By Liz Breeden
This February, we chose All You Can Ever Know as our GNI Reads book club pick, so we spoke to author Nicole Chung to learn more about her approach to bringing something so personal to the page, how her story resonates with adoptees and beyond, and what she does in pursuit of self-care.
Writing & Career
You handle difficult subjects – family, secrets, identity – with such care, but it must have been daunting to place your personal and family history so front and center. Did you ever consider channeling your experience into fiction or did you always know you wanted to write this memoir?
There was a time when I considered writing a fictionalized version of this story. But I figured that even if I did, people would assume any story about a Korean American adoptee by a Korean American adoptee was autobiographical. There was something very powerful to me about the idea of a transracial adoptee telling her story and telling it as truth, because the adoptee perspective is not one we see often in literature and adoptees have so rarely gotten to tell our own stories.
That said, I didn’t always plan to write this memoir. I didn’t start writing about my adoption or my search for my birth family until I was in my early thirties. It came about because I wrote one adoption essay, then another, and readers seemed interested in reading an adoptee’s perspective—again, for many of them, it wasn’t one they’d ever been exposed to. While I wrote about a lot of other things, too, eventually I always seemed to return to say more about adoption. I knew I couldn’t get to everything I wanted just going piece by piece. That was when I started to wonder if it might be a book.
The jacket for All You Can Ever Know is striking, and speaks to not only the family trees in your life, but also the concept of ever-growing relationships in all families and the care which might go into cultivating those relationships. Did you always know what your memoir would look like on a bookshelf?
I love my cover so much. I didn’t always know what the book would look like, and I had very little to do with coming up with design concepts. All credit for that goes to the talented cover designer, Donna Cheng, and Catapult’s incredible art director, Nicole Caputo. I do remember being asked if I had color or design preferences, and I said I preferred cool colors to warm and especially liked blue and green (Oregon, you know?). I also passed on what I’m sure was a totally unnecessary list of please-do-nots (I don’t remember them all, but it went something like: no red, no gold, no weird fake “Asian fonts,” no fans, no dragons, no cherry blossoms – you get the idea).
Donna came up with several cover designs, and I got to see and weigh in on a few of them. Right away, I loved the version closest to the final—that bright, bold blue with branches in leaf twining around the title. Donna and Nicole worked to make the branches more dynamic, in a way that gestured more strongly toward the adoption theme. Originally, the little branch was completely severed from the larger one, and probably the biggest (and final) change was to add a connection that was thin, frayed, but still there, at my request.
The nature of stories and storytelling seems to have been on your mind from a young age. As a child, you understood there was a story to your birth and adoption, in growing older you write an imaginative world of stories and escape into books, and later consider how many stories of adoption have similar endings: the “happy” scene of new parents embracing their adopted child. Why was it important to expand the scope of your adoption story beyond your arrival in your family?
Adoptees in pop culture largely function as part of someone else’s story — in the book I wrote that, in most portrayals, “we are wanted, found, or saved, but never grown, never entirely our own.” It’s fairly common for us to never make it out of babyhood or toddlerhood in stories, because the focus is on our adoptive parents (almost never our birth parents) and everything they had to do to bring us home. So I very much wanted to write about growing up as a Korean American adoptee, not just coming of age but also leaving home and becoming an adult and a parent myself. As a child, you can’t really reconsider and rewrite your whole story, the one you’ve been given by others. As an adult, though, you can try; as a young woman, that’s what I did.
“To be a hero, I thought, you had to be beautiful and adored. To be beautiful and adored, you had to be white. That there were millions of Asian girls like me out there in the world, starring in their own dramas large and small, had not yet occurred to me, as I had neither lived nor seen it.” Can you tell us a little about this line in your book and what it means for you now – as an adult and mother of daughters – to see someone as a “hero?” Who is a hero to you? What are heroic qualities you’d like to see your daughters emulate?
I think my kids are already heroic. They’re kind, they have so much empathy, they work so hard and persist. They are heroes to me — I wish I were half as amazing as they are. I have written about how my first Asian American hero was Kristi Yamaguchi, and certainly part of why she meant so much to me was this powerful notion of representation (something that was brand-new to me at the time; something that can still feel so frustratingly rare). Authors like Celeste Ng, Alexander Chee, and Min Jin Lee have been so important and so encouraging to me as an Asian American writer.
There are still plenty of visible, wildly accomplished people I admire tremendously and think of as heroes: Michelle Obama, Yo-Yo Ma, Misty Copeland, Sandra Oh. But these days I am especially grateful for the example of people I know in everyday life who are encouraging, generous, and committed to putting good things into the world even as they deal with their own struggles, even if no one is paying attention or applauding. The people who show up for others, over and over—those are the people I want to be like.
In your acknowledgements, you thank “every adopted person reading this… I can’t imagine where or who I would be without your voices,” and you touch on your early experiences meeting fellow adoptees before meeting your birth family. What’s been the reaction from adoptee readers to your story? Have there been any surprises or memorable moments relating to publishing the book?
My book should not have been the first time they found representation of a sort. But the fact that it is, for so many adoptees, is amazing and humbling. I’ve heard from adopted teens, from adopted people in their seventies and eighties—the vast majority of those who write are transracial adoptees like me. I don’t know how to explain how much this means to me. I grew up feeling so alone in my adopted experience, and now I hear from adoptees all the time—sometimes several a day, sometimes just a few a week. It’s incredible, and it makes me feel so lucky, and I try to write back to everyone when I can.
Among the most memorable responses are those from adoptees who’ve told me that reading my book inspired them to search for their own histories, and in some cases search for their birth families. To be clear, I don’t think this is something every adopted person should want to do. Plenty don’t want to, plenty don’t feel a need, and it’s also very important to note that many do not even have the option because there is almost no information to find. But it is just amazing to hear that reading about my search played any part at all in someone else deciding they were ready to search for their own roots—for family, or for records, or for whatever they can find.
Not all of these people are adopted; some of them are Asian Americans, people of color who grew up in very white places, people with big secrets in their family, people who’ve repaired broken family ties. That’s such a big part of why we read and write — to not be alone. Whenever I hear that, it makes me feel like it was all worth it.
GNI is all about finding a community of women to connect with, even if those connections are formed over long distances. Do you have any tips on how to sustain meaningful relationships over distance, life events, and evolutions in friendship?
Well, I guess I’ve always done it by being super annoying. I’m often the person calling or texting or emailing to try to keep in touch. (Although at some point in my thirties, I did finally figure out that if someone is just impossible to chase down, if they never actually return your emails or take you up on offers to talk or visit, that probably means the friendship has run its course and it’s okay to let go.)
We have a guest room and a general open-door policy for friends who want to visit, or who wind up passing through for work. I travel a lot more than I used to, thanks to this book, and I try to let friends know when I’m going to be in their area. Three of my closest friends made it incredibly easy for me by moving to the same city where my sister lives—so when I go to Portland, I can visit everyone at once.
If you suddenly found yourself with a free evening – no responsibilities or obligations – how would you choose to spend your night in?
I would read a good book and have a glass of wine and maybe do a nice home facial, and then I would put that book down and rinse off my face and watch some comforting, escapist television before bed. The truth is, I could probably manage to do this most nights? I work a lot, but I try very hard to stop by eight or nine p.m. so I have time to relax and unwind for a couple of hours before bed. Our kids go to bed by nine, so we don’t do any parenting after nine, either. I jealously guard those hours between the end of work/parenting obligations and sleep—unless I go out, those hours are my taking-care, reconnecting-with-me time. I think I’d be a mess without them.
Favorite café order?
Just coffee with milk, usually, but if I’m treating myself, a hot chocolate.
Favorite candle scent?
Vanilla (and peppermint around the holidays).
What are you reading now?
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden.
What’s the last emoji you used?
What’s the last thing you listened to?
Carolina at Duke.
Favorite section of a bookstore?
Lede image by Erica B. Tappis. Want to keep up with Nicole? Follow her on Instagram.