Writing a memoir is, I imagine, the most daunting kind of writing we could dare ourselves to undertake. Opening your heart and your memories to countless faceless readers, to have them judge your life with complete freedom, leaves me with enough imagined anxiety just to consider it. And this is only half the fear. The other half skips along hand-in-hand with the question: will anyone care about my story?
With regards to Richard Branson or Football Player No. 24743, my answer to that is a loud and angry no. In Nicole Chung’s case, it’s an impassioned and joyous yes.
A Story with Immense Gravity
“In most published stories, adoptees still aren’t the adults, the ones with power or agency or desires that matter – we’re the babies in the orphanage; […] we are struggling souls our adoptive families fought for, objects of hope, symbols of tantalizing potential and parental magnanimity and wishes fulfilled. We are wanted, found, or saved, but never grown, never entirely our own.”
As an essayist, editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine, and writer for The New York Times, GQ, and others, to call Chung an experienced writer would be an understatement. All the same, it is still astonishing the gravity expelled by her powerful first book.
All You Can Ever Know is a memoir in two parts: the memory of her growing up as an adopted Korean new-born into a loving white American family, and the ongoing story of her, as an adult, starting a family of her own and, during her pregnancy, finally taking the plunge to find and contact her birth parents.
Despite her parents’ dedication to providing Chung with a perfectly fulfilled and wholesome life, there are of course things that she could not avoid wanting to know. Being good souls, her parents always offered, unrestrained, every answer they had to give. But, of course, they could never know everything, and Chung grew up with an insatiable thirst to know more than she could ever know.
“’Best wishes’ seemed impersonal; ‘Sincerely’ was worse. I hesitated. Then I typed:
If not something I felt, not precisely, not yet, love was something I aspired to.”
The narrative structure and tone of writing at once offers a swift-flowing pace akin to that of a good novel, but all the while that aforementioned gravity does not let up for a moment. Twists and turns come fast and often; so much so, in fact, that it can be easy to forget that this is, in fact, all true. Such is the fascinating life of, well, anyone, I suppose. But certainly an adoptee with a desperate hope to learn more about herself.
The hope that Chung has is carried with so much weight it oftentimes feels alive, and thanks to her deft skills as an empathetic and subtle writer, we carry that living thing with her as she guides us through the story of her adoption, her childhood, her adoptive parents’ relationship, her own relationships, her pregnancy, and beyond.
A Handbook for Adoption, Race, and Family
As someone who has never desired to have children of his own, but has often taken great comfort in knowing that adoption is always an option, this book has been like a bible. In fact, it was a harsh truth to read early on that adoption is not necessarily the absolute good we assume it to be, but that it’s far more complex than that.
“I urge people to go into it with their eyes open, recognizing how complex it truly is; I encourage adopted people to tell their stories, our stories, and let no one else define these experiences for us.”
But this book is also about more than adoption: it’s a cautionary tale about quieter, subtler kinds of racism we often overlook. It’s about the intricacies of family life that we rarely consider as we live through them, both as children and with our own children.
“What I experienced […] when people demanded to know where I was from and why I had a white family, always seemed too insignificant to be even remotely connected to real racism.”
One expertly implemented narrative trick in this memoir is Chung’s use of a third-person story about another woman, Cindy, which is written in the third person and used to break up her own personal tale wonderfully. It is presented with a slightly more dramatic, novel-like tone, and the way in which it is weaved into her story as the book progresses is absolutely worthy of applause.
In so many ways, this memoir is a triumph. It is a lesson in racism and xenophobia; it is an invaluable teacher to those who wish to learn more about the world of adoption and adoptees; it is empathy in its purest form. Through this book I learned so much more than the story of one fascinating and wonderful woman; and you will, too.