Why Jenny Heijun Wills wrote a book about reuniting with her first family in Korea
Jenny Heijun Wills was born in Korea and adopted as an infant by a white family in southern Ontario. In her late 20s, Wills traveled to Seoul to look for her first family. She chronicles this emotional, rocky reunion in her memoir Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related., written as a series of vignettes and letters. CBC Books named Wills a 2020 writer to watch.
The memoir won the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
Wills is an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg. She talked to CBC Books about how she wrote Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related.
Academic versus personal writing
"I was on sabbatical from my teaching job during the winter term of 2015. I was supposed to be writing this academic monograph about Asian adoption and genetics and instead, because I had all of this time to think about what had happened with my reunion, these poems and scenes started to emerge unintentionally. It was, aside from a couple of poems, my first attempt at doing any kind of creative writing.
"The large challenge for me is that I've been writing academically about transnational adoption, transracial adoption and literature for so long. I was trying to simultaneously remember the things that I had studied while also trying to find a way into the conversation that was unique to me."
Being deliberately visible
"People have asked me, 'Did it feel therapeutic? Is that why you were doing it? Did it feel cathartic?' It wasn't the act of writing that felt very different. But reading back the things that I had written offered me some emotional release that I hadn't anticipated. Reading back my story hit home.
I was always on display and always hyper visible in that particular way.- Jenny Heijun Wills
"It feels frightening. It's such an emotionally weighted experience and it's still ongoing. People laugh when I say, 'I'm a memoirist, but I'm very private. I'm very shy.' It feels a little intimidating to open oneself so publicly. Ever since I was a baby, strangers would look at me and create a narrative in their mind when I was with my family because they're white. I was always on display and always hyper visible in that particular way. It's a curious feeling now, putting yourself in a public eye somewhat deliberately."
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"The book was originally achronological in order. I wanted it to appear very fragmented because that's how my life always felt — like you're putting together pieces of something a bit shattered.
I wanted it to appear very fragmented because that's how my life always felt — like you're putting together pieces of something a bit shattered.- Jenny Heijun Wills
"When it was shifted into more of a linear format, all of the pieces remained the same. They are still self-contained in certain ways. Maybe that's how my memory had to work — snapshots of things that happened that can stand alone and can also be brought together to make some semblance of a whole."
"I hope that people understand the diversity of adoptee experiences. There are these comfortable narratives that we have about adoption, including transnational adoption, but there are multiple experiences of that. I hope that people also understand that it's more complicated than how we might imagine it to be. I have my own opinions as to whether it is positive or negative or somewhere outside of that binary. It's not about making a judgment one way or another. It's about understanding some of the context when making those decisions or when believing those narratives or when challenging those narratives.
It is unique to be a reunited adoptee and to have sustained a relationship with your first family, despite cultural and linguistic differences.- Jenny Heijun Wills
"It might become apparent that there isn't too much in this book about my Canadian family. I didn't want to dwell on my childhood in Canada or some of the racial isolation I felt because I feel like those stories are ubiquitous. There are many brilliant adoptee writers who can talk about those things, but it is unique to be a reunited adoptee and to have sustained a relationship with your first family, despite cultural and linguistic differences. I wanted to focus on my Korean family, especially the women in my life. It's not that I wanted to speak on behalf of them, but I think there are certain voices in stories about adoption that are more audible than others."
Jenny Heijun Wills's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can see more interviews from the How I Wrote It series here.