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Bloodlines and Belonging: A Book Review

by Tanya Cromartie-Twaddle The Language of Blood: A Memoir by Jane Jeong Trenka ($23.95, Borealis Books; October 2003). A memoir on adoption and a Barnes & Noble New Writers Program Fall 2003 selection reviewed by Tanya Cromartie-Twaddle.

I do not look like the man that I’ve called dad all my life. He, Dewey Cromartie, is of Creek blood, high cheek bones, wavy hair, and red boneskin. My mother, Merial Jean Byrd, is soft pecan brown. She is African-American. Nappy roots and all. cromartie-twaddle-vsm.jpgYes, she is black. But, my Momma is not as dark as I am. As a child, I was too aware of the differences within my own southern African- American family. I was reminded daily that my skin and nose set me apart from other family members. My journey through the trials and tribulations of the shades of blackness has been a long and lonely one. My interracial marriage and creation of a bi-racial child is an added burden – and blessing – on my search for identity. My little one does not look anything like me and we are reminded daily of that fact. “Is that your baby?” “Her daddy must be white?” “She looks Latina?” As I journey from jigaboo to tar baby to pickaninny to Tanya (I long to change my name from this Russian call to something from my African ancestry, but how could I betray my Momma?), I wonder what it must be like to be in a family void of bloodlines and real cultural connection. You see, I felt alien within my own ethnic group. –Tanya Cromartie-Twaddle

The Language of Blood, a memoir by debut author Jane Jeong Trenka, delves into a Korean adoptee’s search for identity and bravely examines the nature of family and true individuality. Trenka delivers a blunt and authentic account of her trans-racial adoption experience, reveals a stalker’s attempt to destroy her, and validates the experiences of many adoptees that were brought to America, albeit with the best intentions, to live in isolated, homogenous communities. The author uses one-act plays, letters from her mother, and other engaging prose forms, to create piercing images for her readers. The Language of Blood is a must-read for that soul on a search for identity or birthright, regardless of ethnicity. Whether trans-racially adopted or born into a long line of blood, the reader finishes the book with a better understanding of the pain of displacement and the internal battle to reclaim self without severing ties to the ones who have loved you. “I am Jane Marie Brauer; created September 26, 1972, when I was carried off an airplane onto American soil.” The woman I met at Harry W. Schwartz book store in early October, on a visit to Milwaukee to promote her book, was born Jeong Kyong-Ah, lunar date January 24, 1972. Her umma, blood mother, Jeong Ho-Joon, was forced by an oppressive relationship to give her up at just 6 months old, along with an older sister, Mi-Ja. The two became the replacement children for Frederick and Margaret Brauer, an infertile, conservative white couple in Harlow (fictional name for the sake of privacy), a rural town in northern Minnesota. As the author puts it, “Harlow is the last bastion of all that is good, right, fundamental, and homogenous…where all the people celebrate the same holidays, where you don’t have to remember the latest politically correct vocabulary.” Trenka recounts a childhood filled with confusion despite her new parent’s love and care. Even as a young child, Trenka was confronted with the startling differences between herself and her adoptive community. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child a long way from home.” — Traditional Spiritual. What does it feel like to be the “exotic one” among the homogeneous? Often times I find myself the only black in a room full of white people. I was afflicted with this complex the night of Trenka’s Milwaukee book tour reading. I was the only black person there. Even as an adult I have not developed the magic trick to becoming oblivious to this. The feeling of displacement in such settings is natural. One can only imagine the conflict a child feels wrestling with these insecurities. Trenka’s vignettes allow for genuine understanding of the alienation she felt in Harlow. Kindergarten show-and-tell was a highlight because she had the opportunity to share a picture with the class of her Korean family and real Korean clothes. But the show and tell stopped there. Korea was never mentioned in the household. The sisters were not exposed to anything from their original home and blood family. Jeong Kyong-Ah could not ask her adoptive mom about her Korean mother and was only able to establish a one-way communication with her mother when she happened upon a letter in her adoptive mother’s desk. As the memoir journeys from her teens into womanhood, Trenka presents the reader with her struggle to be the perfect American daughter and her longing to be embraced by and woven into the cultural fabric of her Korean family. Trenka shares her bona fide attempts to communicate through spoken language with her birth mother and bittersweet attempts to connect with a culture that had become foreign to her. The turmoil of the identity crisis is vivid through the description of Trenka’s attempt to strip herself of her Korean appearance. Many readers will connect (certainly my African-American sisters) with this battle against blood-given traits that seem to have no place in dominant white culture. We have tortured our hair and visually butchered our body parts to reach an ideal that is not ours. Trenka’s memoir is rich with reflections that have the power to elicit unresolved emotions that many sisters would prefer to keep locked away in that “I’m an American…we are all one, appearance doesn’t matter” place. “I permed my hair beyond recognition, into a giant mass of curls. Mom loved it…However, my stubborn black hair refused to lighten, no matter how much peroxide or lemon juice I poured on it…I continued to perm and peroxide until my hair broke off in chunks.” Fortunately, few of Trenka’s readers will become victims of a racist stalker. But one-too-many of us are victims of someone’s dangerously negative assessment of our self-worth. From her best friend in third grade came the stabbing descriptions, “frog-eyed and nigger-lipped.” From the stalker, “You are nothing but a Korean in a white man’s society. You’re a gook, you’re a chink.” Trenka’s courageous accounts of her harrowing encounters with her stalker reveal the excruciating toll being “exotic” can bring. Jane Jeong Trenka succeeds in not only recounting her life; she goes beyond by providing the reader with a detailed history of her Korean homeland and the war that spawned the original intent of international adoptions. Trenka strategically reveals her quest to discover what information and support regarding transracial adoptions had been available for her American parents. She is an advocate for transracial adoptees and is constantly researching and investigating the topic. Today there are Cultural Camps and culture-sensitive support agencies and resources available for parents seeking to raise children of a different ethnicity. The author believes her adopted parents did have access to such support, even thirty years ago. Frederick and Margaret knew they could love and care for the girls. “They didn’t believe in racism. They had never experienced it.” Perhaps the most heart-wrenching element of the memoir is the communication between Jeong Ho-Joon and her distant child. Trenka shares with the reader her birth mother’s voice and pain through a series of letters and translations exchanged between the two. The reader travels to Korea with Trenka and is privy to the unspoken language that exists between blood mother and daughter. She discovers a soulful relationship with her family despite the spoken language barrier. The Language of Blood is not a rosy picture of transracial adoption. But it is also not a bashing session. Trenka does recollect happy moments from her American childhood. She knows her parents meant the best for her. The memoir pleads with parents to make a genuine commitment to exposing adoptees to–and involving them with–their blood connections. In her words, “Remember that your joy as a parent is a direct result of you child’s first loss.” The accomplished woman she is today is due in large part to the opportunities her American family afforded her. But she believes opportunities in a new land do not quell the longing for home or the instinctive connection that exists with a child’s roots. Parents must go beyond the yearly culture camp, the how-to-books, and seminars. They must possess a heartfelt desire to raise the child secure in the blanket of his or her birth culture. “For me, it is not simple. I wish that my adoption was a one-hundred-percent-positive thing, that people as well as God did not see the color of skin…”

Dealing with the Aftermath

An interview with Jane Jeong Trenka by Tanya Cromartie-Twaddle

Tanya: How has your Korean family received the debut of this memoir? Jane: My Korean family is not fluent in English so they have not read the book, and it has not been translated. In Korea it is not polite to talk about your family, whether you are saying good or bad things. So what I’ve done is not culturally acceptable, but my family understands that I have become American and this is an American book. My elder sister gave me permission to write in her Korean way, which was to answer my questions, and then, in effect, to look the other way. Our relationship is the same as always-we still cannot talk to each other because of the language barrier, but there is an understood love between us that transcends language. I often think about my deceased Korean mother-who also broke cultural traditions…and wonder what she would think of this. Would she be proud? Or would she be ashamed? Tanya: Describe the writing process. Were there times when you thought of letting it go? Jane: Writing was painful, but concealing my pain was excruciating. When I realized that there was going to be a book, I knew there would be a price to pay. I decided very quickly that I would stop immediately if the book jeopardized my relationships with my siblings. It never did. Particularly with regards to my American sister, truth-telling/witnessing/reporting has only brought us closer. Tanya: How comfortable are you in your skin today? Jane: Oh, that is a tough one to quantify. It depends on were I am, who I’m with, what the context of the situation is. The fact is, all kinds of people have all kinds of assumptions based on how other people look, and they act on them. It takes a lot of emotional maturity and inner resources to be graceful and OK whatever the situation. Developing those skills will most likely be a life long process for me, as I suppose it is for everyone. I can’t wait to be an old lady. Maybe I’ll have things somewhat figured out. Tanya: What are your plans for building a family? Would you consider adopting a child with another ethnicity? Jane: My husband and I have talked about making a family in some way, but that’s a conversation that I’d like to keep between us. For now we have two fantastic Shiba Inus (they are Japanese dogs–do they count as children from another ethnicity?), and we support UNICEF and UNIFEM. Jane Jeong Trenka is the recipient of the Brenda Ueland Prize, a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship, a Loft Creative Non-Fiction Award, and a SASE/Jerome Award. The Language of Blood may be ordered from Amazon.com with a portion of the proceeds going to the Riverwest Currents.