Dreams of My Mothers is the recently published debut novel by biracial Korean adoptee Joel Peterson.
Based on Joel’s own true story, Dreams of My Mothers tells the story of “a biracial, impoverished boy who, through the transcendent love of his mothers, rises above questions of identity, race, physical limitations, and prejudice to become a unique American success story.”
Joel’s fascinating story has translated to quite a success as Dreams of My Mothers has already garnered consideration for numerous literary awards and critical recognition. Just a few of the awards and recognition already received by Joel for Dreams of My Mothers include: 2015 Eric Hoffer Book Award Winner, 2015 First Horizon Awards Finalist, 2015 Beverly Hills Book Awards Finalist and 2015 National Indie Excellence Awards Finalist.
HalfKorean.com was able to discuss Joel’s background and his novel Dreams of My Mothers.
Please note that HalfKorean.com comments/questions are in BOLD.
What is your mix?
Mother Korean, Father (identify unknown) White American – presumed Irish ethnicity based on mother’s recollections and comments.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Seoul, Korea and lived in Munsan-ri, a small village near the DMZ until I was six. I lived a short time at KSS in Seoul before being adopted by a White American family (Swedish ethnicity, the family already had four biological White children) being sent to a small town in rural Minnesota where I grew up until I went to college. I attended University of Virginia and essentially have not lived in MN since.
Do you speak Korean?
Not any more. I only spoke Korean when I came to the U.S., but have lost the language.
What is your Korean birth name?
Lee Kwon Yol.
What is your current occupation?
I’m a first time author and am not a writer by profession. I’m Founder and CEO of Student Planning Services, LLC, an innovative provider of comprehensive supplemental educational support services. Concurrently, I’m the Managing Partner and CEO of Pintoresco Advisors, LLC. Pintoresco’s advisory services include merger & acquisition structuring and execution, complex project management, and business strategy development. Prior to my business career, I served seven years as a U.S. Navy officer.
Growing up, what was your “mixed Korean” experience like?
While I lived in Korea, I was not accepted as Korean and was constantly told that I was American, not Korean, even by my birth mother. The fact of my unwed birth severely was stigmatizing in Korea (then and now). When I was adopted into an American family in a small town in Minnesota, I was not considered “American” or White, but was considered Asian (then referred to as “Oriental”) and foreign.
Therefore, my mixed race experience meant that I was not accepted by either Koreans or Americans (Whites, Westerners, Europeans). It was a very isolating experience as I had no other person I knew growing up who was mixed race. I identified with neither until my early adult-hood.
Have you been back to Korea since being adopted?
Yes. I went back to Korea when I was 18 and found my Korean mother. I went back several times while serving in the Navy as an officer, and later many times as an executive with BellSouth Corp and AT&T. Over the last decade I have been back many times for business because I now have many Korean corporate clients with my current firm. I was last in Korea in 2013. I will likely go back for business in the near future.
Has being of mixed race played any role in your professional career?
Yes, I think so. In an increasingly global economy where multinational trade and commerce is more the norm than not, my mixed race background allowed me to be perceived as more “multicultural,” “multinational,” and more easily able to conduct business anywhere around the globe. Where I was rejected by Koreans and Americans as not being either as a child, as a professional adult, I have been accepted as being both Asian and American, while not being viewed as too much of either.
Do you feel that being a mixed-race Korean adoptee made any difference when growing up?
It made every difference. It meant that I was different from everyone I knew when I was growing up. In Korea, I knew no other mixed-race children or people. In the U.S., in my small home town, I was one of only a few adoptees, even fewer transracial adoptee (one other family had adopted 2 full-Korean children in town), and the only mixed-race person in the town and the surrounding region. I never met another mixed-race person until I went to college (other than at KSS while awaiting adoption). But in college the mixed race people I met were mostly mixed African American. I did not meet a mixed race Asian person until I was an adult.
Dreams of My Mothers
How long have you been interested in writing and/or becoming an author?
I guess, like most people, I had vague notions of “maybe getting something published someday” as a bucket list item. But I had no serious thoughts of becoming an author.
Have your parents/family been supportive of your writing ambitions?
I sent manuscripts to all my siblings and other extended family and friends to ensure that everyone was supportive and had no issues with what I wrote, since, even though fictionalized, it is inspired by real events and lives. All were supportive.
Who are some of your writing influences?
I read widely, so I’m not sure that I have any one particular writer who influenced me specifically for my book, I would list Laura Hillenbrand (“Unbroken,” “Sea Biscuit”) and Khaled Hosseini (“Kite Runner,” “A Thousand Splendid Suns”)
Tell us about the book. When did you start writing it and what motivated you?
I wrote Dreams of My Mothers to tell a remarkable story of the journey of two women – mothers – from the polar opposites of life; to share the story of their courage, sacrifice, and dreams. I have been privileged to bear witness to the lives of these amazing women, as well as some very unique circumstances and experiences, at extreme ends of the human condition and at the margins of the American saga.
I think the book may reveal some deep, unique insight, adding to the social discourse through a topic – transnational and transracial adoption – that rarely gets much attention from any quarter, because it represents such a niche subset of our society, yet contains within it all the most relevant, timeless, and deeply felt – and held – human themes, passions, values, insecurities, tragedies, and judgments…and loves.
My becoming an author was almost accidental. A family friend had published a book last year and I re-connected to congratulate him. When catching up, he suggested that my experiences and background may be worth sharing in some way and put me in touch with his editor.
The editor agreed that my experiences and background were relatively unique and asked me to submit a short sample of my writing (“like a couple chapters if you have some story idea”) and an outline of a potential story. I did so and the publisher and the lead editor were favorably impressed and agreed to take on my book project if I was willing to try writing a full novel. This occurred in April of last year. I completed the manuscript in June, then after focus group feed back, I completed the final version in August. Due to the Holidays, the publisher decided to release the book this March.
I understand that you did meet your birth mother as an adult. How did that meeting go?
It was a remarkable event and went well. Self servingly, I’ll suggest that this question is best answered by reading the book… ☺
Do you still keep in touch and/or see each other?
We did keep in touch, though not closely, and met several times over the years since that first re-uniting meeting. I flew her to the U.S. so that she could meet her grandson and see firsthand my life. She passed away in 2011.
Have you been in touch with other Korean family members as well?
I reconnected with a couple of uncles, aunts and cousins, but with the exception of one 2nd cousin who lives here in the U.S., have not kept contact, primarily due to language barriers.
What did your adoptive mother/parents think about the book? Was she supportive?
My mother passed away in 2000, so she never knew about it. But my father was very supportive, but his recent decline from Alzheimer’s has kept him from fully participating in the book’s release. As mentioned previously, my siblings and other family members have been very supportive.
I know that many KADs have done 23andMe or similar DNA/genetic tests; have you done or considered it to find more biological family that may be out there from either your Korean birth mother or American birth father?
No. Given the circumstances of my birth – mixed-race fatherless child of a prostitute – I have not felt that many people would be very welcoming of learning about me (my Korean mother told me that my biological father was married and had four children).
How has the feedback been for the book?
The feedback has been extremely positive, much to my surprise and gratitude. You can read some of the feedback and watch some reader interviews at these links (and on Amazon.com):
Have you heard from other Korean adoptees and how they have felt about it?
A few. They have all been extremely, extremely positive and supportive in their feedback and reviews. I have also had significant numbers of Asian and Asian American (Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Philippine, Lau, Hmong, etc.) and they have been also consistently very positive. Nearly all readers have stated that they were surprised by how engaged they were by the book, how much it affected them, and how much they connected with the characters.
Any feedback specifically from other mixed Koreans (adoptee or non-adoptee)?
I had feedback from one mix-race Asian American, non-adoptee (Japanese/African American). She was very generous with her support and expressions of connecting with the book’s story.
What projects are you working on currently or in the future?
Since the book is only a few months into its full release, I am devoting my “author” time to bringing this book better into the public’s eye. I’m very appreciative of your doing this feature as I know it will help bring the book and its story to the community who can best appreciate it and have the most reason to spread the word about its topic.
What kind of goals have you set for yourself?
I have been truly shocked that the book has been nominated or being seriously considered for a number of awards (just got contacted today by another prestigious literary award that requested a copy). My hope is that the book will spark a broader and deeper understanding of timeless human themes, such as culture and identity by bringing a compelling focus to a small, but unique community – mixed-race Korean adoptees. I hope that it will bring new insight for people on the richness and complexity of American society and the potential each of us has to contribute to the changing face of America.
I’m also secretly hoping that it may actually receive one of these awards… ☺
Anything else you’d like to share?
The book is definitely not for kids. It is quite graphic, unblinking, and is not sugar coated as it deals with issues of poverty, prejudice, racism, and the struggles of the destitute or the privileged. But, my hope (and the feedback seems to confirm) is that, despite the unflinching lens it brings to these subjects and more, it is ultimately inspiring and uplifting.
Any final words to the mixed Korean community?
We are the future of America… and the world. There have always been mixed-race people, but never in the numbers we have now; and across so many different races and mixtures. And this mixing will only accelerate and spread more widely, changing age old thoughts and beliefs about race, ethnicity, and the essence of humanity.
We want to thank Joel for discussing with us his background and Dreams of My Mothers with us and congratulate him on publishing his book and wish him much continued success!
For more info on Dreams of My Mothers, please make sure to check out the official Website / Twitter / Facebook / YouTube.