In her memoir, All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung, who was adopted as a baby by a couple in Oregon, explores how the truths that were revealed upon finding her birth parents changed her life. Here Chung discusses growing up Asian-American in a white family, her writing and editing career and more.
What prompted you to turn your experience into a book, and why at this particular point in your life?
I’ve tried to answer people’s questions about adoption my whole life. My thoughts about it—and of course, the answers to which I’ve had access—have undergone some real change over the years. I’d tried to tell pieces of the story in essays, and it finally just became clear that only a book-length project was going to provide the space I needed to explore the whole story with all its nuances.
I really wanted to write this for families like mine and for younger readers who don’t see themselves in the books they adore. Ideally, reading this story will also encourage some people to reconsider issues around transracial adoption and identity and multiracial families and people who exist between cultures. I fervently hope this book helps make room for more adopted people to tell our stories, as opposed to others telling them for us.
As for why I wrote it now, I don’t believe I’d have been ready to write this 10 years ago, right after I searched for my birth family. I was writing about it at the time, of course, but mostly in journals and letters; it would be five years before I published anything at all about it. I could perhaps have written this book three or four years ago, when I first had the idea, but you know, it takes a while to find an agent and write a proposal and convince someone to let you write the book! And I’m glad it happened now. It’s probably a better book because I had a lot of time to think about it, and to fully consider and process what happened during my first pregnancy and my search, and see how the choices we all made at the time continued to play out in our lives.
As a child, you felt out of place in a predominantly white town, and you mention that you found solace in writing your own Asian-American characters. You are now frequently able to interview and write about people of color. Has being able to address race helped you develop as a writer?
Almost everything I write about has helped me develop as a writer! I do love talking with interesting people, learning more about their art and their work and why they do what they do. I love to interview people, and I love research; writing about other subjects and figuring out which questions to ask have certainly helped me grow as a writer. I hope I get to do a lot more of that in the future.
While All You Can Ever Know is respectful and considerate of all your family, uncovering the story of your adoption was clearly not an emotionally easy task. How has your family walked with you through the publishing process?
So much of the story belongs to my sister Cindy as well, so she was the first person I shared a draft with. I asked her to tell me if she wanted me to change or take anything out, but she didn’t, though she did help me by answering my annoying questions and correcting a few tiny things. She and my brother-in-law, Rick, are proud of the book, and have been so supportive throughout this process. I’ve also shared the book with my birth father, who is working his way through it more slowly: He’s fluent in English, but Korean is his first language, and I don’t think he reads a ton of memoirs in English. He encouraged me to write whatever I needed to write and said I could check facts with him and Cindy, but he didn’t feel it was his place to tell me what to say about my adoption.
My adoptive parents have been very supportive, and also just very interested in the whole publishing experience and what it involves. I sent them a draft right after I sent it to Cindy. My mother has read the book, and she really likes it. As I wrote about here, my adoptive father suddenly passed away while I was working on the book; he only got through about half of it before he died.
Do you feel that becoming a mother yourself gave you any greater understanding of your family, both adoptive and biological?
Becoming a mother certainly changed my understanding of myself, and encouraged me to reconsider what I thought I knew about my families—my family of origin, the one I grew up in and the one I was starting with my husband. I was thinking a lot about the kind of parent I wanted to be, the things I wanted my own children to have and to know. Before, I’d only been able to consider that in the most hypothetical sense!
Becoming a parent makes you question so much about yourself, I think, and that’s true whether or not you’re adopted. But in my case, because I am adopted, expecting a child of my own pushed me into asking questions about my history and my families that I hadn’t been 100 percent ready to ask before.
Your work at Catapult magazine helps elevate a variety of voices, and Catapult’s publishing arm released All You Can Ever Know. Will you share your perspective on the value of these sorts of independent outlets?
I am far from an expert in traditional publishing, as my background is really in the digital space—but I really do appreciate how indie publishers can and will take risks, often inspired ones, for books and authors they believe in. Many of them are starting with a diverse list of beautiful writers and making that their foundation. They are centering these writers and throwing everything they’ve got behind them. I don’t think Catapult ever saw my book as a risk, exactly—at least, no more so than any other book. They’ve told me all along it’s great, which I appreciate deeply because I am, like many writers, insecure about my work. I feel very lucky that they bought it before I went to work for the magazine, actually, because if I’d already been an employee I don’t think I’d have even sent it to Julie Buntin (my editor there).
We have so very few memoirs by adopted writers writing about adoption—the cultural narrative around it has really been dominated by nonadoptees—and so few by Asian-American women. And it’s really not always easy to convince someone to let you be one of the few or one of the first. But for Catapult, I think all of that was actually a selling point. Julie was the perfect editor for this book, and I’ve had the kind of institutional support many debut writers can only dream of.
As for my editorial work at the magazine, it’s a constant thrill to get to publish so many wonderful writers every single day. Before Catapult, I was at the Toast, and as a freelancer I’ve also had the privilege of writing for many outlets and publications, many of them independent. We publish a wide range of voices, some more established than others, but to be honest my favorite thing is working with emerging writers—being someone’s first byline.
How did your work at Catapult and other outlets, where you focus on shorter pieces, inform the process of writing your memoir?
Writing a lot makes you a better writer! I’ve been lucky to be edited often, and well, and that has taught me a great deal. Editing other writers on the daily has also made me a better writer—I can look at a piece of work (even my own) and identify things that are working and things that aren’t. I also know that even if I write a draft that isn’t super, I can tear it apart later and maybe turn it into something I don’t hate.
I was a little nervous about writing an entire book when my longest published essay was around, I don’t know, 4,000 words? And I knew I was writing a memoir with one continuous narrative arc, as opposed to a collection of essays. As an essayist and editor, though, I possess a bottomless well of faith in the writing/editorial process. And I trusted my editor entirely. That is probably what got me through.
You also write quite a bit about books, so I’ve got to ask: What are you reading?
I just finished The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, and I’m currently in the middle of way too many books, as usual: Sanpaku by Kate Gavino, The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya (translated by Asa Yoneda), A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.
While this book is deeply personal, you also write about a range of other topics (some family-oriented, others not). What’s next on your radar?
I’m working on a few different projects, nothing I’m quite ready to go into detail about, but I hope to talk and collaborate with more great people and write more books. I’ve started a novel. I imagine I’ll keep doing my day job, because I really enjoy it! I would particularly like to help more of our magazine contributors think about and develop book-length projects if that is their goal. I also want to teach more, and I’ll keep freelancing whenever I get the chance.
In the more immediate short-term, when I get through book tour, I will probably be looking into the grief counseling I have not had any time or space for this year. And—it’s probably not going to happen!—but I think a month-long vacation would be lovely.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of All You Can Ever Know.
Author photo by Erica B. Tappis