Interview by Michèle Dawson Haber

cover of unearthing by kyo maclear, yellow background with watercolor flowers, including roots showingKyo Maclear is the only child of her Japanese mother and British Canadian father. Or that’s what she understood about herself for the first 49 years of her life. But when she takes a DNA test to learn more about her father’s ancestry, she learns that her paternal lineage is Jewish, not Irish-Scottish. In an instant, her family narrative deflates.

In Unearthing: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets (Knopf; April 2023) Kyo writes about setting out to learn the truth of her origins and reconstruct her story. Dogged in her drive to unearth all there is to know and expose the roots of decades-old secrets, Kyo digs deep but can get only so far. She needs her mother to tell her the rest, but her mother is evasive and forgetful. She learns to approach her mother through the gentle, ambient language of plants, and manages to uncover more, but not all of the story.

Swinging between determination and surrender, Kyo explores alternative understandings of family, kinship, and human connection. Unearthing challenges the reader to consider a different way of looking and listening in our world—one that embraces wild, borderless uncertainty and recognizes that beauty and understanding also exist in between the gaps.

Part detective story and part meditation on late-blooming love and acceptance between a mother and daughter, Kyo’s memoir is a brilliant combination of propulsive storytelling, lyricism, and philosophical inquiry. Unearthing has garnered wide-spread acclaim and won numerous awards, including the Governor General’s award for non-fiction, one of Canada’s top literary prizes.

It was such a pleasure losing myself in this book; as I highlighted passage after passage, I wished I could talk with Kyo about everything! Our engaging and wide-ranging conversation occurred a month after the March release of the UK edition of Unearthing. What follows offers a peek into just some of the many thematic layers in this thoughtful and elegant memoir.


kyo maclear author

Michèle Dawson Haber: Unearthing begins with the death of your beloved father and your subsequent urge to unearth his ancestry, eventually leading to the DNA test that, to paraphrase, would throw you clean from the seat of your story. You become a sleuth, investigating your origins both before and after the shocking DNA surprise. What do you think it is about the death of a parent that ignites such a powerful need to know more about them? 

Kyo Maclear: I think that there’s a sense that you’ve reached the end of a conversation with that deceased parent. So, you look for all the threads that seem to be loose still. You look for questions you had over the course of your relationship, and oddly, they become more urgent even though the person who could answer those questions is no longer around. Maybe you also realize that you’re the only person carrying a story forward, and so now you’re the one inheriting these memories. I think the places where there are gaps of knowledge have a kind of certain electrical charge to them, and you suddenly need to delve into them. I also think it’s a grief response; we want to touch the person who’s left in a way, and so touching the spaces in memory and in story allows us to get closer to them.

MDH: That’s beautiful and makes so much sense. You also write that you had a desire to trace within your family the “epigenetic sadness but also our epigenetic joy and strength.” Could you tell me more about this?

KM: We do tend to carry certain stories forward, almost like they’re encoded in our DNA. In my own case, I was very interested in certain depressive tendencies within my family. My father was a war reporter for the CBC. He’d seen the worst of human relationships and didn’t shy away from difficulty. At the same time, his tendency in thinking about the world was that difficulty was always lurking around the corner. I was really interested in the story of my father’s mother—there had always been a kind of cordon around her, and I knew I couldn’t speak about her in my father’s presence because it was deeply upsetting and triggering for him. So that’s why I did the DNA test because I really wanted to walk through that minefield a little bit and figure out who my grandmother was.

MDH: When you first discovered that the father who raised you was not your birth father, how did this impact your sense of self? Did you feel any less secure in your identity?

KM: I don’t think that I felt any less secure in my identity. I think if I had been younger and discovered this, it would have been a different matter. What changed was my relationship to truth and my relationship to what I would call a sense of trust in the world. Suddenly the bottom fell out of my story, and it was this weird feeling of freefall—I didn’t know where the floor was anymore. And so for a while, I just felt this need to kind of put my eyes level to everyone, to know if they were hiding something from me. I think it is fairly predictable that anyone who experiences a sudden shift in biography might suddenly have questions about everything.

MDH: Although the story starts out with the mystery of your father, at some point your quest became less about your father(s) and more about your mother. Was this an evolution that emerged in the writing of the story?

KM: It definitely became more of a story about my mother and our relationship. My father was a larger-than-life protagonist. He was well regarded professionally, he was globe-trotting, he was a mover and shaker, and he was the storyteller within the family. Partly because of the times and our sense of who the sovereign hero is in stories, my mother receded into the background like somebody playing a supporting role in our family’s story. It’s so layered and complicated, and I regret that I didn’t see her as a true protagonist for so long. When I discovered this secret, I realized that my mother had a very large story to tell, and so that really shifted the ground of our relationship. I started to see her in a different light.

MDH: Access to direct-to-consumer DNA test kits has resulted in so many NPE (“not parent expected”) discoveries. For adult children trying to take in a sudden shift in their personal narrative, the pull of wanting to know everything is often packaged with bewilderment over the mother’s secrecy. Your mother eventually admits some facts but withholds others. Throughout the book you struggle with the opposing values of respecting someone’s privacy and the necessity of exposing secrets. Did you find a point between these two values that made you comfortable and allowed you to tell your story? 

KM: That was a struggle—figuring out what to disclose and what to withhold on my own part as a narrator but also on my mother’s part. It involves finding that sweet spot between intimacy and ethics, especially when we’re writing memoir and telling other people’s stories. I had this feeling that I was clearing ancestral lines or unclogging all these pipelines within our family that had been jammed with secrets. All this really impeded my relationship with my mother—it might have been subliminal on her part but her relationship with me maternally was somewhat ambivalent at certain points, and I can’t but think that part of that had to do with the fact that she had this big secret.

And so, I really wanted to get to the root of it, I wanted to claim all that was difficult between us. I also realized that some secrets were born of an era where there were fierce taboos and a lot of shame around infidelity. We live in a different time now and I’m old enough to deal with the implications of the secret, and so, I felt like those things I could share. But at the same time, there were certain things about the story that were my mother’s. She was obviously withholding for various reasons, and at a certain point I just realized that I wasn’t going to figure out everything and maybe I didn’t need to know everything.

Maybe this impulse wasn’t healthy on a certain level and wasn’t actually mine. Maybe I had just inherited this notion of narrative completion, that I needed to know all the facts in order to be complete. At a certain point, I just let go of that and that helped me a lot. It also softened my relationship with my mother, which had been very interrogative.

MDH: I really loved learning about the Japanese concept of ma. What did you come to understand about this concept and how did it influence your unfolding narrative?

KM: The concept of ma is really beautiful to me. It comes out of Japanese aesthetics, but also philosophy and is the idea that we can’t entirely know everything, and that in moments of silence within narrative are these gaps of non-action. Also, in the gaps between people—intimacy isn’t always about overlapping yourself with someone else and extracting everything you can from them. Sometimes what gets us closer to people is respecting these gaps between us. It seems almost counterintuitive to think that we can get to know someone better by not knowing everything. Often in my life the moments when my relationships stumbled were when I’ve assumed too much and when I think I have an idea of who a person is and try to transpose that idea on to who they actually are. I think that just allowing someone to declare who they are on their own terms and allowing them to be silent at times is something we should all strive for.

MDH: After establishing a friendly email connection with your overseas half-brothers, you wrestle with whether to travel to meet them in person. You write, “…sensing hesitation, an internal voice said: “Let it go.” I did not want genetic duty to be the binder…Separated by oceans, I swallowed my neediness and allowed my brothers to remain airy and abstract, swinging between the belief that this family mattered and that it didn’t matter at all.” Did you resolve this in the end? Does your biological family matter?

KM: I feel like I haven’t resolved that. In certain ways my life is complete, and I’m really happy to know I have these half-brothers, who I still haven’t met. I could say, intellectually, that they’re minor figures in my life, especially because they came into my life so late and we don’t have a history together. But there’s something there. Recently my younger brother was quite ill and was hospitalized and I was really worried about him. I felt connected to him in a very deep way. I felt this pang, like, what if something happens to him and I don’t get the chance to meet him? I realized then that it actually does matter at some level, and I do need to meet them.

MDH: I’m curious about your process when you’re thinking about writing a new book. Does it simmer for a while in your mind before you start to write? When did you know this story would be written?

 KM: I think that there’s a lot of simmering that happens. I don’t write in a linear fashion. I just really need to be steeped in it. I’m constantly taking notes, and often they seem unrelated. The story will build through a process and things get constellated—like little thoughts in a night sky, they become a formation. Like any writer, writing is a way to make sense of the world. I was taking notes as all of this was happening in part just to keep things clear in my mind, because there was so much information coming in in small parcels. This is also partly why the book is structured the way it is, with these bursts of prose because things were happening in a very fragmented way.

There was a moment when the story of my life capsized, and I had to rebuild it from the ground up, as an act of narrative repair. For me, the only way to do that was through story—to build a new scaffolding and build my questions into that structure. I don’t know what I would have done had I not been a writer, I think emotionally it would have been a much more difficult process. There is also something to be said for turning a story into an artifact as a way of externalizing difficult events and feelings. Creating an aesthetic literary container can hold things in a really beautiful and healing way.

 DH: Before reading your book, I wouldn’t have thought about gardening and exploring family and kinship at the same time—but I’m sold! Now, it seems so obvious and natural (pun intended). As you say in your Afterword, “metaphor is a way of making family out of seemingly unrelated things.” Could you comment from a craft perspective on how the melding of these ideas came about? Did you think to yourself, I need a container for this story, or did it emerge more organically?

KM: My mother was a gardener. I realized that in order to speak to her we couldn’t sit across the table from each other and have a conversation. She was very recalcitrant and suspicious. She’d say, “Why are you asking me so many questions?” Also, my mother’s first language isn’t English, and I can’t carry on a full conversation in Japanese. So, at a certain point, we took our conversation outside, and we started to garden together. We were shoulder to shoulder as opposed to face to face, and certain conversations began to happen.

There were digressive conversations, often off point, and I had to learn patience and surrender to what was happening in any given moment. I had to accept whatever information she might share or not share, which is different from a storyteller mindset, which is all about control. I always thought it was necessary to get to a subject matter frontally, partly because I’m a reporter’s daughter. But the garden taught me that sometimes we have to settle in and learn just through sitting around our subject and observing them almost ambiently, and sometimes things just have to stay buried.

MDH: Many authors of memoirs about family undertake a lot of research to place their stories in context, but you have taken this one step further, bringing your research into the foreground and including it as part of your narrative. Can you tell me how you came to this craft decision?

KM: In the book I explore the idea of kinship, and I think it has many different versions. One that I wanted to introduce was my sense of literary kinship—the people I feel have been kindred to me intellectually or in a literary way. I have relied on books throughout my life as a kind of ballast, partly because I’m an only child and I turned to books as siblings. So, I’m very transparent about the fact that I lean on other people for help when I’m trying to think through something, and I cite a lot of people in the book. I really think of them as kind of the lineage of this book and so why not name them.

MDH: Your book has such an energetic and engaging plot—a secret is revealed, you want to know more, you find out stuff, but your questions keep coming and you can’t get all the answers. Ultimately, there is no clear resolve, no closure, but you find a way in your last gorgeous chapter. How worried were you during the writing about the absence of resolution? Is this where nature and narrative diverge? We can, if we wish, just let nature be—but can we do this as storytellers?

 KM: I’ve never had a problem with that as a reader; I feel like it’s truer to life. Especially when I read life writing I know that it’s just a moment of capture, as if somebody’s made a truce with time and decided that the story is going to end now. So, when I read a book that’s tidy at the end and everything feels resolved, it feels like a bit of a lie. In memoir readers often expect an ameliorative arc or an epiphany moment, and I tried to push against that a little bit. I do think maybe I’ve left a tone of serenity at the end, which was true, but also not completely true. I decided that was the most important tone to leave the reader with because anything else would be too complicated. That was a narrative decision that I had to make.

MDH: There is so much doom and gloom in publishing these days and it seems many in the industry are saying, “memoir doesn’t sell… unless you’re a celebrity.” As someone who has found a lot of success with two memoirs, what’s your advice for aspiring, non-celebrity memoirists who have a story they can’t fathom letting go of?

KM: I think to be held and claimed by a story is a beautiful space to be in. The only advice I would give is to quiet the noise of the publishing world and the naysayers and just do your best to serve the story. Because a lot of the currents, trends, and voices will shift and change. They might be saying something different in two years and it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you’re serving your story.

Also, I would say don’t be impatient. My students sometimes rush at the end. They’ve been working on something for so long and poured their heart and soul into it, and then they rush. Don’t do it. Books disappear because people haven’t spent that extra time at the very end. So just be precious about that last bit of time.

Meet the Contributor

Headshot of writer Michele Dawson HuberMichèle Dawson Haber is a Canadian writer, potter, and union advocate. She lives in Toronto and is working on a memoir about family secrets, identity, and step adoption. Her writing has appeared in Manifest Station, Oldster magazine, The Brevity Blog, Salon.com, and in the Modern Love column of The New York Times. You can find her at www.micheledhaber.com.

The post INTERVIEW: Kyo Maclear author of Unearthing: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets first appeared on Hippocampus Magazine.

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