112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Transnational Abjection: Performance and Politics of Adoption Depression in Jane Jeong Trenka’s The Language of Blood and Fugitive Visions

Joseph Kai Hang Cheang, "University of California, Riverside"

This paper will de-pathologize adoptee writer Jane Jeong Trenka's depression depicted in her autobiographies by reframing it as a productive site which allows her and her readers to realize that her intra-subjectivity is an inter-subjectivity which she shares with her biological and adoptive parents, as well as the sending and receiving countries. 


Since the end of the Korean War, up to two hundred thousand South Korean orphans have been sent to first world countries including France, the Netherlands, and the United States through adoption programs. These programs were conceived to provide children better lives. However, as the burgeoning oeuvre of adoption studies suggests, while adoption may have freed the adoptees from immediate threats of hunger and violence, geographical displacement often leaves a fissure in the adoptees’ psyches. For instance, Jane Jeong Trenka, a Korean adoptee who grew up in Minnesota and now resides in Seoul, expresses her inability to walk out of the long shadow of depression in The Language of Blood (2003) and Fugitive Visions (2009). Trenka was diagnosed with a host of psychological sicknesses ranging from borderline personality disorder to schizophrenia (The Language of Blood 93), and it was not until she came across Judith Lewis Herman’s Trauma and Recovery that she discovered that the source of her melancholia did not lie within her.

Much of the current scholarship on the adoption triad is interested in successful cases in which adoptees recover their identities after going through coming-of-age experiences. However, neatly packaged analyses as such seem to have overlooked more intricate questions including: what if one’s birth narrative, like Trenka's, is lost in the cracks of memory and official documents – does that imply that self-actualization become impossible? And to what extent has Trenka's stubborn melancholia confounded our understanding of psychotherapy which believes in the therapeutic function of storytelling? What I am trying to put pressure on with this series of question is the conventional understanding of melancholia, which often has masochistic and wasteful connotations, and to suggest that melancholia can be productive in the authentication and construction of adoptee identity.

So as to present my argument that performing melancholia textually is Trenka's discursive way of ego preservation in a detailed manner, I will divide my paper into three sections. In the first section, I will look at vignettes in which Trenka talks about her reconnection with her birth mother. I am going to trouble the widely circulated “root redemption” narrative by reading Trenka’s reunion with her biological mother along and against the "salvaging" lens as a method for me to mount up my argument that their reconnection is a yet a manifestation of her absorption in the traumatic past. In the second section, I will look at what Frank Chin calls the “racist love” that Trenka's biological mother has for her. This section will allow me to make the argument that Trenka's melancholia is an internalization of racism. Finally, I will explicate what I term Trenka’s melancholic repetition, the recurrence of moments when she is unable to fathom why her birth mother abandoned her. I wish to use the frequency of these scenes to situate and at the same time challenge Freud’s theory of compulsive repetition by pointing out that Trenka's configuration of repetition has a therapeutic function like Freud's, but while his prioritizes healing, Trenka’s emphasizes re-covery.