Jenny Heijun Wills is a writer and professor of English and race studies at the University of Winnipeg (U of W). Her memoir, Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related, published in 2019, tells the story of meeting her birth family for the first time. The book won the 2019 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, but she didn’t set out to become a writer, or even study English literature.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Wills was adopted by a white Canadian family and raised in Kitchener, Ont. Her adoptive parents later had a biological daughter.
Wills moved to Toronto to study journalism. “I knew immediately I didn’t want to be a journalist,” Wills says, but she finished her degree and also earned a BA, MA and PhD in English literature.
“Studying English was a way to have this secretive education,” she says. “It felt like a safe way to learn about different cultures within the Asian North American experience. I think it provides me with opportunities to make connections with other Writers of Colour,” Wills says. “It is sort of like playing catchup.”
In 2008, she travelled to Korea to meet her birth family in Seoul. Her friends told her to write a book about the experience, but it would take her 10 years to open that door.
Wills went on to teach English and race studies in Canada and the United States. She moved to Winnipeg to work with the English department at the U of W, where she serves as the 2020-23 Chancellor’s Research Chair. She has co-edited academic texts, including Adoption and Multiculturalism: Europe, the Americas, and the Pacific and Radical Kinships: An Anthology of Autocritical Writing. On a research sabbatical, she started writing a scholarly book of her own, but it just didn’t feel right.
Wills says “I had these poems, and I started to look at them as a long book project, a novel.”
Her book used to contain fictionalized parts, which she removed when it evolved into a memoir. This version of the text was inspired by Kim Thúy, a French-Canadian writer of Vietnamese origin, who blends fiction and nonfiction. During the process of writing, Wills’ book transitioned from poetry to fiction, creative nonfiction and eventually memoir.
The day Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related was released, the shortlist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction was announced. Her memoir won not only that award but also the Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for Best First Book at the Manitoba Book Awards.
“For a writer as insecure as I am, it was a wonderful gift for it to happen at that time, because I didn’t have to (worry about) if there was an audience who liked the way I was writing,” Wills says.
In 2019, Wills started to teach creative writing classes at the U of W, including a course in creative nonfiction. Despite her accolades, she still feels she stumbled into the vocation of writing.
“I didn’t mean to become a writer, which I know is an obnoxious thing to say. It just feels like (a) homecoming,” she says.
Published in Volume 75, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 18, 2020)