Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related. (McClelland & Stewart, 2019) is, in concept, a dream come true. A story told through patchwork vignettes and unsent notes to her unni—her older sister—the book follows Jenny Heijun Wills as she makes contact with her South Korean birth family. Her parents, who lost touch after her birth, fall back in love. Wills even learns what she could never let herself wish: she was taken against her mother’s will. “You wanted me.”
“Unni,” she writes, “we have the same hands.”
But reunion also means finding people in the place of old pain. “Because of you,” she yells at a father “who wanted absolution,” “we cannot speak. We have nothing.” (“The social worker refused to translate.”) It means running up against the limits of people who are rigid as people are—and who are just as mortal. When her father is dying, she is forced into begrudging peace. “I wanted my father to look at me, but he seemed happy just to have me next to him…as if it was any old day.”
“Did you forgive him as he was dying, unni? Should I forgive him as well?”
The contact also makes apparent the damage done to Wills in the meantime. The sexual violence, food disorders, the racism in her Canadian town and family. How her Korean name was made to be a joke. How she arrived in Canada already saying ummah—mommy—which her adoptive parents thought was “meaningless baby babble.” Staying in a guest house for returning adoptees on her first trip to Seoul, Wills also witnesses how her pain is part of a much larger trend: a “decades long program of international adoption that began in 1953, one that…spread devastation across generations of people.”
Her final request to her father is that he write her a letter—“I suppose I wanted him to do something for me that was difficult”—but he doesn’t. Her mother writes instead, in sentences with a cadence similar to Wills’s own: undulating commalessly, then hopping in staccato, jamming themselves into frustrated density. Which could be Wills’s interpretive addition, or a precious shared trait like a sister’s hands.
Jenny Heijun Wills writes to her unni, a woman she meets only a couple of times, as a way of wrapping her people around her, tight. Because, suddenly, she has people—people she never knew to think existed, whom she can “whisper stories to…into the sky,” some of whom will even respond, in their own broken way.