Jacob Wheeler is Booksnob's Minnesota Author in the Spotlight for January. His guest post reveals some of the background and inspiration for writing his book Between Light and Shadow.
In 2005, while improving my Spanish at a language school in Quetzaltenango, in Guatemala’s western highlands, I found myself falling head over heels in love with that country, its mountains and lakes, its people, their languages and indigenous cultures. The writer, and activist, in me felt drawn in too by Guatemala’s narrative — that of a tragic and bloody modern history, and complicated relationship with my home, the United States.To enter to win a copy of Between Light and Shadow click the link: Between Light and Shadow contest
I wanted to contribute to that story. As I was working toward a Master’s degree in Creative Nonfiction Writing through Goucher College in Baltimore, I wanted to write about Guatemala in the context of its relationship with El Norte. I thought seriously about documenting overland immigration stories — the daring and painful journeys across Mexico to sneak into the United States to work illegally. But that story was already being told.
It so happened that by the middle of last decade, international adoption from Guatemala had exploded. More than 4,000 children per year were heading to baby cribs in America — 1 percent of all children born in Guatemala in 2007 — and, as I write in my book Between Light and Shadow: A Guatemalan Girl’s Journey through Adoption, which the University of Nebraska Press published on April 1, nearly every flight leaving Guatemala City for the United States carried a joyous family with their new adoptee in tow.
Why Guatemala, and not China, Korea or former Soviet countries? Guatemala’s “notary” adoption system was unique, in that it was largely privatized, free of governmental bureaucracy, and facilitated by attorneys in the capital who took steps to ease the adoption process for American parents. The infusion of cash in the system meant shorter waits, and better care during the interim. In short, Guatemala’s adoption system was faster, more efficient, and more tailor-made than anywhere else to the needs and desires of American families.
But that process also birthed allegations of baby buying, coercion of birth mothers, even baby theft. UNICEF, some nonprofits in Guatemala, and certain players within the Guatemalan aristocracy, dragged the issue out of the crib and into the international spotlight. Before it ground to a halt in 2008, foreign adoption became one of the most heated topics of debate within that country, and one that prompted a strong opinion from just about everyone.
All this dizzying political drama, and my desire to write a book that captured people’s lives in both the United States and Guatemala — two threads woven together into one colorful huipil, or traditional Mayan dress — birthed Between Light and Shadow.
When I set out to write a book on “the journey” of Guatemalan adoption, I hoped to tell the story from both ends. I wanted to capture the words of the poor, desperate birth mother who relinquishes her child, as well as those of the American family that embraces that same boy or girl and welcomes him or her into their home, opening up a whole new world of opportunity: airplane trips, iPods, high school proms, even a college education — unfathomable to anyone wandering the dirt paths of an impoverished Guatemalan village — but also identity crises, anger and longing for their roots. In the spirit of the great odyssey, I also wanted to retell the events, both tragic and beautiful in their own right, of how these children lose a mother, a family, a home, everything they have known, and then how the doors of fortune miraculously open the day the child is whisked off to the United States.
Little did I know when I began canvassing Midwestern families who had adopted from Guatemala that I would get to accompany a teenage girl and her adoptive mother on a cataclysmic reunion in February 2006 with the woman who had relinquished her as a mature seven year old. Ellie’s return to Guatemala, equal parts beautiful and tragic, and the way she intimately bonded with her biological brothers — despite language, cultural and national barriers — taught me so much about the unbreakable bond of family.
Writing the chapter about her reunion seemed almost too weighty an undertaking, and yet I felt that Ellie’s joyous experience in lavish Antigua and humbling episode in Guatemala’s desolate southern coast could offer so much to the adoption community, and to literature about international adoption.
What do I hope that adoptees, birth families and adoptive parents take away from this book? Each of you will relate to elements of this story in your own separate way. But what I learned was that this particular adoptee, an interloper between two distinct worlds — past and present, poor and rich, familial and acquired — has something to teach us all about our own humanity.