From a very young age, Nicole Chung, author of the debut memoir “All You Can Ever Know,” knew that she was adopted. Her white parents, devout Catholics, deem her their Asian princess, a “divinely ordered” gift from God, and consider the Korean-American couple who relinquished Chung at the Seattle hospital noble. “By the time I was five or six years old, I had heard the tale of my loving, selfless birth parents so many times I could recite it myself.”
But as Chung comes of age, she realizes that no adoption story is so simple, and that family lore, contradicting narratives and irreconcilable truths embody hers.
The gaps in her history needle her throughout adolescence, and her hunger to learn about her past reaches a fever pitch when she learns that she is pregnant with her first child, her only known blood relative. As her pregnancy progresses, her curiosity about the circumstances of her adoption eventually eclipses the guilt she feels for going behind her parents’ backs to find answers. “It was time to lay down the burden of being ‘the good adoptee,’ the grateful little girl who’d been lost and then found. Who cared what anyone thought of my decision? Who cared about their questions?”
Chung’s dynamic prose tackles identity and the forces that shape it, such as classmates’ bullying about her noticeably Asian features and her parents’ colorblind insistence that they don’t think of her as Asian. “Sometimes the adoption — the abandonment, as I could not help but think of it when I was very young — upset me more; sometimes my differences did; but mostly, it was both at once, race and adoption, linked parts of my identity that set me apart from everyone else in my orbit. I could neither change nor deny these facts, so I worked to reconcile myself to them.”
The book is a keen and meticulous critique of loving, well-meaning white parents raising a child of color in a predominantly white community. (Chung grew up in southern Oregon.) “Even now, when there is more awareness, more ‘celebration’ of adopted children’s cultures, many parents are not provided with the guidance or resources they need to bring up children of color in white families, white communities, a white supremacist society.”
What Chung painstakingly unearths about her birth family is thrilling and unsettling, and her articulation of her findings averts tropish feel-good stereotypes. Here, the open wound at the heart of this exquisite narrative heals slightly skewed, exactly as it should.
Anjali Enjeti’s reviews appear in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia Review and elsewhere. She is vice president of membership for the National Book Critics Circle.
All You Can Ever Know
By: Nicole Chung.
Publisher: Catapult, 225 pages, $26.