Interview be Leslie Lindsay
In I Would Meet You Anywhere: A Memoir (Mad Creek Books, November 2023), Susan Kiyo Ito writes the story of her beginnings from a retrospective gaze. Who was she ? Who were her birth parents ? Why does she look not quite Japanese, not quite Caucasian? As she pieces together the mystery of her biological parents, she deeply honors her adoptive parents, while exploring the complications of adoption, navigating root-less origins, while answering questions of identity, culture, convention, motherhood, and above all, fierce love.
Susan is a ‘hanbun-hanbun’ (half-and-half) Japanese-Caucasian writer adopted at just several months of age by a Japanese couple in New Jersey. Her mother, in her Bronx accent, often said ‘the place you came from, where you got you ;’ Susan knew was adopted, but she didn’t know anything about her birth parents. Susan’s work has appeared in The Writer, Growing Up Asian American, Choice, Hip Mama, Literary Mama, Catapult, Hyphen, The Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, and has been awarded residences at The Mesa Refuge, Hedgebrook, and the Blue Mountain Center. She has performed her solo show, The Ice Cream Gene, around the U.S. Susan lives in Northern California and teaches at Mills College/Northeastern University, and Bay Path University.
In a boundary-breaking no-secrets barred memoir, Susan unveils the truth of her origins, perhaps, at the chagrin of those around her. ‘Whose story was it ?’ Is it Susan’s, her birth mother’s ? Her birth father’s ? What about her adoptive parents ? Born of her innate need to know, Kiyo Ito shifts the cultural narrative surrounding a closed adoption to that of inquiry, DNA, genetics, but there’s a also a good deal of grief, remembrance, identity, and even her own reproductive rights. I Would Meet You Anywhere is written in such a tender, insular, inquisitive voice with a looming mystery at heart.
Told in three parts, I Would Meet You Anywhere is a master-class in memoir: delicate, precise, and flawed, but in an authentic, human way. This is a deeply felt narrative narrative held together by the tenuous strings of love, memory, grief, identiy, and generational differences.
Kiyo Ito artfully employs the tricky terrain of exposing family secrets while becoming fully self-aware and shining a light on such a universal feeling: belongingness. We also get a deep and intimate glimpse at the (adoptive) father-daughter relationship, an achingly sharp loss, but one of immense love.
It’s ironic, in a sense, that I began reading on November 30, the day Baby Susan was placed in the home of her adoptive parents. As my own birthday approaches, I’m reflecting on my own birth and origins, the people who came before, the people who made me, me. Universally, we’re all longing for connection. Please join us in conversation.
Leslie Lindsay: I Would Meet You Anywhere is a stunning yet heartbreaking exploration of complications and losses, endings and beginnings. It’s about boundaries and self-expression. The title embraces all of that, and I would love to know more about how you see the title working for the narrative.
Susan Kiyo Ito: I am indebted to my wonderful writing group for pulling that line out of the first chapter at the last moment. Up until then, I had a number of working titles that just didn’t capture what I wanted for the book’s name. It comes from a scene in the moment when I am about to meet my birth mother for the first time. But the more that I reflected on it, I realized that it wasn’t just about that moment; it was also about meeting my own self, meeting my adoptive parents where they were in different stages of our lives; meeting my husband, children and grandchild, and meeting other adoptees and readers, which has been so sustaining for me. It also reflects more than a physical meeting; it means meeting someone where they are emotionally. I couldn’t be happier with this title.
LL: The first part of the story, a half-Japanese girl bracing herself to knock on the door of a hotel room at a Holiday Inn, was so cinematic, so heart-wrenching; I shook my head in awe. It’s snowing. Your clogs squeak. You go into the bathroom and glance your reflection in the mirror. How to look? Serious? Fun? You try different expressions, tones of voice. It’s all very authentic. You leave thinking your birth mother hates you. Can you take us into that moment a bit more? Did the writing of this scene change over time?
SKI: This happened when I was twenty years old. Even then, I realized what a life-changing moment it was, and as soon as I left that hotel, I grabbed my journal (diary) and wrote down every single detail I could remember. I knew that I was having a kind of out-of-body experience, and the memories could evaporate quickly. I wrote down every detail I could think of, and it was interesting how, in my mind, things changed over time and I had to keep going back to those original pages for a reality check. I’ve written that scene so many times now over the years. I’ve only embellished on things I had written as brief notes.
LL: One thing memoirsts are so fearful of is the fall-out, the idea that writing about others might irritate or anger them. In fact, you begin I Would Meet You Anywhere with the line, I was never supposed to tell this story. I love that. We writers are trained to write what scares us. It’s true. We aren’t supposed to rock the boat, reveal secrets, or bring harm. But what of keeping a story inside? What good will that do? For the writer? For others? Isn’t it best to share and connect, so others may learn and heal?
SKI: Well, the other part of that preface is the Maya Angelou quote: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” The book has been out a month now, and this has been on my mind every day. I felt as though I could not wait another year to get this story out. But it has been scary, and it has come at a great cost, emotionally. I have great concerns about bringing harm to others. Did I? I don’t fully know. I don’t think I’m quite ready to weigh in on what is “best.” But I did it, and I have to stand with the consequences, both good and bad.
LL: You write eloquently and bravely about reconnecting with your birth mother, which I am guessing was traumatic, on many levels, particularly since this was a closed adoption. Back then, in 1959, the idea was to close the records, act as if nothing happened. People thought it would be better for all parties, but it wasn’t. Can you let us into that thinking?
SKI: Birth and adoption records are still closed in more than half the states, so it wasn’t just “way back then.” Adoptee activists are fighting to open records even in California, which is otherwise a pretty progressive state. The state of my birth, New York, did not open records until 2020. I didn’t get to see my original birth certificate until I was 60.
Closed records have a particularly evil history. Originally, all records were “open,” ie there were accurate and open records kept when children were born to one family and raise by another. For example, there were records kept on the thousands of children who took the “orphan train” from major cities like New York and were sent to rural areas in the Midwest. Later, when they grew up, they were able to find and contact their original families, many of whom had thought and worried about them for decades.
But in the 1920s, this changed when adoption became a business. When money changes hands, there is the opportunity for corruption. And so it became necessary for people to cover their tracks. And infamous social worker named Georgia Tann advertised children for “sale” to wealthy families, including many in Hollywood. She actually stole those babies from poor women in Tennessee, often telling the mothers that their babies had died. She acted in concert with doctors, lawyers, judges, who all profited from the exorbitant fees she was paid by wealthy adoptive parents. This is when children’s original names were changed and birth records were sealed; it was said to protect the reputation of the birth parents, but it was often to hide what these unscrupulous adoption traffickers were doing. Eventually, it became common practice, as did the practice of enormous profiteering in adoption.
LL: There’s a time, too, when your own reproductive choices surface; things don’t always go to plan, either with unplanned pregnancies, and those in which the baby [fetus] isn’t doing well. Of course, this goes back to origins and life trajectory. I see much of this a beautiful, almost inevitable arc. Is that the way you see it, too?
SKI: I think one of the lines I wrote was, ‘I have been steeped in the tea of reproductive choice since the moment of my conception.’ I have seen this in my own life as well as that of my birth mother, and also along into the next generation, as my young adult children have to grapple with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. It impacts us all, forever.
LL: I Would Meet You Anywhere is so much more than just a book about adoption and origins, it’s also about identity, legacy, and love, and also estrangement, how it’s a cousin to abandonment. It’s complex and tender, to say the least. At times, the relationship with your birth mother is silly and loving, but very fraught in others. There’s a good deal of tension. I’m curious, as always, about mental health, yours and your birth mother’s, given the traumatic aspects of the situation.
SKI: I can really only speak for myself, but I can guess that all of it – the pregnancy, concealment, adoption and subsequent secrecy has been fraught for my mother’s mental health. I truly feel for her, and for the societal forces and pressures that weighed upon her so heavily. That caused her to undergo pregnancy, birth and everything surrounding in complete isolation. It’s hard to imagine. And how much of an emotional, psychological burden it has been ever since. I know that my appearing only complicated matters, to say the least.
As for my own mental health, I am grateful to have had the support of loved ones, friends, the adoptee community, and skilled therapists to help me through all of it. The process of writing this book has been both beneficial and challenging to my mental health through the years.
LL: I’m amazed and awed by your tenacity to write this story, to become your own private investigator, a mother in your own right, the perseverance it to track down records, your birth father, all of it. It took you a whooping thirty years to write I Would Meet You Anywhere. Can you lead us into that process a bit, how you knew when it was the end?
SKI: The book began as my MFA thesis in 1992, and I graduated in 1994, almost 30 years ago. It was a fiction project, comprised of little vignettes, titled Filling in the Blanks. I used it as a way of trying to deal with unanswered questions, the so many unknowns. I think it was a precursor to what some now call «speculative memoir. » (I wish I had been aware of this genre when I was working on my memoir !) Eventually it morphed into a novel, of which I wrote 2-3 drafts.
Then I developed a solo performance show called The Ice Cream Gene, and I performed it around the country. I went from page to stage, and then at some point began thinking about bringing it back from stage to page, which is when I began the memoir manuscript. Writing it as memoir was a terrifying prospect, but the more I thought about it, the more I knew this was the ultimate form for this story. I had spent so much time seeking the truth about my origins, to then tell it as fiction seemed wrong. I pitched it to Joy Castro, who was just beginning Machete Press, an imprint of the Ohio State University, and she was interested. I then worked on the manuscript for over 8 years with my editor there. They were so infinitely patient with me, and supportive. Things would happen in my life where I said, I have to include this, too, and they allowed me to do a million revisions. Finally in spring of 2023, we had a publishing date and there was no time to revise or change anymore. I knew it was the end because the arc felt as complete as it could be, and also because I ran out of time.
LL : When I finished reading, I sighed. It felt organic. The paper. The cranes. The flight. What can we let go when we find ourselves ?
SKI: I don’t know how to respond here, but I just sighed too. I will say that that final image was agonizing to find. I had a number of really cheesy endings that just did not feel satisfying to me. I was beyond my deadline, and I did not want to turn it in with an ending that did not feel good. And it happened totally organically. I had a pile of manuscript pages on my desk. I thought, what if I make a crane out of one of these? I was doing it as a kind of manual therapy to calm myself down, to try and center myself so that I could write the ending. And as soon as I finished folding, that was it. That was the ending.