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This article was published 6/11/2019 (527 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Jenny Heijun Wills didn’t expect her name to be called at the Writers’ Trust Awards ceremony in Toronto Tuesday night.
"I gasped, I think," says the Winnipeg author, who took home the $60,000 Hilary Weston Prize for Non-Fiction for her debut memoir, Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related., over the phone. "I was sitting adjacent to my editor and I think I was saying ‘No, no, no, no,’ and she was assuring me, ‘yes yes yes.’
"It was such an overwhelming moment. I think my lack of preparedness is a reflection of how astounding I found all of the other co-finalists for the award," says the 38-year-old University of Winnipeg English professor, who was nominated alongside Alicia Elliott (A Mind Spread Out on the Ground), Anna Mehler Paperny (Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me: Depression in the First Person), Tanya Talaga (All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward), and Ayelet Tsabari (The Art of Leaving: A Memoir).
"It was completely surprising to me. I did not have words prepared, I did not have an appropriate dress of shoes to be going onstage in. It was extremely humbling to be recognized by jurors whom I admire, by the Writers’ Trust, and by all the readers."
The long walk to the podium was made longer by her full-length gown, but she made it there without pulling a Jennifer Lawrence (repeatedly stumbling). "A few people have brought her name up to me," she laughs.
Wills, who was born in Korea, was adopted as an infant and raised in Canada by a white family. Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related., which was published in September by McClelland & Stewart, recounts her journey to reconnect with her biological Korean family, and connect with other transnational adoptees, in her late 20s. The Writers’ Trust jury described the book as "finely observed, meticulous and candid."
The memoir is written as a series of vignettes.
"I wanted to write something that was deliberately fractured because that felt a bit more reflective of what I experienced and what I continue to experience," she says.
"I wanted to write something that began with the reunion as opposed to a story that ended with the reunion."
Following the book’s release, Wills has heard from Korean adoptees as well as other transnational, transracial adoptees, but she’s found that her story has resonated with a wider audience.
"When I was writing it, I assumed the only readers would be people like me but in fact, what came to light, is that there’s a lot of people who read with empathy and are looking for experiences different than their own. Beyond the genre of life writing or creative non-fiction, it’s so important to surround yourself with writers from marginalized communities and, from my perspective, that especially means black writers, Indigenous writers, and writers of colour."
Wills is getting used to her life being an open book, as it were. Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related. is only two months old; Wills learned the book was a finalist for the Weston prize on the day it came out.
"It’s a new feeling," she says. "It’s unusual to meet people who know so much about you, actually. For me, it’s about being cautious about my emotional boundaries because it is an unusual feeling to be so exposed in this way. Even though I work at a university and there’s a public element to that, I’m relatively shy about my personal life. I’m trying to navigate that."
She’s also working on her next project, a novel.
"It’s a complicated one," she says. "I’ll leave it at that."