By Erika Hayasaki
Algonquin (2022)Buy Book
Southern California-based journalist Erika Hayasaki is a former Los Angeles Times national correspondent and currently teaches in the literary journalism program at University of California, Irvine. Her second nonfiction book, Somewhere Sisters: A Story of Adoption, Identity, and the Meaning of Family, chronicles the story of identical twins Isabella and Ha, born in Vietnam and raised by adoptive families on opposite sides of the world. Isabella grew up in an affluent Chicago suburb; Ha was raised in a Vietnam village. The sisters did not know much about each other until they were reunited as teens.
Hayasaki says her own struggles with racial identity growing up in the Midwest helped shape her approach to the project. She started research for the book when her own twin boys, now six, were newborns. Hayasaki also has a ten-year-old daughter. Here she talks about the tenacity it took to write the book, her commitment to centering stories on adoptees and their birth mothers, and resisting the temptation to write a fairy tale ending. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Victoria Clayton: How did you get interested in this family?
Erika Hayasaki: First, I was interested in writing about twins because I’m the mother of twins. So I linked up with a twin researcher here in California, and I wrote some pieces on twins. It was through that process that the researcher put me in contact with a bunch of families. Isabella’s family—the Solimenes—really interested me. I was interested in the story of twins reuniting, but I was also drawn to it because I grew up in the Midwest—not far from the Solimenes—and frankly, I had identity issues that were similar. I’m Asian American; I have a white mother and an Asian American father. I grew up in an area that didn’t have a lot of Asian Americans. So that affected my identity, and how I think about race. That’s not the same as being adopted, but there are similarities in those experiences. I think I was primed to wonder how those experiences may have been for the sisters and whether—or how much—they overlapped with mine.
I’m much older than they are, but unfortunately, a lot of the experiences of the young women were similar to mine, like hearing anti-Asian slurs, or growing up with a white mom (I moved through the world as Asian American and people assumed I was adopted), or being one of the few Asian Americans in my Illinois town. We were able to connect and talk about that. It started as one thing and it sort of led to another. In the end, though, it was my curiosity about twins and racial identity and the complexity of being an interracial family that drew me to this family and their story.
VC: Did you initially believe this was a magazine piece or did you always know it was a book?
EH: I initially thought it would be a long form piece, but I found so much complexity with both the story and the history of adoption that it became clear that it should be a book. I never thought that I would spend five years on this project, though. My twins were born and six months later I started digging into this whole story, which was the craziest time to do it! It took a long time because I was mothering and teaching. COVID also happened. It was helpful that it did take so long because time deepened my understanding of everything. The world kind of shifted too. Conversation has evolved in some ways around the issues of adoption. For example, adoptee voices are being heard more often, people are starting to acknowledge the complexity of transnational adoption and there’s more being exposed about the troubling history of Native American adoption. All of this is good.
VC: Did it take you a long time to sell the book?
EH: It wasn’t easy! There were lots of rejections. Fortunately, I was able to have a long conversation with an editor at Algonquin, and that’s what made all the difference.
VC: It’s not a traditional structure. You have sections of reported narrative interspersed with sections directly in the voice of the adoptees—twins Ha and Isabella, as well as adopted sister Olivia. It’s like the story is being told from the outside (reportage) but also from the inside (lived experiences of the subjects), and sometimes the perspectives are different. Can you discuss that?
EH: The challenge was that a traditional narrative structure would have meant falling into the traditional trope of adoption narratives: a child in need gets adopted into a better life and then everybody lives happily ever after. That doesn’t really make room for the stories of the adoptees or the birth families and centering their stories and the complexities of their lives. All the hard stuff—whether it’s feeling racism in the community even if you are raised in a loving home that believes in “colorblindness,” or a reunion that is not necessarily the perfect reunion that you’d like it to be—that is also part of adoption. There is a pain that comes from separating from a family member and then reconnecting. There may be a disconnect between a mother who sees the world differently than you because her lived experience means she has just moved through the world differently. How do you articulate this in the traditional fairy tale narrative arc that we’ve seen so many adoption narratives take on?
For me, this story had to include these various voices. I needed everybody looking at the same chronology of events from different perspectives. Then the historical part of adoption was important too. How do you understand these questions about adoption and how we got here without understanding the history, which goes all the way back to Native American adoption, adoptions from Japan and Korea following wars, and the uncomfortable history of transracial adoption itself in America?
VC: The structure of the project needed to reflect somehow the complexity of its content?
EH: Yes, and I definitely had to go through the structure many times. It wasn’t right the first time. I’ve always been taught to have a structure that is traditional—you follow protagonists and they encounter a challenge and then there’s a resolution. That’s what we look for in movies and books, but the reality when you’re doing nonfiction is so much messier. There aren’t happy tidy endings all the time. So I had to make something more complicated, something that was a real examination of the system of adoption.
I think nonfiction writers are starting to get it, too, that we have to understand power and challenge systems—whether that’s political, education, health care or systems that support adoption—when we’re writing stories about people.
VC: How does a writer understand power and challenge systems?
EH: It ultimately becomes a question of who you are giving more voice to—the people who have always been in power or are you elevating voices that have not been empowered?
I’ve done a couple panels on this, particularly with Sandhya Dirks, an NPR reporter who has developed something called “the narrative power edit.” It just talks about how to rethink your narrative to always hold power accountable or to think about power and the dynamics within a story, and then to also think about the system at play. In her philosophy, first every story that we do as journalists is about power and there’s always a power dynamic. In my case, the power dynamic was with a journalist coming into this family and the lives of these people whose stories haven’t been told. We have to recognize our power all the time. Secondly, we have to step back and think about which system is at play. For this story, the system was clearly adoption. I didn’t realize initially how much I needed to understand this. The history of adoption is so clearly a system driven by economics. Then there’s a lot of the science that can be critiqued and examined, particularly twin science.
VC: You write nonfiction, but do you think it can even improve fiction writing to think about the power structure and whose voice you’re choosing to tell a story?
EH: Absolutely. Alexander Chee has written about that for New York Magazine. I always give his writing to my students. And Matt Salesses. He wrote Craft in the Real World. He’s an adoptee from Korea, and he questions the model of the fiction workshop and MFA program. He’s clearly coming at this from the perspective of an adoptee who does not fit into the structures society has set up—what you’re supposed to be or do to become a writer.
VC: Speaking of writing programs, you’re teaching in the literary journalism program at UC Irvine. How do you define “literary” journalism?
EH: My definition has evolved. I was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times for a long time and I understood narrative writing in journalism to be a particular way of storytelling. There were all these sort of narrative journalism “gods” who many nonfiction writers worshiped—Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese—mostly white men and maybe in some anthologies you’d have some Joan Didion in there. Starting out, this had subconsciously influenced my definition of literary journalism. I was not sure what place I had in that world.
Now, I think differently. Literary journalism is not one style defined by this same handful of white male writers. There have been other voices throughout history particularly of women and people of color—for example Nelly Bly writing about insane asylums—who at times used themselves in the stories as first-person guides through the world, or to reflect on a particular criminal court case, such as James Baldwin did in The Evidence of Things Not Seen. They were telling literary journalism stories, reported essays with the first-person point of view, which is what we see a lot more of now. It is true that John Hersey (a white guy) wrote Hiroshima, which was a very influential book in my life (I read that when I was, like, 13) and it has a narrative third-person omniscient reconstruction of an event, which is what Truman Capote also did with In Cold Blood. He’s not a character in his story. He is writing everything in third person as if it’s a novel, but it’s nonfiction. But both of these writers are also very much a part of their stories, because they have a subjective take on the material, and that matters in how they structure and tell the stories.
Nikole Hannah Jones, Suki Kim, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Jay Caspian Kang . . . there are all these prolific writers I have long admired who bring themselves into stories as guides with lived experience. They are journalists who are also offering an essayistic voice. And that is very much, to me, literary journalism.
So literary journalism includes a range of styles and it can be reconstruction, it can be immersion, it can be reported essay, it can be travel writing. Audio storytelling is also a form of literary journalism. I’m doing more of that now. It’s pretty wide.
The definition should be just excellent nonfiction writing. The one line that should not get crossed is making up things. Literary journalism, for me, means you still stand by your facts and what you write can be fact-checked. But there have been writers, like Capote or Joseph Mitchell, who also did not completely follow these rules.
VC: Some writers say individual truth is most important, which is not necessarily fact-checkable.
EH: Everybody debates “What is truth?” I think if you want to publish literary journalism today you have to learn to survive a magazine fact-check, which is often a really rigorous process. Many of my magazine fact-checks involve turning over all my voice recordings, notes, photos and documents and even the fact-checker re-interviewing or running quotes by my subjects.
VC: Part of your process included showing the work pre-publication to the people you wrote about. You even included a sort of endnote with a critical response from the American adoptive mother. Can you shed light on this?
EH: Yes. I went over parts of the book with each of the people included, but they didn’t read the full book before it went into print. It was through this process, though, that the adoptive mom came to understand more about what I wrote and researched, and what everybody else had said in the book. At the last minute I decided to include her response, and it was hard. It’s unfortunate that she came away feeling negative. But I also knew that she had her own rendering of events, which is why if you tell a story from all the different sides you get a more complex picture. But the benefit of journalism is that you can include all the different voices.
VC: By writing about the twins, you exposed differences in the thoughts, feelings and experiences of various members of the family. The daughters, for example, didn’t always have the same rosy—we might call it earnestly color-blind—perspective as the adoptive mother. Do you feel like you changed the family by exposing these differences?
EH: In the end, one of the twins said, “We still love each other as much as we did the day this family was established.” They are a strong, loving family. I have had complex discussions about race with my mom in the last couple of years and even fights, too. We love each other. She’s my number one, but at the same time we don’t always agree, and we don’t see the world the same way.
That’s the hard part about family and also just being so different. You either cut people off because you disagree, which people can do if someone is toxic for them. But you can also just figure out how to live with these differences.
VC: What do you hope people will better understand about transnational adoption after reading Somewhere Sisters?
EH: I just hope that people will start to listen to adoptees—to understand that it’s not a fairy tale, and that there’s a complex history behind adoption. I hope the book can be part of that conversation.