On Oneiric Inspiration, Revision, and Family Stories: An Interview with Nicole Chung

Nicole Chung’s new memoir, All You Can Ever Know (Catapult) is the moving story of Chung’s childhood as a Korean American adoptee with white adoptive parents, her search for her birth parents, and what she learned once she found them. The knowledge that her search yielded was not at all what she had expected or imagined; some of it was hard to take. But if we are going to entrust anyone, Giver-style, with knowledge, I nominate Chung for trustee. The overwhelming impression that emerges from the book is a portrait of Chung as a thoughtful, conscientious, compassionate, and even-keeled person who considered the feelings of others at every step of her search and, of course, during the writing of the story.

That story will break and warm your heart. Chung, as protagonist and writer, is inspiring in her grace. Her story—as she tells it—is also funny in places, though subtly so. It’s also, as the title suggests, a reflection on the power of knowledge and learning, with their capacity to comfort and prepare one for what comes next, as well as the limits of knowledge, its ability to discomfit, and the idea that there are some things even the most curious person may not want to know.

In advance of her book’s launch, Chung and I spoke about the process of writing the book, the literature of adoption (and lack thereof), and a few aspects of Chung’s experience growing up as a transracial adoptee.

In the acknowledgements section of your book you talk about having a dream that inspired you to rewrite the first section. What was the dream, and how did you revise the book based on it?

Originally I wrote the book and it was more chronological. There was a long section about childhood and the things I thought were most relevant about my adoption. Then there was a middle section about the search, and a section for what happened after the search. I found that the pacing just felt a little bit off to me—I thought we needed to introduce the idea of a search a lot sooner, explain how and why I made that decision. So in this dream I had, I was talking with my editor, Julie Buntin, and I was saying, “Julie, I had this idea for how to restructure my book. It’ll be a lot of work, but I think it’ll work better.” I told her how I would still begin with childhood, but then immediately jump to the search, and cut back and forth between what I was learning, what I was questioning, what I was experiencing while I was searching for my birth family, interspersing childhood memories within that narrative.

Dream Julie took it really well, and in real life she also took it very well. So I spent several weeks tearing the manuscript apart. I cut a lot of words, I added new sections. Now I think the book, especially the first half, moves a lot faster, and you understand the search better. You can see how those questions from childhood led to the search when I was an adult, because they’re happening on these parallel narrative tracks.

At what point during the experience of searching for and finding your birth family did you first think about writing about it for the public?

I did not think about it at all while I was searching. That really didn’t occur to me until later. I had thought about searching and I’d written about that thought process—not for publication, just for myself, and for my kids to read someday. But the idea of writing this book didn’t start growing for years.

Was there a particular moment that cemented your decision to write this memoir?

No, I don’t think there was a particular moment. It was probably a lot of little things—like, I had started to finally write and publish essays about it. And I realized I was getting a lot of interesting questions from people. It was a perspective that they hadn’t often read on adoption, even though there are millions of adopted people out there. A lot of people hadn’t encountered much writing by adult adoptees about adoption. And it was becoming difficult to tell the story essay by essay. I thought a full-length book would give me the space to really address all the questions I was getting, and make sure it was the nuanced really thoughtful portrayal that I wanted it to be—which could sometimes be difficult in 1,500- or 2,500-word essays. While it was very fun and meaningful and rewarding to publish those essays, after a while it was no longer enough. It wasn’t how I wanted to tell the whole story. This always felt like a memoir to me, also, not an essay collection.

In general, I admire your ability to leave out non-pertinent information. In this book, you don’t go into details about your writing and editing career, for example. So I was wondering, were there any aspects of your life story that you explicitly left out? And were there any threads that you ended up needing to leave out, though you originally planned to include them?

To the first part of the question, I always knew I wanted this memoir to be closely focused on my adoption, my search, and becoming a mother. Those two journeys—the search for my birth family, and becoming a parent—were linked for me, happening at the same time, and that was why I wanted to tell those stories together. But I never wanted to write my whole life story. I still don’t. I always knew I wanted to keep a close focus on adoption, questions of identity and race and family and belonging. I never intended this to be a sweeping life story that encompassed my marriage, my writing career, everything about my childhood—there’s a lot of my childhood, even, that I leave out, because I was trying to pick what felt like really key illustrative moments related to being adopted. So for example, when I write about the first time I was called a slur, I don’t need to write about every single time that happened. Just giving you that first visceral experience in the book is enough—you get the point, and you get why it’s important.

In terms of stuff I thought might go in the book that I ended up leaving out, at one point I did have a chapter on arriving at college. That was an enormous culture shock for me. I was a first-generation college attendee, and I really felt like a fish out of water at first. I think writing that chapter was helpful to me in some way—it helped me think about my upbringing and the move away from home, what I wanted at that age and how I changed. Ultimately, though, college really just did not belong in this book, and I ended up cutting that chapter.

Very early in the book, the reader learns that you were born prematurely and that doctors feared that you would have lifelong health problems. That was important because it figured in your birth parents’ decision to give you up for adoption, especially in the story that your parents told you when you were young. I’d understand if you prefer to keep this private, but I was wondering if you did end up having health problems that were attributed to being born prematurely.

No, I didn’t experience any of the challenges that the doctors predicted. Which just added to my parents’ legend about the adoption having been miraculous. I think of it as chance, good luck—so many things could have worked out very differently. But not only were my family convinced that it was all part of God’s plan for us, I think they were convinced all along that I wouldn’t have any health problems. They just had a lot of faith that it would be okay. And of course, as you read in the book, certain things were okay, and certain things were not.

In the first section of the book, you talk about your childhood wish to be white like your parents. And I was just wondering, especially after reading about how nice it felt to fit in in the Chinatown area of Seattle when your family visited there and how nice it felt to go to a university where it was not unusual to be Asian, I wondered if you ever had the wish that your adoptive parents were Asian like you.

No one’s asked me that before! That’s an interesting question. I can’t remember. I guess I don’t remember specifically wishing for that. As a child, I remember wishing I were white, so I could fit in—and also because I thought that’s really what it took to have friends, to be admired and to be thought of as beautiful. I grew out of that, thankfully, but it was definitely with me as a child, and it was just because I never saw people who really looked like me.

I don’t think I remember specifically wishing Koreans or Asian Americans had adopted me. I might have wondered what it would have been like, and more often I wondered what it would have been like if my actual birth family had kept me. I do remember at one point wondering why I didn’t tell my adoptive parents about some of the racist things people said to me at school. I remember feeling like I had to protect them from that—and also that they really wouldn’t understand it, because they were white. At one point I did wonder, would I share this more openly with Korean parents or Asian American parents? It’s not exactly the same thing as wishing my parents were Korean, or wishing I had been adopted by Koreans. But I do think I wondered, at some point, would I have been able to share more of this with people who were more like me? Would they be able to understand me better?

I really like the book’s title, and I find that the words know and knowledge have particular power where they appear in your book—because of the title. How early in the writing of the book did you choose the title?

I actually chose the title before I started writing the book. I wanted to have a title idea when I sent the book proposal out. It took me a very, very long time to come up with a title I liked, and this was it. I was open to changing it, but my publisher liked it, so it stayed.

Why do you think there are so few stories of adoptees as adults?

I’m not really sure why. There’s a section of every book proposal where you have to talk about comparable titles and explain how your book is similar, how it’s different—you have to demonstrate the market and audience for your book. In my case, I had a really tough time coming up with many comp titles. I could name a few. But there just aren’t that many stories about adoption that are written by adopted people. Most of the narratives about adoption we have are told from the perspective of adoptive parents—I think that’s really the perspective that most people are used to thinking about, used to hearing about. And when it comes to narratives by transracial adoptees, like me, there’s even less out there. I think that’s beginning to change. It is really important to center adoptee voices in this discussion.

Are you writing another book, and would you tell me something about it, if so?

I’ve started two novels. The only thing in life I’m superstitious about is telling other people what I’m working on, and I don’t think either is at the stage where I feel ready to talk about it. I’ve mostly published essays and nonfiction, but growing up and then in college and even after college, I wrote fiction—I just didn’t publish it, because I did not know how to publish anything at that point. When I started writing for publication, I kind of caught the nonfiction bug and it kept selling, so I kept writing it. I do love creative nonfiction and memoir, and will probably never give up those forms. I would really like to edit books—maybe the next stage of my career will include that, too; we’ll see.

Are you coming to New York on your book tour?

Yes, I am coming to New York in October and November! I’m at Books Are Magic with Alexander Chee on October 9th and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop with Greg Pak on October 10th. And then I’m back in New York November 5th for Symphony Space with Nicole Cliffe.

Do you have any book recommendations?

A couple of recent favorites have been R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries and Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me—two of my fellow Korean American debut writers. I loved There There by Tommy Orange and Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. I can’t wait to get my hands on Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. One of my favorite memoirs that I’ve read in recent memory is Terese Mailhot’s Heart Berries. I also loved Vanessa Hua’s A River of Stars, Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant, and Lucy Tan’s What We Were Promised. And finally, I have to recommend Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State—I’m reading it now, and it’s so good!

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