In her debut memoir “All You Can Ever Know,” Nicole Chung, sometimes painfully and always beautifully, explores what it means to be adopted, to be a different race from the family you grew up in, and to later create a family of your own.
When Nicole Chung was very young, she wrote a story about being a Korean-American child in a white family. “I was one of those kids who liked to staple construction paper together and write stories,” Chung told me in a recent telephone interview. “I wrote one about my adoption.”
Now, with her debut memoir “All You Can Ever Know,” she’s written another story — for the child she once was. Growing up in a small Oregon town, Chung said she rarely saw Asian faces in the world, or in literature. “In large part when I was writing this,” she said, “I was thinking a lot about fellow adoptees, and specifically the kid that I was growing up, and the stories I wanted to see in the world.”
Chung, an editor (Catapult, The Toast) and writer now based in the D.C. area, will be at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library on Oct. 4, where she’ll discuss her book in conversation with local writer Ijeoma Oluo (“So You Want To Talk About Race”). It’s appropriate that her book tour takes her here, because Seattle is where her story began.
Born in 1981 to Korean immigrant parents, Chung was severely premature and taken to Seattle Children’s, where she was adopted in infancy by an Oregon couple unable to have biological children. Chung grew up with loving parents, and with the repeated story that her birth family made a noble sacrifice to give her a better life. It was, wrote Chung in her book, “a legend formed and told and told again because my parents wanted me to believe that my birth family had loved me from the start; that my parents, in turn, were meant to adopt me, and that the story unfolded as it should have. This was the foundation on which they built our family.”
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But the real story, unfolding with the suspense of a novel in “All You Can Ever Know,” was rather more complicated, as an adult Chung — pregnant with her first child — found when she began to search her past, more than a decade ago. Some of what she found was joyful: the existence of a sister, who quickly became a beloved and integral part of her life. But the details of her birth parents, which I’ll let readers discover on their own, didn’t quite make for a Hollywood ending.
What gives “All You Can Ever Know” its power is the emotional honesty in every line, essential to the telling of a story so personal. And it was one she could tell only by giving the rest of her family — if not herself — some privacy. Her parents are not identified by name, and her sister only by a first name; family members were offered the option of an entirely different name, or the change of some basic identifying details.
“I always wanted to write it in a way that told the full story but also, as much as possible, honored everybody — their complications, their complexity, their agency. I wanted to show what a tough spot a lot of people were in,” Chung said. She never viewed her book “as a negative story about anybody in particular — I wanted to be able to show everybody in their full humanity.”
Chung shared the book with her parents at an early stage — it was still being edited — and she’s grateful she did: Her father died suddenly early this year, before he finished reading it. “He read most of the parts he was in,” Chung said. “He and my mom were kind of reading it together. He was really excited and really positive about it. I actually did expect my parents to be pretty supportive, though I was nervous showing it to them. Showing your family, it feels more intimate.”
Her father, she said, was tickled to find one of his “corny jokes” included in the book: “It’s the one where he says, when people asked ‘How did you end up with her?’ he would say ‘If you put a Pole and a Hungarian person together, you get a Korean. Where do you think they come from?’ Mostly he just thought people shouldn’t be asking. He wanted people to get a silly answer for a very silly question.”
Her essay “How to Write a Memoir While Grieving,” published in March of this year, examines the pain of “writing a book my father will never see” and of how she hadn’t realized that her adoption “would tint the edges of my grief” when she lost a parent. “I am not carrying on the family line,” Chung wrote. “My father won’t live on in me, or in my children. At least not in the physical sense, not so close that I will ever catch glimpses of him. When he was alive, he couldn’t see himself in me, either.”
“All You Can Ever Know,” sometimes painfully and always beautifully, explores what it means to be adopted, to be a different race from the family you grew up in, and to later create a family of your own. Chung, throughout an experience that she describes as sometimes turning her life into “a Korean soap opera,” tells her story with compassion and open-eyed kindness. “I wanted to show that families are complicated,” she said. “Every family is complicated, whether or not adoption is part of the plot.”
Nicole Chung will speak about “All You Can Ever Know,” in conversation with Ijeoma Oluo, at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4, at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free; 206-386-4636, spl.org.