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October 21, 2022

Somewhere Sisters by Erika Hayasaki ~ a Review

by MK French

In 1998, biological twins were born to a mother in Vietnam who struggled to care for them. Hà was taken in by their biological aunt and grew up in a rural village. She attended the local school, played outside, didn’t always have electricity and her home was subject to frequent monsoons. Loan was in an orphanage before a wealthy, white American family adopted her and renamed her Isabella. Isabella grew up in Chicago, with her nonbiological sister, Olivia, also adopted from Vietnam. Isabella and Olivia attended Catholic school, played soccer, and prepared for college. When Isabella’s mother discovered there was a biological twin in Vietnam, it opened up a new world for both of them.

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book cover of nonfiction book Somewhere Sisters by Erika Hayasaki
October 2022; Algonquin Books; 978-1616209124
audio, ebook, print (320 pages); nonfiction

Erika Hayasaki interviewed the birth and adoptive families of both twins and delved into their ideas about adoption and what constitutes a good life. She also discusses twin studies and the nature vs. nurture debate. Isabella and Hà have the same genetic blueprint but vastly different environments they were raised in, while Isabella and Olivia share no genes at all but had shared environments they were raised in. This alone would have been a fascinating enough hook for a story, but as we learn in the prologue, Erika had twin boys of her own, is of mixed Japanese heritage, and had strangers assume she was adopted while growing up. These similarities opened up the opportunity for a story, which soon became complicated after the three young women met in 2018. The pandemic and anti-Asian hate that came afterward were also difficult to navigate as well as the new meaning of family.

My heart went out to the twins' biological mother; born to an orphan herself, Liên had bodily deformities, no job, no social supports, and couldn’t read or write. She did the best she could, though one of the twins was sick and close to death, and wouldn’t be accepted into the orphanage. Hà survived her illness and was taken in by Liên’s sister and her partner. She never knew what it meant to be rich or poor, and her aunts brought her to Nha Trang’s orphanage too late to find Loan. By that time, she was in the United States and already living as Isabella. Vietnamese usually send children to orphanages as a last resort or pseudo-foster home, as extended family generally take care of children that parents otherwise can’t care for.

Adopting Vietnamese children, which had begun in the war era of the 1960s, was always fraught with racial and political tensions, as well as a poor understanding of the base culture the children would have been raised in. Erika not only interviewed the girls, but the biological mother, biological aunts, and presented their stories as well, so we understand exactly the kind of life they all lived, and the varieties of privilege that existed in Vietnam, separate from the opportunities given to Loan in her adoption.

While I was aware that twin studies existed, I wasn’t aware that the one who developed it in the 1800s also thought selective breeding of people and eugenics was a good idea. This theory shaped adoption in the United States at that time period, which I also hadn’t known, as well as the closed adoption system beginning in the 1930s. Closed adoptions means no background is given on children, and this system led to many adoption studies looking at the nature vs. nurture question. This question was further debated in the 1950s when there were more eugenics debates despite the influence that had over WWII, as well as the new study of behaviorism. The chapter outlining this was fascinating, as well as its juxtaposition between the early lives of the twin girls. We also get some history into transracial adoption, miscegenation laws, and even the potential of illegal baby brokers. Adoption is expensive, and this book really breaks down how it can be for some families, and why adoption isn’t always the answer.

Most adoption stories focus on adoptees or their families, and this one interviews not only the girls but their biological and adoptive families as well. We get their histories, their feelings on the adoption and the differences in their families, and the fears they had. Their families aren’t just bloodlines, but the people that raised them and loved them, helped shape the adults they grew into. I’m at that time in my life where such topics as family and community hit me hard, so this was an especially poignant book to read.

Buy Somewhere Sisters at Amazon

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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