Nicole Chung is an established writer who currently works as the editor-in chief for Catapult magazine. Her work has also featured in other renowned publications, including GQ and The New York Times. Born prematurely, she was put up for adoption at a young age.
Chung’s biological parents were Korean, but hers was a transracial adoption as she was housed by a white family in Oregon. Although this kind of adoption is relatively common in the United States, it can still be a novel experience for all involved.
Chung was always told by her adopted parents that she was “a gift from God.” The tale she heard was that her biological parents had given her away to offer her a better chance in life. However, little were they to know that their daughter would also face a particular set of challenges. They would be ones that Chung’s new parents would neither see nor adequately address.
This tale of not fitting in, not knowing her roots and struggling to understand her culture is detailed in her book All You Can Ever Know. The memoir features Chung’s childhood and follows her through life as she embarks upon a two-pronged quest: to find her true identity and to search for the truth behind her adoption.
The book’s title is particularly poignant because it’s the phrase that Chung would hear when inquiring about her roots. Despite grilling her adoptive parents for information, she’d receive the same answer time and again: her parents “had just moved here from Korea” and “thought they wouldn’t be able to give you the life you deserved… and that may be all you can ever know.”
The book’s title can be interpreted in two vastly different ways. It has negative connotations (it suggests an everlasting void and a sense of emptiness), but also positive ones (it infers a huge amount of information just waiting to be discovered). Indeed, the book explores both of these concepts in great detail.
The book begins with Chung in adulthood being questioned by a white couple, who were curious as to whether transracial adoption was right for them. The answer, she says, is never easy for any couple to decide. In fact, the whole book sets out to prove this hypothesis.
Ashley Fetters from The Atlantic described the book as a conflict between the author’s beloved family narrative and her desperation for the truth about her origins. Her efforts to find this truth were made harder by the fact she was given away in a closed adoption, where contact with birth parents isn’t afforded.
The book then recounts in dramatic detail the struggles Chung encountered growing up as a transracial adoptee. There are tales of childhood loneliness. There are stories of being teased for looking different to other kids. However, throughout all this, the author’s adopted parents showed her nothing but love.
The book covers various uncomfortable topics that some adoptees will be only too familiar with. An example of this is when people suggest that, by being adopted, she was given a ‘better life’ – the inference perhaps being that a white family could provide for her better than a non-white one. Indeed, the author would hear this regularly from people who believed that Korean families don’t value females as much as American families.
The book is also described as an “ode to sisterly love” by Katy Waldman from The New Yorker. Chung later expanded on this theme in an interview with The Paris Review. She described the instant connection she developed with her biological sister when they started emailing each other. Indeed, some of Chung’s book is told from her sister’s perspective.
Chung eventually meets both of her birth parents, but that presents new hurdles. For starters, she reunited with her biological father just as she was giving birth to her first child. At that moment, the author’s family was expanding in more ways than one.
Describing the unusual experience in an interview with Vice, Chung said, “It’s so fascinating to me that that’s how and when it all happened – these two things happening on parallel tracks. If this were fiction, you’d be like, ‘That doesn’t seem very realistic.’ But it’s real life and that’s how it happened.”
The book has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from major publications, while casual readers have also left glowing comments on Amazon. Julie Buntin from The Paris Review claimed that the author “has done us all a great service” as there are so few adoption tales told from the adoptee’s perspective.
Describing the positive reaction to her book, Chung told Vice, “It’s meant a lot to hear from some early readers who are affected, who could relate. Some are adopted, some are Asian-American, some come from complicated families. I hope we see many more stories about adoptees, telling their own stories instead of having them told for us.”
Both of Chung’s parents were aware of the book’s publication and supportive of the finished product. In an interview with The Atlantic, Chung revealed her fears over whether her memories of the past would tally with her parents’ recollections. However, her father told her, “This is your perspective. It doesn’t have to be the book we would have written about this. This is your life, and these are your feelings.”
In its review, The New Yorker suggested that the book’s strength lies in how relatable most readers would find it. Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere, agreed. She said the book “should be required reading for anyone who has ever had, wanted, or found a family – which is to say, everyone.”
Chung describes the birth of her own child as a big step forward for the discovery of her own identity. “I wouldn’t be alone anymore. There would be someone who was connected to me in a way no one else had ever been,” she says. Another key moment for the author was meeting her sister and “discovering her own features in her sister’s face.”
Sadly, Chung’s birth father didn’t live to see his daughter’s book published, and while the idea of including an extra chapter to address his passing was mooted, eventually the status quo prevailed. However, the author has since written an essay about grief and adoption – and what it took to finish the book.
All You Can Ever Know went on to receive recommendations from the likes of Time, The Washington Post and Elle. As well as being feted by various literary grandees, Chung’s poignant work likely hit a nerve with other transracial adoptees. As for its author, well, she has gone on to teach a memoir proposal class for aspiring authors.