Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Interviews, Recommendations, and More

2023 GGBooks Special: The Chat with Kyo Maclear


We continue our coverage of this year’s English-language Governor General’s Literary Award winners in conversation with Kyo Maclear. Kyo Maclear is the author of Unearthing (Knopf), the 2023 Governor General’s Award winner for nonfiction.

The members of this year's peer assessment committee, KatłĮà Lafferty, Lorri Neilsen Glenn and Rinaldo Walcott, say:

"In recursive, often incantatory prose, Maclear meditates on the fragile nature of kinship and memory. A finely plotted and intricate narrative, Unearthing reimagines the garden metaphor and explores the porous grounds of self, culture and belonging. This quiet, arresting work softens the line between memoir and philosophy."


Kyo Maclear is an essayist, novelist, and children’s author. Her books have been translated into 18 languages and published in 25 countries. Her hybrid memoir, Birds Art Life (2017), was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and winner of the Trillium Book Award. Kyo teaches with the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA and lives with her family in Toronto, Ontario.


Imagine you could spend a day with any author, living or dead. Who would you choose, what would you do, and what would you learn?

I’ve been re-reading Grace Paley’s amazing Yiddish-inflected stories. "A Conversation with My Father" and "The Used-Boy Raisers" are two of my favourites. Paley was an antinuclear, antiwar, antiracist feminist activist. In 1987, she co-founded the Jewish Women's Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (JWCEO) and held weekly vigils to demonstrate support for Palestinian rights. I’d love to time-travel and walk around New York City with Paley and learn from her (self-described) "somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist" ways. Also about her knack for dialogue!

What advice would you give your ten-year-old self about the future?

I’ll borrow advice from Ivan Coyote’s excellent Tomboy Survival Guide: "You are going to need to find your freak family. Your misfit soldiers and their weirdo army. Keep your eyes open."

Your book explores a complicated family secret, as a DNA test reveals that the father who raised you is not in fact your biological father. Why was it important for you to tell this story?

Writing is how I experience my experience, if that makes sense. What happened what that my "DNA surprise" overturned basic ontological facts in my life so writing became a process of biographical restoration. In the ruins of an old story, I started to rebuild a new one. I wanted this new story to avoid repeating all the narrow, enclosing ideas of family I had been taught growing up. I wanted this book to challenge a contracted genealogical imagination, not just in my family and childhood but in the world.

We are living in a violently conservative, fence-driven moment. The border logic we are seeing everywhere is not a distortion of the idea of family and kinship but its very culmination—a drawing of lines between those who belong and those who do not, those who we will consider ours and those we will deem other. I wanted this book to model the power of softening our coastlines and opening ourselves to encounters and people that expand, reveal and even dissolve us. A close writer friend of mine calls Unearthing the ultimate bait and switch. A “DNA surprise story” that becomes a book about kinship beyond biology and inheritance beyond heredity.

Who has been the biggest inspiration in your journey as a writer and artist?

Those who know me even a little know of my love for John Berger. The infatuation began when I was an art history student. One moment I was numbly memorizing the Western canon in a big lecture hall, the next moment I was sneaking off to watch episodes of Ways of Seeing in a basement library. I have since read almost everything he wrote. I’d say Berger, with his liberated, digressive style, sowed the courage and permission I needed to write my own "unclassifiable" books. He will always be my model of hospitality, rogue & revolutionary thinking, and worldly kindness.

What was the last book by a Canadian author that changed you in some way?

The Long Emancipation by Rinaldo Walcott and Doppelganger by Naomi Klein. Both writers are teachers who sharpen my thinking in distinct ways, offering a different kind of "movement writing" by showing beautiful minds in world-transforming movement.


Ma was a gardener. Where she saw gradients of celadon, emerald, sage, olive, I saw only a thin green blur. When given a plant by someone who thought I looked capable, I would start out full of hope. I admired the buds for opening with confidence and the buoyant way the leaves unrolled. But before too long, the sprightly leaves would wilt or crisp. The Madagascar jasmine, enfeebled by too little sun or not enough water, would sigh toward the ground. The peace lily, overflooded with daily attention, would sag and expire. All the sad plants . . . I could not, in spite of my mother’s effortless example, and my effortful efforts, keep them alive.

Then things took an unexpected turn and what I had dismissed as not for me but for my mother suddenly moved to the fore. In early spring, 2019, it was determined through DNA testing that I was unrelated to the man I had always thought was my father. Well into the journey of my life, the imagined map of my family, with its secure placement of names and borders, was suddenly very wrong. All at once, my silver-haired mother became unknown to me. She had a big story to tell, a story of a secret buried for half a century. A story that she struggled to express—or had no wish to express—in her adoptive language, English.

I wanted my mother’s story. I wanted a tale that could put my world back together. But each time I pressed, my mother shook her head.

My mother had never really liked stories. She looked at them with suspicion. All my life she questioned both the ones I read and the ones I wrote. All my life, she asked: What are you doing? And nine times out of ten, I replied: I am writing or I am reading. Both answers brought forth the look. The look rightly asked, What purpose is there to your efforts? The look accurately said, No one can eat a story, no one can dine on a book. On the rare occasion someone commended my writing in her company, she bore a weary smile. A smile that pitied the speaker for not realizing there were better, more reputable products out there; better, less soft ways to spend a life. But the look also said: Don’t squander it. Write something worthy and practical . . . write a plant book.

In 2019, what did and did not work between us was now irrelevant. All the ways we had been at odds in life no longer mattered. I needed to understand my mother better, and the only way to do so was in the language she knew best. Given the state of my forgotten first language, Japanese, I chose her second fluently-spoken language, the one she never pushed on me: the wild and green one.

This is a plant book made of soil, seed, leaf and mulch. In 2019, I turned to the small yard outside our house and the plants my mother had woven into my life, to bridge a gap between us. The yard was scruffy and overgrown. It belonged to the city, to the bank and, most truly, for thousands of years, and still, to the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg. With my sleeves rolled and my fingers mingling with the rose-gray earthworms, I set to work.

Comments here

comments powered by Disqus

More from the Blog