the world that these characters must exist in and move through. So much of your action and dialogue are born in that place where the two opposing forces clash. I would love to hear your thoughts on the theme of identity and these internal and external worlds in conflict.
Another great question! That tension between internal and external worlds has been a steady theme in my own life to the point that it’s hard to imagine an existence without that conflict. As a transracially displaced person, growing up Asian in a large, White family and community was nothing short of a mindfuck. How I was said to be seen and perceived never matched what I was picking up from people. And how I felt inside wasn’t reflected in the mirror. The limited media representation we had back then only further reinforced my racial dissociation as the Asians on screen were nothing like me or my “family”. Add to that, I couldn’t help but notice how folks would adapt their baseline treatment, despite us all supposedly being “the same”. I did that, too, for a while. It was incredibly confusing and exhausting trying to figure out how one was supposed to “be” around whom. One could say, “Just be yourself,” which might’ve been fine—but, as you mentioned—I had no idea who that was. Now I know that’s not my fault, but an injustice caused on me. Because of these late discoveries, in many ways, I’m still the same kid at the core. In other ways, I’m finally blooming into the person I was shamed from being.
Lastly, one of the things I most personally related to and caused me to deeply empathize with and relate with Lucy, was her inability to cry. There are many mentions of her holding back, or wondering if something was broken inside of her because she wasn’t having emotional reaction that was expected of her. She hyper vigilantly held herself at bay. I could feel that mounting pressure, that life of holding it in, and when it finally breaks, what a torrential flood that is. Sometimes people say that writing is cathartic. And then, when we write not only for ourselves but for an audience, personal catharsis and craft need to both be present. Do you find that writing is cathartic for you? Does it help you with self-exploration or realization? Can you describe taking the personal nature of writing into craft so that it is written with a reader in mind, and how you try to approach that?
I’ve always led with intuition. For me, it’s all about setting the scene. I think I’m as visual as I am wordy, so I like to close my eyes and imagine it playing out. Sometimes I type with my eyes closed and just write what I see. If it doesn’t fully drop me into the room, I rework it until it does. I try to pay attention to some of the seemingly irrelevant details that can be later referenced. The ones that might make the reader feel more deeply connected to the world I’m creating. I live for that moment when a part of my brain lights up when noticing a familiar detail that’s suddenly seen in a new light.
But, yes, I find writing—and all art—deeply cathartic. It’s all a process of self-exploration guiding me to previously buried truths and connecting dots that I’d never have noticed were part of the same whole. For instance, formulating my response to this question, I’ve just realized that all of my creativity has me constantly moving closer and stepping back throughout the whole process. Closer for examination, and then away to see the big picture and how it all might intersect. I suppose there’s a lesson in that, too. Perhaps it’s that there’s a time and need for both, and the key to a more complete picture lies in our ability to move and shift as we go.
Since a young child growing up in a White family and community, JS LEE has sought refuge through art, music, and storytelling. Through her work, she examines trauma survival, transracial adoption, the ill effects of racial isolation, and intersecting marginalization.
LEE is the author of the novels “Everyone Was Falling”, “Keurium” and “An Ode to the Humans Who’ve Loved and Left Me”, author and illustrator of the latter’s corresponding children’s books “For All the Lives I’ve Loved and Lived” and “For All the Friends I’ve Found”, and the memoir “It Wasn’t Love”. Her essays and op-eds have appeared in Yes! Magazine, Health.com, and more. She currently lives in California.
About the artwork: Minhwa is a Korean traditional art that was meant to be considered low brow and not holding much value because it was painted by “commoners” rather than people of status. I felt it was fitting, as that would’ve been me had I been kept in Korea. I used expensive gold paint as a rebellion against its “low value” and placed my very spirited 15 year old cat, Phileas, in the picture, climbing a plum tree, since that’s the meaning behind the last name “Lee”. In Korean folk art, the magpie symbolizes good fortune, prosperity, and a sturdy spirit, and is a common theme. It’s titled “Minhwa Inspo #4: Phileas and the Magpie”.
Rebecca Peacock Dragon (Mountainview MFA fiction ’23) is an unemployed cult leader living in Western MA with her husband and three teenagers. She teaches writing, public speaking, and acting at Franklin Pierce University and works as a freelance editor. She is continuing to work on her collection of short stories that also served as her thesis, “How’s the End of the World Going, You Dumb Bitch?” Her essays and op-eds have been published in Selkie Zine, Bennington Banner, and VT DIgger. Much of her work is centered in adoptee advocacy and can be found on her platform Adoption: Myths, Misgivings, and Madness, where she hosts her own writing as well as the works of other adopted and displaced people. She also creates short satirical and informational videos about the adoption industrial complex on her platform Guaranteed Happy Adoptee TM.