What do Superman and Professor John McLeod have in common? No, it’s not that they’re from the planet Krypton or that they have super-strength, it’s that they are both adoptees. So it’s pretty fitting that John was asked to talk about Superman in light of his research on adoption at the launch of his new book, Life Lines: Writing Transcultural Adoption – an entertaining and informative hour of discussion between John and his old friend Matthew Pateman, another fellow adoptee and now Professor of Popular Aesthetics at Sheffield Hallam University. John was quick to reply that ‘the problem with Superman is that it’s all about exceptionality’ whereas his book actually subtly suggests that adoption is ordinary and common. An exhibition he mentioned entitled ‘‘Superman was a Foundling’’ highlighted just that, containing the names of hundreds of adoptees. So, he asked, why are many people fascinated with adoption?
It’s easy to see why John might be interested in the subject, but he pointed out that adoption is not just something which affects adoptees. Defining a key phrase in his book ‘Adoptive Being’, he explained that he was ‘trying to move from a preoccupation with being adopted to the possibilities of adoptive being’, acknowledging the often painful and traumatic experience of being adopted, whilst recognising that adoption can also be beneficial to everyone thinking about their own personhood. He argued that by looking at and writing about experience of adoption, other forms of knowledge and new ways of thinking might emerge – which, he said, was exactly what literary writing was about.
Talking about the title of the book he explained that in his writing he is trying to bring together two things. The first is the reality and representation of adoption and the second is his postcolonial background. Although he initially intended to write solely about postcolonial narratives of adoption, he found the term ‘transcultural’ to be more appropriate and flexible after reading more literature around the subject and considering that many cases were in America. As he also pointed out, not all transcultural adoptions are transnational or transracial, so this seemed like the most fitting and all-encompassing term.
The talk combined interesting theories and criticism about adoption with some very touching personal experience. This contrast between academic and personal interest was something John touched upon several times over the hour. He told us that whilst writing his book Postcolonial London, the stories of adoption he came across resonated with him and were part of the spark that pushed him to publish Life Lines. He initially struggled with incorporating personal experience into his work as he had always been told to remove himself from his research and simply answer ‘I find the literature fascinating’ when asked about his interest. To the audience’s amusement, he recounted that his typical answer didn’t go down so well at the adoption conventions he attended when writing Life Lines. He only earned an invitation to lunch when he revealed that he was in fact an adoptee himself.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the talk was the extract of John’s beautifully written coda. This, he explained, was how he dealt with combining literary analysis with personal experience. The section he read out focused on particular moments in his life when he has felt the impact of being adopted or adoptive being; when his teacher remarked that he resembled his sister (and he immediately began to question her intelligence) or when he saw the hatches unwanted babies were once deposited in at a nunnery. Fittingly, this personal ending to the book wrapped up the discussion and led on to a touching and personal thank you to those involved with the launch, especially Matthew, who John said was the only person he’d have wanted to do the event with.
After such a fascinating and moving talk I felt inspired to find out more about the subject, and Life Lines will definitely on my reading list for the future! The book is available for purchase here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Life-Lines-Transcultural-Adoption-Contemporary/dp/1472590384