On its face, the title of Nicole Chung’s new memoir, All You Can Ever Know, refers to the story her white adoptive parents told her about how she came to be their daughter. Her Korean American birth family had loved her, but thought adoption was the best choice for her — and that, her parents explained any time she asked, was probably all she could ever know about her origins. The “all” in this case is finite, because the case is presumed closed.
As it turns out, the story is much more complicated than that. And if it were just an untangling of that story, All You Can Ever Know would be a fascinating study of two families and how their stories converge, diverge, and converge again, with all of the unearthed pain and sorting-through that goes with it. But the book is much more than that, thanks to Chung’s attentive storytelling and painstaking compassion. I say “painstaking” because of the palpable effort she makes to understand and respond to the feelings of everyone involved, with a kind of tender, circumspect rigor that memoirists don’t always abide.
The further you read, the more you see that there is another way to read the “all” in the book’s title — a plural, expansive “all.” Instead of a limitation, the phrase “all you can ever know” begins to resonate as something more, something freeing and open-ended. It begins to feel like an invitation to imagine all you can ever know — as in, all you can learn if you can find the courage to go looking for truth, whatever that might be. It reminded me of these lines from the poet David Mura: “Once I lost something / of great value. And then I sought it. / Everything changed then.”
Like Chung, I was born to Korean parents and adopted by a white family and subsequently raised in a largely white community. There are many passages where I felt she was telling my story as well as hers — the sense, forced on us by our peers, that we did not belong, even as the people we loved most insisted, without truly understanding what we were going through, that we did. And yet, as much as I appreciated feeling truly seen — and I did! — in the end I felt even more grateful for the journey the book took me on and the people I met along the way who granted me a deeper and more nuanced understanding of issues I thought I already knew by heart.
Chung is the editor-in-chief of Catapult, a former editor at The Toast, and a writer whose work has appeared in all the places. If you missed her appearances on NPR or The Daily Show, or even if you didn’t, you’re in luck, because she took time out of her whirlwind book tour to answer a few questions for Musing. Here’s our exchange. – Steve Haruch
A question I see a lot in Korean adoptee circles is, “Should I search for my birth family?” Do you get this question a lot? How do you respond, if you do?
NC: Occasionally, yes. I truly think it’s an impossible question for anyone but the adoptee themselves to answer; the decision to search is so personal, and can be such a difficult one. More often, I hear, “Do you have any advice if I do decide to search?” And I usually say that I wish I had not gone through so much of it without much company. It was no one’s fault but mine — I am sure many of my friends would have wanted to be there for me, but I just remember feeling like this was a solo journey I was on, one that most non-adoptees could never understand, and I had to do it on my own. I wish I’d let people in earlier. I wish I’d found a good and adoption-competent therapist. One thing I did do that probably saved me — and also made this book possible! — was write about it faithfully, every day. Every time I got a new piece of information, every time I got a call or a letter, every time I spoke with anyone in my birth family, I would immediately journal about it so I wouldn’t forget. It was the primary way I not just recorded, but began to process and deal with what I was discovering.
Beyond the question of whether to search, did you ever consider not writing about it? And once you decided, how did you begin?
NC: My search was over ten years ago now; I really did not think I would ever write a book about it. It would be five or six years before I even published an essay online about it. I know I started writing about it, finally, because I felt ready to, and because adoptee perspectives were so underrepresented in more mainstream conversations about adoption. And then I kept writing about it, not all the time but off and on, because that still felt important to me. The book idea slowly grew as I realized that I’d never be able to tell the whole story, or deal with these issues in all their complexity, in a bunch of disconnected short pieces.
Did the process of writing the book change how you felt about your search? Or about either branch of your family?
NC: I think writing it mostly solidified how I felt about the search, in that it was something I had to do and am glad to have done, though it didn’t quite unfold how I’d expected it to. As for my family, I hope I felt a great deal of empathy for all my family members before writing this — but certainly writing the book, trying to dwell in not just my memories but theirs (and sometimes write from their various perspectives) made me think more deeply about the things they went through; the choices they made and why. At some point in the writing, it hit me that everyone in the book, at different points, is just trying to do their best and sometimes just survive. It is my memoir, no one else’s, but I hope I have shown, at least a little, the humanity and complexity of everyone else involved. I really wanted this book to honor all those different experiences and perspectives as well.
This is a book I wish I’d had when I was younger, and I’m incredibly grateful to have it now. Do you imagine what it would have meant to have a book like this?
NC: It’s so difficult to imagine at all! I never read stories about adoption, by adoptees, when I was younger. The narrative around adoption has primarily been shaped by people who aren’t adopted. As adoptees, we’re the kids, almost forever, in literature and pop culture — wanted or not, found or not, we’re these objects of longing and mystery, but we rarely get to grow up and ask the big questions ourselves.
One unspoken question behind this book was just simply “What happens when an adoptee grows up?” — but we should already have tons of stories and books exploring that. I hope we will eventually see many, many more.
NC: I just read everything I could get my hands on — I don’t think there was a book in the middle-grade section of my elementary school library that I didn’t read. Loved books about spunky girls, cozy mysteries, and fantasy stories when I was growing up. Reading and writing were both means of escape for me, I suppose, powerful because they allowed me to imagine other lives I could one day live.
I will always wish I’d been able to grow up reading Korean American and Asian American writers. It would have meant everything to me, and it also would have made me feel that the life I really wanted — the life of a writer — was possible. For many years, I really thought it wasn’t, and that was partly because I did not get to read any books by people like me.
You’ve written a fair amount about representation, and it feels like a promising moment right now for Asian-American visibility. How are you feeling about how things are shaping up?
NC: I have been saying this over and over, but it’s such a wonderful, exciting time to be reading Asian American literature. And this year has been a great year for Asian American women authors in particular. We’re getting more stories, yes, and that means more variety — which means readers’ ideas about and perceptions of Asian American literature, what it is and what it can be, will expand. As we get more books, we’ll see more representation in other areas, too. I am so thrilled by it, so thankful and honored to be witnessing it.