Tuesday, December 21st, 2010
“I think there’s a need to go there and reveal those layers because it makes internationally adoptive families more real–in both a beautiful and ugly sense.”
In his memoir, My Family, A Symphony: A Memoir of Global Adoption, Aaron Eske tackles some sticky family issues. He grew up among siblings with illnesses and disabilities and, in addition, his brother and sisters are all internationally adopted. Eske writes of their tumultuous coming of age in rural Nebraska that leads to the eventual disintegration of the family. After leaving Nebraska to go to school, Eske grew tired of being disconnected from his family and tried to reach out in his own way—by traveling to each of his siblings’ country of origin. He absorbed their original surroundings and even met their very first caregivers.
Eske, who now works for the CIA in Washington, D.C., spoke with SMITH about his writing process and how writing his memoir changed him.
When did you start writing My Family?
I wrote the first word of it two years ago, but I started writing it in my head when I was on an overnight train in India and couldn’t sleep because some man kept walking by and screaming, “chai, hot chai!”
While reading your book, I wondered if you discovered why you traveled while you were writing or if you had a set goal and purpose all along?
I think it started off as an urge to travel and explore these places that were so life-changing and life-starting for my family. Then the purpose started to take shape once I learned more and started making sense of what I was experiencing. I started to feel more connected to my siblings’ experiences by witnessing what their lives were like and what they would have been like had they not moved to the United States. That’s when the thesis of a book came together. It started as curiosity and detachment; then, it was sitting in an auto rickshaw alone in India while a girl who would have been my sister’s age tapped on my knee begging for money in the street that I really felt the serious life change that my siblings underwent. I think I’d taken it for granted because I’d never known any different.
What are some of the unique challenges of international adoption? Is the race consciousness of America an issue?
Race is only a problem because society makes it one. It was the least of my family’s internal worries [laughter]. You honestly stop noticing. But yes, my siblings growing up in Nebraska 20 years ago did have to deal with stupidity, so it was a challenge. The biggest unique challenge is for children who are adopted when they’re older and who remember their past; I think they have a harder time ever feeling certain in their family’s unconditional love.
You write about how your family fell apart. Do you have any regrets with the role you played in shaping your family?
Oh, of course. I could and should have done a lot more—still probably should—to reach out to my siblings. I had a definite selfish streak there for a while and even though I saw everyone struggling to cope, I chose to go about my own activities.
Did any of your trips feel guilt driven?
I don’t think guilt inspired my travels, no.
How did your siblings originally feel when you told them about your travels? Are you closer now that the book is out?
I honestly didn’t talk with them about it much until afterward. I told my parents I was going and they were supportive, but it took those travels to finally bridge the gap between my siblings and me. I mean, we’d talk in generics and I’d ask about their school and prom dresses but that was about it. Yes, I’d say we’re closer now. At least I’m more aware now when we haven’t talked in a while and when I’m being distant and want to repair it, whereas before I was much more comfortable with the separation.
It’s tricky to write about family. Did you feel squeamish while you were writing about fights?
The scene where my sister’s PTSD really bubbles over was personally very difficult to write. I did it all in one night until about five in the morning because I didn’t want to have to revisit it emotionally another day.
Why did you think it was important to include situations that even make you emotionally uncomfortable? Were there many situations you couldn’t write down? What was your selection process like?
The answer to that is the answer to an even bigger question: Why publish the book in the first place? And the main reason is not because the writing was cathartic for me and my family. The traveling alone accomplished that. There’s a surface understanding about international adoption out there. We see the precious pictures of Madonna and Angelina with their kids but they rightly keep the deeper layers hidden. And I think there’s a need to go there and reveal those layers because it makes internationally adoptive families more real—in both a beautiful and ugly sense.
This book serves up that needed reality for anyone considering adoption, or families who already have, who need to know they’re not alone in their struggle (because almost every adoptive family I’ve ever encountered has a struggle). There’s something unique and too often undisclosed about life inside an internationally adopted household.
Once I started tackling the big nasty stories, then I preferred to keep going until they were down. But the manuscript had holes for many months. While I delayed writing them, it was far more pleasant to write about sailing down the Ganges River, even while dead bodies floated past—still way better than reliving unfavorable family memories.
Are there any lingering issues in your family since the book release?
Not to give away the ending, but my family’s story is still not entirely resolved. My relationship with my brother is probably worse than it’s ever been. Not because I don’t understand where he’s coming from, at least; he’s just not reachable.
And finally Aaron Eske, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Colorful, yes. Paint by number, no.
BUY My Family, A Symphony.
FOLLOW the author on Twitter.