Cosmos Book Club: A Conversation with Nicole Chung
The Cosmos Book Club recently gathered to discuss Nicole Chung’s poignant debut memoir on adoption, All You Can Ever Know, for Book Club #4. Following our gathering, we sat down with Nicole to ask her our most burning questions.
Interview by Carolyn Yoo
The Cosmos Book Club is a community for Asian women to read and support Asian women authors. When did you first find what felt like your community, whether in Asian American or women of color spaces, and what was its role in your life?
I started to form a community (mostly women writers of colors) on Twitter. When I started to pitch and publish, that’s when I started to connect. I got my first editing job at Hyphen Magazine based in the Bay Area. That was my first experience working with writers to shape their stories, and I found it so fulfilling. Hyphen was my first real Asian American online community.
My community is made of writers and editors that I’ve been really fortunate to work with. I often wish I had a real life Asian American community, but even a lot of the writers that I’ve met and feel very close to, we met on the internet. I think I wouldn’t have a community if not for online spaces and writing and editing. It’s another reason I’m really grateful for the work I get to do.
You’ve had a pretty insane 2018. You’ve been coping with grief and loss while going on a nationwide book tour, on top of tending to your other jobs and family responsibilities. What have your self-care strategies been?
That’s a really good question; I wish I had a better answer. My mother was just diagnosed with cancer, which has been the capstone of a really bad year in a lot of ways. My father died in January, so it’s been a really strange year to have a book out—not that there’s any good timing to lose a parent or have a parent get sick, but there were all these things I had to do for the book and also my family. There was no saying pause on anything. I feel like I’ve just been powering through. I don’t know if I’ve thought that much about my own needs or self-care since my dad died, to be honest with you. Which is not good, I don’t recommend it. (laughs) If I were watching a friend go through this I would say, you need to take some time, take care of yourself—but there really hasn’t been much time or space this year.
I have two kids, and a full-time job, and that would be a lot even without these other things. We are not good about grieving or crisis under capitalism. There hasn’t really been any space. I’m very grateful and excited to go out to [book] events and meet people. Writing is such a solitary thing, and it is a true pleasure and privilege to get to meet and talk with readers. I wish I could’ve been at this book club, it would’ve been so amazing! My mom’s coming up for the holidays and the book tour is winding down, so I’m hoping I get some time over the holidays to relax a little bit.
Absolutely. It’s funny since the holidays can sometimes be even more stressful sometimes! I am really hopeful it can provide that reset for you.
Thank you, I hope so. Yeah, life doesn’t stop when you lose a parent, or someone gets sick so it’s been challenging for sure.
I believe you made a choice, to not revise the book after your father passed away?
That’s right. I had the briefest of conversations with my editor. Everything in the book wraps up four to five years ago, so I didn’t see a clear way to bridge that [to the present] and include my father’s death in the book. I did end up writing an essay for Longreads that I think of as an unofficial epilogue to the book. It covers writing this book and editing it while my father had just died, and thinking a lot about adoption, grief, and loss.
During your book tour, you must have met a wide array of adoptees at your events. What was that experience like?
It’s been incredible to talk to any reader of the book; it’s a wonderful privilege. I’ve been especially moved talking with fellow adoptees. On pub day I started getting emails from adoptees. First it was a lot, five to ten a day. Now it’s slowed down but I’m still getting several a week. The youngest so far to write to me was a 15 year old Chinese adoptee. I’ve also heard from adoptees in their 70s. Many have said, “this is the first time I’ve seen anything like my story in literature.” People have been reaching out and sharing their own stories, which has been very moving. I heard from adoptees who grew up in Oregon, or very white communities—and those are the ones who have been like yeah, this was a lot like my experience.
Your book is one of the first to exist from not only an adoptee’s perspective, but a transracial adoptee’s perspective. What kind of pressure and responsibility did you feel?
I felt a great deal of pressure and responsibility, and sometimes felt unworthy, but I know this is only my story. I do want fellow adoptees to read the book and feel seen and honored, but I know I can’t possibly represent every adoptee or even Asian adoptee story.
I know my experience is different from a lot of Korean adoptees, since I was a US-born adoptee. Several articles have gotten that fact wrong, which causes me some angst every time because overseas vs. domestic adoption are two very different types of adoption. I try to be careful not to speak for the Korean-born Korean American adopted community. Of course there is also overlap in these two experiences—we grew up Korean in this society.
The adoptee perspective hasn’t really permeated the mainstream adoption narrative as I think it should. The book was a hard sell in part because it was a perspective on adoption that people were not used to reading.
During our discussion we were struck by the rich family history that you were able to get a glimpse of, including the “ten volumes of family history” spanning centuries that live in a family member’s library. Many of the book club attendees shared the difficulty of hearing our parents talk about any family history. Have you had opportunities since to get to know more of your birth lineage? Do you think culture/immigrant life plays a role in how much is shared intergenerationally?
There definitely is a separation [of history], since most of my family members live in Korea. Some of the separation too is that even if I found [those volumes], I’m not fluent in Korean, and it’s 600 years worth of Korean (laughs).
My birth father has this saying: “it happened in the past, and we need to move forward.” I can relate to it to a point, but I’m an adoptee that lost all her history. I don’t think he quite understands what it’s like to have no access to that, nor can I fully understand his experiences as an immigrant.
I haven’t gotten to meet any family members apart from the ones mentioned in the story. My father has offered to introduce me to his sisters, so I could meet my aunts and maybe some cousins. It’s something [Cindy] and I talk about a lot, and I think we’ll go [to Korea] at some point.
Writing this story, were there any areas that felt off limits?
Not exactly, but there were parts that I had written and cut. I had a chapter on college, which was the first time I got out of my hometown and got to be around people of color. I went from a town where I didn’t know any Koreans to where my suitemate was Korean and half my hall was Asian. It felt very meaningful and worth writing about, yet after I wrote it I couldn’t make it fit in the book. The scope of the book is fairly narrow—growing up adopted, my search, and my reunion (and a little bit about parenting, but not that much).
There were other things I avoided writing about because they didn’t seem to fit in the story. Both my birth parents were married before they met and married each other. The whole story [of that] didn’t really feel like it fit in this story either, nor did I want to get distracted or go down a rabbit hole that I couldn’t see through since I didn’t know too much about it. I also purposefully didn’t go down too much detail about my kids or niece. I figured they’re still kids and they deserve their privacy.
As a memoirist, you know that if you wrote this story in 10 years or 20 years, it’d be a completely different book. Do you envision yourself revisiting your experiences as an adoptee later on?
Definitely, [the book] is a snapshot of your life taken at a certain time. I can see writing additional pieces on adoption, but maybe not a full-length book. If I ever go to Korea with my sister, that would be an amazing thing to write about.
THIS OR THAT:
Twitter or Instagram? Twitter
Forest or sea? Sea
Online or print? Online is where most of my work is, but I’m enjoying being in print as well.
Music or podcasts? Music
Astrology or tarot? I don’t really do either of those. I’ll pick astrology.
Cosmos Book Club would like to thank you for your continued support, and wish you happy holidays with family & friends. We’re off for the rest of 2018, but will see you on January 8, 2019 at AAWW to discuss A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Instagram to be the first to hear about upcoming gatherings, and vote your top two book picks for the spring season if you haven’t already!