Kyo Maclear, UNEARTHING: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets

Kyo Maclear, UNEARTHING: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets

Zibby talks with Kyo Maclear about her deeply personal memoir, Unearthing: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets. The narrative hinges on Maclear’s surprising DNA test results, prompting a journey of family discovery and introspection. Beyond the personal anecdotes, her writing draws parallels with nature and Japanese cultural nuances. Kyo also shares insights into her writing process and stresses the importance of diverse inspirations for aspiring writers!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kyo. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your absolutely beautiful memoir that made me cry called Unearthing: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets. This was really, really great.

Kyo Maclear: Thank you, Zibby. So nice to be here.

Zibby: Can you tell listeners a bit about what your book is about, how you structured it the way that you did, which was so interesting, just all the interesting things? Then we can dive deep into different parts.

Kyo: Absolutely. It’s kind of a hybrid memoir. I’ve heard it described as a detective story, a family memoir, a personal botanical history. Essentially, the story follows a journey that happened. It began in 2019 when I did a DNA test and discovered that my father, who had died just three months previously, wasn’t biologically related to me. We were really close, so this was a bit of a shocker. I actually had no suspicions whatsoever. I was doing the test for entirely different reasons. The book really traces the journey of what happened. I enlisted strangers to help me uncover what happened piece by piece. Part of what’s odd about the story is that it really is a mystery that could’ve been cracked by someone I see almost every day; namely, my mother. I don’t think that’s a big spoiler. She’s a really dynamic, charged, electrical character in my life. She’s somebody who’s both fascinated and vexed me my entire life. It follows that journey. It takes place over the course of a year or so. It’s structured around the seasons. It’s actually structured around what are called small seasons in Japanese. I really wanted to tell the story against a world that was constantly changing, in some ways, to evoke this sense that the climate was dramatically different during that period of time when I was unearthing this story, but also to get a sense of the landscape as a protagonist. One of the things I realized was that I kind of overlooked my mother in the story of my life. She wasn’t the big protagonist. I was really interested in other things that we underestimate in the world.

Zibby: So amazing. In your search at the beginning, which starts off for your father, it then delves deep into investigating all these things about your mom and her life and memories. What does memory mean? I can delete this, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to talk about her dementia. Is that okay to discuss?

Kyo: Big part of the story, yeah.

Zibby: Even as you write through that and deal with her memory fragments, it’s like we are with you trying to figure out what she’s telling the truth — whatever that is — about and what is fiction, what is lie. Then you are left to discover alongside her what you believe and what you don’t as a sort of found family. It was really beautiful and very original. Tell me a little bit about the style. One thing that you do throughout the book is you have a sentence that gets repeated at the beginning of many sections. Then you switch the sentence up to a different sentence, usually parts about your being a daughter and your relationship to your mother. You do it in such a poetic way in the repetition. Just tell me more about that. It probably has a name of literary device that I don’t know what it is or something.

Kyo: That’s a really good question. I write books for children, so I’m really interested in the idea of refrain and repetition and how that can kind of create this mesmerism for the reader. I think part of it was just, I was repeating the sentence because I was trying to reestablish a pattern to my life and finding grounding again. In some ways, it became almost like a mantra, repeating, I am the daughter of this parent. I am a daughter of this parent. They were changing, and so my whole view of daughterhood was changing. It was really a shifting sands feeling because both my parents, at different stages, developed dementia. So much of this book is about memory. I think we’re under the misapprehension that when we uncover stories, that they kind of arise almost like an archaeological dig. The memories come up intact. All we have to do is brush them off, and then they’re there. What I discovered, and I know this intuitively, is that our memories are always shifting anyway at the best of times. Then you encounter a person who you’re relying on to tell you a story who’s in the early stages of dementia. There’s no ground, literally. Everything’s constantly changing. Every time I’d have a version of the story, my mother would rewrite it or reject the version she’d said. It became really a lot about storytelling, in some ways, and the impossibility of it.

Zibby: That’s crazy. My dad, my brother, and I, recently, there was an almost accident we were in. All three of us have totally different memories of it, including who was driving the car. I’m like, how is this possible? What does this mean about the actual moment? If none of us remember it, and it did happen, but that just floated away, what is the truth, so to speak? Not that this is an important thing the way your family history is, but just these moments as we all age and forget. What does it mean within the family when you have situations that everybody has a different view on, including yourself at different times of the day? Even at one point, you put in, are you aware now that your interpretation of events is being incorporated into somebody else’s memory about them and folding in like that? which is also so interesting.

Kyo: That story you told about the car accident, I’m sorry that happened. I think about that all the time. As storytellers, I think we get tied to this idea of accuracy. That worrying about accuracy as the only point of accountability for a story kind of shortchanges our storytelling sometimes. I realize that there’s another kind of fidelity, which is maybe an emotional truth. I tried to make that the compass for the story. Actually, I think there’s a shift in the book. In the beginning, I’m very much the reporter’s daughter. My dad was a war reporter. I go in. I’m feeling really unsettled. I think if I ask everyone questions, if I go at this from every angle, then maybe I can make sense of this thing that feels senseless in some ways. I really do that. I go in with this complete fervor for the truth. I’m really interrogative when it comes to my mother to the point where she’s just shutting down. Then there’s a point where she gets the diagnosis of dementia. Suddenly, all her shifting memories are cast in this new light. At that point, the story kind of loosens. I realize that this desire on my part for this accurate retelling isn’t going to happen, so maybe I can approach a different way. It really changed at that point for me. It felt like a kind of loosening also in my relationship with my mom in some ways.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. When I got to the end and you included — those were her drawings, right? Were they hers or yours?

Kyo: They’re mine, actually. At some point, I really want to do something with her drawings. They’re amazing. I have boxes of them.

Zibby: I thought what you were saying — it’s equally beautiful that they’re yours. I thought that when you compared it to the viral video of the dancer in the wheelchair with dementia, that we still have access to all these things that we can’t explain why or how. It just comes out. Then after you ended it with — I had tears in my eyes. Then I was going through all the pictures. I was like, oh, my gosh, maybe these are the mom’s. Maybe you saved your mom’s and put them in there. Either way, it’s beautiful.

Kyo: do something with my mom’s, for sure. Those were linocuts. I had all this excess energy. I was anticipating finding out more. I had a search angel helping try to figure out my . Every day, I had this adrenaline. I didn’t know where to put it, so I started doing this garden, which I talk about in the book. I also started carving. Literally, I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was this thing of images through linocut and just carving and carving. It was really to still myself in some way. That’s what’s in the book, these carvings that I did.

Zibby: Interesting. You also talk about your sons throughout the book. You take us in motherhood, but only, I want to say gently, sort of on the periphery. It’s not about your relationship or even your feelings of being a mom. As you unearth all these things about your family, you’ll bring them in as supporting characters. Then I told my sons. Then I ran off to my sons again. Then this son. You give us little pieces of what they’re like, little bits of their sleep patterns. This one’s like this. I’m curious how you thought about the role of your sons in this book.

Kyo: They play that role in my life. They were definitely a counterpoint. They’re really funny. They’re really musical. Tonally for this story, they added a certain dynamic, which I really liked, the note of levity. Also, part of the story is not just about what we inherit, it’s about what we carry forward. I felt like my sons were really important in the book because in some ways, I’m telling this story for them. Whether or not they read it is another matter. I feel like in some ways when we’re telling family stories, we’re kind of unspooling things into the future. What I really wanted to do with this story was untangle all these lies and secrecy and secrets and all the shame that had been in the family and opacity or just cloudiness in all these clogged communication channels in the family and unspool that in a way where my kids wouldn’t have to deal with that anymore. I felt like it was carried through generations in my family. I wanted to make them present in the book. I was kind of careful because I do feel like I don’t want to put them in a book that jeopardizes their privacy in any way. There are little touches here and there.

Zibby: I love that. You also have this, even more than you expected, perhaps, the role of Judaism and where that fits in with love and Judaism and culture. Tell me a little bit about that and how you’ve integrated all of that even now.

Kyo: Good question. I think that’s ever evolving. We have a secular Jewish home. My partner’s Jewish. My kids, they had a b’nai mitzvah and everything. We’ve had all the high holidays and stuff. I think what changed, maybe, is — sorry, can you get back to your question? I think I’ve lost the thread of the question. How has my sense of Judaism changed?

Zibby: As you discover more and more things about your family life and everything and your own husband being Jewish and having this search for meaning and spirituality as your mother is aging and all of that, you have this piece of religion that’s sort of floating in the ground or one of the roots, essentially, of the plants of life. I was just wondering how you think about that now that the book is out there, now that we all know what happens towards the end. Has your relationship with that faith in life changed at all, or did it just stay the same?

Kyo: In some ways, it stayed the same. I think that one of the things I’ve always loved about certain aspects of Judaism is the idea of welcoming a stranger. One thing that happened was because I was so uncertain when I got my DNA results, was that I uploaded them to another site. Then I did a second DNA test. As a result, every day I get little pings in my inbox saying that I have a new DNA relative or a new DNA match. I used to look at them every day. Now I’ve stopped looking at them. I respond to messages when I get them. I might have another half-sibling. I might have a first cousin. I’ve kind of thought of it as a thought experiment. In the Jewish sense of welcoming the stranger, what if everybody out there was a half-sibling or a cousin? How would we treat the world differently? I know this sounds kind of sappy and stuff. I think about, for example, on Passover, welcoming Elijah or . I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that properly. The idea that you have this welcoming and inclusive sense of belonging, I think that’s what I really love about the faith and the tradition the way I’ve seen it practiced. I really wanted this book to be about an open and a wider sense of kinship. In a way, I’ve really resonated with aspects of Judaism and this idea that, it’s kind of like you pitch a large tent, and you invite strangers in. You have a house with one wall that’s open so people can come and visit. I love that idea of kinship. I didn’t want this to be a story about a DNA surprise that then became another story about how I found my true family, and this is my biological family. I really didn’t want to repeat that narrative.

Zibby: It was funny because when I had read about a third of it, I was like, oh, wait, what’s going to be in the rest of this book? Where are we going? What’s going to happen? It was so interesting. You even reflect on what the meaning of family is. I had dogeared a bunch of pages about even the role of family. Then I wanted to ask you about — maybe you don’t want to talk about this because this comes later. I’m trying not to give things away because I feel like I’m talking about this as if it’s a novel. Usually with memoir, I’m like, let’s just delve in. Because it was so, at times — I don’t know. I just don’t want to go there, necessarily. You do talk about your relationship with an unnamed, but clearly, we know who it is, very famous person who ends up having a very intimate relationship with your mother. It was mind-blowing, actually, that that whole thing even happened. Can you talk about that, or should we just leave it for the reader to discover?

Kyo: Maybe we’ll leave it for the reader to discover. I have to say, that person was important to me. Just as a writer, as an artist, I find her incredibly inspiring. One thing I really wanted to bring into the book as well was the idea of artistic ancestry, that I owe a debt as a writer to all these people who came before me. In some ways, those are my kin. My bookshelves is my book kin. I find a lot of readers feel that way too. Their books are their siblings or family members.

Zibby: Book kin, I like that. That’s so nice. That’s beautiful. The role, obviously, of nature and the world and roots and — you start off by going through the mourning ritual for your father by going to this greenhouse and communing with the plants, if you will, as you work your way through that terrible time. Then as you write, everything becomes completely interwoven with different analogies and moments and interactions with the natural world. Tell me a little bit about that and also, even from a writing standpoint, how that became the major — you could have told the story and not had that element, but you combined two different threads. Just tell me about that.

Kyo: Really great question. One of the things that happened was that — there were two things. There was an instinct to go to ground because everything felt like it was turning and revolving. I really wanted to put my hands in the earth. The other thing was that I’m not a fancy gardener. I’m a terrible gardener, actually. I’m a notorious plant killer. It was counterintuitive in certain ways. I also knew that I needed to meet my mother on her own terms, in a weird way. My mother was an avid gardener. There’s a lot of things that have gone with the dementia, but she remembers how to take care of plants. She remembers what plant names are. I really wanted to connect with her on a certain level. There’s a kind of impasse where I was being the interrogator, and she was kind of withholding. I thought she was withholding information that I wanted. It just became a different way of approaching each other. The garden became a meeting place. It was more a figurative third space for us to meet where it wasn’t embattled. We weren’t in emotional combat. I don’t know if you know Vivian Gornick’s book Fierce Attachments. We were very much that mother and daughter. We were caught in this narrative. I felt like the garden was a way of reconnecting with her and also thinking about cultural transmission. I lost my first language, Japanese. I tried to relearn it. Didn’t work. The garden became another language for us. Really, it was that desire to connect with her.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so beautiful. You wrote, also, about being in this limbo of being part Japanese, part not Japanese, how you don’t feel accepted, necessarily, by either community, not quite being enough for either space, and how that limbo makes you feel. Can you talk a little bit about that as well?

Kyo: I actually kind of like that limbo. I think it’s been, for me, a fertile space. I think there’s a writer disposition where you’re on the outside looking in. You’re kind of refusing the call to belong on other people’s terms. It’s also made me questions things like the genealogical imagination, the idea that this is who we are. This is what’s ours. This is us, and that’s them. I’ve always been kind of on the border. I’ve never really trusted that idea. I feel like I’m just at home with people who feel in a middle space between things. I feel like I’ve had the advantage of being part of a place or a space where there was a constant conversation. I also saw fault lines. I talk about this in the book. My mother was treated very differently and experienced certain wounds around racism that, obviously, my father didn’t experience. I saw that the world was really bifurcated at times. That brought that knowledge home, literally home.

Zibby: It was great when you described how you saw your mother so differently in Japan when she went back and her command of the place. I remember once — I don’t know why I keep talking about my own family. I feel like this book is one of those books that makes you reflect on your own relationships and history and whatever. I remember visiting my brother at college. He went to Penn. I had been to Philadelphia just a handful of times. When I went to visit him, I was astounded that he knew so well how to drive me everywhere. I’m like, how? We were on the same thing, and look at you go. You know exactly what you’re doing with complete authority in this area. I felt like you walking beside your mom as she just goes throughout. It’s like, where did this person come from? Where did this side spring from?

Kyo: That touches on something that I realized, which is that — I knew an artist in Melbourne who was amazing. He would draw the same thing over and over again. He said the reason he did it was to get past his idea of the thing. He might draw a tree because he had an idea of what a tree was and what it looked like. The longer he drew it, the more it kind of fell apart. It started to dissolve. His understanding of it changed and shifted. He said the intimacy was the ability to not know something or not be certain about what something was. I think it’s really hard to see the people in our family that we think we know. We assume that we have every angle on them. Then something changes. Your brother, you see him in his element, my mother in Japan. Suddenly, you have a whole other angle on them. You realize that you know only a fraction of who they are, or you see a very limited glimpse of that person. It’s kind of amazing. I think for children when they see their parents in that way, it can be a little bit unsettling. I love that idea. I think it’s why I realized that biography is kind of a doubtful enterprise because you can never nail people down. You can never get a fix on them. They’re always changing. The context will determine who they are as well.

Zibby: Very true. I just read this other memoir called The Rye Bread Marriage, which is totally different. At the end, there’s a line that stuck with me about how the only thing that’s consistent after their thirty-nine years of marriage as they look on to their grown children is just how much everything is going to constantly be changing. I feel like that has such echo effects with how you view your family, that it’s only a glimpse. We’re pausing the frame, essentially. That’s all we can really do, is pause and describe their frame. Then we unpause, and who knows?

Kyo: Exactly. I have writing students who — I say it’s like a moment of capture. It’s like taking a freeze-frame. Obviously, in fiction, you can kind of put your characters away. In memoir, the characters are still evolving and changing. I think Maggie Nelson says that eventually, you make a truce with time, and you decide that you’re going to hand your manuscript in, but this story is evolving.

Zibby: It actually also reminded me of Maggie Smith’s latest book, You Could Make This Place Beautiful. Did you read that?

Kyo: I haven’t read it yet.

Zibby: It’s not similar, but there’s something in the poetry of both books, the style of writing. I’m wondering, too, about your path to publication and what that was like. I know sometimes in publishing there’s an urge to make things very clearly delineated. What is this about? Where does this fall? This book is absolutely beautiful and includes so many different elements, which is fabulous. I’m curious what that was like and if you had written the whole book when you sold it and your role with your editor. Just tell me about that.

Kyo: That’s a good question. I did write the whole thing before I sold it. I worked with an editor I worked with on my last book, Kathy Belden at Scribner, who’s just fantastic and was so supportive and understands that I write this hybrid form of memoir. It’s funny because I buy books all over the map. I have a friend who runs a bookshop in Toronto who said that he’d like to have one category for books. He’d call it floop, and everything would fit in it. He finds that the idea of categories for books can silo them in certain ways. I guess this can be shelved in memoir. There’s probably a category called personal growth. I don’t think of this book as having that kind of grand epiphany that a lot of those books around personal growth have. I usually write the whole thing and then figure out what it is afterwards. I just find that I need to go subterranean and work quietly.

The one thing that did happen with this publication is that all the shrieking demons I had in my head that I tamped down as I was writing came out and kind of danced on my brain stage when the book was sent off to be printed. It was in that moment the anxieties arose. They really related to this idea of disclosure. I think that probably anybody who’s writing about family will relate to this. How much do you tell? How much do you withhold? In my case, I shared facts that people wanted to keep hidden for a very long time. I had to grapple with what that meant. Also, I didn’t do it with a sense of swagger. I wasn’t like, oh, I’m going to just blow the lid off this box. It was very much, I had a sense that there were things that I would put it and things that I would keep out. I also pushed back. There are a few moments in the book you probably notice where I was kind of pushing back when somebody was saying —

Zibby: — They’re like, you’re not going to write about this, right? You’re like, no, of course not. I’m like, oh, no, but I’m reading it right now.

Kyo: Again, I did that with a sense that there were certain things I didn’t — I thought that they needed to be unconcealed. I didn’t see any point to keeping the secret any longer. I felt like they were a hangover from a generation before when maybe there were different codes around what was shameful and what was speakable. I felt like that changed.

Zibby: You say that your father was a very private person. Yet here we are knowing every single thing you know. It’s amazing. You had had a number-one best-seller in Canada already when you went to write this book. I’m glad that the demons were gone when you sat down to write it. Did you question what your next project would be, or this all was happening in real life, and you’re like, I have to just write about this?

Kyo: This was really happening in real life. It was like the white elephant in the room. I couldn’t not write about it. Writing is how I experience my experience, in a weird ways. That’s how I things. I really felt like I was metabolizing things. Things were churning. I was writing. I didn’t know that it would all go into this book, but I was writing the whole time. It actually really helped because I kind of figured out — there is something to be said for writing, but I also realized at a certain point, there’s a kind of decorum to craft. I’m also a little suspicious of that. When I felt it was becoming too tidy and I was trying to tidy it up for the reader, I would feel kind of unsettled. I don’t want to sell a lie. There’s the beautiful opening for Kiese Laymon’s book. There’s certain kind of conventions around memoir that get imposed on a writer. I didn’t want my story to get jammed into any convention where I felt like I was sealing it up and making it seem more complete than it actually was. Maybe I’m not expressing it that well, but that was the struggle in the writing.

Zibby: Amazing. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Kyo: The thing that’s helped me so much is to be a reader. Also, to look to adjacent art practices. I really think I’ve learned as much about writing from reading books as I have from dance and film. I just gave a talk on comics last week. I’ve learned so much from Peanuts and Charles Schulz about how to create a narrative edge. There’s just so much you can learn from other practices. Twyla Tharp’s book on dance is great in terms of persistence and habit. There’s a book with Walter Murch and Michael Ondaatje on film that’s a great book on editing. Don’t just stay in your own lane. Look at what other people are doing.

Zibby: I love that. So great. I’m so excited for your book to come out. It’s so great. I can’t wait to hear everybody reading it and talking about it. I feel like I want to go talk to a lot of people about it now because there’s so much to discuss. Congratulations. Thank you for sharing so much about your story and yourself with the world.

Kyo: Thank you, Zibby. What a pleasure.

Zibby: Have a great day. Buh-bye.

UNEARTHING: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets by Kyo Maclear

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