In her upcoming memoir, All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung explores the “gossamer-thin threads of history and love, curiosity and memory” that connect her upbringing as a Korean adoptee in a small, predominantly white Oregon town, with the search for her birth family and their subsequent reunion. Resisting the oft-celebrated notion that an adoptee’s narrative culminates in that reunion, Chung—who is the editor-in-chief of Catapult and a former editor at much-lamented site, The Toast—instead explores the ways in which her lifelong search for meaning and inclusion continues into the present, from the relationships she has with her daughters to her ever-changing and evolving perceptions of the past.
Beyond the memoir’s keen elucidation of the complicated role birth plays in configurations of kinship and national belonging, Chung’s memoir movingly details the ways in which her understanding of family has expanded to include connections and histories she never could have imagined. Chung’s openness and compassion are evident on every page as she invites all readers—not just adoptees—to reconsider their own myths of origin, question what these stories withhold and reveal, and tell the stories that need to be told in order to heal.
Below, I speak with Chung about the importance of adoption narratives, the difficulties inherent to transracial adoption, and what being adopted meant for her writing.
You’ve long been a proponent of adoptee narratives and have done much through your own writing and work at The Toast and Catapult to give these narratives a platform. Why do you think these narratives are important?
I think we’re kind of underrepresented in adoption narratives, particularly historically. When I first started—I published a couple of essays about adoption as an adoptee several years back—I was really kind of surprised by the feedback—it just wasn’t a perspective that a lot of people had heard before, and it shouldn’t be that way. That’s partly why I tried to have an essay series at The Toast, and then Catapult asked me to edit and curate an adoption series focused on adoptee voices. I was really thrilled by the opportunity; I wrote the instructions, but every essay was by a different adoptee writer, and I feel strongly that these are important narratives. It’s honestly been a real privilege to get to work with and get to know so many other adopted writers—we’re legion, there are a lot of us. It’s been one of the great joys of my career to be able to play a small part in getting these narratives out there.
In your memoir, you introduce the title right away, as a sort of follow-up to the story your parents would tell you about your birth parents: “This may be all you can ever know.” What did this phrase come to mean to you throughout the various stages of your memoir?
Actually, it was very hard coming up with a title for the book! When that one occurred to me, it was because I’d heard the phrase “that may be all you can ever know” so often growing up. It was partly hearing this phrase that made me stop asking questions, because it just seemed like a hard stop, right? I believed they told me everything they knew, so when they said, “That may be all you can ever know,” I eventually learned, “There isn’t any more here.”
Writing the book was a chance to reconsider the different stories I’d heard about my adoption over the years; to identify that in the narrative and make real for readers a sort of progression from accepting what I’d always been told to really finding the ability to question it. It took a long time. I was in my mid-to-late 20s before I could even think seriously about a search, and I think it was because of the power of that story—everything we knew, but also everything we didn’t know—I had just lived with that reality for so long. I think I felt a lot of pressure; some of it was from me, some of it was from family or other people—to not cultivate my curiosity about my birth family, to just accept that this was how things were and accept what I didn’t know, and there was a point where I finally wasn’t content with that anymore. So that’s what I think the title references: that progression.
Your memoir moves back-and-forth through time. This sort of nonlinear narrative invokes for me the discontinuity at the heart of the transnational adoptee's experience of history. How did this style enable you to better articulate your story?
I always think it’s so interesting to talk about structure. It’s such a difficult thing, and this is my first book, so figuring out the structure of a book-length project and writing at this length for the first time were kind of some of the bigger challenges for me. I was really excited to discover that the narrative is not linear, it’s not chronological; there’s a lot of moving back-and-forth between the search and the questions, between my upbringing as an adoptee and then moving forward. Even after I start to look for my birth family, there’s still a lot of cutting back-and-forth between the search and between memories of childhood. It’s an interesting point; I hadn’t thought about it until you just said it. It kind of reflects how adoptee narratives aren’t necessarily straightforward; the way we consider those stories is not always so straightforward, and it changes so much over time. It’s, of course, true of a lot of people, but as far as that kind of construction and chronology, it helps me to move the story along so that it feels immediate and in the moment.
I wanted people to be able to consider these stories from my childhood because they felt important. I don’t think we can understand the decision to search, or why it took me so long to decide to search, if you don't know a little bit about my upbringing. But at the same time, I didn’t want it to be like: part one is childhood; part two is the search; part three is what happened after. I wanted it to be a story that was told all at once, one that felt like it had one cohesive arc.
At one point you ask if you would have become a writer if you hadn’t been adopted. What does adoption mean for your writing, and how has it changed—if at all—after finding your birth family?
I think that when I wrote that, I was thinking about the fact that adopted people—especially transracial adoptees—often end up telling their stories over and over; the differences are obvious, so we’re asked about it from a young age. I was used to telling my story in a particular kind of way and trying to help people understand it; even when I didn’t understand it very well myself. I felt like I was a representative of my family and had to portray them and adoption in a positive light—I absolutely felt that pressure. I think that’s kind of what I was alluding to: I’ve been telling some version of this story my whole life; it’s just that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve looked to sort of change, reconsider, or complicate that narrative. I found a great deal of power in writing about adoption. I mean, adoption isn’t all I write about—it’s not all I want to write about—but I do feel it’s a privilege to get to tell this story in a book form, because I think our narratives are kind of underrepresented. I think I was very cognizant of that while pitching and writing the book, and I think now—every day—about how there aren’t enough stories out there told from our perspective. It means a lot to me to be able to do that, and I really hope this book opens the door for more adoptee narratives, more conversations about adoption and transracial adoption.
Throughout your memoir, you make a lot of references to the concept of realness and authenticity, whether it’s a classmate asking about your "real" parents, or your daughter asking if she could ever be a "real" Korean. It seems like the concepts of authenticity and legitimacy are prevalent in the lives of transracial adoptees. What are your thoughts on this?
I feel it was actually hard to write about in some sense because I’m very proud of my identity and heritage, and proud of who I am, yet at the same time I think I’ll always feel this lingering insecurity about my Korean and Asian-American identities because I didn’t grow up in a Korean or Asian-American family. I grew up so distant from the culture, and everything I’ve learned has come as an adult searching on my own—mostly with encouragement and support from some people in my life, but they really came late. I think especially as a parent I worry that I’m ill-equipped to pass this on. With adoptees, it’s a very complicated legacy. Adoption is a lifelong process: Not only does adoption not end with placement, it also doesn’t end with you, the adoptee. It stretches back and then moves forward; it affects your parents and birth parents, and if you have children or other family or relationships in your life, it can have a deep impact there as well.
I think I’m kind of obsessed with this question of realness—not at allto set myself up as judging anybody else’s realness or authenticity—but when I turn the mirror on myself and consider my identity and who I am, I think I’ll always feel a little shaky there. There will always be more I wish I knew and understood and could really pass on to my kids.
So that leads to my next question: You said that becoming pregnant with your daughter motivated you to search for your birth family. How has creating a family in the way that our culture prioritizes as the legitimate form of creating a family, affected your definition of kinship?
I don’t view the fact that I have biological kids as more legitimate than somebody who doesn’t have biological kids or biological family. I just want that to be clear of that because of how the question was asked. It’s not that I felt when I had biological children that somehow my family was legitimized, or that these were better family ties because they were biological. It was just different for me because I’d never experienced it before. Those things that some people probably take for granted just a little bit, for me, were brand-new and amazing. It really felt—I mean, honestly, this probably sounds very corny—like a miracle to know that I was connected to my children in a fundamental way, it felt amazing to know we wouldn’t be separated. I just remember thinking, I remember every moment of your birth, and I’ll be able to share it with you.
It’s again something that most parents wouldn’t even think about, but I didn’t know anything about my birth—I still don't know a great deal about it. My kids will have so much more information than I did, and honestly, that’s a good feeling. It hasn’t really changed my views of kinship, or necessarily replaced any of them; it’s just expanded them. I still feel very strongly bonded in a lot of ways to my adoptive parents—who I still speak about in the plural, but my father passed away in January. I think about how in recent years my adoptive parents got to meet my biological sister and her family, and how we’ve all taken tentative steps toward more closely joining our families, and that’s kind of amazing to me. I never would have imagined that my adoptive family and members of my birth family would meet, get to know one another, and develop relationships; it’s actually kind of wonderful. I think my views of what’s possible in a family and what can be recovered after it’s lost, that’s definitely expanded because of my search.
So your memoir isn’t even out yet, but judging from reactions on Twitter and other things I've read online, and from my own reaction to your story, it's having a profound effect. Did you anticipate that your story would already affect people so deeply?
No! I mean I’d hoped it would really mean something to some people. It sounds very simplistic, but I think that’s what most writers really hope for—that the book will really mean something to someone. Some of the best messages I’ve gotten have been from early readers who are adopted, or who have experienced adoption in some way in their families or social circles. It’s been moving for me to hear from fellow adoptees. Someone sent me a really lovely message just the other day—I don’t know where or how they got an ARC [Advanced Reader Copy]—but they said they’ve never really seen anything like their story in literature before. It was just, I don't know, it meant so much to me, because I didn’t see stories like this growing up either. Part of the reason I wrote this book was so that it could be the sort of story I wish I had growing up. So those interactions mean a whole lot to me.
In terms of other reactions, I wasn’t expecting anything like this level of buzz and excitement. It’s an incredible honor, and it’s also really overwhelming, to be honest! I was sort of thinking of this book as a quiet family drama in a lot of ways, and I don’t know who it will reach. I hope it reaches the people who need it, but yeah, I’ve been really excited and honestly overwhelmed by the reactions so far. I think it’s partly that there aren’t a lot of adoptee narratives in memoir form and there aren’t actually a ton of memoirs by Asian-American women, so I sometimes wondered in more cynical moments if part of it is about scarcity; but I’m really grateful to everyone who’s taken the time to read it, to talk to me about it, or tell a friend about it. That just means the world to me.
All You Can Ever Know is available for purchase here.
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