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Body, Mind & Spirit Inspiration & Personal Growth


A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets

by (author) Kyo Maclear

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Apr 2023
Inspiration & Personal Growth, Death, Grief, Bereavement, Asian & Asian American
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2023
    List Price

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For readers of Crying in H Mart and Wintering, an unforgettable memoir about a family secret revealed by a DNA test, the lessons learned in its aftermath, and the indelible power of love.

Three months after Kyo Maclear’s father dies in December 2018, she gets the results of a DNA test showing that she and the father who raised her are not biologically related. Suddenly Maclear becomes a detective in her own life, unravelling a family mystery piece by piece, and assembling the story of her biological father. Along the way, larger questions arise: what exactly is kinship? And what does it mean to be a family?

Thoughtful in its reflections on race and lineage, unflinching in its insights on grief and loyalty, Unearthing is a captivating and propulsive story of inheritance that goes beyond heredity.

What gets planted, and what gets buried? What role does storytelling play in unearthing the past and making sense of a life? Can the humble act of tending a garden provide common ground for an inquisitive daughter and her complicated mother? As it seeks to answer these questions, Unearthing bursts with the very love it seeks to understand.

About the author

KYO MACLEAR was born in London and grew up in Toronto as the only child of a foreign correspondent. Her father reported on some significant world events, including recording the first interviews with American POWs in North Vietnam. While Stray Love is entirely a work of fiction, it is informed by her experiences living with her father. Her first novel, The Letter Opener (2007), was awarded the K.M. Hunter Artists Award and shortlisted for the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Maclear is also an award-winning visual arts writer and the author of two children’s books: Spork (2010) and Virginia Wolf (2012). Visit her online at

Kyo Maclear's profile page


  • Winner, Governor General's Literary Award - Nonfiction

Excerpt: Unearthing: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets (by (author) Kyo Maclear)


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.

It did not go well. Not at first. The garden quickly informed me: I did not know plants. I knew only my idea of them, and you cannot grow an idea. The garden said: This will not work if you are only here for the metaphor. The garden asked me to remember the child I was, a child who loved getting dirty, and to remember that first lesson: Nothing grows if you keep yourself clean, smooth, undisturbed.

When I stopped attributing every little plant event to my own doing and realized I did not have control (the opposite of a storyteller’s mindset), the plants began to grow. When I remembered
that plots are often driven and overturned by underestimated agents, I stopped underestimating.

A mother enters a story. But how does she enter? How does she walk across the pages of a book? Does she enter wearing her regret, rage, sadness or humor? Does she enter boxing away clichés and pushing against containment? Does she enter demanding payment? Does she enter as a gardener?

I learned more about my mother’s plant passions, to feel the events and landscape that passed through her heart, to take stock of what I had failed sufficiently to notice and love—the unseen greens, the hazy “scenery” of life.

I am the sole keeper of my family’s stories.

“What stories? Why stories?” she says.

Editorial Reviews

“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.” —Peer assessment committee for the 2023 Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction: KatłĮà Lafferty, Lorri Neilsen Glenn and Rinaldo Walcott
“A strong meditation on family, identity and self-definition.” The Globe and Mail (“The Best Books of 2023”)

"Poetic, elliptical. . . . By pairing the untangling of her family tree with an appreciation of the entanglement of the natural world, Maclear meditates on our desire to impose clear-cut boundaries on what comprises kinship and inheritance, and reminds us of our belonging to larger ecosystems. . . . Unique. . . . Bringing in the botanical allows Maclear to imbue her family's story . . . with a generous, open-handed perspective." —NPR

"Maclear guides the reader on a mind-altering journey that challenges biological determination, while rooting family in the daily practice of care and love. . . . Moving." —Esquire

"A moving account of a daughter’s struggle to know her mother before she loses her…This story is a reminder of the abundance of experience present in all families, and the power and healing that can come from honoring those many truths.” —The Washington Post
“A deeply thoughtful meditation on secrets and stories, race and lineage, grief and grace—all told through the narrative of the common language . . . tending to a shared garden. As Maclear presses her reluctant mother for answers to the questions that have blown her life wide open, she comes to realize that amid the muddled memories and half-truths also lie lessons in what it takes for new things to grow—patience, pragmatism and a willingness to accept beauty (whether in flowers and plants or the ineffable bonds of family) in all its wild, unruly forms.” The Globe and Mail

Unearthing could have been about Maclear’s quest to discover the truth about her paternity, but instead it is something far more interesting: a mystery about Maclear’s mother. The result is a lyrical . . . meditation on nature, kinship and the lives of both humans and plants.” —The New Statesman

“[A] masterful, original and poetic memoir. . . . As Kyo slowly realizes that the father she’s mourning isn’t actually her father, she unearths truths she never saw coming. This unique, powerful and captivating memoir mixed with gardening and plant life, is truly a wow.”—Zibby Owens, Good Morning America

“A lovely meditation on the hidden past and the blossoming present.” Kirkus Reviews

"Maclear’s writing is poetic in the best sense. Using the image of her mother’s wild, rambling garden as a foundation, Maclear examines these questions in detail, without proposing a pat answer to any of them because, ultimately, they are unanswerable. Instead, Maclear allows the reader to struggle with them as she did, granting her audience the space and silence to reconcile the gaps and secrets in their own lives." BookPage
“A brilliantly told memoir about love, marriage, hope and regret—about life. . . . [Unearthing explores] the burden of carrying a secret . . . uncovering—unearthing—more than [Maclear] could ever have imagined when she began.” —Parry Sound North Star
“For months I have been feeling like I am keeping the most wonderful secret: the transformative brilliance and beauty of Kyo Maclear's new book. . . . Extraordinary . . . a memoir of secrets, lies, and deep connections unlike any I have read before. —Naomi Klein (via Twitter)

“I could not put this gorgeous book down. Maclear interweaves her personal and family story with that of the plants she encounters and grows, subtly revealing how knowing the truth of our own stories is an essential part of navigating a world in ecological crisis. Unearthing is the rarest kind of book: at once vulnerable and precise, gentle but unforgettable. ” —Jessica J. Lee, Two Trees Make a Forest
“In this magnificent, searing memoir, Kyo Maclear takes us on a journey that is at once singular and utterly universal. What forces contribute to who we are and who we become? And what happens when the story we know to be true of ourselves is uprooted, unearthed? In poetic language that cuts to the bone, Maclear grapples with these questions and the result is a profound reading experience. I will never forget it.” —Dani Shapiro, bestselling author of Signal Fires

“A lucid and compelling memoir of family rupture and repair and the power of plants to anchor us in the world” —Sue Stuart-Smith, author of The Well-Gardened Mind

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