Q&A with Ashley Nelson Levy: ‘Immediate Family’ and Diverging from the Adoption Narrative

Oriana Christ

In the opening pages of Immediate Family (192 pages; Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the unnamed narrator’s brother calls and asks her to give a speech at his wedding—and so begins the complex and careful family portrait that is Ashley Nelson Levy’s unshakeable debut novel. The time between this phone call and the impending speech is spent grappling with questions of what she should say, what she won’t say, what she has a right to say. In her attempts at finding answers, the narrator takes us through her life in the form of a letter to her younger brother Danny, detailing it from the agonizingly long adoption process to the day they finally picked up Danny in Thailand—all the way to the moments right before her speech. The novel confronts adoption tropes and poses challenging questions, ultimately bringing forth a unique and compelling exploration of a family unit in which, despite all their difficulties, loving each other comes easily, naturally, inescapably.

Ashley Nelson Levy’s story “Auntie” appeared in Issue 106, and this week, we had the honor of speaking with her about her new release and all the questions contained in its pages.

ZYZZYVA: The narrator makes frequent references to an impressive number of writers throughout the book, usually in the context of her exploration of the theme of adoption in literature. Did any of those writers especially influence Immediate Family?

ASHLEY NELSON LEVY: Throughout the book the narrator tells the story of her family, but she’s also looking at this story within the larger context of the adoption narrative. To your point, she looks at it through a few different lenses—she looks at it through institutional framing (for example, with the family’s adoption paperwork); through the historical framing of transracial adoption in America that’s led the family to where they are and the decisions that they’ve made; and then this literary framing. She’s interested in how the adoption narrative has traditionally been represented in books and what families like hers have looked like.

Some of the most interesting material for me was in going back to the Victorians, to writers like Trollope, Austen, Dickens, and Brontë, and looking at these two paths for the adoption plot in Victorian literature. One trope is that the adoptee will come into the house and restore and save the family, be it a family that maybe doesn’t have biological children or has children that are terrible. The other path is the opposite: the adoptee will come in and destroy, create chaos.

George Eliot has an example of the former in her book Silas Marner, where a blonde orphan shows up on the doorstep of the town misanthrope and brings him back to life. On the other hand, the narrator looks at Wuthering Heights and the story of Heathcliff, how he is this dark, ominous adoptee figure, and she becomes really interested in how these two clear paths have been marked in fiction and asks what’s problematic about that, and how she places her family within these adoptive tropes. I also did some reading to understand why the adoption plot is so prevalent in 19th century English literature, and there are a couple working theories about this: one of them is that as divorce legislation was introduced in England during that time, there were a lot of questions around inheritance and how, in fractured families, money and the estate would be passed down to both adopted and biological children. A lot of this inheritance anxiety was making its way into literature in the form of the adoption plot and that understanding of what a family is.

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Z: In regards to these two typical adoption plots, how did you see Immediate Family fitting into or diverging from these narratives?

ANL: So much of the heart of the book explores this question. I think the narrator, from section to section and from chapter to chapter, is constantly reexamining the ways that her family sits outside—she feels, at least, that her family sits outside—of these kinds of stereotypes or tropes, but also the way that she sees them within them, too. The book is always placing the family in and out of these spaces, and then also in a gray area, while she tries to understand how her family is different, or how they follow this trajectory.

I don’t know that the book ever entirely answers the question, but coming back to Heathcliff, one of the notable things about that book in particular is that Heathcliff is described as dark and almost feral—he’s not like, in the example of the George Eliot book, this precious blonde angel; he doesn’t have a language, he’s described as dirty and ragged, and there’s a lot of racist descriptions of him throughout the book. It plays in again to this adoptive trope of the feral or primitive adoptee that comes in from somewhere mysterious or foreign to potentially be tamed or saved by white society and/or the white family.

This is not a narrative that the narrator sees explicitly mirrored within her family, but she does pause and look back at their own family mythologies and the way her family talked about first meeting her brother: how he walked out of the orphanage very frail and sick, and was ushered back to America and to white American doctors to restore him to health. Throughout the book she is very critical of these tropes and wants to separate her family from them, but can also see the faint image of a lot of their stories within them.

Z: Immediate Family is written in a way that feels uniquely real, almost like reading nonfiction. In it, you include real places, history, research, books and authors. The setting, at least, is personal, with the narrator and her family residing near San Francisco. As a writer crafting a novel, how do you navigate that fine line between fiction and what’s drawn from real life?

ANL: Part of the book is drawn from experience—it would probably be a little odd if there wasn’t some personal connection with this particular story. I grew up in a transracial adoptive home, and it took me about seven years to write the book when all was said and done. I knew for a long time that I wanted to write a novel about a transracial adoptive family, but it took me a long time to figure out what part of that experience I was interested in exploring. I think the reason for that, and why it took so many drafts and the novel took so many forms, is because I was anxious. I realized I wanted to look at what could be difficult and complex about growing up in a transracial adoptive home, but I also really wanted to capture the love that can live in that kind of home, and how it does feel like any other family.

I think that the book finally found its language and its momentum and its life force when I realized that the anxiety was actually an ambivalence, which was an important quality that belonged to the narrator—she’s both resistant to tell the story of her family but also compelled to because she loves her brother, and in part because he’s asked her to in the form of giving this speech on his wedding day. This question that comes back to who gets to tell the story of the family and how that affects its shape started to push the book forward, and I realized that was the core and the heat of the book. She says in the beginning section, “What right did I have to speak of your life?,” and she wrestles with that question for every other page until the end.

As to why the novel was the right form for this…a memoir might have told the truth about our family, but that wasn’t the truth that I was interested in. A more honest rendering would have been a blander tale, and it was important to fictionalize the book so that it could have grit. I wanted to look unapologetically at questions around race, adoption, fertility, longing for and fear of motherhood, the many different definitions of family, and how we can fail those we love even though we love them. I also wanted to take a hard look at whiteness and its effects on a home, and this fictional form allowed me to explore all of these things in a less conventional way, and to use all these different documents as a way to feed the form. It gave me the freedom I needed to roam around in that story, and to the heart of the things I wanted to look at. I also don’t think that I could ever get our family right on paper, and it was a relief to make us other people.

Z: The opening section of the book concludes with that question you mentioned: “What right did I have to speak of your life?” All the central characters go unnamed from beginning to end with the exception of Danny—the parents are always “our parents,” and even the narrator’s husband is “your brother-in-law.” This seems to suggest, on some level, that the narrator did end up telling his story. What led to the decision to name only Danny? And was this something that remained constant throughout the drafting process? 

ANL: I think in some drafts, none of them had names just because of the form. What you end up reading is not the speech but a private address to her brother. I think Danny’s name ended up coming back in because, again, it was just something the form pulled through as she was addressing him directly. I explored a lot of different formats over the years—it was a third person novel for a while, it was first person, it was for a very short time a nonfiction experiment; the book tried on many different voices, but what ended up being the right fit for it was this intimate address directly to him.

You asked if in a sense she does end up telling his story, and I think this is an important question. The book centers her story—she’s careful about the boundaries of appropriation in holding their stories side by side, even in the formal choices she makes; she refuses to inhabit his thoughts or perspective and instead continues to ask questions. She’s resistant to tell their story because of the power structures that inevitably exist, she as the white sister, as the biological child, but also feels compelled to tell it because he’s her brother, and in a way because he has asked her to, and because their stories are inextricably linked. I think the book is about the way their stories are bound together, and along the way she examines that often blurry line around who owns a story, especially when it’s someone you’ve lived next to for so long, when it’s your own sibling.

Z: Throughout the book, the narrator examines the concept of motherhood. There’s her own mother, who she almost idolizes; there’s Danny’s birth mother, who she wonders about; and then there’s her own potential motherhood, which is shrouded in question marks as she struggles with infertility. Near the conclusion, she poses the question: “What is a mother?” How do you think writing this novel helped you understand this question?

ANL: I’m not sure if the book ever really honors that question with a direct answer, but it explores a few different paths toward it.

One path is the narrator’s relationship with her brother, being six years older, caring for him, feeling protective of him; she often see the faint image of motherhood within their relationship but she also acknowledges that she’s not that person for him as far as he’s concerned—their mom is very much his mom, and she’s his sister. It’s a role she steps into and tries to fill sometimes, and then steps out of. In her struggle with infertility, she gets in so deep and feels perplexed by the process at a certain point. She feels so chemically altered by all the hormone treatments and loses track of how it all started, and if she even still has the desire to do this anymore. She has lost her way and is trying to understand again what it is she’s looking for, or even hoping for, from this experience. I think the book is scratching at all the parts of motherhood that never seem to fit into a neat category. The waiting for a child, the yearning for a child, all the work done to get there—I think is part of motherhood, too, a part of the process that the narrator goes through herself and watched her mother go through as she waited those five years to adopt Danny. 

Z: The plot of Immediate Family is centered around the speech Danny asks of the narrator on the very first page, and concludes on the day when the speech is finally given—but we never actually hear the speech. Did you know from the beginning that you wouldn’t include the speech, or if this was a decision made later, what influenced it? Did you ever, perhaps, write out that speech, for yourself?

ANL: That’s such a good and kind of funny question because no, I didn’t know that it wouldn’t be included. That was something that formed as I was writing the ending, when she starts to say all the things that she won’t say. I never went back to write it out—I had a friend read it and say, “Well, what does she says in the end? It’s killing me.” I’ve always thought that, given everything the reader knows about them by the last page, one could probably guess. It’s the unspeakable things that hold the most poignancy for these two, and for this family. For me that was always the more interesting route to follow.

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