One day in 1982, a six-month-old girl was placed on a plane in Seoul, South Korea. She was issued a temporary passport for the sole purpose of transporting her to her new white adoptive family in Southern Ontario, Canada; six months after its issue date, her Korean passport would expire. But from the moment the baby was put on the plane, her Korean identity was erased. Twenty-seven years later, Jenny Heijun Wills would return to South Korea to find her first family, and maybe to find herself.
Adoptees who enter into the search and reunion process often articulate their motivation as, “I want to know where I come from.” Where, who, what, how. In her extraordinary memoir, Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related, winner of the 2019 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, Wills describes adoptees as people “who’ve grown lives out of half facts, wishful thinking, and outright lies. Who piece themselves together with the residue of lost records. From withheld or secreted records.” For transnational adoptees, the opacity of information is turned even murkier by navigating an often unknown language in a country thousands of miles away, circumstances that Wills further explores with her co-authors and co-editors in Adoption and Multiculturalism: Europe, The Americas, and the Pacific.
Since the mid-1950s, over 200,000 Korean children have been adopted into families across the globe. The exportation of Korean babies reached its peak in 1985, when 8,800 children were displaced from their homeland. Enough of those babies grew into adults searching for their roots that South Korea started providing services to help. When Wills embarked on her reunion journey, she spent four months living in a Seoul guest house specifically for Korean transnational adoptees searching for their biological families. Wills reunited with her first mother and eventually her father, extended family, and sisters. But hers, like that of most adoptees, is not the feel-good story propped up by glossy magazines, talk shows, and the adoption industry, itself. It’s not all terrible, either. Wills’ journey was complicated and fractured, which she draws beautifully in fragments, letters, and vignettes in her memoir.
In addition to being a writer and editor, Dr. Wills is a professor and Chancellor’s Research Chair at the University of Winnipeg, and a magnificent book look make-up artist. While reading Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related., I underlined about a hundred passages that resonated with me, a domestic adoptee, and was thrilled to discuss some of them with Wills over email.
The Rumpus: When you connected with other adoptees, you said it was a relief that they understood not just why you were searching, but also they got that every adoption begins with a trauma: an infant and their mother being separated. I think a lot of non-adoptees acknowledge this on some level, but they also believe the trauma is healed by an adoptive family coming in. Based on your own experience, and your work as an editor of adoptee stories, what can be the effects of that primal trauma?
Jenny Heijun Wills: I’m glad to start off with this question, because I think it inadvertently points to the reality that adoption is a subjective, personal experience, but that we also want to be having larger-scale discussions about institutional power and structural change. I can only speak to my own experience, but the trauma of adoption is ongoing and is sometimes mitigated by, and at other times worsened by, “adoptive family love.” Of course it’s traumatic to be separated from one’s mother, and the long term consequences, I think, express themselves in ways that reflect a combination of genetic and social factors. For myself, I might speculate it is seen in my control anxiety that reveals itself through oversensitivity, bonding issues, a dislike of being touched, and an inability to think of myself as a human in a body. But at my age now, it is hard to say.
Rumpus: “Blood is thicker than water” is a phrase thrown around (probably not often by adoptees) to imply that family, specifically biological family, ties are stronger than any other relationship. In Older sister. Not Necessarily Related., there’s a scene where you’re having blood taken for medical tests, and you express a fear of not wanting to lose it. What does blood mean to you? How has that meaning changed pre-reunion, and post?
Wills: Blood means nothing and everything at the same time. It is supposed to mean life or life source, and maybe it’s too on the nose that I’m anemic. I think I’m more interested in genetics, because that’s something you can see if you’re fortunate enough to meet biological kin. The taking of blood though, is about the taking of something inside. Something that makes me a human being. Blood makes you vulnerable, but it is also necessary to live. How awkward.
Rumpus: Painful and complex examples of how adoption fractures our relationship to and with our own body are achingly drawn in the book. What are some that you experienced, and ones other adoptees you’ve worked with have experienced?
Wills: I often feel like the insides of my body are not properly sutured to the outer parts. Like my organs are floating around or something. But I have always struggled with disordered eating. And I have also been unable to imagine myself giving birth. Even as a small child I knew that it was too frightening for me.
Rumpus: You employ poignant imagery of what it’s like to be ripped away from, then try to rejoin (more than once), a family tree. “I allowed myself to be sutured once more into the skeleton of that family tree, recognizing how, again, fear and loss were steering my heart.” The image of suturing alludes to how we believe a broken bone heals at its fracture point stronger than before. But reunion made the opposite true: the ties of kinship, the very concept of it, were more fragile, more tenuous than ever. What does that mean for you now? And maybe what I’m really asking is: What does family mean?
Wills: Like blood, for me, family means nothing and everything at the same time. Family relies on the antics of nationalism: who belongs, who doesn’t, to whom are we loyal, to whom are we not. And that’s uncomfortable. But I certainly feel intense love for some people that may or may not really be considered family. So I suppose “family” is another F-word that can be something that brings pleasure, or that might be deployed as a weapon if in the mouth of the wrong person.
Rumpus: Very few characters in your book are referred to by given names. The younger sister is Bora. You refer to your biological parents as your mother and father when writing about them, and as Appah and Ummah when speaking & writing to them. Other characters are identified as “sister,” “Canadian family,” “husband,” etc. Did you not use names as a statement on shifting ideas of identity and family, or was there a more practical reason?
Wills: It’s true that I don’t name people, and maybe it’s because I am a shy and cautious person. My younger sister is named, but that is not her actual name. She chose it for the book. And for Koreans, it is inappropriate to call an elder by their given name. Now, when it comes to folks in Canada, that was in part a privacy issue, but more it was a way to remind myself and my reader that this is a book about Korean people. My white Canadian relatives are not the centerpiece of the work. This is a book about race, gender, and sexuality, and adoption is the frame.
Rumpus: There are two things that I keep thinking of: In an interview with Haley Radke on Adoptees On, you said that after an event with Asian adoptees, many of them, and their mothers, asked you to show them how to do eye makeup. I was also struck by how you experienced a specific fetishization from men. Both are ways in which your adoptive mother couldn’t share the benefit and wisdom of her own experience. I’d love it if you could expand on those two examples, and how they’re intertwined.
Wills: I think there are two questions here. How does one prepare a person for a life of being a Korean (or transracial and/or transnational) adoptee, and how does one prepare a person for a life of being an Asian woman (in my case)? There are many things that people cannot give first-hand experiential knowledge about. It happens. But empathy goes a long way. One does not have to be in the shoes of a transracially adopted youth to believe or care about their experiences.
I will say that I felt a combination of extremely ugly and motivated to be beautiful. But that also has its risks and downsides. I wrote in a CNF piece once that at adoptee culture camp there was a child whom I told was very beautiful. And her mother did not like that. And I thought, gosh, there are some actual genetic gifts our mothers and fathers give us, but those things also have to be pressed down. It would have meant a lot for me to be told I was beautiful or cute when I was a child. Because it also might have changed the way I let men fetishize me for all those years as an adolescent and young woman.
Rumpus: On social media, conversations between adult adoptees largely focus on the experiences of domestic and intra-racial adoption. That is, people from the US or Canada adopting a child of the same race from the US or Canada. While some aspects of the adoptee experience are universal, for transracial and transnational adoptees there are unique issues of identity, culture, mirroring, and even the search process. What are some of them, and did you have words for them when you were growing up? Did new ones emerge during your search and reunion process?
Wills: I think that there are many shared or overlapping issues that connect domestic and transnationally adopted people, especially when we are in circumstances of transracial placements. Feelings of isolation, non-belonging, internalized racism, and more, can permeate the experiences of people in both circumstances. What’s curious to me is the important conversations that domestic adopted people have about their rights to their adoption files. Of course, I believe this is a basic human right. But it is interesting that geographic and linguistic proximity normalizes this insistence. I suspect many people adopt from overseas because of the misguided belief that it is de facto closed adoption. That there will never be access to files, or worse, family. I say it is misguided because sometimes we do get our files, and sometimes someone is kind enough to translate them for us if we cannot read the languages in which the files are written, and sometimes we can find our people and forge relationships. And I think that sometimes that is adoptive parents’ worst nightmare.
Rumpus: The “Adoption Triad” is a term often used to describe the relationship of the adoptee, birth family, and adoptive family. It implies that everyone is equally affected by adoption, and all parties are relational. But that model has been criticized because it doesn’t represent the inequality of power and information. What do you think is a better object to illustrate these complex relationships? Is there anyone else who should be included in it?
Wills: Oh, you’re making me have to think about high school geometry to try to find a clever way to describe the actual triangle of the adoption triad. Is it isosceles? Obtuse? It certainly isn’t an equilateral triangle! Kidding aside, I think sometimes people talk about adoption constellations, which at least includes more than three subjects—because adoption affects more than the three parties directly involved. It causes multigenerational complexity, there are members in lateral generational kinship positions (like siblings), and it conveniently doesn’t include the author/drafter of it all: the institution/social worker/agency. I think constellation also attends to the mutability of our positions, roles, and proximity to people. On the other hand, maybe it is too romantic a metaphor. One that is too lovely for what it truly gestures at.
Rumpus: Your memoir about your experience as a Korean adoptee is beautiful and poetic. You’ve also edited and contributed to a scholarly text about the experiences of international adoptees. These are different lenses with different tools. How do they shape the telling of the stories? What are the freedoms and limitations of each approach?
Wills: Thank you for your kind words. You’re right they are really different approaches to representing ideas. It’s funny, because there was this article that came out talking about the non-fiction short list I was on for the Weston Prize and the author of the article said that the short list for another prize was made up of “heavily researched books,” whereas the books with which I was in beautiful company (which included many memoirs) were not research-heavy. I was really surprised, because so much research went into writing that memoir. It’s just presented differently. It is into that memoir that my doctoral thesis on Asian Adoption narratives was turned. That’s not to say that it’s similar in any way. But all of that academic research is one of the sublayers of the book. It is there. And I had read so many adoption texts, I knew exactly why, but more importantly, how, I might join the conversation. What’s more, as a literary memoir, I think my creative book is informed by years of research as a literary scholar. Reading poetry, novels, CNF, etc. is research for me. So Older Sister is an expression of research, but it is not anthropological or journalistic. It’s just different.
I will say that I am not very interested in academic writing any more. Creative writing comes more naturally to me, and is more joyful. I’m more aesthetically obsessed than the average person. And creative writing plays an important role in fulfilling those desires.
Author photo courtesy of author