Journalist and scholar Erika Hayasaki has long been telling the stories of others, and this month on October 17, she will come to Seattle to speak at Town Hall about her new book, Somewhere Sisters: A Story of Adoption, Identity, and the Meaning of Family.
Somewhere Sisters focuses on twin girls born in 1998 to an impoverished mother in Vietnam. In infancy, their lives soon diverge, as Hà is taken to live with her biological aunt in a rural Vietnamese village, while Loan is sent to an orphanage, where she is adopted by a wealthy white couple living near Chicago and undergoes a name change to Isabella.
Later, Isabella’s adoptive mother Keely Solimene learns of Hà, and searches for her until she is able to find and integrate her into Isabella’s life in America. Hayasaki shares extensive interviews with the family members to highlight the challenges and prejudices associated with transracial and transnational adoption.
Yet, Somewhere Sisters didn’t start as a book about adoption. “It started as a bookabout twins who lived in different parts of the world and were reunited,” Hayasaki recounted.
The project soon became a great learning process. “There was so much that I didn’t know about adoption really and twins,” Hayasaki said. “And I was so fortunate to speak with so many adoptees for this project and to really engage in a long history of critical research, critical adoption studies, and scholarship and literature and activism around adoption.”
As a University of Michigan Knight-Wallace reporting fellow with plan to study hate crimes and police brutality in the lives of Black and Asian Americans, Hayasaki is no stranger to challenging stories. “I spent time in Mississippi writing about the history of mixed-race children and families and couples who lived in Mississippi in this one particular town back in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” she described. “And these families were Chinese men, laborers who had come to Mississippi and worked, and they married Black women because of Chinese exclusion laws.”
Hayasaki was able to trace the lineage of one particular family back for generations. “I found all of these different family members who are alive today, who are descendants from one man and one woman from the 1800s who fell in love and had children,” she said. “So I’m telling the story of all of these different descendants and the questions they have about their heritage today, and also putting that in the context of where we are today.”
Finding the connection between history and the current day is something that goes back to Hayasaki’s childhood, when she wrote a book report on the bombing of Hiroshima during World War II. “I remember picking up the book Hiroshima by John Hersey, which is a narrative nonfiction book that started as a New Yorker story took up an entire issue of The New Yorker,” she recalled. “And I never knew that I would do narrative journalism, but I never forgot the stories in that book. It was incredibly powerful writing, and also something that connected me to my culture and my history.”
Hayasaki grew up in the Midwest as one of only a few Asian Americans in town. “I was teased and taunted and called a lot of racial slurs,” she remembered. “And because of that, I turned to writing to cope, and my first stories that I ever wrote were about racism and how I was so confused and didn’t understand it.”
In high school, her parents divorced and she moved to Lynnwood, Washington, and ultimately joined the school newspaper, where she again wrote about local racial issues.
“I realized after writing some of these stories and getting a reaction, that this was really a way to reach people to speak to people,” she said. “I ended up getting a scholarship to go to that urban newspaper workshop with the Seattle Times.”
One of Hayasaki’s first internships was right in these pages at the International Examiner. “I remember going there during the day in the summers,” she said. “I would take photos, I would copy edit, and sometimes they let me write stories. I still have some of them.”
Later, as a national correspondent for The LA Times, living in New York, Hayasaki reached out to nurse Norma Bowe, who taught a class on death at a college in New Jersey – and that initial article turned into Hayasaki’s first book, The Death Class: A True Story About Life. “She explored death in this way that made it less scary,” Hayasaki said, “and she explored it from different facets like psychology and history, and going into community areas to discuss openly these questions that people have.”
Hayasaki was drawn to Bowe and her course topic because her journalism work covered a wide range of human trauma. “My first experience covering trauma was when I was in high school back at Lynnwood high school,” Hayasaki shared, “and my good friend was murdered by her boyfriend who was abusive, on the day of the Oklahoma City bombings.”
To this day, Hayasaki keeps in touch with Bowe. “She still continues to teach the Death Class,” she said. “So she’s still doing her work, and is still very passionate about it.”
After years of the fast pace of international reporting, Hayasaki was burned out, and she turned to academia at the University of California, Irvine. “Journalism came up in this program called Literary Journalism,” she said, “which teaches, coincidentally, the book Hiroshima by John Hersey, which is the book that I read when I was thirteen and felt so compelled by.”
Hayasaki knew it was time for a new challenge. “We teach long form narrative writing and magazine storytelling,” she said, “and the kinds of stories that we read in nonfiction books.”
Over time, Hayasaki learned how to teach others what she practiced. “I always say on the first day that you're going to see a story that somebody else next to you might not see and that's because you bring your experiences and your values and your lifestyle and all that you are to the story ideas that you find,” she said. “And that’s what’s going to make you unique and stand out as a writer.”
Seattle is one of only a few stops that Hayasaki plans to make before returning to explore her identity as a mixed-race woman. “I’m always happy to hear from people if they have questions around the writing life, because it sometimes seems like kind of a mystery,” she acknowledged. “How do you do this kind of writing or nonfiction work?
And I do try to demystify that for people as much as I can.”
Erika Hayasaki speaks on October 17 at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Avenue, Seattle.