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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. Orphanhood is the beginning of (mis)adventures and only very rarely the end. Barrie’s “children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way,” they turn into the Lost Boys!
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.
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.
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. 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.
Hugo writes in , “Who can tell whether Jean Valjean was on the verge of discouragement and falling back on evil ways? 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 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. , “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.