What is it like to be born into a family, adopted and raised by them, but know your origins are with another? Greg Santos explores this question in his book of poetry, Ghost Face. Born in Canada to Cambodian refugees, he was adopted by a Canadian couple of European descent.
The question of identity can be fundamental to adoptees. Santos writes of keeping your “umbilical cord in a box” in Under the Bed. But if who we are is a combination of our past and present, environmental and biological, how can we really know ourselves if we don’t look?
With this collection, Santos effectively writes an equation that gives him the sum of the person he is today and will be in the future; An equation where the addends are people, places, languages, culture, histories, and ghosts.
In Khmer for Baby, he wonders whether his biological parents named him, or whether they just called him the Khmer word for baby, tearok. In Journal Entry, he considers his roots in Cambodia:
“If I ever visit Cambodia,
I wonder what it will be like
to be met with smiling faces
that look like mine?
Will I feel at home
Or utterly alone?”
How much of that country’s history is part of him? The Khmer Rouge? The Cambodian genocide? He examines the history of all sides of the family and the legacies he inherits:
“My Spanish grandmother and Italian
upon naming any of Los Tres Dictatores:
Franco, Mussolini, Castro.”
The experience of an adoptee is also influenced by other people’s perceptions of adoption and identity. This is where Santos’ poems are strongest – when the writing is delivered in the form of conversation. He illustrates how the curiosity of others can just as readily prompt more confusion than clarity. In Cambodia, the questions run:
“Are you Cambodian?
So were you born in Cambodia then?
Have you ever even been to Cambodia?
Then how can you consider yourself Cambodian?
How do you mean?”
And in Fu Manchu, the exchange is another person’s suggestion combined with equal amounts of presumption:
“When you grew out your moustache and goatee, did you get
offended when they said you looked Asian?
…I didn’t get offended.
You hesitate before answering. Not even just a little?
C’mon, the Fu Manchu crack must’ve gotten you a
Santos illustrates how racism factors into identity. When, for example, carrying a bag of Indian takeout, he enters a bakery to buy a cookie and is mistaken for the delivery guy. Or when he is added to a Twitter-thread for Filipino writers.
All this is delivered in calm, considered, beautifully crafted poetry. It’s a charming, honest, balanced collection that speaks to the heart.
Santos uses the Portuguese term, suadade – the presence of an absence – and I find it so fitting for this time, this period in our lives of missing people and places. In Dear Dad, he speaks to his late father, and I was reminded of the dreams I have so frequently now of conversations with my own adoptive father who passed away last April. The comfort of ghosts.