An Interview with Nicole Chung

An Interview with Nicole Chung

By Annemarie Eayrs

Dills, Annie_Nicole Chung portrait.jpg

Illustration by Annie Dills

I remember being fourteen years old and reading Seventeen magazine, flipping through the glossy pages to the main interview in the middle. Those interviews always started the same way: in a cafe or a quaint diner, the celebrity (charismatic, effortlessly cool, so down to earth) sliding into the booth across from the interviewer. I remember skimming that beginning—the part where the interviewer bit into her eggs benedict and cataloged the celebrity’s jeans—and thinking, “Just get to the interview already.”

Yet, while I read Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know (Catapult 2018) and prepared for my interview with her, it was difficult not to insert myself. It was difficult not to place myself mentally in a booth across from her as she recounted her life with warmth and compassion and an incredible gift for storytelling. Both Asian transracial adoptees raised in small towns by white families, I kept setting her book aside while I read to process, thinking, “This is me” in a way that no book had prompted me to do before.

All You Can Ever Know is Nicole’s story of being adopted, which quickly widens into an intergenerational weaving of two families and the event that pins them together; it’s about loss and love and the incredible complexities that relate one person to another.

Annemarie Eayrs: This is a first of sorts: one of the first memoirs about transracial adoption written by a transracial adoptee. Did you have this in mind while you were writing?

Nicole Chung: I was definitely conscious of that while I was writing. I had read some books by adoptees before, but there aren’t that many. This was one of those very few by transracial adoptees, so it felt like a lot of pressure, and I think at a certain point I just had to tell myself that there’s no possible way that this book can represent every adoption story, every adoptee, not even every Korean American adoptee.

AE: With this in the back of your mind while you were writing, what important things did you want people to really get from the book?

NC: I knew it was going to be read by a lot of adopted people, and I did really want so many of them to see some thread of their own story in it. But it is obviously a very personal story—very much my story—and so I feel very honored that I was given the space to tell it.

AE: There has been an incredible response to this book since it came out. Is there anything about the response that has surprised you?

NC: It’s kind of hard to judge that because I’ve been on the road a lot. I don’t Google myself—I spare myself that pain. But overall, I knew I’d hear from adoptees, and I hoped that I would, but I’ve been surprised by how many. I think I’ve probably heard from over a hundred adoptees. For a while, I was getting several messages a day. Just the most amazing messages and feedback, and many of them saying, “This is the first time I’ve seen anything like my story. It made me feel less alone.” And I can’t tell you what that means. It means everything.

“This is the first time I’ve seen anything like my story. It made me feel less alone.” And I can’t tell you what that means. It means everything.

AE: Did you have an audience in mind when you were writing? Were you writing with other adoptees in mind? Were you writing for your family? For yourself?

NC: A little bit of all of that, actually. I do, of course, think a lot about adoptees and not just adoptees but also Asian Americans, children of immigrants who don’t necessarily see their stories represented all that much. I was also thinking a lot about, of course, my loved ones. I started writing it down as it was happening in journals, wanting to preserve that memory and that legacy for my children. I also wanted the book to stand up as a story, as literature. I wanted people to get something from it regardless of their background or experience. I really trust readers, and I think readers are willing to read outside their experience. So in that sense, I was thinking of the book for everybody.

AE: For me, this book is a possibility for my mother to get a side of the adoption story that I don’t think she’s gotten before. When she was adopting me, she was hearing from social workers and other parents, hearing their sides of the experience, hearing phrases like, “You’re saving a child.” So for me to talk with her about my very complicated experience growing up has always felt like ingratitude, which I think comes up a lot for adoptees. Did the idea of gratitude play a part in your work?

NC: I definitely think so. Like most adoptees, I did grow up hearing phrases like that. Hearing, “Oh, you’re so lucky,” or “Your parents saved you.” Or the phrase, “They took you in.” I did not hear that from my parents but from other people, often people who were just ignorant about adoption. I remember specifically people would say to me, “You must be so lucky to grow up here in this country because if you had grown up in Korea, they don’t care about girls.” So I always intended to write about some of the ways that people talk about adoption and how they talk to adoptees even as children. Even if it were true, it’s far too much pressure and it’s a very invasive thing to say to an adopted child who still needs to grow up and make sense of their adoption and their feelings about it. Adoption is complicated—it begins with this enormous loss—and I think these savior narratives especially just don’t leave room for the child to have any other feeling or any other questions. It’s being told what your story means by people who don’t live it.

AE: I remember being told things like that. “Imagine if you hadn’t been adopted: you probably would have been working in a sweatshop, you would have been illiterate.” All these really awful things to tell to a young child.

NC: My parents weren’t really trying to push that narrative on me; they just talked a lot about fate and God’s will. It was coming from a place of love. And that too made it hard for me to express more complicated feelings and questions about it. It was others who were basically implying they adopted me to save me or as some kind of charity move. As a kid I began to realize how little people understood adoption. And then as a kid you feel like you’re put in this position to have to explain it, which also feels like a great deal of pressure.

AE: Were there other misconceptions or commonly held misbeliefs that you were purposefully trying to combat in your writing?

NC: I didn’t feel like I wanted the book to combat anything. I didn’t write it to be instructive. Growing up, I felt the pressure to educate; I really did feel like it was my job to explain it to people and make them understand. At some point I realized that’s not a burden I need to assume anymore. I’m just trying to tell the truth and to tell my truth.

I wanted to write about how complicated reunion really is. Growing up I had people say things like, “Are you going to go on a talk show? Are you going to hire a private investigator?” The search and reunion can involve these things, but for a lot of us, it’s more bureaucratic, it’s more a matter of calls and paperwork, pushing paper around. I did want to write about the reality of reunion because I feel people thought about it as a happy ending and they weren’t thinking about what happens after—what happens if you find people, if you try to restore some of these relationships, and how you do that and how you incorporate anything that you find, new knowledge into your identity and your life going forward.

AE: I think that’s so true, and I’m thinking about the movie Lion. It tells the story of a boy from India who is transracially adopted by a white family in Australia, and when he’s in college he goes on this long search for his birth family that involves Google Maps—it’s very involved. But it culminates in his reunion with his mother. In so many adoptee stories, that’s the story: the search. The climax is the reunion and then it rolls to credits. So I appreciated that your book didn’t stop there. Thinking about structure, did you have other structures in mind when you first started out, or was this, from the beginning, what you wanted it to look like?

NC: The structure of the book definitely did change a little bit in the sense that I had originally written a draft that was more chronological. In the beginning you’re shuffling back and forth between the search and the questions that I have and my upbringing as an adoptee. And so you get a question that I have about my birth family and then you see the childhood moment that was really related to that question and then you’re also getting on a parallel track the story of my birth family, especially told through the lens of my sister Cindy, who was raised in ignorance of me. It was a lot to juggle, and at times I was a little worried that structure wouldn’t work, but I think it did. I think it helped it feel propulsive. I think that the questions and the answers of different sections and timelines are put in conversation with each other.

AE: I was also wondering about perspective because a lot of straightforward memoirs are written from the author’s perspective only, but you chose to make it multi-layered with so many different perspectives. What were the challenges of writing all those different parts in your memoir?

NC: I hadn’t necessarily intended to spend so much time in other characters’ perspectives, but it really emerged in the writing. Even from the very first draft, that first chapter, my adoptive parents just kind of came to me. I wanted it to feel really immediate, and I wanted people to understand who they are and see them in all their complexity and their humanity. I think it’s the job of a memoirist not to be the only fully human character in the book. My parents had a story before I came along, and I knew it was going to be important for me to understand from their perspective how much they wanted a child, how much my adoption was a fulfillment of their hopes and dreams, because if you don’t know that, then you don’t really understand the way they raised me and the way we talked about adoption and how it was hard for me to find a way to voice these questions and these doubts, the pain that I felt because they loved me so much.

The structure of the book definitely did change a little bit in the sense that I had originally written a draft that was more chronological.

AE: Did writing it down, working on it, and editing it, encountering your story in that professional way, did that change how you viewed your story?

NC: Yes, I think it did. Anytime that you spend this long with a project and write about something in this much detail and this much depth, there’s no way you can have it not change you or change how you think about it.

Looking back, I think the most obvious way it changed how I think about my family and about adoption is just the time that I did spend in other perspectives. Writing the chapters from my sister’s perspective, it was great to learn more and to have another excuse to talk with her. I spent a lot of time kind of meditating on just what a strong sister she is, and I think it made me appreciate everyone a little more. I think it made me empathize with them more because I was dwelling so much in their voice and their perspective and trying to make them come alive on the page. It felt like I’m writing this book and I can honor our family’s story through this writing.

AE: I think your book and your presence have already really pushed the conversation on transracial adoption forward. You talked to Trevor Noah on his show. Could you tell me about that? How did it feel going on a show with that much reach?

NC: I couldn’t actually believe it was happening. Still when I watch it, I’m like, oh, Trevor Noah’s talking to somebody who looks a lot like me. He’s very kind, and it was a very good experience. I’m very thankful; but truly, I was terrified the whole time. So primarily, that’s what I was thinking about: not tripping and not showing how anxious I was.

Afterward, again I started hearing from more adoptees just saying it meant a lot to them to see a transracial adoptee talking about it on television. The adoption conversation in this country has for so long been dominated by people who aren’t us, so I think about how rare and amazing it is that we’re discussing transracial adoption on a national platform on that show, and it was a transracial adoptee who was the focus. For me to see a transracial adoptee on television when I was a kid would have made such a huge difference for me growing up. Adoptees have been talking about this and writing about this for years, and by and large, we haven’t been given national attention, we haven’t been given platforms or space, we haven’t been centered in the mainstream discourse. I like to hope maybe that will change because I believe there are so many more stories out there. There are more voices out there.

There are more voices out there.

AE: When writers have a big book, everyone asks them “What’s next?” so I’m not going to do that, but is there anything that you feel that you maybe didn’t get to explore or address in your first book that you would think about or want to explore later?

NC: My adoptive father passed away earlier this year, and I’ve written a little bit about that this year. I thought about trying to address it in the book and maybe have an epilogue, but it just really didn’t fit. Also, honestly, he died in January and my final manuscript was due in January—it was due actually the day after I found out he had died, and I was not really in an emotional place where I could have written about it. But I have been thinking and writing more about grief and loss, and also I’ve been thinking just a lot about just the distance from home. I’m an only child, my parents were getting older, my father’s now gone and my mother was recently diagnosed with cancer and I’m raising two children on the other side of the country. So I have been thinking a lot about that distance between home and family and how to bridge it and the choices that we make, what takes us from home and how we carry our homes with us.

Nicole Chung has written for the New York Times, GQ, Longreads, BuzzFeed, Hazlitt, and Shondaland, among other publications. She is the editor in chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of the Toast. All You Can Ever Know is her first book. Follow her on Twitter at @nicole_soojung.

If you’d like to read more from Nicole on the process of writing and grief, you can read her essay “How to Write a Memoir While Grieving” on Longreads here:

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