Fugitive Visions: An Adoptee’s Return to Korea

“This is a book with weight–the weight of conscience, the weight of history, the weight of music, the weight of loneliness and love.”

– Sun Yung Shin, author of Skirt Full of Black


Whenever she speaks to a stranger in her native Korea, Jane Jeong Trenka is forced to explain what she is. Japanese? Chinese? The answer—that she was adopted from Korea as a baby and grew up in the United States—is a source of grief, pride, and confusion. In this searching and provocative follow-up to The Language of Blood, Trenka explores the possibility of making herself a new, adult life in Korea.


The title of this fiery memoir comes from Prokofiev’s “Visions Fugitives,” which he composed when he was 26. Its dissonance resonates with Jane Jeong Trenka, who was born in Korea, given up for adoption and grew up in Minnesota (her first book, “The Language of Blood,” is about her childhood). After five years of marriage, Trenka returned to Korea. “At thirty-six years old I am the mother of no one, the ex-wife of a New Yorker, an ex-Korean possessing Korean language skills inferior to those of my nephew, a two-year-old Korean boy being raised by Korean parents. I am functionally illiterate, deaf, and mute in what should have been my native language in my native country.” Trenka is, she writes, one of the 167,000 to 200,000 babies sent from Korea to the West, the “theft culture.” She writes of the “bewitching, bedeviling seduction of whiteness.” She wonders if her husband might have been happier with “a nice white lady, preferably one who wants to spend all her time at Home Depot choosing paint.” Her anger is the spine of the book, a child “exiled for no crime except my birth to a battered wife.” I admire the ferocity of this book. “The orphan,” Trenka writes, “has an insatiable hunger.”

Los Angeles Times

Trenka shakes up literary expectations in a beautiful, ponderous record of moving back to her birth country, Korea. Adopted as an infant, Trenka (The Language of Blood) was raised in the U.S.; in her latest, she faces lifelong feelings of inadequacy stirred by her move there, following an expired marriage (and several visits). Trenka uses her struggle for acceptance in Korea—her blossoming relationships with blood relatives, her struggle to achieve fluency in Korean—to re-examine a life of similar challenges in America. Trenka employs anecdotes, lists, newspaper clippings and other sources to create a multi-pronged approach to the idea of “home,” though some techniques (like odd collections of key words) can be a distraction. Trenka tackles her bleak material with courage and grace, raising interesting questions, but her charm also shines in simpler memories, like her account of childhood piano lessons gone awry.

–Publisher’s Weekly starred review

Fugitive Visions, Jane Jeong Trenka’s second memoir, takes as its subject Trenka’s harried assimilation to life in South Korea as a returning transnational adoptee. Having been raised in rural Minnesota by white parents, Trenka reconnects with her biological family in her early twenties and eventually moves — in fits and starts — back to Korea. Fugitive Visions explores the disconnected emotional and social space Trenka inhabits as a non-native speaker and relative newcomer to Korea.

In this memoir — which is more a creative analysis or reflection than a straightforward narrative — Trenka works with transnational adoption as a concept, and with the inevitable emotional consequences suffered by those raised in cultures vastly different than those of their biological families. To that effect, she discusses her disparate feelings of estrangement from and longing for her childhood home, a place where her ethnicity was not a topic of conversation amongst her adoptive family, even though Trenka grew up as an obvious minority in a white, rural community. Residing in Korea, however, provides Trenka scant relief, as her gaps in language immediately identify her as a foreigner and require her to justify her origins to everyone with whom she speaks. The result, Trenka explains, is an existence devoid of a sturdy national — or even ethnic — identity. She writes, “The sight of a middle-aged white woman on a Seoul street — a stranger, who, to my perpetual surprise, never recognizes my own whiteness — brings up memories of hamburger hotdishes with kidney beans, white bread and grape jelly…”

Trenka peppers her prose with excerpts from psychology texts, vocabulary exercises and creative self-tests, all of which contribute to the physically disjointed yet thematically cohesive space in which her tale exists. In this way, she keeps interesting what otherwise might be a difficult stream of reflection to follow. Ultimately, Trenka delivers a self-analysis of impressive emotional weight and insight. Her investigations of race, culture and self-identity reach to the core; Trenka is unafraid to reveal those depths to readers who do not necessarily share her experiences, and it is a task at which she excels.

–The L Magazine

Jane Jeong Trenka’s potent, moving memoir Fugitive Visions explores the interior and exterior landscapes of a Korean-born adoptee who chooses to move back to her native country. Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives, a series for piano, inspires the mode for her literary journey, which is articulated through vivid prose pieces that are lyrical, provocative, sensuous, and complex. Through it all, Trenka’s story thoroughly engages. Her insights into the fears, joys, and contradictions of the transnational adoptive experience challenge and redefine notions of belonging.

–Utne Reader

In a memoir capturing the painful quest for personal identity, Trenka explores the difficulties of returning to her native home of Korea after being adopted and raised in rural Minnesota.

Library Journal

Fugitive Visions offers a searing, intimate portrait of an artist’s return to her native land. Trenka opens a door for readers into the sharply contoured sorrows and disorientations of diasporathe bittersweet duality of knowing the fruits of the land with one’s body but still having the language lie uneasy and rebellious on the foreign-trained tongue.”

– Sun Yung Shin, author of Skirt Full of Black

“This is a ground-making repatriation of overseas adopted voice. Jeong Trenka’s uncanny ability to name the flux sliding among bodies, borders, and languages charts visionary, musically rich geographies of home.”

– Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, author of Paper Pavilion

“Trenka’s fugitive visions are elusive, peripatetic, and disjunctive, and demand new ways of seeing, hearing, and knowing, but they are also generous, compassionate, and ironic, rewarding us with moving evocations of the adversities and absurdities that confront people out of joint and out of place in the contemporary global moment.”

– Eleana Kim

Hear the music Visions Fugitives by Sergei Prokofiev that inspired the book Fugitive Visions.