I Would Meet You Anywhere
by Susan Kiyo Ito
Mad Creek Books, 2023
Reviewed by Alice Stephens
The reunion of an adoptee and her biological mother is often the happily-ever-after ending of books about adoption. But as anyone who has been part of a birth family reunion knows, reunion is never the end of a story. Though the search for family may be over, a long, hard road still awaits, with no map, no rules, and no final destination. It is this rugged, emotional journey that Susan Kiyo Ito depicts in her beautiful memoir, I Would Meet You Anywhere.
Told in three parts, the book begins as Susan arrives at a Holiday Inn in a strange, snowy city to meet her biological mother, Yumiko. That awkward, initial meeting is recounted in a suspense-filled, minute-by-minute description that frames Part 1, with Yumiko retreating back two steps for every step forward by Susan.
Susan was adopted as an infant by a Japanese American couple who live in New Jersey. Due to her mixed-race appearance, it’s obvious that she is not her parents’ natural daughter. Called “hanbun-hanbun,” which means half-half in Japanese, or even sometimes a “mutt” by her mother, Susan was curious to know about her birthmother from an early age. In junior high school, she scours the card catalog of her library and discovers the book The Search for Anna Fisher by Florence Fisher, the founder of the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA), which rouses her curiosity about what it means to be an adopted person. However, she has to wait until she is 18 before she can attend ALMA meetings in New York City. There, she finds her people—other adoptees—and the courage to look for her origins.
There are many obstacles in Susan’s way, including an altered birth certificate and closed records. But adoption makes a detective of Susan, who engages in research and subterfuge to track down the identity of her birthmother.
At first, Susan is unsure how to broach the subject of her search to her adoptive parents, eventually telling them as a writer would, through a letter. To her relief, and in testament to her adoptive parents, they are in complete support of her search. Others are too, and with the help of friends, Susan finds her mother when she is 20 years old.
The next section of the book tells of the aftermath of that initial reunion, unfolding over decades with many ups and downs. Life doesn’t stop between the brief, occasional mother-daughter encounters, and Ito tells of the challenging physical therapy program at Albert Einstein College, romantic relationships and her own reproductive choices, maintaining a loving relationship with her adoptive parents, reconciling with her Japanese heritage, and wondering about her paternal side. Yumiko is unwilling to reveal who Susan’s biological father is, and is also cagey about letting the rest of her family know about Susan, often denying to others that a familial relationship exists between them. There is a constant balancing act as Susan asks for more than Yumiko is willing to give her. When Yumiko thinks Susan has overstepped her bounds, she falls out of contact, but somehow, the relationship survives.
The third part begins with the death of Susan’s adoptive father. With that loss, Susan becomes determined to find her genetic father. Through DNA and the sleuthing of a genealogist friend, she finds his family. Though he had passed away recently, she is welcomed into the family, and for the first time sees an image of him. “An electrical jolt went through my body. My father. I was seeing the man whose genes had created me, only a few years after it had happened…My family tree, bare for so long, began bursting with leafy green hints as the branches expanded and grew.”
Though the memoir spans decades, each chapter is told with a freshness and immediacy that conveys the high stakes not just for Susan, but for Yumiko, and everyone whose lives are intertwined with theirs. In intimate, accessible language, Ito plumbs the depths of her own vulnerability, baring her heart. While the story is an unreliable one of secrets and repressed history, the reader nevertheless feels the profound reliability, and decency, of the narrator. Eschewing self-pity or sentimentality, Ito tells a complicated story of divided allegiances, heartbreaking rejection, connections made and connections severed, and perseverance in finding out the answers to her origins. The book, written over three decades, is itself a testament to perseverance, a crucial trait for the adoptee who strives for answers to her own story.
As Ito writes in the preface, “I was never supposed to tell this story. It is challenging to write, and publicly share, a story which holds a secret at its core. I have been that secret my whole life. I have also been writing about it for more than three decades. This book represents an excruciating tug of war between my own wanting to know and wanting to tell, against the forces of that secret.” It takes a lot of courage to tell the secrets of others, but as a person whose very life is shaped by those secrets, no one has more of a right to tell that story.
Adoptees are underrepresented in adoption literature, which is dominated by adoptive parents and non-adopted people looking to capitalize on a story as old as Moses and Oedipus Rex. Ito’s memoir joins the growing canon of adoptee memoirs that eloquently and unyieldingly tell the true story of what it means to be adopted.
With her debut, Susan Ito has written a profound book on identity and belonging. Wherever her next book might take her, I will meet her there.