On adoption and identity: Dana Weiser at the Burnet Gallery

"Orphan Babies" by Dana Weiser
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
“Orphan Babies” by Dana Weiser

I am an adopted child. Ordinarily, this isn’t much of an issue, unless, of course, you hide it from your child until he is near adulthood and then spring it on him in a moment of anger. I understand this happens every so often, at least in movies, although it perplexes me. I am nearly 6 feet tall, and my adopted family tends to be between 3 and 11 inches shorter than me, which made things handy when I wanted to hide things from them, as I just needed to put it up on the top shelf. They have darker skin and brown eyes. I am pink and blue-eyed. They have tight, angry coils of dark hair that, left to its own devices, becomes wavy and, in one instance, blossoms into what in the ’70s they used to call a “natural.” I had blond hair as a boy that darkened into brown and eventually fell out. You’d have to be pretty oblivious to miss these differences until an enraged parent sprung them on you. I mean, for Pete’s sake. They are clearly Jewish. I am clearly not.

Except, through adoption, I am. While I don’t think adoption is that much of a fuss, it can be perplexing when the subject of ethnicity comes up. I was raised Jewish and, in a way, supersaturated in it. I went to a Jewish high school. I had a bar mitzvah. I even started my degree in college in Jewish studies before switching over to theater — although, thanks to the Jewish influence on American entertainment, sometimes it seemed like I was taking the same classes. There was the same sort of deep textural analysis. The same veneration of elders. The same interest in commentary and metacommentary. And, of course, a lot of show tunes.

But I am demonstrably of Irish extraction, and, according to the information left in my adoption papers by my biological mother, had a father whose family came from England. I have never thought that much about my Anglo-American identity, perhaps because Anglo-American is, in some ways, the default American identity. Also perhaps because I actually lived in England for a time as a boy, and so had direct experience with things like Morris Dances and Guy Fawkes Day festivals and studied the Norman Invasions and went to Stonehenge, and so this identity is sort of entrenched in who I am, without my having to really think about it. But we never got to Ireland, and maybe because it was the identity that was a mystery to me it was the identity I gravitated toward. 

There are four places where the Irish-American identity was forged. There was the home and the church, and neither, due to the circumstances of my adoption, were any use to me. There are Irish-American societies and language centers, and I peeked in on them now and then, occasionally going to ceilis and picking up a smattering of the old language. And, of course, there were bars, and that’s where my Irish identity came into being. And so mine is a literary one, as Irish bars may be the most literature-obsessed drinking holes in the world — Kieran’s, as an example, has a poetry corner and once housed a theater group. Mine is a musical identity, as Irish bars often hold traditional music nights, and, at a very young age, I taught myself a sort of rudimentary ability to play penny whistle. And, of course, mine is a drinking identity, as this column has demonstrated.

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But the thing about adoption is that these sort of cultural identities will necessarily be fragmented. There is an Irish Jewish community, but I would have to go to the bigger communities in Ireland to experience them, and so I am left with a jury-rigged sense of who I am, glued together from bits of Judaism, bits of Irish, none of it really sitting together easily. Sometimes I try to parse out what of me is Irish and what is Jewish. I have a Jewish sense of the absurd, but an Irish sense of irony. I have a Jewish sense of the arts as a storehouse for history and self-definition, but an Irish respect for the arts as an instrument of revolutionary change. I am an atheist, which has always felt very Jewish to me, and a socialist, which could be either. And I like to drink, and there are Jews who drink, but they always seem vaguely embarrassed about the fact. My genuine zeal for the cratur feels Irish to me.

But these are the stories I tell myself to try to piece together who I am, and who knows how much of it is truly part of a communal identity and how much if it is something idiosyncratic that I have chosen to pretend makes me part of a larger whole? And so what? Communities invent identity as much as people do. The turn of the 20th century was a great one for Irish identity, a time in which a country that had consisted of fragmented kingdoms suddenly decided they all had a lot in common with one another, when what they mostly had in common was that they weren’t English and didn’t really appreciate their presence.

Irish identity was manufactured out of scattered bits of culture, just as I have created mine. The Jews did the same, again and again and again. We are the people of the book, except it was an oral story that we redacted somewhere between 538 and 332 BCE. We are people of the Diaspora, except that we created that identity as a result of being expelled from Israel around 60 CE. And even that’s an invention, of sorts. Jews had been dispersing themselves long before the second Temple was destroyed, and some never left Israel. At least that’s something both of my identities, as a Jew and as an Irish-America, have in common: We have the Diaspora. 

This is a long introduction to an art show, but the truth is it’s a piece I can only understand through my own lens. The art show is “Who Are You?!?” at Burnet Gallery at Le Meridien Chambers, by Dana Weiser — a solidly Jewish last name. Except that Dana is Korean-American and was adopted by a Jewish family in the Midwest. I would have liked Weiser’s pieces anyway — a number of them are elegant mirrors engraved with patterns, and etched within them are phrases of discontent, such as “You’re Rude” and “I’m Disappointed By You.” There’s something both charming and sad about these pieces, as though they might be in the homes of somebody who is both dedicated to a sort of embellished glamor and filled with self-loathing. “I look glorious,” they might say to themselves in the mirror. “I am a wretch.”

But Weiser is, in part, exploring the fragmenting of identity that comes with adoption. Unlike me, who tacked bits and pieces of my biological and adopted identities together to form a makeshift sense of self, Weiser seems very much adrift in the show’s artistic statement. “I never felt a strong affiliation to any of my communities,” Weiser writes. “I was not white, I did not feel part of the Jewish community and I wasn’t Asian enough.”

And so Weister’s pieces whiteware clay sculptures of heads with multiple faces, all looking distressed, some seeming like they are about to scream. There are sculptures of Korean infants, reaching out, rather pathetically, based on Weiser’s own visits to a Korean orphanages. These children are embedded with Swarovski crystals — they glitter with cheap glamour, as though a Korean baby might be seen as an accessory to a life of tacky faux-wealth. 

I can’t blame Weiser for feeling disconnected. And, in some ways, the fact that I could piece together a strange hybrid Jewish/Irish identity is a mark of privilege. I am a white guy, and so society will see me as a white guy, which is, socially, sort of a blank slate; white is neutral. Any additional identity beyond that is something I can freely take for myself. Weiser is Asian-American, and a lot of people will look at the artist and see “Asian” first, whatever that means to them, and whatever presumptions come with that. 

And I think that’s the meaning of the many unhappy mirrors. People who are born Asian don’t necessarily think about themselves as being Asian all the time. They are, inside their own experiences, just whoever they are, with whatever life experiences they have, and sometimes, as with Weiser, that’s the experience of being raised Jewish in the Midwest. Just as the Irish didn’t really become Irish, in the modern sense, until they had to distinguish themselves from the English, being Asian-American can sometimes be, in part, the thing that distinguishes you from people who are not like you, even if that difference is primarily one of appearance. It’s not Weiser’s own feelings that are reflected back in the mirror, I think, but those of people who see the artist and superimpose an identity onto Weiser, one that they think shouldn’t be rude, or politically incorrect, or disappointing.

We’ve just come out of a long stretch of art that draws from the artist’s identity — as women, as gays and lesbians, as ethnic or language minorities, as people from a specific history or area of the world. But we’re entering a world in which those borders are ill-defined, where people don’t necessarily have easily identified cultural backgrounds, or ethnic backgrounds, or racial backgrounds, and may not especially identify with anything that preceded them, or, like me, may manufacture a new identity based on older ones. And this is why Weiser’s art interests me. It’s art about unfixed identities, which is a hard thing to make art about. But since it’s an unfixed future we’re looking at, it’s going to be important for artists to figure out how to communicate that.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Derrick Schluck on 10/11/2011 - 10:42 am.

    “I am nearly 6 feet tall, and my adopted family tends to be between 3 and 11 feet shorter than me”

    Now that must truely be a sight to see……

    Thank you for an interesting story Max.

  2. Submitted by Max Sparber on 10/11/2011 - 11:27 am.

    Obviously, I have yet to come to terms with also having been adopted by hobbits.

  3. Submitted by Derrick Schluck on 10/11/2011 - 01:10 pm.

    On a serious note, it really was an interesting article. I am adopted, yet grew up with one natural/birth parent and one adopted parent, but not until age 22 was I legally adopted, and yet I still have a relationship, albit a very distant one with my birthmother. My wife and I are considering adoption and this article just allowed me to look at the process and experience in completely a different way.

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/13/2011 - 11:47 am.

    For what it’s worth…

    Adoptee and biological births have been a part of my family for three generations…and parentage, biological or adoptive, survived well in my family.

    “Adoptee” was a word used rarely if at all as a label among my varied siblings; six in all. Biological background is a territory all need the opportunity to know, and some find it rewarding; others not interested. I think it’s called ‘choice’.. Their choice this time.

    Among the cocktails; wine and cheese crowd:
    Oh yes, I do have one gripe…strangers who would come up to me and one of my siblings at a party and say immediately, “Brother and sister…you two don’t look alike…let me guess, which one of you is adopted?” Or similar comment.

    I so often wanted to point to my handsome little brother and say…”Oh he is of ‘Royal’ birth. God is a tall man.”

    But I more respectfully say, “We have the same parents; just different womb numbers.”

    And if they don’t catch the words, little brother would repeat in his deep baritone voice staring at the woman like God himself.

    The prototype, a short, stout matron would back off a bit bumping into her tall skinny daughter with identical facial features who slouches in the background. No need to ask her as faces tell the story.

    No two birds are alike I suppose. Two crows who habit my garden produced a giant bird and that giant crow follows them around like a kid learning the ropes of surviving. Why should I want to question big boy bird’s parentage if all three birds make a great family?

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