Re-Thinking Adoption: A Conversation with Nicole Chung

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Nicole Chung’s debut memoir, All You Can Ever Know, made me cry—on New York’s crowded subways, on my living room couch, on the plane. It may sound dramatic, but it’s true. Chung, born to Korean parents in America, was adopted and raised by a white family in a primarily white town in Oregon. Her memoir chronicles her decision to search for her birth family once she becomes pregnant with her own child, and what happens when she finds them. Written with deep insight and careful attention to the nuances of human emotion, All You Can Ever Know is a powerful portrayal of one woman’s experience with transracial adoption. At the same time, it is also about the ways we hurt our families, the secrets we keep from each other, sisterhood, identity, and what we pass onto our children.

Chung weaves back and forth between her story and her birth family’s, and by alternating between these accounts, she examines the circumstances that led to her adoption as well as its aftermath. This memoir changed the way I think about adoption, the Korean and Asian-American diaspora, and the ties we maintain with family. Over the course of an hour, Nicole and I talked on the phone about the sudden urgency she felt to search for her birth parents, a dream that helped her figure out the structure of her book, journaling, Korea, and how adoption is never an isolated incident.

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The Rumpus: I loved All You Can Ever Know. Your memoir is written with such care, insight, and honesty. When did you decide to write this book?

Nicole Chung: In a sense, I’ve been telling some version of my adoption story since childhood. As I write in the book, I grew up hearing a lot of questions about my adoption and the fact that I was not the same race as my parents. I was one of the very few adopted people that a lot of my friends knew, so I grew up telling this story over and over. I was always fascinated; the story took on the air of a legend that had been passed down to me.

I went through a period of my life when I wasn’t talking a lot about my adoption. When I went to college and directly after, I found I didn’t have to talk about it unless I wanted to. Since I wasn’t with my parents every day, people didn’t see me in that context anymore. There was really no reason for people to ask. I remember thinking around age twenty-four or twenty-five, This is resolved. I won’t need to talk about it or think about it or write about it. This is settled. I’m settled. Which is so funny, because what did I know at age twenty-four? I didn’t know anything about anything!

When I got pregnant, everything changed. I started thinking more about the stories I would be able to pass on to my child. I thought about all the things I didn’t know. I could handle the idea of not learning more, but what I suddenly couldn’t handle was not even trying to find out more. The time had come where I had to search. In a sense, the search mattered even more to me than the answers I would find. It felt like I’d been denying this curiosity and tamping it down for so long—sometimes to reassure people, sometimes to reassure myself, and sometimes to blend in. It was a real relief to lay down that burden and say, “No, this really is important to me. Even if I can’t find out more, I want to try.”

It didn’t occur to me to write about this experience until years after I searched for my birth family. But at the time of searching, I kept a daily journal, which was great because I had these verbatim conversations I had recorded on the same day or the day after they happened.

Rumpus: I was wondering about how you could remember so much in such great detail.

Chung: I had whole conversations and letters that I had faithfully recorded with the idea of preserving it for myself and for my kids. I journaled all my life so of course, when I’m pregnant and searching for my birth family and making discoveries, I was going to journal. I just didn’t know the journals would come in so handy later. It was five years after my search when I started writing and publishing essays about this experience.

Rumpus: Wow. That’s a while later.

Chung: It actually took two to three years after I started writing essays before I decided I to write a book. Writing about my adoption essay by essay wasn’t allowing me to tell the whole story. To sum up, I’ve been telling this story all my life but as for writing this particular book, it’s only been in my head for the past three to four years.

Rumpus: Once you decided to write a book, how did you shape your life into book form? As a writer, I think structure is so hard, and it must be harder when you have a whole life’s worth of material.

Chung: Structure is the hardest! Originally, I had envisioned the memoir in three parts. I actually had titles for these three parts in my head, which I had no intention of carrying over into the book. They were Growing, Searching, Becoming. It sounds cheesy, but they helped me think about the structure. Growing refers to growing up adopted and what that experience was like. Searching was the build-up to the decision to search, the how and why of that process. Becoming was after the search. I wanted to devote some time to this part because even in the few adoption reunion stories that are out there, they often end with the reconnected relationships. You don’t see some of the complicated, messy aftermath. I wanted to show how complex that part really was, and how even after, it’s not settled. It’s still changing all the time.

The book is no longer in that three-part structure, but thinking about it that way helped me get down the first draft. I wasn’t really happy with the pacing, though. I thought we didn’t get to the search soon enough. The search is at the heart of the book—it’s the question that keeps you turning pages. Will I search? What will I find? How will I deal with it? I realized I had to introduce the whole idea a lot sooner. Then I actually had a weird, vivid dream one night that I was talking to my editor, Julie Buntin. She’s wonderful and the author of Marlena.

Rumpus: I love Julie, and I loved Marlena.

Chung: Same! I dreamt that I was saying to Julie, “I need to restructure the book. Don’t freak out. I’m going to rewrite the first half.” When I woke up, I thought, Oh no, now I actually have to do this. It’s going to be so much work. What if it doesn’t work? I thought about it for a while, and then I talked to real-Julie and told her about my dream. Julie liked my first draft, so she told me to save it so we don’t lose it, but said that I could experiment. I spent two weeks tearing the book apart. I moved and cut a lot. I wrote five to eight thousand new words. By the end, the shape of the book was quite different. Now, you’re introduced to the possibility of a search quicker. You get more about my birth family because I tell their story, my story, and my adopted family’s story on parallel tracks.

Rumpus: You alternate between sharing your birth family’s story and yours. Was this paralleling in the first draft or was that new?

Chung: I always intended to have my sister Cindy in there. In many ways, I think of her as the hero of the story. She discovered a lot, just like I did, but she had less information than I had to go on. The shock was bigger for her. I always intended to have her in the book, but I didn’t realize that some chapters would work better from her perspective. Restructuring the book helped a lot. It also introduces Cindy sooner as a character, even before we meet. I think cutting back and forth between my search and my birth family helps the story move quicker and increases tension.

Rumpus: There’s so much tension in the book. I love the chapters that are from Cindy’s perspective. They made me realize this story is not only about transracial adoption. It’s also about family, sisterhood, growing up as the only person of color in a small town, and your own journey into parenthood. There’s so much here. How did you decide what to include?

Chung: I knew I wanted this book to be hyper-focused on adoption and what it was like to grow up in this white family in this white town. I was not actually the only person of color, but sometimes I was the only Asian-American in my class or one of the few that students in my school knew. I could go years without meeting a new Asian person. I didn’t know any other Korean-Americans. If I met them, it would be in passing, like the owners of the market down the street. I never had close relationships with fellow Koreans, so I wanted to answer the question of what that experience was like.

I wanted to talk about what led to this search and why I finally felt like I had to do it. I reached this turning point, and that was interesting to me. Even at the time, I wondered about my decision. I’d been okay without searching for my whole life. What is it about this period in my life and what is it about me now that makes this search feel so necessary? Have I changed? Am I being more honest with myself? Have I matured to a certain point? Of course, the fact that I was expecting my first child did have a lot to do with it. I wanted to write about this feeling of certain sudden urgency.

Rumpus: In your search, you discover some difficult truths about your birth parents. You do a wonderful job of investigating how to grapple with new discoveries, especially when they aren’t what you necessarily envisioned. You must have had to relive these moments while writing. Was that difficult for you?

Chung: I wrote this about ten years or so after my search. I needed the time and the space. Not every writer would have needed that, but I did. When I sold the book, I thought I knew where it would begin and where it would end. But I discovered a lot in the writing process. There were things that I took for granted, that I just understood about adoption or my family. Translating that information for readers who obviously don’t know my life or my family was a challenge. I felt a great deal of pressure to represent everybody fairly, even people who make bad decisions at times. I also wanted to be really honest about myself and places where I thought I could have gone about things in a better way.

Writing also helped me see my family more clearly. I’ve known my adoptive parents my whole life, so I didn’t expect to learn new things about them, but I did. Especially in the chapter that’s all about them in the beginning.

Rumpus: I loved that chapter. Did you have to interview them?

Chung: Yes, but a lot of the information I knew from family lore. That chapter surprised me because I didn’t think I would give them their own perspective. But it became clear that it was important to show them as people before I came along. Unless you understand how much they wanted to adopt, how it really was a fulfillment of so many wishes, if you don’t understand them as people, everything else later on doesn’t make sense. You’d need to understand them, for example, to understand why it took me until my late twenties to decide to search.

Rumpus: It felt very fair and generous to give them their own space. I don’t think many memoirs always do that.

Chung: Thank you. It felt risky. I wasn’t sure if it would fit in the book, but after the chapter appeared, I really liked it. I wound up keeping it in through successive drafts. My parents really like that chapter, too, which was gratifying.

Rumpus: That’s great. How did your family first react to the news that you were writing a memoir?

Chung: I couldn’t say much that was reassuring other than, “I love you and I want to portray everybody fairly. This is about my life. It’s not supposed to be about yours, so I’m not trying to portray more than I have to about you.” Everybody took it really well and was encouraging. My parents were really proud. I remember my mother telling me that I was not famous, which I thought was so funny. She was thinking about celebrity memoirs. When I sent them the first solid draft, she said that it felt like a novel and she wasn’t expecting that.

Rumpus: That’s high praise from a parent!

Chung: It was nice! They were great about it. My sister was wonderful. My birth father was really encouraging. I think that helped, having their support going in.

Rumpus: You dedicated this book to your sister as well as both of your daughters. All You Can Ever Know made me think about the ‘adoption story’ in a new way. Usually, my mind immediately goes to birth parents. I don’t really think about birth siblings. Was this something that you were mindful of while writing? Do you want readers to think about adoption in a new way?

Chung: I do. When I set out to search for my birth family, I wasn’t sure in the number of siblings I might have. I, too, was thinking about my birth parents. I wasn’t expecting to find someone like Cindy, let alone have this close relationship with her. But in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised because I know how adoption has affected me throughout the course of my life. It’s not an isolated incident that stays in the past. It’s not an isolated incident that stays limited to the adoptee, or even the adoptee, the birth parents, and the adoptive parents. It has an impact on an entire family. That was definitely one thing that I wanted to show. Partly it was a wonderful surprise, finding my sister. But I also wanted people to think about adoption, searches, and reunions in different ways.

Rumpus: There are so many different threads, and I believe so many different readers can learn from this memoir. Were you thinking of a particular reader when you were writing?

Chung: If I thought too hard about anybody reading it, I would get anxious! To a certain degree, no. Eventually, as the book started to evolve, I thought about fellow adoptees. That’s not to say they’re my only audience. I did put this in the acknowledgements too, that there were times when I was really scared. I thought it was too intimate, too much. Every time I got nervous, I would think about adopted people out there who don’t get to see their perspective represented. To be clear, I know this is just my story, and it’s just one story, and it can’t represent all adoptees. I don’t want it to. But to some degree, I was writing this for myself and the kid I was growing up who didn’t have any stories like hers in books. I thought a lot about other adoptees, people who are affected by adoption—siblings, parents, original families and adopted families. I was thinking a little about people who are thinking about adopting, which is not to say that this book is instructive—it wasn’t written to be advice—but I was thinking, What would be interesting? What would be important for people to know?

Rumpus: As the EIC of Catapult, you also edit the Adopted series. You’re creating a space for these various voices to be heard together. Did you learn anything from editing this series that helped you with your own book or had you already finished writing at that point?

Chung: I was asked by Catapult to guest-edit that series when I was still at The Toast. Since joining Catapult full time, I’ve been able to add to that series. It’s wonderful, and I love it so much. I’ve learned a lot, and I learn from every adoptee that I talk with. With every story, I see the diversity of our experiences. We don’t all feel the same way about our adoptions or our families. I’ve met many adoptees who aren’t curious about their families or of searching for them. I completely respect that. I don’t think my decision to search is the right decision or the universal drive that all adoptees have. Getting to talk with, edit, and publish fellow adoptees means a lot to me.

Rumpus: In your memoir, you mentioned wanting to visit Korea one day. Have you been able to go?

Chung: I haven’t. My sister and I would really love to go together. I thought we could do it before I wrote the book. At one point, I envisioned that being a part of the book, maybe as an epilogue, but it didn’t happen. It’s difficult to figure out with our kids, but we’d like to bring them with us. I’m sure we’ll do it someday. I’m just not sure when.

Rumpus: What do you think you’ll write next?

Chung: I’m very interested in editing books, and I’m hoping to edit anthologies. I’ve started two novels, and I switch back and forth, depending on my mood. I haven’t been able to work on them for the past couple of months though because of everything picking up with this book. Honestly, it’s been hard to write this whole year. My adopted father passed away in January. It’s been really difficult. I’ve found creative pursuits especially challenging. Even talking about and writing about this book, which is a privilege, and I’m so grateful, but it’s also been incredibly difficult.

Rumpus: You must be re-living and talking about your family so much these days.

Chung: Yes, and it’s easier if I don’t think about it and turn off that part of my brain. But I don’t want to go around emotionally compartmentalizing. It’s very difficult to re-read parts of the book where my father is present. In one sense, I’m glad because I know that someday it’ll be less painful and I’ll be grateful that he lives in this book. I imagine I’ll draw comfort from that eventually. I think after book tour, I’ll need to take some time to focus on family, myself, and grieving.

The question I keep asking myself is whether I’ll write another memoir. It’s hard to imagine now, but it’s possible.

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Photograph of Nicole Chung © Erica B. Tappis.


Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel If You Leave Me was published in August 2018 and has been longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, the Paris Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and lives in Brooklyn with her husband. More from this author →