In All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung shares her experience as a transracial adoptee, pulling back the curtain on the realities and struggles of being a person of color adopted by white parents. From the first page, her memoir captures your heart and mind, asking you to examine your own preconceived notions about adoption. We are honored that Nicole graciously agreed to chat with us about her thought processes of writing and sharing her story.
In the early passages of your book you talk about the idyllic “tale of your birth parents,” and how you were told that their vague story was “all you can ever know” about them. What about that specific phrase resonated with you to the point you chose it as the title of your memoir?
I chose that title before I wrote the book, when it was out on proposal. At first, I liked it simply because it was a reference to that old line I heard growing up, whenever we ran up against the limits of what we knew about my origins: “That may be all we can ever know.” The second-person “you” made me feel like I was including the reader in my questions and my discoveries. But when I actually began writing the book, I started thinking more and more about that word, “can”—how it hints at information and secrets and history withheld; how all of that could only be requested, at a certain time, and granted by permission. I think it is both an open and inviting phrase, and an acknowledgment of the real barriers I faced—some self-imposed, many the result of choices made by others—when looking for the truth.
You note in All You Can Ever Know how important reading and writing have been in your life. When did you know you needed to write your story?
Not until several years after I searched for my birth family. I didn’t begin writing and publishing pieces about that until five or six years post-reunion, and even then it took me a while to realize that what I probably had was a full-length book, not just a few scattered essays on the subject. I was getting a lot of questions (mostly good ones!) from readers who told me they had never read a transracial adoptee’s perspective on adoption before. I never saw my story or stories like mine in the mainstream adoption discourse. I wanted to make a little more space, for myself and for other transracial adoptees, if possible. There were other things I wanted to (and did) write about, too, but I felt as though this particular book would not leave me alone until I at least tried to write it.
Your memoir is separated into four sections, which represent the four distinct parts of your journey to learn more about your birth family. Can you tell us more about why you chose this structure for your book?
The four-part structure was accidental, I’m afraid! I divided it where it seemed to make the most sense—where there were big shifts in the story, a big event or question answered. It used to be three, but then the first part seemed too long; we weren’t getting to the search, the big questions, fast enough. And then I restructured the entire first half of the book based on this weird dream I had, and moved the beginning of the search up, and what emerged was a four-part narrative.
Writing about family can be an incredibly difficult process. How did you approach this project knowing that this intimate story about your life would one day make its way into the world? How did that influence your writing process?
It was certainly daunting at times, but I took some comfort in the fact that I always knew I was writing a book focused on my adoption: growing up adopted, questions I had about my origins, my decision to search for my birth parents at the same time I became a mother myself. And I knew I could write about those events and feelings and revelations, because I had done it before. It was never going to be my entire life story, everything that had ever happened to me and how I felt about it—which I think really confused my mother, because at one point she was like, “Wait, you aren’t famous; who’s going to read your memoir?”
As for writing about my family, I consulted them often, sent them my first full draft for comment, and just endeavored to make sure they were okay with what I was sharing and not surprised to see any of it. Which they weren’t, because we’d already had the hard, necessary conversations years before. They were all wonderful and very understanding and respectful of what I was trying to do, especially my sister—which I appreciated immensely. I couldn’t have written or published this without their support.
When people think about adoptions, they often imagine them with a fairy tale ending, but that’s not always the case. What are some misconceptions people often have about adoption, and how did you approach those misconceptions in your memoir?
There are many, but I think the biggest misconception I personally deal with, on an ongoing basis, is the assumption that adoption is always this straightforward story. Many people see it as something both unequivocally good and far simpler than it truly is. Many believe that a child’s race is irrelevant in the face of a family’s love. Sometimes I also feel as though some people want or expect me to say something against the entire practice of adoption, and that is also not the narrative I’m interested in advancing. What I want to do is highlight some of its complexities, its nuances, and I also want many more stories by adoptees at the forefront.
As for how I approached the story, knowing that many people think they understand adoption but might not necessarily understand it—I just tried to tell the truth of my life, of my family, of my adoption. One story cannot possibly represent all of the adoptions and adoptive families out there, but one story told well, I thought, could help others understand just a little more about what it is like to grow up as a transracial adoptee in a white family, and then go in search of your lost roots.
You talk about reading being a form of escapism when you were younger. What types of books did you read and how did they influence you?
As I mentioned in the book, I specialized in reading (and writing) stories about spunky heroines. I loved mysteries and fantasy stories. But really, I would read almost anything. I spent so much time in my school and local library, just working my way through those middle-grade and young-adult shelves. I can think of many authors I loved, but probably these stories’ shared role—and greatest influence—was just how they made space for me to dream and imagine other lives beyond my life and my small white town.
For readers looking for more books on the subject of adoption, what titles would you recommend?
I am asked this often, and it is honestly very difficult to name many books—the vast majority of books focused on adoption aren’t by adoptees. Some books by adopted writers that have meant something to me: Litany for the Long Moment by Mary-Kim Arnold, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson, The Language of Bloodby Jane Jeong Trenka, The Mistress’s Daughter by A. M. Homes.
Nicole Chung is the author of the memoir All You Can Ever Know, which The Washington Post called “one of the year’s finest books, let alone memoirs.” Published in October 2018, it was named a best book of the season by Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, TIME, Newsday, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, Today Show, and more. Nicole’s essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Slate, Longreads, BuzzFeed, and Hazlitt, among many others. She is the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of The Toast. Find her on Twitter @nicole_soojung.