Takeaway Book Club: "Somewhere Sisters"
Messa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. As we enter the final weeks of 2022, it's time for a bit of a takeaway holiday book club. We begin today with a book that asks, what makes you you. How did you end up with that body sense of humor that sharp into your ease with new languages?
Where you love a strawberry jam? Was it mapped by the phenomenal intricacies of your genetic code or was it crafted by the way you were parented, how you were taught, where you lived, and what you did? For more than a century, researchers have used studies of identical twins to understand the different contributions of genetics and the environment.
Erika Hayasaki: Hà Nguyễn and Isabella Solimene are identical twins, but they did not grow up together. Separated shortly after birth, they barely knew of each other until they were preteens.
Messa Harris-Perry: This curiosity about what makes us who we are, and how twins reveal pieces of that puzzle lies at the heart of somewhere sisters.
Erika Hayasaki: In Vietnam, Hà was adopted as an infant by two women, one of whom is her biological aunt. The woman built a life together as romantic and domestic partners raising their child. Hà's aunt worked as a village babysitter while her other adoptive mother worked in the rice paddies. Only child in her household Hà grew up in the coastal mountains with sparse electricity and seasonal monsoons. A wealthy white family in Illinois adopted Isabella along with another child from the same orphanage who they named Olivia.
Isabella and Olivia are not biologically related. The family gave both girls their last name replacing their Vietnamese names with Western ones. My name is Erica Hayasaki and I am the author of Somewhere Sisters.
Messa Harris-Perry: Hayasaki's Somewhere Sisters is no dry recitation of scientific evidence, it's a complex, at times heartbreaking, at times uplifting journey through the lives of three young women who had to find each other in order to find themselves.
Erika Hayasaki: Isabella was like her twin Hà born in Vietnam. I had a chance to interview their birth mother and both of them were born premature and their mother had a hard time trying to care for them. She did not have a lot of resources. She ended up taking them to an orphanage which I had a chance to visit as well. One of the sisters Hà was very sick and was not admitted into the orphanage, but the other Lon she was admitted into this orphanage.
She lived there for a couple of years and befriended another child who eventually was adopted with her and raised as a sister by an American family in the US. They lived in a suburb of Illinois and grew up in a loving home, large family, in a wealthier white community, attending Catholic schools, having access to a lot of resources, and lived their lives.
There were moments that are detailed in the book of experiences of racial discrimination, being Asian American in a predominantly white community, which is something I could relate to because I had also been raised in a smaller town, Illinois. She didn't really know about her twin for much of her life or think much about it but she had a twin, she was living her life until one day her adoptive mother decided to try to track down this twin in Vietnam.
Messa Harris-Perry: Tell us about that twin. Tell us about Hà.
Erika Hayasaki: Hà was also born in Vietnam, and she was the one who was sicker. She was adopted by her biological aunt and her aunt's partner and raised in a village in Vietnam and also raised in a home full of love. She was an only child though not in a large family. She was raised Buddhist, and she always described her life beautifully to me. Her days of playing outside, she didn't have toys but she played with the dust and the pans and the river and had this life that didn't have necessarily the access to any resources the way her sister in America did but also she lived a happy life.
She knew she had a twin as well. There's a moment in the book when her adoptive mothers take her on a motorbike to the orphanage with plans to try to reunite her with her twin, they're around four years old but at that point her twin had been adopted out already. That was the last she heard for a long time. She went on living her life as well until one day, a woman from America, a white woman from America came into her village and explained that she was the adoptive mother of her twin sister.
Messa Harris-Perry: I don't want to leave out the third sister here, who is not one of the two twins but can you tell us about Olivia?
Erika Hayasaki: She was in the orphanage along with Isabella so her name was originally New, and then Lon, Lon, and New became Isabella and Olivia. They were quite close in the orphanage and because of that relationship the orphanage reached out to the family, the Americans said, "Can you adopt both of them," and the family did and raised them almost as if they were twins, in the beginning. Dressing them alike in this neighborhood and they eventually ended that being dressed alike. They ended that practice because they didn't love it. They were raised in this household together as sisters, even though they're not biologically related. They've always been very close.
Messa Harris-Perry: You have these interspersed moments throughout the book where you'll just have a little language from one of the sisters. Sometimes they're painful, sometimes they're funny, sometimes they just sound like kids and I do love this one piece, where Hà is saying, "I've really loved being an only child and when my parents wanted to threaten me the threat was I'll go adopt another kid," when in fact, she actually had a twin sister.
Erika Hayasaki: Yes. I wanted to include the direct quotes from them in an oral history type of way. I appreciated in this story and in these girls' lives that they live their lives without being obsessed or feeling their other half was missing necessarily. They do eventually come together and reunited and become very close but they also didn't have that narrative of feeling they were incomplete in that sense because they had a twin that they didn't know.
Messa Harris-Perry: Let's take a quick pause and when we come back, we'll hear about when the twins met for the first time. We're back with The Takeaway and more of my conversation with Erica Hayasaki, author of Somewhere Sisters, a story of adoption, identity, and the meaning of family. We pick up the story when the twins, Hà and Isabella meet for the first time.
Erika Hayasaki: Their reunion was much more awkward, uncomfortable. They didn't speak the same language. They were very young. You read it and you might think you've been waiting for this moment of everything coming together in that fairytale way, but it's more than that. The entire story is much more complex and nuanced. There's a lot of emotions and particularly around reunion with adoption. There are a lot of people involved in those reunions, not just the people who are being reunited, but these constellations of family members that are also impacted and have their own, sometimes trauma and pain around when families have been separated or children have been given up for adoption.
There's a lot of emotions around that. I make sure to just tell it the way they told me, and also to interview in the book. I interview people who are experts in adoption from whether they're therapists who are adoptees as well or historians, various people who are working in adoption, or who has studied adoption and are adoptees to explain how complicated the reality of this is. It is not necessarily the narrative that we have become so accustomed to- in our culture, particularly.
Messa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering if there are key takeaways around questions of transracial, transnational adoptions that you come away with having followed and written this story.
Erika Hayasaki: I learned so much about transracial, transnational adoption. That was why it was very important to me to have many voices represented in the book because there's a long history of adoption in this country. There's also a lot of history around the studies that have been done on twins and people who've been separated from their families. Also, just transnational adoption or transracial adoption, for example, has a complex and painful history.
In our country adoption goes back to after World War II, Americans adopting children, for example, mixed-race babies from Japan after the Korean War.
Then in the book, we really get into Vietnam and how adoption started after the Vietnam War with children to America. There are some dark moments speaking about the Operation Babylift when a lot of planes were sent to Vietnam to bring home children that were supposedly orphaned, not all of them were. One of those planes crashes. There are children who grew up that I had a chance to interview who lost all paperwork, never had a chance to be reunited with families, and also struggled with identity and racial issues when they were adopted into communities, oftentimes white communities.
What this book hopes to do is to tell these stories that are beautiful and also at times painful and to tell the story of the history and the complexity and to honor the voices of adoptees in different ways who have been living these experiences. They really are the experts because there is so much to learn from adoptees who are actively speaking out in different spaces, whether it's through art, literature, academia on social media, and that was important for me in the book as well.
Messa Harris-Perry: I live in a very purple state and depending on which town I'm in it's not unusual these days for me to drive past a planned parenthood or a medical clinic and see people standing outside with signs that say, "I will adopt your baby, or I'll take your baby," as a response to the Dobbs decision on anti-abortion response being adoption will solve it all. Does reporting this and helping to tell this story give you a perspective on that?
Erika Hayasaki: Yes, absolutely. We've heard that line often, adoptions, the answer to the end of abortion, and everything will work out that way. That's been perpetuated online. I saw those images of families who say we will adopt your baby. Again, that's oversimplifying and really perpetuating this one-sided view of what adoption is which doesn't leave room for the complexity. Really, if you don't leave room for that complexity and experience of adoptees, you're just ignoring what we've learned from generations of critical adoption scholars and adoptee voices who are very clearly--
Again, for decades, I've been saying our experiences aren't represented. We have these loving homes sometimes. There's all different kinds of experiences of with adoption, but people will say that they can come from a loving home and still question the system or the experience that they've had, and that's their reality because oversimplifying the narrative can be harmful.
Messa Harris-Perry: I'm particularly moved, I suppose, by what happens between Olivia and Hà, in part, because they are not from the same first family but find a way to love one another as sisters. I wonder if you can maybe end us a little bit on what happens in that relationship.
Erika Hayasaki: Those three particular sisters Hà, Isabella, and Olivia end up getting triangle tattoos to represent their connection to each other and to their family in the US, which they've become united through. How that comes together, Isabella and Olivia one day after living their lives believing that they're US citizens, come to find out that they're not. Like many inter-country adoptees came to realize there was a loophole in the law that allowed for many of these adoptees who come to America again with the idea that they were citizens and then waking up to realize that they are actually not after all these years here.
Messa Harris-Perry: Erika Hayasaki is the author of Somewhere Sisters. Thank you for joining us today.
Erika Hayasaki: Thank you so much.
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