American Adoptees: An Interview with Matthew Salesses

Article by annalia

Being adopted has never been remarkable to me, perhaps because that’s how I think of it: I was adopted, in the past tense. It’s a thing that happened—once, a long time ago, a singular completed event. Sometimes, I even joke and say that I’m “imported,” a thing that I and the person asking me about my “origin” can laugh about. It’s not until I’m talking with author Matthew Salesses one morning at Brazil Café that I find out that there’s another word for it: adoptee.

After turning it over for a few weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s like any other label: it has to be something that you claim, not something someone else assigns you. Let’s put it this way: I am a feminist. That is a thing I am everywhere, all the time, regardless of whatever. But an adoptee? Is being a Korean female body from a white family something I think about to that same capacity? I don’t think so. Does that make me a “bad” person of color, someone who merely takes advantage of my white adoptive parents’ class and privilege? Or is it more complicated than that?

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In his novel THE HUNDRED-YEAR FLOOD, Salesses tells the story of a Korean-American named Tee who ventures off to Prague after his uncle’s funeral. The idea is that his uncle (the story suggests “finally”) committed suicide around 9/11 over the affair that his wife and Tee’s father had been having for decades. However, this is not a novel about 9/11, not really. In fact, Uncle Hi seems to use the national event merely as a distraction, a hubbub that allowed him to wander off without fanfare. Once in Prague, Tee begins his own affair with the wife of an artist who played a role in the Velvet Revolution. Wandering prose mimics Tee’s meandering mind, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks and realize “Tee is grieving. Tee is lost.”

“The relationship in THE HUNDRED-YEAR FLOOD for the protagonist is also a problem because of the history that he’s coming from,” Salesses says. “In a way, he’s sort of playing that out for himself, with a much older woman.” His first novel, I’M NOT SAYING, I’M JUST SAYING (2013), told in flash fiction, also features an affair. When I ask him if he’s interested in domestic conflict—especially since I’M NOT SAYING, I’M JUST SAYING also concerns the narrator’s adoption of a love child he never knew about—Salesses says the impulse is more toward “the ways that family and relationships influence identity.” He continues: “I’m also interested in the idea of desire and how it seems like you don’t choose who you desire. I feel like a lot of people end up in relationships where the relationship kind of tells you more about yourself than you knew beforehand.”

Though I’M NOT SAYING, I’M JUST SAYING is in first person and THE HUNDRED-YEAR FLOOD is a close third, mainly following Tee, they share the wandering element I mentioned earlier. In THE HUNDRED-YEAR FLOOD, Tee flits between the present and memory, both his own memories and the myths of the city, whereas the narrator in I’M NOT SAYING is caught between “the wifely woman,” “the white girl,” the young boy, the young boy’s dead (white) mother, and his own insecurity. (None of these characters are named.) I say this not necessarily to compare the two but because I read them side by side, which is sort of how Salesses wrote them. He took a break from the longer novel to write this short novel in short form: each page is its own story, its own chapter, within a portrait of a family over a year. When I ask him about I’M NOT SAYING, I’M JUST SAYING, whether he’s generally drawn to shorter work, Salesses says yes, “but I was also working on the novel...and it was just taking forever—you know, eleven years. And so, I wanted to write something that I could finish, basically.”

THE HUNDRED-YEAR FLOOD was born in 2004, when Salesses was in Prague for a year teaching English. “I had this job where many of the classes I taught were like just one-on-one conversations and so, I got really into the myths of the city,” he says. “A lot of my conversations were just like ‘Tell me these superstitions’ or ‘Tell me about the history of the city.” This way, his research was more a people’s history, the novel something he started when things were still fresh in his mind. So, what about it took eleven years? I didn’t ask, but finding a publisher is always part of it.

This leads me to the most difficult question I ask Salesses all morning, which is “Why did you choose Amazon?” He says a lot at first, about how they “sent the book to all different publishing houses” and that “I’m pretty sure Amazon was the only place we sent it that had an Asian-American editor,” but the answer, really, is this: “Why did I choose Amazon? Well, basically, they chose me.”

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Even without the recent New York Times article that showcases the physical, mental, and emotional stresses that have afflicted many Amazon employees over the years, my position at Brazos should make my bias against the company pretty clear. Salesses, though, pleads a different case: he tells me a well-known author who is also a person of color, a friend, told him recently that "Without Amazon, we would have sold no books." "The big chains weren’t buying,” Salesses insists, “Indie bookstores were supporting him but you know, not everywhere in the country has independent bookstores, right? And so, most of the sales come on Amazon.”

Salesses presents Amazon as “an equalizer, especially for people who live in places where they can’t get to an independent bookstore or people who are busy and they don’t have time to go.” Now, that statement might sound like Amazon propaganda, but Salesses tells me that he was once one of those people: “The town I grew up in—we had a university bookstore but that was the only. Other than that, it was just a big Borders fifteen to twenty minutes away.” As such, “I could never find a book as a kid about a person of color. I don’t think I read a single middle grade—or what would be classified now as middle grade—book about people of color.” The idea is that, “if you have Amazon, you have everything.” Amazon is what allows you to find those books. “They might be hard to find,” Salesses says, “but there’s zero chance of me finding them at Borders. You know?”

Part of me is still skeptical, especially since my hometown (with its mere 15,000 people) has its own independent bookstore, but again, maybe that says more about my relationship to being an Asian person in America than it does about whether or not Amazon is inherently good or evil. The argument that Salesses is the one about representation. For him, growing up reading fantasy meant a lot of seeing “little white kids” finding perfect worlds by “[walking] through this doorway or [getting] inducted into this magical community.” It involved this knowledge that “those perfect worlds would never be perfect worlds for me.” I, on the other hand, was just happy to read anything, watch anything. I could relate to Ariel the mermaid as much as Mulan, or maybe even more than Mulan because no one ever came up to me in school and said, “So, you can fight, too, right? Because you’re Asian?” To me, it was almost liberating to be able to go in a bookstore, even somewhere like Borders, and be able to look at books as stories, without having to wonder whether or not I was a “good” or “bad” Asian.

After I met with Salesses, but before I began writing this article, I found a conversation between Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates called “The Charge to Be Fair.” In it, Coates says, among other things, that “one has to even abandon the phrase ‘ally’ and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.” I’m still not totally sure what that means, but I don’t want to think that Salesses and I are going through opposing struggles. Based on his tweets, Salesses wants justice, or at least to be seen. Me? I just want to keep listening. I want to do what Maggie Nelson wrote once, which is “keep [my] eyes open.” I want both our pursuits to be equally valid.

The Hundred-Year Flood Cover Image
$14.95
ISBN: 9781477828373
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Published: Little a - September 1st, 2015

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