Paper Orphans: Giving a voice to children stolen for illicit adoptions

13 March 2022

Comic book artist Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom was in her 30s when she learned she was a “paper orphan”.

Born in South Korea, and taken to an orphanage before being adopted to a Swedish family at 2 years old, Sjöblom was removed from her mother because of her unmarried status. Poverty, disability, religion or simply being indigenous can be enough of a reason for the adoption industry to take children from their first families, she says.

As a “paper orphan”, Sjöblom was registered as an orphan even though her parents who were alive and known to authorities.

Illicit transnational adoption has deliberately erased the families and identities of hundreds of thousands of people all over the world.

Now, the comic book artist, illustrator and adoptees rights activist lives in T?maki Makaurau Auckland with her partner, children and cat.

She is releasing her second book, The Excavated Earth, at the end of March. The book follows two Chilean adoptees who were stolen and then sold for adoption in Sweden.

Sjöblom moved to New Zealand just over five years ago so that her two children would not grow up with the same racism she did. She said that people here tend to think Sweden is a “socialist utopia” but she was subjected to a culture of racism.

“Though I understand that Asians in New Zealand have struggled and struggled and struggled a lot with [racism], I come from a different perspective … it’s just been so liberating to see all these Asian faces everywhere [and still] understand the language.

“We didn’t have any [Asian] representation at all … if we did, it was usually in the form of yellowface.”

Growing up with only racist stereotypes and being attacked for the way she looked, Sjöblom said as she got older “I grew up really hating myself, hating my appearance, and hating Korea”.

She said that a colour-blind discourse led to her being both ridiculed and erased for how she looked as her peers refused to accept her as being both Korean and Swedish.

Sjöblom speaks about her experience with conviction but says that she has only found the language to articulate it in the past 10 years.

In her early 30s, when her son began asking questions about his family, Sjöblom thought, “I can’t just say the things that I’ve been told because it’s not okay, and I want him to be comfortable with his identity.

“I’ve been told my whole life that adoption is beautiful and [that] mixed families are beautiful – which they are when they’re mixed on their own terms, and you talk about them in the correct way, not just white people claiming to have saved black and brown children.”

In her search for her roots, she met her mother in Korea and learnt that her adoption was illegal. She started connecting with adoptees all over the world. “When I started talking to other people with similar experiences, it was like everything just fell into place.”

By her early 30s, Sjöblom had become an activist as an adoptee and an Asian in a Western country.

Opportunity of a lifetime

Sjöblom always loved literature and comics and was writing her own books from the age of 7. Reading Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, changed her perception on the rhetorical potential of comics. “To be able to convey such a dark period in human history in such a wonderful way really blew my mind.

“There are many, many ways to be an illustrator or to draw for a living, but this was never presented to me as an option,” so she started working towards being a journalist.

When Sjöblom started drawing again at 28, she decided to pursue it as a career. She vividly remembers teachers saying that she was “s... at drawing” and coming home crying after courses. Eventually she turned to self-teaching and got into comic school.

Sjöblom decided that she would write a whole book, later to become Palimpsest, about being adopted.

After the journey of learning that her adoption was fraudulent and becoming an activist, “This book sort of wrote itself.” While not confident about drawing people at the time, Sjöblom took up “the opportunity of a lifetime” when approached by an editor.

A new vocabulary

Palimpsest was originally published in Swedish and translated to English two years after release.

Sjöblom says that language used by the adoption industry had silenced and disempowered adoptees, but Palimpsest gave them a language to voice their experience, which is what Sjöblom says other adoptees did for her. “Adoptees are so good at speaking what they think other people want [to hear] because of things like internalised racism and trauma.”

“Positive adoption language” encourages use of language that Sjöblom finds derogatory. “I never say birth parents or birth country, especially in the cases of stolen people or mothers who have been forced to give up their children because birth parent sounds like something they have chosen … it diminishes the role of our parents to just their reproductive function.”

Sjöblom often gets referred to as an “adopted child” which she says perpetuates the myth that adoptees are perpetual children, that they should be rescued and infantilised, especially as people of colour. “When you learn how to label things according to an agenda, so much changes.”

For Sjöblom, learning that she was a “paper orphan” was a major awakening of the activist inside her.

Having grown up without racial mirrors, Sjöblom’s work ensures varied representation of Asians. “The comics medium gives me a way to tell my story and bring in more positive or neutral or varied representation of Asians.”

Exposing corruption

Sjöblom believes that there are far fewer legitimate orphans in the world than the adoption industry claims and that most of them are being looked after by family. She says that in Korea, people can get more financial support if they adopt a child than taking care of their own child as a single parent.

“The demand for adoptable children is much higher than the supply.”

“A lot of orphanages around the world get funding and donations if they have a lot of children there.” She adds that “women are encouraged to hand in their kids to orphanages for temporary care so that they can work because it makes the orphanage look good and volunteers [from Western countries] pay good money for work experience there”.

In her work, Sjöblom wishes to first be a comfort to other adoptees and share truthful stories about adoption that aren’t talked about. “A lot of it is sort of an information service.

“If you look at any TV show, or Harry Potter or Star Wars, [adoption and orphans] is a big theme and very often they get it wrong. The side that I’m telling is the side that is invisible and actively silenced.”

The Excavated Earth is named after the Mapuche (meaning Earth) people, Chile's largest ethnic group, and is a metaphor for both finding and removing roots. The book follows two adult adoptees who were stolen from their families in Chile and adopted into Sweden in the 70s. It celebrates the work that Maria Diemar, one the adoptees, has done to fight for justice for Chilean adoptees.

The book will be released in March in Swedish and Sjöblom is hoping for it to be published in English and Spanish.