Somewhere Sisters: A Story of Adoption, Identity, and the Meaning of Family
- By Erika Hayasaki
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- November 10, 2022
What happens when twins from Vietnam are separated and raised apart?
In these politically polarized times, there is one subject that conservatives and liberals agree on: transracial, intercountry adoption. In the U.S., adoptees born outside of the country and adopted into families of a different race can be found in red states and blue states, cities and rural areas, houses of worship and ethical societies, and at gay pride parades and Trump rallies. The adopters of these children are overwhelmingly white and — due to the expense — wealthy.
That is the profile of the Solimenes, depicted in Erika Hayasaki’s clear-eyed, journalistic portrait of three adopted Vietnamese girls, Somewhere Sisters: A Story of Adoption, Identity, and the Meaning of Family. Keely and Mick Solimene already have four biological children when, in 2001, Keely, “a homemaker and philanthropist,” hears about 4-year-old Loan, a Vietnamese girl in an orphanage.
“Before September 11, the thought of adopting never went beyond a glimmer or possibility,” writes Hayasaki, “but now she wanted to do something good and meaningful.”
Like many who adopt from abroad, Keely and Mick are college educated and have access to information on adopting a child of a different culture and race. But Keely’s sentimentality is aroused, and she goes with her feelings rather than do research. As she initiates Loan’s adoption, the United States is “cracking down on adoption procedures” in Vietnam due to allegations of corruption and baby trafficking. Rather than pausing to investigate the ethics of the adoption, this only spurs Keely “to act swiftly if she was going to bring this little girl home.”
As Loan’s paperwork is being completed, the agent (likely trying to offload as much product as possible before the rules change) suggests Keely take another girl, Như, as well. “The agent explained that Loan has become protective of Như and that the orphanage didn’t want to separate the two girls.” Keely immediately agrees.
When they join the Solimene family in the prosperous white suburb of Barrington, Illinois, Loan becomes Isabella and Như Olivia. Insisting that she doesn’t “see certain differences,” Keely raises them to assimilate into their environment. “‘It’s not the color of our skin,’ Keely said, ‘It’s the color of our thoughts.’”
Learning that Isabella has a twin back in Vietnam, Keely returns a year after adopting Isabella and Olivia, ostensibly for a “charity mission,” but also to find Isabella’s twin. “‘I’m going to just find this little orphan girl, bring her here,’ Keely thought.”
While searching, she receives letters from Isabella’s birth mother, Liên, and from Olivia’s grandmother. As they’re inconvenient to her savior narrative, Keely ignores them. “‘I was having a hard time…when I finally realized these were birth mothers. Grandmothers. Birth families. When I finally realized that there were very, very painful feelings. It was terrifying.’”
Yet rather than confront these hard truths, Keely keeps searching for the twin and continues her “humanitarian” work.
In 2007, a Vietnamese friend of Keely’s, with Liên’s assistance, locates Isabella’s twin, Hà, adopted by a lesbian couple living in a rural Vietnamese village. Soon, Keely is paying for Hà’s English lessons. When they are 13, Isabella and Hà are reunited. They both feel awkward; Isabella is distant and cold. “She wanted to know Hà but also didn’t feel ready.” The girls had been given no preparation for this confusing event at a crucial time in their identity formation.
In another blunder, Keely rouses a young Olivia, asleep at home in Barrington, to meet her birth family over a video call, a deeply disturbing experience for Olivia that has far-reaching repercussions. Continuing to vigorously fix what she believes is broken, Keely separates Hà from a second set of parents and brings her to the U.S. to study.
She raises Isabella and Olivia in an all-white environment, blind to the racism they endure. Isabella is so severely bullied by her classmates that she switches schools (from one mostly white Catholic prep school to another) and then homeschools. Olivia, athletic and popular, fares better in high school but flounders in adulthood. Of the three, it is Hà, the only girl not adopted out of her culture, who is the least traumatized by her adoption.
Hayasaki bases her narrative on five years of interviews and interactions with the twins, Olivia, Keely, and others. While she includes Keely’s point of view to balance the narrative, the author focuses on the three adoptees, allowing them to speak in their own words, both in short reflective pieces that preface chapters and in copious direct quotes. This is their story, not Keely’s, despite Keely’s outsized role in all of their lives.
Further centering the adoptee experience, Hayasaki interviews prominent adoptees in the transracial and intercountry adoptee community, academics, and critical adoption-studies scholars.
Isabella and Hà become part of Dr. Nancy Segal’s twin research, and Hayasaki, herself mother to identical twin boys, also ventures into the dark history of twin studies. Adopted twins raised separately offer a powerful research tool on the study of genes and environment. Twin research seems to attract shady characters, though; Segal makes the rounds of morning talk shows and TV news shows and orchestrates a live reunion of 10-year-old twins adopted from China.
Somewhere Sisters should be required reading for anyone considering intercountry and/or transracial adoption. Even-handed and balanced, Hayasaki’s book is a vivid, searing portrait of the complex realities behind the simple saviorism that is so often the impetus for foreign adoptions.
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, co-founder of the Adoptee Literary Festival, a book reviewer, and a columnist for the Independent.