The Next Chapter

Jenny Heijun Wills reconnected with her Korean birth parents, and wrote a memoir about it

The Winnipeg writer shares her story in the memoir Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related, which won the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related is a memoir by Jenny Heijun Wills. (McClelland & Stewart)

This interview originally aired on April 11, 2020.

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.

Written as a series of vignettes and letters, Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related. describes reconnecting with her birth family and explores questions of gender, race and belonging. The memoir won the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Wills spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related.

Across borders

"A lot of scholars have talked about the origins of Korean transnational adoption and, by extension, all transnational adoption to civilians. This was beginning in the early 1950s, when the ceasefire in the Korean War began. Various transnational adoption programs were inspired by what happened in Korea.

"One of the more popular ones that captivated mainstream audiences attention was the international adoption program out of Vietnam. 

"In the late 1970s, my Canadian parents learned about that program in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. They both came to each other with the suggestion that they adopt from overseas.

"Vietnam was closed to Canadians at the time and so they turned to Korea, which had been open since the 1950s and continues to be open still."

About adoption

"I was writing a thesis about transnational Asian adoption. I had been reading a lot of memoirs and had been reading a lot of fiction and poetry about adopted people's experiences. But I didn't consider going on a birth search myself until I was living in the U.S., and was surrounded by more adult adoptees than I had ever met before. 

My grandmother had been located. She wanted to meet me.

"My conversations with them inspired me to undertake that journey myself. Otherwise I don't think I would have started."

Making a connection

"I was living in Boston. I learned a little bit from the folks at the Boston Korean adoptee group about how to start a birth search. Maybe this is a sign of being in the right place at the right time, but the Internet was available, which it wouldn't have been 10 years earlier if I had started the search.  

"I filled out an online form from the agency that requested things like the names of my Korean parents, my birth date and any information I might have had. About a week later, I was contacted.

"My grandmother had been located. She wanted to meet me."

Meeting my mother

"I was so frightened to be rejected. I was under the false understanding that I had been rejected the first time I'd been taken into transnational adoption. I was afraid to be rejected again. I was afraid that I'd make a mistake and that she wouldn't want me after all. But I was so overcome by those emotions and by that fear that I wasn't very emotive in the moment. 

I was so frightened to be rejected.

"I don't know if that's unusual or commonplace. But I do recall being very stoic in that in that first meeting.

"It was clear that the people in the room found that quite odd."

Jenny Heijun Wills's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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