By Mary Kinney
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Mary Kinney, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Nicole Chung about her book All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir (Catapult), which is among the final six selections in the category of Autobiography for the 2019 NBCC Awards.
All You Can Ever Know follows Nicole Chung’s journey of discovery: from being adopted by white parents to reaching out to and meeting her Korean-American birth family. The debut memoir touches complex issues like race, adoption, abuse, inherited legacy and inherited trauma, in a graceful, thoughtful way. In addition to being a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, All You Can Ever Know was long-listed for the PEN Open Book Award and was named one of the best books of 2018 by NPR, The Washington Post, and many, many others. As a former editor at The Toast and current editor-in-chief at Catapult, Chung has written several essays about her adoption and published many more stories by adoptees. Her passion and enthusiasm for adoptees and her family was palpable when I spoke with her over the phone this month.
Mary Kinney (MK): You’ve said that you personally were not ready to write this book in your 20s. What changed for you that made you able to write this book?
Nicole Chung (NC): Of course a lot of the events in the book don't happen until my 20s, but I know I couldn't have written about it while I was going through it. The search for my birth family coincided with the birth of my first child. It was such a time of shock and expansion.
It was only after many years had passed and after I started experimenting by writing essays about it that I decided to write this book. The essays were really my way of seeing, "Am I ready? Can I talk about this? Can I be very honest? Can I deal with the response?” [Writing the the book] was still a very emotionally draining project in a lot of ways. Despite time and distance, there were times when it was very challenging to take these most powerful and intimate moments of my life, and some of the hardest things that my family and I had dealt with, and write about that for a wider audience.
I had a lot of time to process, and I felt a lot more secure in these new relationships than I had 10 years ago when I was first searching and connecting. Even big events that sort of resonate through the years, your relationship with them changes. I had experience, I had perspective, I felt like I had the support of my family, which was really important to me in terms of writing about these events, and writing this history, and without any of that, I definitely don't think I would have been able to write it.
MK: You handle the topic of your adoptive parents so skillfully and delicately. You write about how you're grateful to them, that they loved you unconditionally, but you also express this outsider quality you felt in your adoptive family. I’d love to hear a little more about that push-pull for you and your telling that story.
NC: I think one of the phrases in the book is that I felt like a very beloved alien in the family. I felt different from them in ways that had a lot to do with race and in ways that had nothing to do with it. It was a really powerful testament to how different people can love each other, and how strong those connections can be regardless of differences. But it didn't really make those differences irrelevant, to me or to the world. I wanted to write about that tension: The fact that I was very loved and there were a lot of great things about my life, and there was this one area where no one in my life was prepared to talk to me about it.
MK: I know you’ve said that adoptees are naturally storytellers because they grow up telling their story (of adoption, their birth) over and over again. How do you think being an adoptee affects the way you personally tell stories?
NC: Obviously not all adopted people are writers, but especially for a transracial adoptee like I was, where the difference between me and my family was so obvious, I knew I was going to get questioned. I sort of was trained/trained myself to answer those questions. That started at such a young age for me, when I would be telling strangers in the grocery store about adoption.
There were a lot of reasons why I wanted to write this story and really honor it, and one was to honor my family's legacy and represent a sort of unrepresented perspective in literature. Transracial adoption is not very well understood, and in some ways, transracial adoptees aren't really centered in the conversation as we maybe could be. This is not a perspective we hear enough, and it was not a perspective I grew up reading as an adopted person. If I can do something to help broaden literature on adoption in some way, I think it's a good thing. Mine is not the only perspective we need of course, we need so many perspectives, but it was one I felt like I could offer.
MK: I love how in this book, your birth sister’s story runs parallel to yours. What made you decide on that choice?
NC: I love those chapters that are focused on her life. In a lot of stories in the first half especially, you see us sort of growing up side by side, and you don't really know where our paths are going to intersect. I think trying to guess what and where and how we come together is where a lot of the tension comes from in the first part of the book.
I also knew that one of the biggest moments of my life was reconnecting with her and for that to really feel like a big payoff, we have to understand who she is. It's not enough to know who I am, it's not enough to know my life. While the book is more focused on my life, I knew that we really needed to understand her as this full and complete character in her own right. She was working with so much less than I was in a sense. I had at least the benefit of knowing I was adopted. I felt like I had so little of the story, but as little as I had, she had less. As revelations happened for me, she was having her own, and those are very big moments in the story and I wanted to honor that.
MK: In your acknowledgements, you wrote, “Whenever I was afraid of writing this book, I thought of the adoptees everywhere.” Can you speak to these fears, and how the thought of other adoptees helped push you forward?
NC: In my head, I knew there were just so few adoptee narratives in the mainstream. I was very conscious of the fact that it was going to be one of a few, anyway. That did feel like a lot of pressure, and it could be overwhelming at times. When I got scared about that, or when I got scared because it's such an intimate story, the support of my family and the support of my editor, Julie Buntin, definitely got me through those rough patches.
I did think a lot about adoptees, about the ones growing up like I did without representation. I know it is just my story; it cannot represent the full range of adopted experiences or even Korean adoptees. But having the chance to read an adoptee's story would have meant so much to me when I was younger — even ten, fifteen years ago. Even now, when I read an adoptee's stories, it means a lot to me. I thought about that and that's what would keep me going, honestly. A lot of adopted people have been so brave and so generous with what they've shared with me over the years. I think in a lot of ways, it was other adoptees sharing their experiences that gave me the courage to share mine.
I will say, too, response from adoptees since publication has been really wonderful and humbling. I still hear from several a week. At first it was several a day, and it's just meant the world to me, and it's also kept me going since pub day. It wasn't just adoptees' generosity and their courage that allowed me to write the book; it's still inspiring and still sustaining me, and I'm deeply grateful for that.
MK: What advice would you give to writers also experiencing this fear?
NC: I always encourage people to know what your support system is going in and to really work to maintain it if you can. What's really important is to find the people who understand what you’re doing and support it
Something I think about too for people who are writing about experiences that might not be widely represented, it can be scary if you feel like you're one of the first or one of the only. But in a sense it's also a little bit freeing to have fewer things to compete with. It really kind of drives home the point that you are only in competition with yourself, which I know sounds very trite, but is very true. Once I really realized that as a writer, it did feel very freeing in a way. I had a particular story I wanted to tell, and it wasn't a story anybody else could tell, and so in that sense, I only had to compete with myself.
Being part of a community at my first editing job with Hyphen, which is an Asian American magazine, and then at The Toast and now at Catapult magazine, the whole idea of community has always been really important. It's the only reason I have a career, it's truly the only way that I wrote this book.
Nicole Chung has written for The New York Times, GQ, Longreads, BuzzFeed, Hazlitt, and Shondaland, among other publications. She is the editor in chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of The Toast. All You Can Ever Know is her first book. Follow her on Twitter at @nicole_soojung.
Mary Kinney is a writer, teacher, and maker living in New York City. She’s cried in every planetarium she’s ever visited.