By Gabby Landsverk, Sun Sailor Newspapers
Kate Gjerde sat down one fateful day in 2010, to record stories of her Korean birth mother, whom she met for the first time in two decades as an adult. At the age of 6, she was sent to live with an adoptive American family.
Now, six years later, she has recently published her first-ever book, a memoir about her experiences finding identity and family, coming to terms with love, loss and belonging between two cultures through a lifelong struggle to fit in.
Gjerde lives in St. Louis Park and teaches English language learners in the Hopkins School District. She said while she alway considered being a writer, it wasn’t her intention to publish a book. The memoir was born organically, through desire to tell her family’s stories and in the process, a discovery of her own story.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision to write it. Something compelled me to sit down and start writing and it just came flooding out of me,” Gjerde said.
The teacher worked on the book through 2016, until it was finally published this year.
“It was the best six years. I loved it,” she said.
Through the process, Gjerde said she made time outside her work and family life to attend writing groups, classes at the Loft Literary center and other gatherings.
“I surrounded myself with people who love the craft of writing and did my best to learn all about it,” she said.
Most of all, Gjerde said, she read voraciously, particularly memoirs. A few favorites include “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, “Slow Motion” by Dani Shapiro and “This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff.
“I found I was most moved by brutal honesty in memoirs, that “a-ha” moment of accepting the whole range of human experience,” Gjerde said. “As I thought of my own book, I asked myself ‘Am I going to play it safe? Or am I really going to dig deep?’ I wanted to give readers that feelings that other memoirs gave me.”
The book focuses on Gjerde’s relationship with her adopted family in Minnesota and her birth family in Korea, with whom she was reunited at age of 29.
Rather than a sugar-coated fantasy, Gjerde’s tale is a starkly honest and emotional account of the complications of that reunion, and her confrontation with her own identity.
“She was not the mother I had dreamed of. She was not blond, blue-eyed or Minnesota Nice,” Gjerde recalled of meeting her birth mother for the first time. “She reminded me too much of myself, and the things I didn’t like about myself.”
Through her mother’s stories, she was gradually able to come to terms with her own life, identity and past.
“I always knew I wanted to tell these stories of my mother,” she said. “I had a strong desire for people to know her — she’s strong, very courageous and very funny.”
Gjerde realized, however, that in order to tell her mother’s stories, she would also have to tell her own stories. Although she was reluctant to confront her own past, especially the darker, more difficult chapters, it became clear as she wrote that her life was intertwined with her mother’s life.
“This book helped me become the person I always wanted to be,” Gjerde said.
“Given Away” is a book for anyone who has felt like a misfit or outsider, out of place and isolated, Gjerde said.
Some of the subject matter is difficult to read, including scenes of sexual assault, emotional abuse, depression and a complicated struggle with personal identity. She hopes, however, that readers, especially those with similar experiences, will feel a sense of hope, inspiration and understanding.
“I’m still alive, I’m here, I’m strong and I’m confident and I want people to see that,” Gjerde said. “We shouldn’t be ashamed, of our story, of our face, of our experiences.”
Gjerde said the process of making her vulnerabilities public through her writing helped to exorcise some personal demons. Although the process did involve more than a little emotional heavy lifting, she said much of her processing occurred over many years, so she was able to sit down to write ready to confront her feelings head-on.
“All the sadness, rage, disappointment I felt — it’s like I’ve finally putting all those to bed,” Gjerde said. “I’ve changed, I feel different, and the only explanation I can think of that it was the process of writing this book.”
Throughout the book, Gjerde’s stories jump between the past and the present, reflecting on events and their meaning in flashbacks, memories and vignettes that don’t follow a strict autobiographical style.
“It’s my story, and it’s very truthful, but it’s not chronological,” Gjerde said.
Instead, she opted to weave together related events and themes as she experienced them.
Coming back to the book after it was finished, she said she realized many things came full circle in a way that surprised her.
In particular, the book’s cover photo shows Gjerde in a formal pose taken the day before she left for Minnesota, capturing a child suspended between two worlds. In reuniting with her birth mother, Gjerde was shown this and other photos of her youth, reconnecting her in a visual, visceral way to what had felt like a different life.
“Every time I look at that photo, I’m reminded that I was, and am, that Korean girl,” Gjerde said.
The decision to include the photo was possible through Gjerde’s self-publishing of the book via Amazon’s CreateSpace.
Gjerde said that was a very particular choice, to help her maintain ownership and control over her creative product, without worrying about the parameters of agents, editors or publishers.
She cited the self-publishing industry as a huge positive force for writers,
“I thought you had to be born a writer. Instead, there’s this incredible, supportive community of people out there I didn’t know existed,” Gjerde said. “When I heard about self-publishing, I realized what an incredible resource it is, empowering people to tell their own stories.”
Though the book has been published for barely a month, Gjerde said her inbox has already been flooded with praise, readers responding with gratitude to her heartfelt words.
“The response has been fantastic. I’ve been getting emails left and right. I’ve just been awed,” Gjerde said.
Not one to bask in the limelight, however, Gjerde was quick to point out that the book doesn’t have a tidy ending, just as the life the book is based on continues to carry on, in all its complications and contradictions.
“It never goes away. There’s really not a neat happy ending. You’re always figuring out who you are,” she said.
Gjerde said her mother is still alive, but now suffers from dementia, which known as “nostalgia” in Korea.
Gjerde’s story continues to unfold — she said she hasn’t ruled out writing a sequel.
For now, though, she and her husband are collaborating with an artist friend to bring “Given Away” to a new audience as a graphic novel, adapted for younger readers.
She hopes to craft a story all readers, and especially young girls, can find comfort in as they journey their own paths of self-discovery and belonging; the quest Gjerde began many years ago and across continents and continues to this day.
Contact Gabby Landsverk at [email protected]