Sharon Ismail is a familiar face in Singapore for her acting and hosting work in theatre and television. She’s also a polytechnic lecturer and a children’s book author. In fact, her first book “What Sallamah Didn’t Know” (2007) is based on her mother’s adoption story. Here’s an excerpt of the synopsis:
“Sallamah grew up thinking that her life was ordinary. She lived in an ordinary kampong with an ordinary family and had an ordinary group of friends whom she played ordinary games with. Little did she realize that a piece of paper would change the reality of all that she knew and understood.”
Sharon is hoping to continue this story with a 2nd Sallamah book out next year. I had a chat with her recently to find out more about why she wanted to write about adoption.
Hi Sharon, why did you want to tell this story?
My mother is Chinese and she was adopted by a Malay family. I’ve realised that in her generation, inter-racial adoption was actually quite common, but there are no statistics or studies formally looking into this phenomenon. We hear of people being adopted by families of another race, but they are all personal anecdotes, and I felt that I wanted to create a more permanent record of this for my daughters.
How did you find out your mother was adopted?
I was 13 years old and at the wet market with my mother, waiting for my father to pick us up. Out of the blue, she said, “By the way, you’re half Chinese.” There was no prior conversation, but some things began to add up. People always mentioned that she looked Chinese and that she looked different from her siblings.
How did this piece of news affect you?
Nothing was different on the surface, but my understanding of family began to change. I didn’t love my grandparents any less, my grandfather still picked me up from school everyday, but I saw them in a different light. They had two biological children and four adopted children, and I realise how undiscriminating they were in their love to bring these babies into their family. Family is not necessarily the one you are born into, but the one who loves you. “Blood is thicker than water” deserves a rethink because if that were true, my mother and I would not be here today.
How does your mother regard her adoption?
I don’t really know as she doesn’t really talk about it. She is used to not talking about it because she came from a time when there was a huge stigma on adoption. Adopted children were perceived as being discarded and picked up from a rubbish bin. My mother does have some information on her biological family, and I did suggest that she open up the search by telling her story to the newspapers (many older adoptees in Singapore have found their biological relatives that way). However, she really doesn’t want to make a fuss and I respect her decision.
How have readers responded to your story?
It’s been really heartwarming to have people come up to thank me for telling their parents’ stories. Some adoptive parents have also told me that this book has helped them start the disclosure discussion with their children. I’d initially self-published this book under the First-Time Writers and Illustrators Publishing Initiative, but it was later picked up by Scholastic Asia and it has been translated into four languages. The Ministry of Education also made this book part of their Primary 6 English text under the STELLAR (Strategies for English Learning and Reading) syllabus.
Thanks so much, Sharon! I really enjoyed the evocative descriptions in this book (e.g. “This little bundle was fair and chubby, with dark hair so fine that it stood straight up and swayed gently whenever a breeze curled its way around her.”) and it is such a necessary Singaporean story. You can borrow it from the library here or purchase a copy here.
1st image courtesy of Sharon Ismail