Memoirs are tricky business. I have known for a long time that I would never attempt to write a memoir because they are so difficult. They must draw the reader in, excite without being overly melodramatic and yet be approachable so the reader can relate and empathize. Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation by Soojung Jo, meets these criteria in both ways.
I first came upon Soojung Jo’s writing when she was blogging at Faith and Illusions. I’m not quite sure how I stumbled upon her blog, but I recall being interested in her take as both a Korean adoptee and as an adoptive parent. I was disappointed when she stopped blogging, but found her through other social media sites and remember when she reunited with her Korean family. Ghost of Sangju details her reunion but for me, it is her description of her childhood with her adoptive family that was most engaging and relatable.
The book begins with a prologue describing the horrific events that led to her birth and relinquishment and segues into how Soojung/Raina is found by her omma, her birth mother. The remainder of the book intersperses segments of omma’s letters to Soojung with narratives of her childhood, time in the military, and being a mom. As you get to know Soojung, little by little, you also get to know her omma. Like many Korean adoptees who were adopted to rural white communities in the U.S., navigating life as a perpetual outsider, even within a family’s enveloping love, was difficult. A few sections stand out in particular. Soojung describes her adoptive mother, in particular, with such tenderness that as a reader, I could feel that maternal love emanate from the page. As a mother, I also appreciated the way Soojung describes her pregnancy and new parenting as an adoptee.
Although I have not reunited with my Korean family, I have had many friends who have, so Soonjung’s descriptions of her reunion – while unique to her family – were strikingly similar to other narratives of reunions heard firsthand or read from intercountry adoptees. That Soojung’s descriptions in this book of feeling like an outsider, of compartmentalizing her emotions, of being overwhelmed with a birth family’s desire to make up for lost time, and dealing with hurt adoptive parents are similar to many Korean adoptees’ narratives speaks to how adoption practices have largely discounted and minimized the emotional tolls that relinquishment and adoption place on everyone involved.
In the prologue, Soojung writes, “Omma has had many years to live with her ghosts…she has tasted every flavor of loss, but she never swallowed bitterness. The only reason I know about her story – our story – is because she never sowed those seeds of hate and despair.” Soojung Jo’s omma has indeed had many years of living with her ghosts, as I imagine many birth mothers, birth fathers, and extended birth relatives do; and we cannot forget that adoptees also live with these ghosts whether or not we know them. From outward appearances, Soojung is a “successful” adoptee judged by her strong leadership and business skills, distinguished military service, loving parenting and even adopting herself – yet even all these accomplishments cannot erase the losses that are inherent in adoption. An important lesson is gained through reading this memoir: that grief and loss must be acknowledged, and secrets brought to light.
Ghost of Sangju is a valuable contribution to the adoptee-memoir canon, and I recommend that adoption professionals and prospective adoptive parents in particular read this book. It might be difficult to read and tempting to discount Soojung and her omma’s story as only one story; it is one story, but it resonates because it is, in fact, many of our stories. It is time that these narratives are honored and validated, so that birth families and adoptees do not have to exist, as Soojung writes, as “a spirit suspended between two worlds and two families, to be forever in between.”
Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation will be available soon through Gazillion Strong. For more information, click here.