Nicole Chung, 39, was born in Seattle and placed for adoption by her Korean parents, before being raised by a white family in Oregon. Her memoir, All You Can Ever Know, shares her experience of the prejudice she faced as a trans-racial adoptee and her search for her birth family. The memoir was published to acclaim in the US, with the Washington Post calling it one of the year’s finest books. Chung is an editor for digital literary magazine Catapult, and lives in the Washington DC area.
What made you decide to share your experience?
When I was growing up, I didn’t really have a chance to read stories about families that look like mine – by which I don’t even mean families that adopted trans-racially, I mean multiracial families at all. And when I did see adoption in pop culture, it was sensationalistic or very surface level, glossing over the real issues which come up, even in happy families. As I started writing [articles] about adoption in my early 30s, I heard from a lot of people who were thinking about it and appreciated having an adoptee’s perspective. I would get these great follow-up questions, and it occurred to me that a 2,000-word essay didn’t really give the space the topic deserved. Eventually it sunk in that maybe what this really is, is a book.
Your parents took a “colourblind” approach to raising you, where race wasn’t really acknowledged…
My adoptive parents took this approach on the clear, specific advice of adoption professionals. The judge who finalised my adoption told them “just assimilate her and everything will be fine”. I don’t think that’s as common now; more and more people acknowledge the fact that race is extremely relevant to that child and how their life will unfold and how others will view them.
You grew up in a white community. What impact do you think that had on you?
Encountering racism at school, [I was] too embarrassed to tell anybody. I remember specifically trying to protect my parents from that, because I felt they would be so devastated to hear that what they had told me – about how all that mattered was the person that I was – was not entirely true. As a child, it’s very hard to see things like internalised racism; I thought of whiteness as somehow superior, and my first stories all had white characters as heroines – blond hair, blue eyes featured really prominently. That’s stuff I’ve had to try very hard to unpack and unlearn as an adult.
Did you find it difficult to write the book?
It’s funny the number of times in my life I have thought to myself: “I’ve really got this adoption thing figured out…” But talking to my family, both birth and adoptive, about it was complicated. [Chung’s birth parents had divorced by the time she had contact with them, and gave her conflicting accounts of why they’d placed her for adoption and who had led the decision.] Actually, I think going deep into what my birth parents or adoptive parents or my sister went through did dramatically increase my empathy for them.
Have you had feedback from your birth and adoptive parents?
My adoptive mother recently passed away, and my adoptive father actually passed in 2018. So he didn’t get to finish it, but he got to read everything that he was in. One of the last conversations I had with my father was actually about the book: it was around the holidays and he told me it had been a really great Christmas present. I shared a draft with members of my birth family as well – I wanted everybody to have a chance to talk about it, and for them to raise concerns or questions.
You got your first email from your birth father while in labour with your first child… Did you ever regret your timing?
It was surreal to have it so completely coinciding with my pregnancy. If it were fiction, you would not believe it! But I began searching [for my birth parents] in the very early days in my pregnancy and I truly believed that it would all be settled by then; I underestimated the bureaucratic slog.
You mentioned not seeing people like you in books when you were growing up. Has that changed, or is publishing lagging behind?
I think publishing always lags behind. A lot of us have been saying for years that readers are more than ready and willing, and you see that in the success of many books by writers who are really under-represented in literature. But publishing is slow, and averse to what it views as risky. It’s a real problem.
Do you feel that publishers have viewed your work as risky?
You never really know. There’s lots of legitimate reasons why an editor or house might not connect with a particular project. But I didn’t have a ton of offers; I didn’t have solid offers from big houses. I do remember a few comments – it’s often quite veiled, like “I just had a hard time connecting”. One woman did ask me if I thought anyone would read it besides Koreans or adopted people.
What were your favourite books or authors as a child?
I love EB White. For me it was more The Trumpet of the Swan than Charlotte’s Web. I read a lot of Roald Dahl – I loved Danny Champion of the World in particular.
What was the last really great book that you read?
My colleague [at Catapult] Megha Majumdar’s A Burning. It’s extraordinary. It was also the first book I managed to sit and concentrate on since my mother died; I read it in an afternoon.
• All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung is published by Pushkin Press (£9.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15