Paper Orphans: Giving a Voice to Children Stolen for Illicit Adoption

Comics artist Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom was in her thirties when she learned she was a “paper orphan”.

Born in South Korea, and taken to an orphanage before being adopted into a Swedish family at the age of 2, Sjöblom was separated from her mother due to her single status. Poverty, disability, religion or simply being indigenous may be reason enough for the adoption industry to remove children from their first families, she says.

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

Illegal transnational adoption has deliberately erased the families and identities of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

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Now the comic artist, illustrator and adoptee rights activist lives in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland with her partner, children and cat.

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

Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom is an Auckland-based cartoonist, illustrator and adoptee rights activist.  (Image Description: Portrait of Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom, a Korean woman in her 40s, sitting in her home office surrounded by art supplies, posters, her computer and books. She smiles for the camera and wears a black hoodie that says 'Adoptee Rights Activist', with her hair in space buns.)

Abigail Dougherty / Stuff

Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom is an Auckland-based cartoonist, illustrator and adoptee rights activist. (Image Description: Portrait of Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom, a Korean woman in her 40s, sitting in her home office surrounded by art supplies, posters, her computer and books. She smiles for the camera and wears a black hoodie that says ‘Adoptee Rights Activist’, with her hair in space buns.)

Sjöblom moved to New Zealand just over five years ago so her two children wouldn’t grow up with the same racism as her. She said people here tend to think Sweden is a “socialist utopia” but has been subjected to a culture of racism.

“While I understand Asians in New Zealand have struggled and struggled and struggled a lot with [racism]i come from a different point of view… it was so liberating to see all these asian faces everywhere [and still] understand the language.

“We had no [Asian] representation at all… if we did, it was usually in the form of yellowface.

Growing up with only racist stereotypes and attacked for her looks, Sjöblom said as she got older “I grew up really hating myself, hating my looks and hating Korea”.

She said colorblind speech led to her being both ridiculed and erased for her looks as her peers refused to accept her as both Korean and Swedish.

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

In his early thirties, when his son started asking about his family, Sjöblom thought, “I can’t just say the things I’ve been told because it’s not right, and I want that comfortable with his identity.

Sjöblom learned her adoption was illegal in her 30s when she traveled to Korea to reunite with her family.  (Image Description: Close-up of The Excavated Earth comics on Sjöblom's laptop showing a crying child taken away and emotionally charged characters.)

Abigail Dougherty / Stuff

Sjöblom learned her adoption was illegal in her 30s when she traveled to Korea to reunite with her family. (Image Description: Close-up of The Excavated Earth comics on Sjöblom’s laptop showing a crying child taken away and emotionally charged characters.)

“I have been told all my 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 the right way, not just white people claiming to have saved black and brown kids.

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

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

Opportunity of a lifetime

Sjöblom has always loved literature and comics and has been writing his own books since the age of 7. Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, changed his perception of the rhetorical potential of comics. “Being able to convey such a dark time in human history in such a wonderful way really blew my mind.

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

When Sjöblom started drawing again at 28, she decided to make a career out of it. She remembers very well the teachers who said that she was “s…at drawing” and that she came home crying after class. Eventually, she turned to self-study and entered a comic book school.

Sjöblom began to take her drawing more seriously in her late twenties and relied on self-study.  (Image description: Sjöblom's hand outlining character details written in blue pencil on a sheet of paper.)

Abigail Dougherty / Stuff

Sjöblom began to take her drawing more seriously in her late twenties and relied on self-study. (Image description: Sjöblom’s hand outlining character details written in blue pencil on a sheet of paper.)

Sjöblom decided to write an entire book, which later became Palimpsest, about being adopted.

After learning that her adoption was fraudulent and becoming an activist, “this book kind of wrote itself.” Although unsure of drawing people at the time, Sjöblom grabbed the “opportunity of a lifetime” when approached by an editor.

A new vocabulary

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

Sjöblom says the language used by the adoption industry has silenced and paralyzed adoptees, but Palimpsest gave them a language to express their experience, which Sjöblom says other adoptees have done for her. “Adoptes are so good at saying what they think other people want [to hear] because of things like internalized racism and trauma.

“Positive adoption language” encourages the use of language that Sjöblom finds derogatory. “I never talk about biological parents or country of birth, especially in cases of people who were robbed or mothers who were forced to give up their children because the biological parent looks like something they chose. .it reduces the role of our parents to their sole function of reproduction.”

Sjöblom is often referred to as an “adopted child”, which she says perpetuates the myth that adoptees are perpetual children, that they should be rescued and infantilized, especially as people of color. “When you learn 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 within her.

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

Exposing Corruption

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

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

Documents used when adopting Sjöblom whom she

Unknown/Provided

Documents used when adopting Sjöblom whom she “fought like hell” to recover in her thirties. Left: Document from Sjöblom’s adoption file mentioning the names of his adoptive mother, his adoptive parents and a doctor present during a check-up. Right: The orphaned hojuk from Sjöblom declaring that there is no trace of his first parents. His date of birth, surname and family origin are made when he was 2 years old, a few weeks before he was sent to Sweden.

“Many orphanages around the world receive funds and donations if they have a lot of children there.” She adds that “women are encouraged to entrust their children to orphanages for temporary care so that they can work, as it makes the orphanage beautiful and the volunteers [from Western countries] pay a lot of money for work experience there”.

In her work, Sjöblom first wishes to be a comfort to other adoptees and to share true stories about adoption that are not talked about. “It’s largely an information service.

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

The excavated earth is named after the Mapuche (meaning Earth) people, the largest ethnic group in Chile, and is a metaphor for finding and removing roots. The book follows two adult adoptees who were stolen from their families in Chile and adopted in Sweden in the 1970s. It celebrates the work one of the adoptees, Maria Diemar, has done to fight for justice for Chilean adoptees.

The Excavated Earth is published in March 2022. (Image Description: Printouts of draft pages from the new book with red marks on the speech bubbles)

Abigail Dougherty / Stuff

The Excavated Earth is published in March 2022. (Image Description: Printouts of draft pages from the new book with red marks on the speech bubbles)

The book will be released in March in Swedish and Sjöblom hopes it will be published in English and Spanish.

About Norman Griggs

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