Interview: Susan Kiyo Ito
I first met Susan Kiyo Ito over Twitter, where she is an active and popular voice in both the adoptee and writing communities. As an author who writes about my experience as a half-Korean adoptee, I found Susan to be the rare unicorn who hits my sweet spot: a mixed-race Asian adoptee writer and community builder, graciously outspoken in her beliefs while generous with encouragement and validation. I was thrilled when Mad Creek Books of The Ohio State University Press published her memoir, I Would Meet You Anywhere (now a finalist in autobiography for the National Book Critics Circle!), in November 2023, for while there are many excellent adoptee memoirs out there, literature about adoption is dominated by adoptive parents and nonauthentic narratives that focus relentlessly on saviorism, mawkish sentimentality, and happily-ever-after endings. Susan’s memoir has earned an immediate place in the adoptee-memoir canon, with its deep exploration of the in-between spaces that adoptees and mixed-race people inhabit and the lifelong struggle for belonging in the very places we call home. Through the story of finding her birth mother and the aftermath, Susan reveals essential truths about identity, motherhood, family, and resilience.
Alice Stephens: Susan, thank you so much for your beautiful, necessary debut, I Would Meet You Anywhere, a memoir of being domestically adopted by a Japanese-American couple living in New Jersey, and your journey to finding and building a relationship with your birth mother. Though the events span decades, every chapter is immediate and fresh, as if you had just lived through them. Did you write the memoir over decades? When did you know you had a book?
Susan Kiyo Ito: I’m glad it feels fresh! Because I did write it over decades. Some of the pieces were written ten or twenty years ago, and I tried to revise those sections with my current perspective, which has developed over time. I worried that the narrative might feel uneven because I truly wrote it over a thirty-year span. A few little pieces even started out as poems! I think I was always hoping it would be a book. I started it as my MFA thesis in 1994, but it was a collection of short fictional vignettes at the time. Obviously, it’s gone through a lot of changes since then. It would be another fifteen or twenty years before I realized I wanted it to be a memoir, that I wanted to tell it as my own truth.
AS: As an adoptee, I welcome your honest, lived-experience depiction of adoption in all of its nuances and complications. As a writer, I know that publishing—and indeed society in general—prefers heartwarming, sentimental adoption narratives with shiny-bow endings. What was the journey to publication for this book?
SKI: I think there are plenty of heartwarming moments in the book, but I always say that adoption is complicated. There is never a shiny-bow ending, and in fact, the story has continued even past the end of the book. It keeps going!
I was very fortunate when it came to the publication of this book. I have long been a fan of Joy Castro, who was a contributor to my anthology, A Ghost at Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption, and her own adoptee memoir, The Truth Book, which had a big impact on me. She announced on social media that she was starting an imprint called Machete Press through The Ohio State University Press. I submitted a proposal and sample chapters right away, and met with the editor, Kristen Elias Rowley, at AWP in around 2015. Since then, it has been a long communication of back-and-forths, with many revisions. There was a big question: Is this a collection of essays, or a memoir? I had to cut down my kitchen-sink manuscript from 110,000 to 65,000 words. There were months, years even, when I felt like I did not have the courage or skill to pull it off. But through it all, these editors kept expressing their belief in the story, and their commitment to it, no matter how long it took. I passed many, many deadlines, but finally, last year, I had a manuscript that I felt good about, and I finally had a publication date! This is not something that would happen with a “Big 5” publisher, and I am incredibly grateful for the care, patience, and support my publishing team has given me.
AS: Though you grew up in a predominantly white area, your family had close ties to a strong Japanese community in New York City, your parents’ hometown, where you sometimes felt out of place due to being only half-Japanese. What effect does being “hanbun-hanbun,” or in the “Half-n-Half Club,” or a “mutt” as your mother sometimes jokingly called you, have on you and your writing?
SKI: The book was originally going to be titled “Hanbun-Hanbun” but my editors felt like it did not truly represent the whole story, and that readers would not know what it meant. They were so right. But I feel as if this half-and-half existence has been ever-present during my whole life. And yet I feel different from many biracial people whose parents reflect their two sides. Being adopted by monoracial/monocultural parents, I did not feel this kind of reflection. I feel bicoastal, having grown up in New Jersey but now having lived in California even longer. Many aspects of my life feel split, as if I am straddling two worlds, and it is just a deeply held part of my identity. I can’t imagine it being otherwise, for better or worse.
AS: Both the title, I Would Meet You Anywhere, and the cover image of a kimono with a paper crane design, are perfect for your memoir. How did you choose them?
SKI: I have to give my writing group credit for the title. I was really agonizing over it until almost the very last minute, and they pulled it out of a piece of dialogue from the first chapter. As soon as they said it, I knew it was right on every level.
I was worried about the cover design, but the publisher’s graphic designer came up with it and I was beyond thrilled the moment I saw it. He got it from an image of an antique kimono in a museum exhibit. There are many crane moments and references throughout the book, so I felt like it was perfect. I am so happy with both the title and the cover.
AS: You have long been active in writing communities, you teach writing, and you are an outstanding literary citizen. In the book, you write about getting involved in the adoptee community at the precocious age of nineteen, when most adoptees are still deep in denial, as I was. What is the importance for you of both your writing and adoptee communities?
SKI: I can’t imagine being without my adoptee and writing communities. As I wrote about in the book, I began attending Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA) meetings at nineteen. ALMA was founded by adoptee Florence Fisher in 1973, but when I read her memoir, The Search for Anna Fisher, and first contacted her at the age of thirteen (!), they said I had to wait until I was eighteen to join the organization. I learned that Florence Fisher passed away earlier this month, and I celebrate the incredible activist that she was. She placed an ad in a New York paper saying, “Adopted people seeking others,” and really started one of the first organized communities of adoptees. I will always be grateful to her. Since then, I have sought out adoptee communities my whole life, and have been part of countless groups. They have all been nurturing to me.
Likewise, I love being in the company of other writers. It is a very special group of people that thinks deeply, that loves language, and lives for storytelling. I began taking writing classes when I was in college and met my best friend in one of them. Later, I got an MFA and deeply bonded with my cohort. Writers are the best, and well, adoptee writers, that’s an even more special subset of humans.
AS: How important was getting your MFA in your development as a writer? In publishing your book?
SKI: It was really important. At the time, I was working as a health professional (a physical therapist) and taking a number of writing classes on the side. Going through the MFA program shifted my identity from “I’m a physical therapist who likes to write” to “I’m a writer who does physical therapy too.” It was a massive internal shift. It also gave me an incredible writing community. I’m still very close with several writers from my cohort. Our professor, Elmaz Abinader, took a group of us to our first AWP writing conference and it was mind-blowing. Thousands of writers talking about literary things, the enormous book fair, all the independent presses—it was life-changing. I thought, I need to be a part of this. I later came back to that same MFA program as faculty, and the full circle moment of it was amazing. Being in that program gave me confidence, and it gave me community, which I believe ultimately led me to be able to finish and publish my book.
AS: As someone myself whose debut book came out well into middle age, I am interested in what advantages and disadvantages you have found in a later-in-life debut.
SKI: Of course, a huge disadvantage is losing hope and confidence. I truly believed it might never happen for me. I began to hate when (nonwriting) friends would ask, “How’s your book going?” when I was in the long desert of decades when it really wasn’t going anywhere. That was demoralizing. But now that I’m on the other side, I feel like the advantages are enormous. One, I really needed time for the whole arc of the story to emerge and to happen. When I began writing, I had no idea where it was going, and I needed to live it before I could make it into a cohesive narrative. Also, during these thirty years I have amassed an enormous community of adoptees, writers, and other friends who have all cheered this book to the finish line.
When I was fifty, I took on the immense challenge of training for an Olympic triathlon. I don’t know what possessed me. It was so hard. I was the third-to-last person to complete the course, after hundreds of others had gone home. But my training team and my family were there for me at the finish line, and we all cried when I crossed. I feel like this book is the same. It has taken me longer than I ever imagined, but my team has only grown since I began, and they are all here at the end.
AS: Publishing a memoir brings unique and intimidating challenges. Do you have any advice on how to navigate the complex terrain of memoirs?
SKI: I just let out a big sigh. Complex is right. I think the biggest takeaway is to have compassion for one’s own self, and for others as well. I don’t think this book was ever a “revenge” book, but there have been times when I have been very angry and hurt, and the long time that I took has given me many insights into all of the major players, leading to a deep compassion. Everyone has carried their own unique burdens in this story. I would also say (haha) to let it take as long as it takes. When I first finished my MFA thesis, if someone had said it would take another thirty years to publish, I would have been devastated. But now that it is happening, I do feel like the timing, the process, all of it has turned out the way it needed to.
SUSAN KIYO ITO is the author of the memoir, I Would Meet You Anywhere. She coedited the literary anthology A Ghost at Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption. Her work has appeared in The Writer, Growing Up Asian American, Choice, Hip Mama, Literary Mama, Catapult, Hyphen, The Bellevue Literary Review, Guernica, AGNI, and elsewhere. Her theatrical adaptation of Untold, stories of reproductive stigma, was produced at Brava Theater. She is a member of the Writers’ Grotto, and teaches at the Mills College campus of Northeastern University. She was a coorganizer of Rooted and Written, a writing workshop for writers of color. Find her @thesusanito on all social media platforms.
ALICE STEPHENS’s debut novel, Famous Adopted People, was published in 2018 by Unnamed Press. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Margins, The Korea Times, The Washington Post, and other publications, and has been anthologized in Volume IX of the DC Women’s Writers Grace & Gravity series, Furious Gravity (2020), and Writing the Virus (Outpost19, 2020). She is also a book reviewer, essayist, short story writer, cofacilitator of the Adoptee Voices Writing Group, cofounder of the Adoptee Literary Festival, and columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Find her on Instagram @alicestephensbooks.