Memoir probes domestic life after adoption

Maurice Mierau’s most recent book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir (Freehand Books), won the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Nonfiction in April. In the memoir, the author probes his domestic life after he and his wife adopt two Ukrainian brothers, aged three and five. The book is both unsentimental and passionate, sparked with moments of humour–a must-read. Mierau’s new poetry collection, Autobiographical Fictions, will be published this fall by Palimpsest. His last book of poems, Fear Not, won the ReLit Award in 2009. Mierau is founding editor of The Winnipeg Review, and lives in Winnipeg with his family. He talked recently to Lynne Van Luven about his memoir.

Maurice, I just read Detachment, and I found it to be a really brave book. You are fearless about revealing your own fears and doubts as an adoptive father. What sort of reaction have other parents had to your book?

The reactions have been universally positive. Many people have commended me on my bravery, making me wonder if that isn’t a euphemism for foolishness—though I know they (and you) are sincere! As a poet, I have never had personal feedback from readers other than a few fellow poets coming up to me after events. With Detachment I’ve had emails from all over the country, phone calls, comments at readings, and much of that has come from parents both adoptive and otherwise. Often people tell me stories about how they discovered a family member was adopted, or, if they are adoptive parents, they tell me stories about their own struggle to form a family. The things people reveal to me are frequently intimate family secrets, and I find myself moved by this connection with readers that I’ve never had before.

Most of your readers will know you as a poet. Did you find writing a memoir vastly different from writing poetry, or did you find that certain commonalities pervade both forms?

It was quite a different experience from writing poems for me. I wanted to construct a narrative that would keep people engaged in a story moving forward, rather than a more static, highly literary kind of memoir like Nabokov’s famous one. And since I’m not an epic poet or a novelist, I had no experience writing a book-length narrative, and that was really the challenge. The other challenge was integrating my father’s story of childhood trauma fleeing from Soviet Ukraine with the story of adopting my sons Peter and Bohdan in Ukraine in 2005. Nothing in poetry prepared me for these storytelling problems.

My background as a poet was helpful to me in terms of constructing individual scenes. Lorca said that the poet is the professor of the senses, and while I don’t have tenure the way he did, I do have some notion of how to make a scene vivid. Another thing you learn from poetry is how to bring thematic, imagistic, and other forms of deliberate repetition into a book, so that these elements rhyme in the reader’s mind, not always consciously.

You have now been a father three times over. What has the experience taught you about children’s essential personalities, their differences as unique human beings?

It’s taught me that children, like adults, don’t have essential personalities: they are all different. Without being flippant, children need love and empathy in order to become loving, empathetic adults. Empathy involves the intelligence and the imagination as well as emotion, and I have often failed to enter imaginatively into the lives of my children; Detachment shows me struggling to make that entrance. I feel my failure most keenly with my oldest son, Jeremy. Perhaps that means I’m a better father now, at least on some days.

There is a growing list of books about adoption, which is wonderful because it provides a fine resource and because it has moved “being adopted” out of the closet to a certain extent.  Do you think adopted children still face the same stigmas they did 30 or 40 years ago?

Absolutely not. No one, at least in my experience, questions adoption as a way to form a family now, not in a school context and certainly not in the community where we live. I think that’s a normal Canadian experience. There has been a generational shift that probably accompanies the increased acceptance of non-traditional families, including same-sex ones, and also books and media exposure that show adoptive families as part of mainstream society.

One of the most moving parts of the memoir is the way your Ukraine-born sons’ trauma echoes that of your own father’s past. Has that history, and the unfolding of recent events in Ukraine, further strengthened your extended family’s bonds?  

Yes, I think it has with my father in particular. My dad, as the book describes, struggles to articulate his own feelings about being a war refugee and an orphan early in his life, but he does see the parallels between his life and my sons’.

As for recent events, they are depressing and a testimony to the unwillingness of Russia to allow Ukrainians to live in a country with a healthy economy and the rule of law in place. Fortunately the boys are from western Ukraine, near Lviv, and far from the war in the east. We plan to visit soon, so they can meet at least part of their birth families.