SYMPOSIUM “The Personal is Geopolitical: Story-telling and Familial Belonging in a Globalizing World”

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Date(s) - 12/09/14
9:30 am - 3:30 pm

Groote Societeit, Vrijthof 36


On the occasion of the inauguration of dr. Lies Wesseling as holder of the special “Opzij” chair “Cultural Memory, Gender and Diversity” on September 12, 2014, at Maastricht University, an international symposium The Personal is Geopolitical: Story-telling and Familial Belonging in a Globalizing World will take place at Maastricht University.

The symposium will revitalize the classical feminist adage that ‘the personal is political’. Nowadays, this slogan seems even more to the point than ever before, in that the personal has become geopolitical. Phenomena such as global surrogacy and transnational families shaped through adoption and migration exemplify the fact that geopolitical inequalities impact directly on the intimate space of the family, reorganizing family relationships in both developed and developing countries. This interdisciplinary symposium combines historical, anthropological, sociological and literary perspectives, so as to analyze the complex interplay between age, class, gender, race and nationality in the global reorganization of the family.

The following speakers will present papers:

1. Professor. Claudia Nelson, “When Adoption Became ‘Adoption’: The Justification of Child Migration in Victorian England”

In the nineteenth century, destitute young Britons were often termed “the children of the state.”  Despite Victorian idealizations of the family as panacea for various social ills, this de-emphasis of the individual parent signaled profound doubt of the family’s ability to eradicate the problems associated with impoverished children.  Depending to some extent on their age and gender, destitute children were seen either as embodying their forebears’ presumed irresponsibility and criminality, or as victims of these traits in their caregivers. If reformers indefatigably missionized the poor through district visiting, mothers’ unions, Sunday Schools, compulsory education, and more, much discussion surrounding the slum child hinted that such efforts were doomed, not merely as long as the child remained within the home of origin but perhaps as long as s/he remained within any private home. One influential view, expressed at the beginning of the Victorian era by James Kay-Shuttleworth in The Training of Pauper Children and solidifying over the remainder of the century, held that the impoverished family, a powerful rival to its middle-class counterpart because the poor were so numerous, had to be dispersed if society were to be improved. The solution proposed for children separated from such families was generally not adoption or foster care but institutionalization or transportation, child-size versions of the judicial system’s preferred methods for handling adult criminals.  Accordingly, this presentation will focus on two elements within British adoption history, with particular attention to the importance of social markers including class, gender, and age.  The first topic for investigation is narratives constructed by social commentators such as journalist James Greenwood to call into question adoption–Greenwood puts this term in scare quotes, “adoption”–when practiced by the poor.  The second is how such narratives facilitated schemes for the mass migration of displaced children that did not involve the establishment of what we would now think of as conventional adoptive families.  Whereas today’s version of international adoption is typically based on the premise that children will move from inadequate or nonexistent families in the country of origin to families in the receiving countries who are better able to value and nurture them, nineteenth-century practices often saw the creation not of family but of stable employment prospects as the ultimate goal.  Since contemporary policies use the specter of institutionalized care as a way to recruit prospective adoptive parents, we have moved to a position diametrically opposed to the Victorian sentiment that being a “child of the state” might be the best outcome for children from particular social classes.

Claudia Nelson is professor of English to Texas A&M University, US. As a literary historian, she has specialized in Victorian literature and culture, with particular emphasis on gender, family, and childhood; she has also published work on American texts, particularly those of the nineteenth century. Her publications include Precocious Children and Childish Adults: Age Inversion in Victorian Literature (Johns Hopkins UP, 2012); Family Ties in Victorian England (Praeger,2007); Little Strangers: Portrayals of Adoption in America, 1850-1929 (Indiana UP, 2003); Invisible Men: Fatherhood in Victorian Periodicals, 1850-1910 (U of Georgia P, 1995; paperback 2010) Boys Will Be Girls: The Feminine Ethic and British Children’s Fiction, 1857-1917 (Rutgers UP, 1991).

2. Professor Mavis Reimer, “Children’s Homes and the Home of the Nation: The Case of Canada”

The most iconic novel of Canadian children’s literature is undoubtedly the world classic Anne of Green Gables, the story of an orphan who becomes the adopted daughter not only of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, but also of the house itself and the layers of community in which the family is embedded. Published in 1908, the story is often taken to be an allegory of the new immigrant nation of Canada. It has inspired the development of an industry of popular tourism in Prince Edward Island as well as an industry of literary criticism. Both forms of attention have privileged readings that focus on the relation of the story to the personal life of its author, L.M. Montgomery, and her emotional connections to landscapes. A focus on the historical and political contexts of the production of the novel, however, brings other questions to light. The early years of the twentieth century saw the arrival of scores of unaccompanied young immigrants from Britain in Canada. Popularly known as Home Children, the young people were sent from institutions (or “homes”) to rural homes as indentured labourers. Their presence in the nation was a source of intense public debate, a debate that is marked in the first pages of Montgomery’s novel, when Marilla Cuthbert assures her neighbour that she is not bringing a “Barnardo boy,” a “London street Arab,” into the community. Marilla’s racialization of the excluded other – the unadoptable – in her conversation also points to another historical and political trauma in the establishment of the Canadian nation: the institutionalization of Aboriginal children in residential schools that was underway at the time of the publication of Montgomery’s novel and continued for many decades. In this paper, I will consider how the stories adults tell children delimit the meanings of home and suggest ways in which those stories can be opened up to reveal their historical and political implications.

Mavis Reimer studies how the figure of “the child” has been used in culture and how children themselves are persuaded to take up the burden of meaning assigned to this metaphorical figure, with a special interest in discourses around “home children” (institutionalized children) and their role in the history of the settler colony Canada. Publications include Home Words: Discourses of Children’s Literature in Canada (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, March 2008) and Such a Simple Little Tale: Critical Responses to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables(Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow P, 1992).

3. Professor Barbara Yngvesson, “Origin Myths, Narratives of Return, and the Making and Unmaking of (Adoptive) Identities in Sweden ”Race, Identity and Transnational Adoption”.

My research over the past two decades has focused on the tension between a Swedish national imaginary in which that nation is portrayed as an ideal soil for the growth of transnational adoption because it has no colonial past, and on the experiences of racialized non-belonging that are narrated by transnational adoptees. The growth of intercountry adoption in the final decades of the twentieth century overlapped with Sweden’s emergence as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and racially divided country, as it became a key haven for refugees and asylum-seekers from the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. Transnational adoption policy, with its focus on the capacity for “the different child” to become “completely Swedish” and on the role of adoptive parents in accomplishing this transformation, contrasted with immigration policy that encouraged refugees to maintain their distinctive culture and way of life. Indeed, in the mid-1990s when I began my research, a heated debate among adoptive parents focused on whether the adopted child was, or was not, an “immigrant child.” The racialized debate on this topic underscored the existential dilemma for the transracially adopted in Sweden. By their own account, they were increasingly regarded by others, as they matured, as looking “like any other immigrant,” an identity that was reflected back to them when they looked in the mirror. But this identity was in conflict with their self-conception as completely Swedish, a “Swedishness” that they (simultaneously) embodied and set in question in their literal incorporation of Swedish ideals of anti-racism and social justice. Drawing on memoirs, films, interviews, participant observation, and archival research, I explore the paradoxical relationship between “belonging” in Sweden and the felt need to “return” to the country of origin. I focus on the complex and non-identical subjectivities that unfold in this movement “back” and on the ways that returns evoke the coexistence of multiple, radically different, but analogous worlds in which selves materialize. In this way, returns challenge conventional understandings of adoption as producing “as if” families and identities (familial, national, individual) that mimic “natural” ones, suggesting that a more productive approach is to examine how the “as ifs” of adoptive identity both anchor and potentially unsettle the “natural” child and the “native” citizen.

Barbara Yngvesson is professor emerita of anthropology at Hampshire College, US, and founding director of the interdisciplinary Program in Culture, Brain, and Development there. Her interests include the cultural study of law, family and kinship, theories of identity and belonging, and transnational migration (with a focus on transnational families and international adoption). With research supported by several grants from the National Science Foundation, she is the author of Virtuous Citizens, Disruptive Subjects: Order and Complaint in a New England Court (Routledge, 1993); Law and Community in Three American Towns (Cornell, 1994, co-authored with Carol Greenhouse and David Engel), recipient of the 1996 Law and Society Association Book Award; and Belonging in an Adopted World: Race, Identity and Transnational Adoption (Chicago, 2010).

4. Dr. Cecilia Lindgren, “Here and now – There and Then: Narrative Time and Space in Transnational Adoptees’ Stories about Background, Origin and Roots”

Transnational adoption policy emphasizes openness in relation to adoptees’ background. However, because transnational adoption is a complex web of relations including individuals, institutions and countries, it is impossible to foresee what background, origin and roots will mean to the individual. This presentation will focus on the meanings adoptees themselves ascribe to background, origin and roots. It is based on a study in which transnationall nationally adopted young men and women participated in focus group conversations. The analysis focuses how time and space are made significant in narratives about background, origin and roots. Two contrasting stories – the here-and-now narrative and the there-and-then narrative – are discerned, but further analysis of the narrative space and time dimensions shows a much more complex pattern beyond these extremes. Adoptee narratives characterized by an open time dimension deal with what could have happened, alternative lives, and the analysis shows how these alternative lives are storied and valued. Furthermore, when adoptees tell their stories about background and roots, ‘there’, i. e. the birth country, is ascribed different meanings. The analysis suggests that the categorization of space as wide or narrow, in the sense of collective or personal, respectively, is useful in understanding the different approaches to background and roots.

Cecilia Lindgren is a sociologist and senior lecturer at the interdisciplinary Department of Child Studies of Linköping University, Sweden. Her research interests include the History of family and childhood; Child adoption policy and practices, Notions of socio-cultural and biological kinship, and Child politics in the Nordic welfare states. Publications include A Real Family: Adoption, parenthood and the child’s best interest 1917-1975 (Carlson Bok Vorlag).

5. Dr. Johanna Gondouin, “Sensible Indian Women and Sensitive Gay Men: On the Politics of Surrogacy in Swedish Media”

In the Swedish Media debate on transnational surrogacy, contract pregnany is typically represented by a white male same sex couple turning to indian surrogacy. My presentation explores the particular understandings of transnational surrogacy that this framing constructs. White middle class male same sex couples and indian women eligible for surrogacy work is a particularly complex phenomenon involving multiple and sometimes incommensurable vulnerabilities and multidimensional power relations. I set out to explore how the positionality of the different parties is negotiated. Focusing on the portrayal of the commissioning parents and the surrogate mother in the television series Children at All Costs? (SVT, 2011), I argue that the two parties are constructed as each others’ opposites and that an unequal distribution of vulnerability and affect plays a key role in creating this difference. The homosexual couple is cast as emotional, vulnerable individuals exposed to discriminating heteronormativity, as opposed to the indian surrogate mother, who is constructed as free, rational and non-emotional. How are the multifaceted questions of power and privilege that this particular example of transnational surrogacy involves managed? While elaborating on the political and ethical aspects of this representation, I will turn to postcolonial feminist research on the globalisation of reproductive work.

Johanna Gondouin is senior researcher and lecturer at Gender Studies, Stockholm University. She has a PhD in comparative literature and is currently working on the research project Mediating Global Motherhood. Gender, race and sexuality in swedish media representations of transnational surrogacy and transnational adoption (funded by the Swedish Research Council 2013-2015). Her research deals with the ongoing transformations of family and kinship in an age of new asssisted reproductive technologies and globalisation, thorough the lens of Swedish media. By exploring the parallells to transnational adoption, this project contributes with a historical and global context for surrogacy which makes its ethical predicaments palpable. The project contributes to our understanding of how media cultures shape our perception of family, kinship and their relation to larger social and political contexs.  Publications related to this project include ”Adoption, Surrogacy and Swedish Exceptionalism”, Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Journal, Volume 8, Number 2, 2012, ”Feminist Global Motherhood. Single Mother Adoption and White Feminity in the Swedish Media”, in Critical Kinship Studies: Kinship (Trans)Formed, eds. Charlotte Kroløkke et al., 2014 (forthcoming) and ”Reproducing Heteronormativity. Gay Parenting and Surrogacy in Sweden”, in Transnationalising Reproduction: Third Party Party Conception in a Globalised World, eds. Róisín Ryan-Flood & Jenny Gunnarsson Payne, 2014 (forthcoming).

6. Dr. Lene Myong Pederson, “Questioning the Biopolitics of Transnational Adoption: Remigration, Adoption Critique, and the Danish Adoption Debate”

Since the summer of 2012 a fierce debate on transnational adoption has taken place in Denmark after a series of scandals primarily involving adoptions from Ethiopia. This is not the first time such debates have occurred, yet the current debate is different; firstly because adult adoptees occupy a much more active role than before, and secondly because there has been a significant shift in how adoption is being discussed. The debate is no longer focused solely on how to improve the adoption system through legislation and policies; the biopolitical logic of transnational adoption and the political investments in maintaining the system are being fundamentally challenged. A small but vibrant body of adoption art, scholarship and journalism which has emerged in Denmark over the past 10 years, has been formative for the articulation of critical positions on adoption, but improved conditions for adoptee remigration (especially in the case of South Korea) and the transnational circuits of information and knowledge, which connect adoptee communities situated in different locations, have also played a crucial role. The paper will address the Danish debates on adoption, in particular the connections between adoption critique, remigration, and art work. The critique may in some ways be understood as a product of what Korean adoptee poet Maja Lee Langvad calls ‘ideological mourning’, i.e. the process of mourning the loss of an idealized perception of adoption. The paper will include works by Maja Lee Langvad, including her forthcoming book HUN ER VRED – et vidnesbyrd om transnational adoption (in English: SHE IS ANGRY – A Testimony of Transnational Adoption, 2014) as well as qualitative interviews with adoptees living in Seoul, the interviews were conducted in 2012-13.

Leny Myong Pederson has a PhD in sociology. She is an assistant professor at the Department of Education, Research Programme for Diversity, Culture, and Change of Aarhus University, Denmark. She is working within the field of transnational adoption, and affiliated with the collective research project KinTra – (Trans)formations of Kinship: Travelling in Search of Relatedness funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research (2012-14). She is currently serving as book editor at NORA: Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research and affliated with Tænketanken Adoption – an independent think tank on adoption.Un)liveabilities: Homonationalism and Transnational Adoption. Publications include, besides numerous articles in Danish: Michael Nebeling Petersen and Lene Myong (2014), “Unliveabilities: Homonationalism and Transnational Adoption,” Sexualities (2014).

Responses will be given by various members of the Centre for Gender and Diversity, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University. Participation is free but you need to register beforehand by sending an email to Racheel Wennek, For further updates on the program, please consult the website of the Centre for Gender and Diversity:

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The symposium will be rounded off by the inaugural speech of dr. Lies Wesseling, “Verwantschap weven: Vertelpraktijken en culturele herinnering in transnationale adoptie” (The Weaving of Family: Narrative Practices and Cultural Remembrance in Transnational Adoption).