Like so many adoptees, Susan Kiyo Ito is curious about the woman who gave birth to her. Through tenacious research of telephone books and phone calls, she finds Yumi, whose reaction is every searching adoptee’s nightmare: a woman furious she has been discovered.
In her debut memoir I Would Meet You Anywhere (Mad Creek Books, 2023), Ito explores boundaries and bonds as she searches for, locates, and meets with various members of her birth family, some of whom want to keep her a secret and others who welcome her into their family with open arms. Through it all, Ito, a Japanese American same-race adoptee, is required to closely examine what it means to be “family, both genetic and adopted.” Her memoir is written with compassion, care, and skill, its narrative revealing the tensions that exist between losing oneself and finding oneself amid the interactions with complex others.
Her writing has previously appeared in many literary journals, including Catapult and the Bellevue Literary Review, as well as the anthologies It’s a Boy, The Maternal is Political and A Ghost at Heart’s Edge. She wrote, produced, and performed the one-woman play The Ice Cream Gene, which is how I became acquainted with her.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ito over Zoom in September 2023, as we discussed adoption, reunion, parenting, and caretaking, as well as the curveballs that life throws us.
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The Rumpus: What makes I Will Meet You Anywhere the intricate story that it is?
Susan Kiyo Ito: I know people say that writing shouldn’t be therapy, but I recently got an email from my therapist, of all people, who noted that my writing of this memoir was the outward manifestation of my inner personal journey toward freedom. I’ve been writing I Will Meet You Anywhere, in some form, for decades, and I think what she says is true. A lot of that internal work was about just owning the story and then having the right to tell the story. For years I have vacillated between whether or not I have a right to tell this story.
The root of the book started when I was in college, shortly after I first met my birth mother. I’d written a poem called “Living In Someone Else’s Closet.” It was the first time I wrote about adoption outside of my journal. I just had this feeling of living a secret and being a secret. There was this struggle of permission to tell the story or not tell the story from the very beginning, and this book is the manifestation of that struggle.
The narrative form I use explores connection/disconnection and it is that form which drives the narrative forward. I Will Meet You Anywhere is filled with connection/disconnection, and not just with my relationship with my birth mother, but in every way.
Rumpus: You talk about giving yourself permission to finally write this story. How did that come about?
Ito: It first began as my MFA thesis thirty years ago, a fiction manuscript called Filling in the Blanks. I hid behind that fictional account and made things up I didn’t know. Over the next few decades, I wrote a lot of the story without any intention of publishing it. Some of it came from my journal, but many sections came from free writes that I’d participated in over the years. We were just a group that came together and wrote spontaneously, things off the top of our heads. Many of those free writes became pieces I eventually revised and polished with some intent of showing to a larger audience. However, most of the book was a way of just getting these experiences out from within me, expressing them. That first draft was not written with the idea that I was going to publish a memoir.
At a certain point, I started publishing short excerpts and personal essays and putting them out in the world. And when I did my solo performance, The Ice Cream Gene, I realized that people were supportive and receptive of the truth of my story. At that point, I began to consider the idea of turning it into a memoir. Then it became harder to write because I was more self-conscious realizing the book would be published, it was going to have an audience.
Rumpus: Writing a book, even if you think you know what it’s about, always seems to produce an “aha” moment. What was that for you?
Ito: That would have to be my chapter “I Would Meet You at the Ferry Building.” By this point, I hadn’t seen my birth mother in many years. One Thanksgiving week she called me, spontaneously as she always did: “Hey, I’m in town. Do you want to get together?” I just couldn’t say no. I would never say no. I would never turn down an opportunity to get together with her. But after that meeting, my feelings were very mixed. I was upset with myself because I couldn’t resist her invitation: her daughter, my half-sister, had refused to acknowledge our kinship years ago, and I was sure her daughter had no idea our mother was calling me, which meant I was still a secret. I remember coming home and thinking, “I have to write this down.”
Someone remarked that they felt Yumi’s and my very first meeting was a prototype for all the other meetings that would come over the next three or four decades. And they were right—everything that was contained in that first meeting just kept repeating over and over again.
Rumpus: Stories of adoption, especially those written by adoptees, seem to produce a lot of complicated currents in society. Why is that?
Ito: I have knots in my stomach as I’m counting down the weeks until the book is actually released. Although I’m excited, I keep questioning myself: “Why did I publish it now? Why didn’t I wait another ten years?” I admit, I am afraid of reactions from people I know, as well as strangers.
A lot of those complicated currents have to do with the language people use around adoption. It is so loaded and means so many different things to different people. As a result, there’s pushback. For instance, right now there’s pushback against positive adoption language, or PAL. Responses to it from the adoptee community include: “It’s encouraging a capitalistic business,” or, “It’s glossing over a lot of the trauma.” And although I understand what people are saying, PAL was designed to take the place of truly negative and offensive language. For instance, the phrase, “put up for adoption” has a direct line to orphan trains or slavery. PAL language might be “place the child for adoption,” or “make an adoption plan.”
The language influences the narratives we use to tell our story, so many of which begin with “all adoptees” fill-in-the-blank, but we don’t all do anything. There is a wide spectrum of experiences and beliefs, there are differences and nuances. Each adoptee has experiences that make their story unique. It’s important to understand that adoption is not a one-size-fits-all kind of situation.
There might be pushback against my book. Although I have published essays and fictional pieces in small journals and anthologies, they weren’t the whole story, and that whole story was difficult to write. So I know this book might make some people unhappy, and some people will resist what I have to say, all for different reasons, but I have no control over people’s responses. I’ll bear whatever the consequences are because I wrote it. It is done. I stand behind my story.
If someone were to ask me what my take-away is, I’d tell them adoption is really complicated. As a result, there are complicated ways of talking about adoption. Bottom line, it’s not “good,” it’s not “bad,” it’s “this”—whatever “this” is.
Rumpus: In this book, you explore issues of power, identity, grief, and vulnerability, and you do that with such grace. How were you able to accomplish that, given adoption’s complexities?
Ito: It certainly wasn’t conscious. I think it’s the way that I write. I am obsessed with detail, sensory and visual. Memories will come back to me, and I’ll remember smells or sensations. It’s like being there. I also try to bring compassion to my writing: compassion for the situation, for the people in the situation, and for my younger and current self. I try to understand why they think what they think or do what they do. It’s important to bring my readers into the story as much as possible, to have them experience what I experience.
Rumpus: We talked about your nervousness in bringing this story into the light of the public eye. What fears did you have about the decision to do just that?
Ito: I have a couple of fears. One of them is that I will never hear from my birth mother again. I don’t know what her reaction will be, because throughout our relationship she’s ping-ponged between “I want to be close to you” [and] “I don’t want contact with you.” So I don’t know what to expect.
My other fear is that readers will wonder why I can’t just get over my unstable relationship with my birth mother and just live my life. They might say, “You’re so lucky you have this nice husband, a nice family, a dog, all these things. Why do you need more?” I constantly try to have compassion for that wounded self and not listen to those voices that are so judgmental. The thing is, I have that judgmental self inside of me as well.
Rumpus: Your birth mother and your adoptive family were Japanese, and you thought of yourself as Japanese. However, your birth father’s sister, Elizabeth, introduces you to your European side of the family, which, you realize, you closely resemble, more so than your Japanese side. Was that a code switch for you?
Ito: Absolutely. It was shocking, and I didn’t know what to do with it. But going through the family photos and looking at individuals, I kept seeing my face. I saw a photo of one cousin, in particular, who looked just like me, and when I met him, we recognized each other in this deeply mirrored way. I was not expecting that, and it was very moving.
Rumpus: How did this perspective of you not only as Japanese but as European change how you thought of people in each side of your families?
Ito: It was so big on so many levels. My birth mother told me once that my birth father was maybe Dutch, maybe Danish, and I glommed onto that. So much so that when I saw a figurine doll in a store who had blonde hair and wooden shoes, I bought it and carried it around with me for many years. I kept it on my shelf and wondered if that was a part me. It wasn’t. My father’s family was mostly of Scottish descent along with some other European nationalities.
When my birth father’s family brought me to the family cemetery, it was overwhelming. There were generations of ancestors there. They gave me a book of the family trees, as well as diaries and letters from the Civil War. In that family, I have so many cousins, and they have such a sense of place in their little town. They know their ancestral lineage, who they descended from. All of them have names that are not new names, they’re family names. That side of the family has been so welcoming, probably because they were not primary players in my adoption and so they are able to embrace me without ambivalence.
In my adoptive family, I don’t even know my great grandparents’ names! I once tried to make a family tree and asked my adoptive father who his lineage was. He knew his dad’s name and that he came from Japan. But he didn’t know any of his relatives in Japan. None of it was written down. So on that side of my family, there’s perhaps a generation and a half of people in the family tree. And of course, I know very little about my maternal birth ancestors.
Rumpus: As she was dying, your aunt, Elizabeth, told you she wished she’d known about you because she could have raised you. How has that knowledge impacted how you feel about family, identity, or belonging?
Ito: Although it would have been really different and amazing to grow up with people who look like me, being raised in the heart of white America—I probably wouldn’t have known about my Japanese side, nor would I have known how to access it. I wouldn’t have had a sense of racial and cultural community like I’d had in my Japanese family, and I realize that experience would be the same as so many transracial adoptees who grew up in racial and cultural isolation with no way to connect with their people or their community. I grew sad knowing I wouldn’t have known the Japanese side of my life, which has been so important. Both scenarios have an advantage, but also a loss.
Rumpus: You took care of your adoptive mother at the end of her life, after she developed dementia. What did you learn about yourself or your relationship in this stressful time of both of your lives?
Ito: On the surface, I feel that I Will Meet You Anywhere is about me searching for my birth mother and the relationship that we had. But really, it’s also about my adoptive mother and our relationship as mother and daughter—that’s been my internal journey.
Mom was born and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She was very rough and very tough. She sounds like Robert De Niro. She had no qualms about slapping me around, and frankly I was kind of terrified of her. I mean, she was great—she had a good sense of humor—but I was never quite sure when, or if, she was joking.
When I met my birth mother, I was twenty years old, and she seemed so glamorous and beautiful, manicured and put together. She did all the right things. I was infatuated with her, enchanted by her. You can see that in the chapter, “Your Mother is Very Nice,” where I write about my birth mother meeting my adoptive parents at a sushi restaurant. It was surreal sitting between these two types of people: one glamorous, the other rough and tough.
I put my birth mother on a pedestal for a long time, I felt she could do no wrong. In a way, I felt she was my true mother, and that my adoptive mother was just kind of rough and grumpy. It’s not surprising, given that my dad, a traveling salesman, was on the road literally forty weeks out of the year. Mom did all the home stuff: shoveling snow, raking the leaves, or dealing with the broken furnace—doing all this hard work by herself. She was essentially a single parent, so I understand now why she was grumpy.
I loved my adoptive dad, I was the apple of his eye. He was gregarious, warm, and affectionate, and he was my main person. He was also the buffer between Mom and me, so when he died and it became clear that Mom could not manage on her own, she had to move in with us. That’s when I knew I had to learn how to be in relationship with her, to face her alone.
She wasn’t happy about living with us for at least five years, and it was so hard. But my daughters won her over. They became very close to her, and through them, I’d come to appreciate her, her humor, and all she had done for me. I finally knew, then, I would do anything for her. I think that the biggest part of this journey was learning to love and appreciate her as my mother.
Rumpus: Who did you write this book for?
Ito: First, I think I wrote it for myself. I had to give myself permission to write it, to tell myself that I had the right to tell this story. Secondly, I wrote the book for the person with whom this book resonated, gave solace to, or shared companionship or solidarity with.
Rumpus: You put so much of your heart and soul into this work. Do you feel drained?
Ito: No, I feel energized. I feel relieved, and I feel excited. Yes, there is some angst, but mostly I feel relieved. I finally did it! That’s a very gratifying feeling.
Rumpus: Are you incubating a new project, and can you talk about it?
Ito: I seem to specialize in books that take at least a few decades to write. After 9/11, I began to write a novel based on my adoptive parents’ experience of being Japanese Americans who lived in New York City during the time of World War II. Unlike West Coast Japanese Americans, they were not interned so their experience was very, very different. I wanted to explore the complexities of their lives because in that community there were such different responses among individuals to being American while war waged with Japan. Some became super patriotic. Some enlisted in the U.S. military. Some repatriated to Japan. And, of course, these complexities played out in families. I feel like that very little pocket of history is a hidden story that nobody knows, and if I don’t write it, it will never be written.
Author photograph by Emma Asano Roark