Thoughts on A Twist of Water from Dr. Timothy J. Nelson

Early in “A Twist of Water,” Noah, one of the main characters says, “In order to make a home you have to be incredibly stubborn. Wage another war every generation. . . . We have to fight. But we also have to forget. If we don’t how can we hope that our children will be better at this than we are.” 

These are resonant words to me. Particularly as so much of the play runs parallel to my own life.

 I moved to Chicago—the play’s setting—just after college in the mid-1980s for graduate school in sociology. I met my wife Kathy there (also a sociologist) and we moved to Charleston, South Carolina in 1991 for research. It was the first time for both of us in the South, and our work immersed us in the local African American community. I was studying the Black congregations in the historic Eastside neighborhood, including the church that would much later become the site of Dylan Roof’s massacre. Kathy was interviewing low-income mothers to see how they got by on welfare or low-wage work.

One of the central themes of “A Twist of Water” is the relationship between Noah, the White father, and Jira, the adopted Black daughter who hungers for more family and seeks out her birth mother when she is 17 years old. Kathy and I had discussed transracial adoption from early in our relationship. When she was a child, one of her neighbors had gone to the Peace Corps and established relationships with a family in an African village. This led to a young Ghanaian man moving into Kathy’s home to study agriculture at the local tech college. He was one of very few Black people for hundreds of miles in her central Minnesota community in the 1970s. My family were short-term missionaries to South Korea at roughly the same time, and we adopted my Korean sister at age 5 from the orphanage before returning to California.

While Kathy and I were in Charleston, we had the opportunity to adopt our daughter Kaitlin from a Black mother living in a nearby town (there is a lot more to this story, but too much to include here). Because it was a private adoption, we took Kaitlin (which is an amalgam of Kathy and Lyn, her birth mother’s name) home at two days old. Although we were not opposed to an “open adoption,” Lyn was not in favor, so we left it to Kaitlin to decide when she turned 18. When Kaitlin was four, we adopted her younger sister Marisa at 22 months old through the State of New Jersey. Marisa is Puerto Rican and was born in Paterson. By the mid-1990s our family was complete: two White parents and two adopted daughters of color.

The line from the play quoted at the beginning of this blog refers to fighting and family. At first, I thought of the cross-generational combat which characterizes all families, including ours of course, and is largely featured in the relationship between Noah and Jira. As the play opens, Noah can’t find Jira, who has slipped off the radar into the freezing Chicago night, and their argument when she reappears gives us a window into their deep frustrations with one another.

Yet these words about stubbornly “waging war every generation” for the sake of family evokes another meaning as well. Over the past decades our family has been a kind of prism for race relations in this country. It has not been easy on Kaitlin and Marisa growing up with two White parents as we moved between Philadelphia, Camden, Evanston, Boston, and Baltimore. Reactions from people have alternated between encouraging and hopeful, to enraging and sometimes puzzling (the White storekeeper who stage whispered to us, “Does she know she’s adopted?” about the 5-year-old Kaitlin). This has been especially true as both girls have gotten older and the racial divide has grown even sharper in the years since Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and the many others who have followed.

So in this sense we also fight—not each other, but against the forces of prejudice and racial oppression that have torn our nation’s family apart from its very founding. In this struggle, however, we can’t forget what has been. Not if we, in Noah’s words, “hope that our children will be better at this than we are.”

Timothy Nelson
Director of Undergraduate Studies. Department of Sociology
Lecturer in Sociology and Public Policy, The Princeton School of Public and International
Princeton University

Nelson is the author of numerous articles on low-income fathers and is the co-author, with Kathryn Edin, of the book Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, published in June 2013 by the University of California Press. Currently, he is working on a project with Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer (University of Michigan) using ethnography and in-depth interviews to explore the five counties in the US scoring highest on the Index of Deep Disadvantage. This index represents a holistic look at disadvantage, using health indicators (life expectancy, low infant birth weight), poverty metrics (rates of poverty and deep poverty), and social mobility data. His prior research has focused on African American religion and congregational studies.  His prior book, Every Time I Feel the Spirit: Religious Experience and Ritual in an African American Congregation was published by NYU Press in 2004. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Chicago in 1997. Research interests include fatherhood, race, culture, religion, and qualitative methods.