Monday, November 28, 2022

Q&A with Erika Hayasaki




Erika Hayasaki is the author of the new book Somewhere Sisters: A Story of Adoption, Identity, and the Meaning of Family. She also has written the book The Death Class. A journalist, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine. She also is a professor in the University of California, Irvine's literary journalism program, and she's based in Southern California.


Q: What inspired you to write Somewhere Sisters, and how did you research the book?


A: I was inspired to write this book after I had my own twins in 2016. And I was introduced to a twin researcher in Southern California who runs a twin studies center. I was doing some research around nature versus nurture. And I eventually wrote a story about twin studies.


I was introduced to various twin pairs around the country and I met these two twins who were born in Vietnam, and separated at birth. Their names were Hà and Isabella, and I became interested after meeting them and learning more about their story. I eventually interviewed them in person and I spent five years interviewing them as well as their family members around the world.


And so the story, while it began as one that looked at nature versus nurture, evolved into a story that really delved into the complicated history of adoption, particularly transnational and transracial adoption. And that became also a big focus of the book and I tried to also center the experiences of adoptees and their voices as much as possible.


So I spoke to experts who were adoptees, who have either been studying critical adoption studies or who are psychologists or who are working in spaces of activism to understand some of the issues around adoption.


And then much of the book is driven by the narrative of the family, particularly the sisters, the two twins and a third young woman who is also adopted into this family.


Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, in part, “Hayasaki weaves their [the sisters’] reflections about belonging, heritage, and identity...with a broad consideration of adoption and twin studies that aim to shed light on the extent to which genes and environment shape human behavior, personality, and development.” What do you think of that description, and what did you see as the right balance between the focus on the sisters and the larger picture?


A: I think that is a good description of the book.


I felt like the sister stories are the heart of the book and I wanted their voices to be front and center. And I wanted them to express their feelings and thoughts throughout the book as honestly as possible.


But I also knew that the stories of adoption are misunderstood in our culture. And I especially learned that from doing a lot of research and speaking to all the experts, so it became increasingly important that I needed to intersperse some of the history and context and these voices from outside between the stories that are more narrative and personal.


Because without those stories, you don't necessarily have the social context. The big picture is really important whenever you're going to talk about adoption, and I learned that from this five years of reporting.


And the same goes for the twin research. It’s not centered in the book as much as the stories and also as much as adoption, but it is important because we have historically looked at twins to understand how much genes play a role in shaping who you become, versus the environment. And that has led to some really ugly studies and outcomes and history.


But it’s also important for us to understand that history and to try to think of our own relationship to genes and environment. And ultimately, I do come to understand that there's an interplay at work between the genes and the environment, and it’s a combination of both forces.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The book's title was always sort of advocated for by my editor, so I didn't have a lot of say in the title.


I wish it didn't have a subtitle, actually. I thought that this book is actually so complex, and there's a lot of issues that I'm getting out here, that no title could really encompass what I was trying to say in just a few words, but I really didn't want a subtitle at all. And I still don't love it, but it's there because that was beyond my power.


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about the “nature vs. nurture” issue?


A: I think the common misconceptions about nature/nurture are that it's one or the other or that genes matter above all...But there's wiggle room in that the environment, going back even to inside of the womb, can have an impact on how your genes turn on or turn off. That's addressed in a field of study called epigenetics, which I do talk a little bit about in the book.


And there's also the randomness of chance, and gene mutations, for example, that are not predictable. So while genes may play a role…there's also a role that destiny plays, and the environment, and the choices that we make, choices that are sometimes made on our behalf, and the randomness of chance that can make a difference in the direction a life takes.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I am working on a story for a fellowship that I just completed. I spent a year working on a project considering intersections between Black and Asian Americans in Mississippi. And it's really is also a kind of family history that is personal narrative for the people involved. But it also explores these larger questions about race, racial hierarchies, and identity and mixed experiences in America. It will eventually be a magazine article. And hopefully that'll be out in the next couple months or a year.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you so much for reading and engaging with the book. I hope that it was interesting to you.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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