What happens when you discover that the story of who you are and where you come from is completely different from the one you were told your entire life? That’s the explosive premise at the heart of Unearthing, the new memoir by Toronto writer Kyo Maclear – who, three months after the 2018 death of her father, celebrated foreign correspondent Michael Maclear, received the results of a DNA test showing he wasn’t her biological parent.
Maclear, the author of multiple children’s books, two novels and the Trillium Book Award-winning memoir Birds Art Life, found herself excavating not only her own history, but also that of her mother Yoko (Mariko) Koide – and the roots of their complicated relationship.
The result is a deeply thoughtful meditation on secrets and stories, race and lineage, grief and grace – all told through the narrative of the common language Maclear and her mother, aging and losing her memory, landed on: tending to a shared garden.
As Maclear presses her reluctant mother for answers to the questions that have blown her life wide open, she comes to realize that amid the muddled memories and half-truths also lie lessons in what it takes for new things to grow – patience, pragmatism and a willingness to accept beauty (whether in flowers and plants or the ineffable bonds of family) in all its wild, unruly forms.
How did you land on the non-linear, poetic way of framing what is a very complex narrative?
I decided to structure the book through the passage of seasons and in increments, partly because the way the information was arriving was in these tiny little parcels. We often think of seasons as large, changing blocks of time, but I was more interested in looking at gradients, and how the landscape and scenery was changing in this minuscule way.
In some ways, I created a parallel between the story of my mother and the story of the ambient natural world that I didn’t always pay much attention to but was always the backdrop to everything that was going on in my life. Once you start to think about plants and gardens, you realize that all these things that you underestimated as passive are actually very active agents in the world.
The structure also felt a bit like a garden itself, in the sense that there’s a messiness to it – there’s an attempt to reshape things, but then they fall apart again – it’s just a constant process.
In trying to unravel the mystery of your own family background, what did the idea of kinship come to mean to you?
A close writer friend of mine recently called Unearthing the ultimate “bait-and-switch” – a DNA surprise story that becomes a book about kinship beyond biology and ancestry beyond heredity.
What I hope to convey is that it’s okay to have your coastlines expanded and dissolved. It’s okay to have an identity crisis and grow and change shape – as individuals, families, countries. The conservative, fence-driven logic we are seeing around the world shows what happens when identity hardens and constricts. Xenophobia, anti-migration, fascism – these are all kin-driven patterns. I hope readers are reminded that permeability is a strength, not a weakness.
Many of the people I’ve known in my lifetime have been those who’ve shown me that there are infinite ways of making family. I had to realize actually that’s where my heart is – I don’t really need to redefine myself in relation to a new family.
How did you approach telling a thorny story that wasn’t just your own, but involved many others close to you?
I was very careful in honouring the complexity of people – I didn’t want anything to feel like I was settling scores. I wanted to uplift everyone’s humanity and try to understand why the secret was kept the way it was kept. And one thing I really tried to do was create a context for the story, which is to show that it came out of a social environment, responding to the conventions of the time.
I revealed a set of facts some people once wanted hidden. I tried to do this with a sense of sensitivity rather than swagger. I left a lot out and tried to respect what was not mine to tell. But I also pushed back when I felt energies were being directed at concealment for no good reason – often out of old habits of secrecy and feelings of shame. I wanted to dislodge all of that not just for the sake of piecing together my own story, but to clear the clogged passageways of my family.
What did trying to understand your mother’s history – especially how she was seen and treated under the white, patriarchal gaze as an Asian immigrant woman – tell you about your own experience as someone from a mixed-race background?
I think that as people who are sensitive to language, we have to be a bit more brave about the way we say things. For example, when people talk about interracial marriages, they’ll say things like “cultures bumping up against each other,” as if they were bumper cars or something. When really, I see that in my house there were these racial and gender lines that my mother was dealing with, especially in the time that she moved to Canada in the seventies.
I was thinking about Everything Everywhere All at Once, and I realized that my mother was always kind of wanting an altered version of me, like in the way [the film’s protagonist] Evelyn and her daughter are always misreading each other. We all have these different sliding-door scenarios – and I think that’s compounded when you have a child and you’ve lost some of your previous life’s worlds.
What do you think your mother would take away from the book?
I think she would get a kick out of the way she wins – because I kind of surrender. There is this expectation in memoir that you go through a difficult experience and then you have this epiphany, right? But I didn’t have it – it wasn’t possible to have that for lots of reasons. But in the end, there’s no reckoning and I surrender – that may sound negative, but it was a kind of release; a letting-go. And that had a lot to do with the fact that my mother also had to let go of so many memories. But I think of her as the Houdini of my storytelling – anytime I tried to box her in, she’d escape.
This interview has been edited and condensed.