The Uses of Orphans

The literary orphan belongs to no world except that of narrative opportunity, but some real orphans seek to change the world with rage

“I want us to be a famlee.”
--Ramón, in Jonathan Franzen’s Purity

In the opening chapter of L. M. Montgomery’s 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, Mrs. Rachel Lynde speaks her mind about the orphan her neighbors have “imported” from Nova Scotia:

You're bringing a strange child into your house and home and you don't know a single thing about him nor what his disposition is like nor what sort of parents he had nor how he's likely to turn out. Why, it was only last week I read in the paper how a man and his wife up west of the Island took a boy out of an orphan asylum and he set fire to the house at night—set it ON PURPOSE, Marilla—and nearly burnt them to a crisp in their beds.

Anne, the titular orphan, escapes the Hopeton asylum and a life of neglect and drudgery, then defies Mrs. Lynde’s predictions by growing into a mainstay of her family and community, an academic overachiever, and the heartthrob of the cutest boy in town.

It’s a Cinderella story, which is to say, an orphan story, made more vivid by the specific, grim details of turn-of-the-century adoption practices: Montgomery mentions the shipping of “Home boys” from the U.K. to Canada, and the Cuthberts originally intend to adopt a boy for free child labor on their farm. Charles Dickens, Horatio Alger, and Louisa May Alcott made the device of the heart-tugging orphan a cliché in its own time, long before Daniel Handler parodied it in A Series of Unfortunate Events, because of a Victorian hyperawareness of real orphans, in the streets, in homes, and in policy.

They also employed literary orphanhood because it works. It’s instantly, insistently dramatic, a shortcut to narrative tension. It’s the tragedy of the ancient Greek baby exposed on Mount Cithaeron: Will he or won’t he have a bittersweet reunion with his birth parents? It’s the threat of abandonment on the proverbial doorstep, or at Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame. There is no greater threat for naughty children than the orphanage, the ironically named Home, the workhouse. It’s the hard-knock life, the silence of the lambs.

To be an orphan has meant many things in different legal, familial, and linguistic contexts, even before Dickens turned it up to eleven with Oliver, David Copperfield, the Artful Dodger’s gang, and everybody at Bleak House. The Oxford English Dictionary has it that “orphan” refers to a person bereaved of one or both parents, or an abandoned or neglected person, usually a child. In stories, to be an orphan is to drive plot. Orphanhood is the beginning of (mis)adventures and only very rarely the end. Once such intolerable extremity has been inflicted (by parents, by cruel society, by authors), it can’t be left be: the sufferers must seek relief and resolution, questing from Vanity Fair to the Rubyfruit Jungle, into a giant peach; they voyage To the Lighthouse and through Quicksand, through the landscapes of Cymbeline, War and Peace, and Austerlitz.

Those literary orphans who aren’t totally crushed by their own predicaments may find themselves freed of any limitation whatsoever. They transform. Starting as J. M. Barrie’s “children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way,” they turn into the Lost Boys! Moll Flanders becomes American; Helen Oyeyemi’s Snow White becomes African-American. Orphans discover that they’re the scion of a wizardly family, Kal-El of Krypton, the last of the Jedi, or the mother of the Kwisatz Haderach. They seize their birthrights by the hilt to become Arthur, the Once and Future King.

The literary orphan belongs to no world except that of narrative opportunity.


“Yes: does that leave hope for me?”
“Hope of what, sir?”
“Of my final re-transformation from India-rubber back to flesh?”
“Decidedly he has had too much wine,” I thought; and I did not know what answer to make to his queer question: how could I tell whether he was capable of being re-transformed?
-- Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Rochester is not plotting to adopt Jane Eyre, but that shouldn’t stop him from getting some re-transformation out of her. Little as they are, and so alone in the world, the Janes, Hucks, and Little Orphan Annies aren’t spunky, resourceful, accommodating, morally clear-sighted, and sweetly appealing just for their own self-preservation. They rescue other hapless creatures who fall in their way, transform and enlighten the people to whom they’ve given the opportunity of saving them, save the New Deal, save storylines. Hugo writes in Les Misérables, “Who can tell whether Jean Valjean was on the verge of discouragement and falling back on evil ways? He loved, and he grew strong again. Alas, he was as frail as Cosette. He protected her, and she gave him strength. Thanks to him, she could walk upright in life; thanks to her, he could persist in virtue.” Suffering and drama effect salvation and resolution, and Henry James’s Milly Theale spreads her tubercular wings to gather in the liars and conspirators of treacherous old Europe.

It’s no accident that the Grail-questing knight Parzival is an orphan, or Frodo Baggins, either: why not save the whole world, while they’re at it? Whether they’re Little Princesses or Midnight’s Children, literary orphans serve as ambassadors between the outermost fringe of
vulnerability, pathos, longing—and superhuman goodness and pluck—and the families and communities they’ll transform.

That’s part of the reason why I wasn’t surprised to read Jonathan Franzen’s anecdote about the “insane” weeks when he’d “seriously” considering adopting an Iraqi war orphan, until talked out of it by his New Yorker editor, Henry Finder. He’d hoped that the orphan would help his creative process and assuage his alienation from young people.

Meghan Daum, who also once flirted with the “absurd” idea of adopting, wrote in the L.A. Times, “It should be obvious to anyone who read beyond the headline that Franzen hadn't seriously sought to fill in his knowledge about Western millennials by adopting a Middle Eastern war orphan.” She tweeted, “I challenge anyone to explain why the #Franzen Iraqi orphan non-story has any relevance to anything whatsoever.”

I’m not Iraqi or a war orphan. I’ve known war orphans, but I don’t speak for them, or for anybody else who’s been orphaned. I’m speaking only for myself, because orphanhood and transnational, transracial adoption are not ideas that sweep me up in flights of insanity or what Daum called a “predictable fireball” of Twitter overreaction, but the foundational experiences of my life. This is not a “non-story” to anybody who, as a child, had to play the role of New Yorker editor and explain, to some adult’s face, why his ideas about adoption were exploitative and banal.

I don’t think Franzen is uniquely, or especially, oblivious of the nuances of adoption (or of the Iraq War). Yet his comments, off-the-cuff as they may have been, should have given visibility to the casual, commonplace expectations of edification, gratitude, and cultural ambassadorship foisted upon orphans and adoptees. Many people expect real orphans to behave like literary orphans: like portable anti-alienation devices for the people who, so to speak, take us in. This expectation is embedded in institutional rhetoric and policy. We’re expected to diversify communities, once we’ve assimilated; to educate others about cultures from which we’ve been sundered; to provide uncritical love, respect, and endorsement, not just to our adoptive families, but also to our adoptive nations, absolving them of wars, injustice, and inequality.

This is not a non-story.

At the age of seven, I knew an awful lot about Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, China, and the Philippines so that I could correct adult strangers about conflicts from which they assumed I’d been salvaged. From the time I was 10, strangers wanted me to discuss my adoptive parents’ fertility, the cost of my adoption, the imagined poverty, sexual habits, and mortality of my birth mother, my genetic relationship to my sister, my wise advice to potential adopters, and my gratitude to parents and idle bystanders for my welcome in this country. They’ve used my “success,” for which they also claimed credit, to shame the supposed failures of the less fortunate. After I was attacked on a busy street, in daylight, by a white man who slammed me into a wall and hit me with a bottle, screaming at me to get out of his country, while dozens of people stood by and did nothing, I had to explain to my beloved grandfather why I questioned his railing at “the immigrants” to leave “his” country. (Mortified, he said he didn’t think of me “that way.”) And I’ve been wept at, confided in, and appealed to, by complete strangers—while I was trapped on flights or at work—to explain why their adopted children had grown alienated from them.

“Why does my daughter hate me?”
“Why is my son so angry?”

They look like my mom and dad. For the sake of my parents, who love me, and whom I love, I’m kind. But I’m also angry, not least of all because I’m far from the only former orphan whose life has been shaped by the expectation that I would serve as translator, apologist, cheerleader, and double-agent. One adoptive father called me an ungrateful bitch, because I supported birth mothers’ rights.

“‘Especially,’ said Mr. Pumblechook in Great Expectations, ‘be grateful, boy, to them which brought you up by hand.”


I had a peep at a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk: indeed, its face looked older than Catherine’s; yet when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand. I was frightened, and Mrs. Earnshaw was ready to fling it out of doors: she did fly up, asking how he could fashion to bring that gipsy brat into the house, when they had their own bairns to feed and fend for? What he meant to do with it, and whether he were mad?
--Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

In 19th-century Yorkshire, while many literary orphans’ troubles inspired them to better themselves, Heathcliff’s did the opposite. Heathcliff was not conciliatory. He was not interested in effecting anybody’s salvation. He was angry.

The variety of real orphans’ lives exceeds even Dickens’s output. I’ve known a war orphan who advocated for rainbow adoption coalitions; adoptees who’ve rejected their adoptive families in favor of their birth families, and vice-versa; adoptive gay and lesbian families, evangelical Christian families, families whose members’ appearances all blended seamlessly by race and coloring, abusive and loving families (none of these are mutually exclusive categories). “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy was orphaned, too.

I’m not the only adoptee who was fortunate in her adoptive family but remains, nonetheless, angry. The many happy cases of family-building don’t redeem the roles the institutions of transnational and transracial adoption have played in destroying other families. Some of us are angry, because the welfare of birth families who, with adequate legal rights and support, might be able to keep their children, is not so attractive to many governments or private organizations as is the “rescue” of orphans through foreign adoption. Even the wonderful birth/foster/adoptive/jazz-singing queer family network effected in the conclusion of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is incommensurate with the suffering Celie and thousands of other real birth mothers have undergone. And the lyrics “One boy/ Boy for sale. / He’s going cheap,/ Only seven guineas. /…Feed him gruel dinners. / Stop him from getting stout,” matters to those of us who were malnourished on gruel while our exorbitant adoptions were being transacted.

Fairy tales of stolen infants resonate with those of us who come from countries where babies are trafficked, birth families cheated out of their custody, and in-country childless couples wish to adopt but are barred by the higher prices set on the international market. We’re angry at solutions that perpetuate the injustices and needs they purport to solve. We’re angry that many of us are indeed fictional orphans with falsified papers and origin stories, commodified by institutions which helped to destroy our birth families and make us orphans in the first place.

When my girlfriends and I read Anne of Green Gables together in high school and held a half-ironic, half-enthralled theme slumber party that we were really too old for (and never too old for), we argued over who got to play Anne. The redhead won. I held that I, the only one who’d ever lived in an orphanage or been to Canada, should have gotten dibs, but that wasn’t how the game was played. Now, though, I wonder: what if L.M. Montgomery had chosen to write, not about the sweet, lovable Anne, but about the bugbears of Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s warnings: the arsonist orphan up west of the Island, or the New Brunswick orphan who put "strychnine in the well…and the whole family died in fearful agonies”? Where was the classic children’s book series for them?

For all these reasons and more, my interest in Franzen’s anecdote has outlasted the Internet attention cycle. What stays with me is that he wanted an Iraqi war orphan to teach him about anger. He wanted to adopt Heathcliff, then go raging across the moors, tearing everything down. Although Nelly Dean said of Heathcliff, “I wondered often what my master saw to admire so much in the sullen boy; who never, to my recollection, repaid his indulgence by any sign of gratitude,” Franzen knew better. Despite all my reservations about exploitation and self-congratulation—here, all the Iraqi war orphans should feel free to disagree with me—I give him credit for imagining, and desiring, unassimilable orphan rage. This is not a non-story, either.

Real orphans are not literary orphans, but some real orphans do seek to transform the world, not gently, not easily, not on anybody else’s terms. Some orphans rage. Some revolt. Some orphans show their gratitude by refusing to let the world continue in its complacent, destructive, ignorant way. Franzen’s imaginary Iraqi orphan might have turned out like Richard Wright in Black Boy, or Maya Angelou, who read and reread Jane Eyre and wrote about it in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Or like any of the dozens of other orphaned and adopted writers publishing articles, essays, memoirs, novels, and anthologies (though our work is swamped by the larger body of adoptive parents’ literature). Franzen’s orphan might have raged about the Iraq War, about the U.S., or about living with him, or she might have turned out to be just the kind of cynical, complacent kid that Franzen hated in the first place.

Regardless, his orphan’s rage, or lack thereof, would have been hers, to feel, struggle with, and write about. Not his to appropriate.

Long before Michael Derrick Hudson came along, a friend advised me, “Why don’t you change your name to the Korean word for ‘orphan’? That way, people will know what you are, and they’ll feel sorry for you, and they’ll publish your novel, because Asians are in control of publishing.” Maybe someday, in the Never Never Land where that statement makes sense, Franzen will adopt me. I’ll change my name to Yi-Fen Chou Franzen. And once Dad’s gotten my novel about rage-filled transnational adoptees into print, we’ll transform the hell out of this world, only too happy to be angry together.