Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know is perhaps the most understated memoir I’ve read thus far. But that doesn’t mean it fails to move the reader. I had several motives for picking her book off the shelf. As a Pacific Islander living in a state with serious racial tensions (Minnesota), I hoped to more seriously explore questions of race in this memoir about growing up as a Korean-American in a white household. As a gay man living in a largely Catholic community, I wanted to see if she could offer insight on the experience of one who has lived with unacknowledged misunderstandings for most of his life. As a partnered man in new adulthood, I wanted to get a perspective on adoption that might help me discern whether to adopt in the future. And as an aspiring memoirist, I wanted to read a book by someone who had succeeded in the long journey to publication. On none of these counts did she disappoint.
Chung presents an honest story, one where not all loose ends are tied up, not everyone finds reconciliation, and many questions remain unanswered. She does not write a story for closure, but for understanding, and for posterity. She realizes, in giving advice to a young couple, that adoption isn’t a “right” or “wrong” decision. It’s just a complicated one, no matter the circumstances, and the complications should be acknowledged. Of course, adoptive parents can offer all of the love in the world to their children, but they should also be prepared to face the fact that in today’s world their love will not be enough to shield their families from complication. They should face and accept this. Chung doesn’t advise against adoption; she’s happy to tell prospective parents that they will love their children well. She just wants parents to adopt with their eyes open.
In the memoir, you can’t help but feel some reconciliation to these complications, and how she uses her history to make something more for her children. Chung writes how she had spent decades disassociated from her biological family history, and as you near the end of her memoir, you start to realize that she has created something beautiful for her own children. The answers she had always sought from her birth parents about the past will be awaiting her own children on a bookshelf at home.
The book does not have high drama, and the stakes for Chung in her search for familial understanding are largely interior. But the reader experiences them as very real nonetheless. She does not overdramatize, and her writing is rarely forceful, which is surprising considering that Chung considers herself to be a very strong willed person. I thought some of her strongest passages in this respect were her reflections towards the end on pushing her adoptive family to set aside their “colorblind” approach to race and stare at the issues that have hung over her life since childhood.
One cannot help but be moved by the passionate love story that blossoms in Chung’s reconciliation with her birth sister, Cindy. I won’t write too much about it. You should just read it for yourself.
You can order a copy here.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.