Published on June 1st, 2023 | by Cheryl Klein0
“All the parts work together”: Author Sara Nović on Identity, Adoption, and Falling Short as a Parent
By chance, I read True Biz, Sara Nović’s novel about a boarding school for Deaf kids, the same month I read The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead’s novel about a boarding school where Black boys are beaten and even murdered. The books felt very much in dialogue with each other. While Whitehead depicted the dystopian results of institutionalized racism, Sara Nović created a semi-utopia, where the institution in question lifts its pupils out of an ableist, oralist culture. Yet in both books, it is the students themselves who become the architects of their own freedom—in community with each other, without parents or persecutors calling the shots.
Charlie, the sophomore protagonist of True Biz, has struggled to communicate her whole life, thanks to a malfunctioning cochlear implant and lack of access to sign language. At River Valley School for the Deaf, she learns ASL for the first time and realizes how much has been denied her, both linguistically and culturally.
Because I follow Sara on Twitter and Instagram, I know that in addition to being an excellent novelist, she is also the parent of a biological hearing child and a Deaf child she adopted from Thailand, where he was not taught sign language. I’m an adoptive parent too; I was intrigued by Sara’s particular adoption story, and the intersections that I imagined she might encounter, all while doing what every author-parent does—fight tooth and nail for scraps of time to write.
I was incredibly excited when Sara agreed to answer my questions for MUTHA.
CHERYL KLEIN: Charlie’s parents illustrate the mistakes that parents can make in the process of trying to do what’s best for their children (e.g. the mistake of not consulting any Deaf adults before getting her a cochlear implant that barely works). But they’re also sympathetic and evolving, even her mom, who is the more problematic of the two. How did you go about writing Charlie’s relationship with each of her parents?
SARA NOVIĆ: I am a really slow writer, so when I started True Biz I had zero children, and by the time it came out, I had an almost three-year-old, and was about to travel to bring home our then four-year-old. So the evolution of those characters was in some way an evolution or deeper understanding on my own part of what it actually means to be a parent, and how you can genuinely want what’s best for your kids and be dead wrong about what it is.
I created Charlie’s dad as a more passive character, because harming our kids can come from inaction as well. Additionally, often even in families where someone does learn to sign, it’s typically the mom and it’s seen as “her job” to care for the child and interpret for the family. So, Victor is a character who, for a long time, was trusting his wife’s convictions, that she had done the work for both of them. Probably he was also overwhelmed and frozen by the fear of failing his kid, until it became undeniable that the inaction was the failing. Maybe independently, or in part because of that, he stops buying into his wife’s ideas, and their marriage ultimately dissolves.
When I started the novel, I was much closer to Charlie’s perspective, writing from a place of anger and cheering Charlie on in her own teen indignation. I knew that wasn’t the full story, but it was cathartic to write. And then, as the characters began to feel more real and three-dimensional to me (and as I became a mom myself), it felt increasingly important to make sure all the characters had opportunities for nuance. Charlie’s mom was the first one-off chapter perspective that I wrote, because I wanted to give her a chance to speak for herself—she’s also the only character who gets a first-person perspective in the novel. Opening up Charlie’s mom’s world then led me to creating more of these glimpses into other characters’ minds in single chapters, and ultimately I think the book is better for that.
Now that the book has been out a while and has found a wide audience, I’m curious what kind of feedback you’ve gotten from parents, both hearing and Deaf.
I’ve been fortunate to have such support from the Deaf community throughout this process. I love hearing from deaf readers who are like “that!” identifying with a line or a character. I’m also really heartened by the messages I get from hearing parents of deaf children who say the book has given them a glimpse into their child’s world. It makes me hopeful that at least some parents are trying, and use the lived experiences of Deaf adults to support their children, or just keeping an open mind in general.
I’ve seen some negative chatter online from the usual suspects. I’ve seen some parents of deaf kids saying they refuse to read the book because they fear it will “hurt too much,” which…I’d urge them to interrogate why they think that is, and whose feelings they should be prioritizing when it comes to deafness. There are also a few parent-fueled lobbyist groups that are eugenics-based and who don’t really traffic in nuance, so if you do anything less than bow down at the throne of a CI [choclear implant] or oral-only education, you are in trouble, but they were pretty mad at me before this book anyway.
You’ve posted about adopting a Deaf child from an orphanage in Thailand, where (if I’m piecing things together correctly) he was deprived from learning sign language. How did your family arrive at this decision? What were your hopes and fears?
You describe the international adoption process as “fraught as fuck.” I’ve only had the experience of adopting domestically, but that phrase definitely applies to my own experience too. Cultural narratives around adoption seem to veer toward savior narratives and happy endings, or they emphasize the deep injustices at the heart of the institution—which are real, but don’t negate the fact that some children still need adoptive homes. How did and do you navigate trying to do right by your specific child in a fraught-as-fuck institution?
Yes, our son K is hard-of-hearing and spent the first 4.5 years of his life in an institution in Thailand, where he didn’t have access to sign language, and so didn’t fully acquire any first language. That puts him at risk for Language Deprivation Syndrome, which can cause permanent and pervasive cognitive damage. Essentially, how can you think if you don’t have a language to name or order your thoughts? It’s obvious how something like this happens to children in orphanages, where there are often fewer resources, but it can and does happen to deaf and hard-of-hearing children everywhere; technology is touted as a “cure” and then children aren’t given access to sign, leaving them with incomplete language acquisition.
My partner is an international adoptee, and it was always something that he wanted to carry forward in his life, so that was the catalyst for the discussion. But there is so much misinformation, and there are so many bad actors in power within the international adoption industry, that for a while we were kind of unsure whether it was even a possibility to do, ethically. It’s not true that there are scores of orphaned, healthy babies waiting for adoption abroad; there’s a really fucked up supply and demand industry built around the desires of parents in the Global North, and a lot of outdated information in the Global North that perpetuates the idea that this is a needed thing. Today, the majority of orphaned kids around the world are adopted through kinship placements, or can be fostered or adopted within their home country.
That said, sometimes circumstances go beyond issues of poverty or support, and cannot be remedied by family preservation efforts. And often, disabled children do not have family members or foster families willing to take them in; they’re much harder to place, and I’m sure this is true in domestic adoption here as well.
For K, both of these scenarios were working against him, and his case was opened for international adoption only after his social worker could not find an in-country placement for him. So for him, it was either international adoption or a life of institutionalization, where he would have continued having limited access to language, and likely would have suffered intellectual, social, and emotional damages from that. There’s grief and trauma woven into the adoption process, but grief and trauma was also baked into his time in the orphanage where he struggled to communicate.
As a parent, my fears are many—regular parent fears, parent of disabled kid fears, and fear in the knowledge that I will not be able to do enough to give him all the answers he wants, the full access to his birth culture he deserves, or fill the holes grief has carved out in him. My hope is that, if adoption is fraught and traumatic, which it 100% is, then it can also be better than the alternative and provide opportunities for language and love that were not otherwise possible for K, that we can continue to learn about Thai culture and his family of origin together on his terms—that it can be both.
How has welcoming him to your family impacted your approach to parenting? How has it been navigating a new sibling relationship between your kids?
Before we brought K home, we met another family that had one biological child and an adopted another child from Thailand, and I remembered watching those kids playing together and their mom saying something like, “you don’t have to teach them how to be siblings.” And I kind of thought, yeah right, like it’s that simple. But honestly, they boys did take to one another almost immediately.
They’re a bit of an odd couple—S is a lot more introverted and into books and playing pretend and has my (lack of) motor skills, and K is very social, high-energy, and athletic, but I think they feed off of and learn from one another’s strengths. Sometimes they just walk around the yard holding hands. And Sully is by far the most skilled at understanding Ku’s English speech. I have seen him translate and advocate on behalf of his brother in really sweet ways, CODA-style. Ku is always encouraging Sully to try new things that he would never do on his own, but usually ends up liking. It’s really a beautiful relationship. They also fight like hell sometimes. Like brothers.
As for me, having two kids is a lot different than having one! And having a three- and five-year-old pair can be non-stop. It is a continuous exercise in letting go. I have learned to let some things slide, to leave some things unfinished, the latter which does not come naturally to me. I have leaned into dirt.
In adopting your son, you’re enabling him to have access to language and Deaf culture that he might not otherwise. But I believe you’re also a transracial adoptive parent (as am I), which requires a proactive approach to helping him access his native culture. I can’t help but think of some parallels between hearing parents raising Deaf children and white parents raising children of color, although there are of course some differences as well. How do you approach this?
There are a lot of parallels—I’m actually in the process of writing a nonfiction book about this. It’s a memoir hybrid written as letters to both S (a hearing CODA with ASL as his native language, my biological kid) and K (Thai and hard-of-hearing, adopted) and [the book] looks at what it means to live a life where we are very different from our parents.
Typically, when we think of “culture,” we think of the language, history, food, traditions, etc. passed onto us from our parents or elders—this is called the “vertical transmission” of culture. But in the Deaf world, 90% of deaf kids have hearing parents, and only about 8% of those parents learn enough sign language to have a two-way conversation with them. Because of this, we typically understand Deaf culture as “horizontally transmitted,” meaning that we get most of it from our peers.
So for K, he is now experiencing these models in reverse—vertical transmission of Deaf culture and horizontal transmission of Thai culture. As a family, we’re committed to making sure that we are a part of the learning process within that horizontal transmission, though; it’s not just something we drop K to do on his own, but that we are all doing together.
Of course it’s not the same being surrounded by Thai family or living in Thailand, but, as a family we continue to socialize with other Thai people, celebrate Thai festivals (we’re lucky to have a great Thai Wat near us), eat Thai food, read Thai books. It’s also important to me that K has Asian Deaf role models in his life. It’s essential that we keep in sight that a person’s identity can’t be parceled out, but all the parts work together to make a whole person.
There are many ways that we fall short. Talking about how we fail at this openly is important, too. And right now, as K’s language continues to develop, we’re also trying to follow his lead a little bit—sometimes immersion into a very Thai space can overwhelm him, and he will ask for reassurance that he doesn’t have to go back to the orphanage. In addition to the traumas of institutionalization and adoption, one of the symptoms of language deprivation can be not having a firm grasp on object permanence or struggling with concepts of time in general, so making sure K feels confident in the understanding that he can have both Thai culture and stay with us is a really important piece of the process. It continues to be a balancing act between giving him a sense of safety and love, as well as access to his languages and cultures, and being able to identify which needs to be prioritized in a given moment.
You write, parent, and teach (not to mention the ways in which the adoption process can become a full-time job at certain points). How do you juggle it? What does a “typical” day look like for you?
I think parenting has definitely reinforced for me that there is no such thing as typical. Right now, most of my focus has been on parenting, then teaching, as these are the jobs that present immediate and material needs every day. K continues to have a lot of health care needs and appointments that have to happen at specific times and days, for example. The same with teaching—there’s a schedule and syllabus to follow.
So for my own writing, I’m just stealing time right now. There’s a lot of me writing a paragraph in my head in the shower and then running for a notebook when I get out. I know that I’ll be able to return to a stricter writing schedule once the boys are in school full-time, but right now I’m trying my best to be present with them in this really wild period. Having missed most of K’s tender baby and toddler years, there is a lot of snuggling to make up for.
How has parenting impacted the way you think and write about the world?
I don’t think there is a parent walking around this country today who isn’t fearful of what could happen when our children step outside the house. I learned the sign for “lockdown drill” from K, because at preschool they had to drill for an active shooter. I definitely have more fear than I did when I was just walking around in charge of nothing but my own body.
But I think being with children also gives me more hope, too. The boys make my proclivity for cynicism feel kind of silly. They’re both inherently kind and innovative. I want to find a way to protect and nourish that in them, rather than let it be snuffed out. Having little kids has made me more playful and creative with language. It’s made me think more directly about the impact multilingualism has on the way I think and write.
And watching K learn language has been one of the great joys of my life. The other day, he said, “I have an idea,” and I marveled at the idea that he could move from a place of not being able to express his needs and wants to knowing what ideas are, to having them and telling me about them. Kids are a master class in seeing the world afresh, which is maybe the most necessary skill for writers.