“I was not a miracle,” Nicole Chung writes in her debut memoir, All You Can Ever Know. “I was a fighter.” She’s describing the “truth” of her adoption, which didn’t align with what her deeply religious parents told her all her life — that her severely premature birth, her growing up with a family that in no way resembled her Korean heritage, was all part of God’s plan.
As Chung eventually realizes, life was hardly so simple. All You Can Ever Know gently but firmly challenges the stories told to its author in childhood, the myths intended to make her feel loved and wanted and “normal,” but that could never paint a complete picture. Chung was born to working-class Korean immigrants, and she came into the world with older birth siblings. But she was given away in the hospital due, in part, to the potential for health complications. Her adoptive parents — a white couple struggling to conceive, living in small-town Oregon — swooped in, embracing her fully. The birth parents agreed to close the door for future contact.
Chung attended school in an overwhelmingly white community, facing blatant racism from classmates and internalizing her otherness as she grew older. The author, who previously worked as managing editor of The Toast, revisits her coming of age with a deep melancholy, favoring clarity over sentimentality. She writes crisply, intimately, bringing us close to her experiences of pain, isolation, and discovery. She beautifully recounts, for instance, a family trip to Seattle in which she went to Uwajimaya, a huge Asian supermarket, at 10 years old. “It was bursting with strange, wonderful smells, crammed with boxes and barrels of vegetables and fruits, tanks of live fish and still more seafood and meat on ice,” she writes. “What truly enthralled me were the people: Never before had I been entirely surrounded by Asians.”
Passages like this give All You Can Ever Know real texture, the sensations practically flowing from the page. And Chung emotionally relays her journey to becoming a writer — her path of negotiating and asserting her identity — and to learning about her birth family’s rather traumatic past. Yet her empathetic, graceful prose shines brightest when she casts her gaze elsewhere: on her adoptive parents — their warmth and their secrets, their struggle to talk about race — or on her birth sister, Cindy, who opens Chung’s eyes in adulthood, while similarly trying to find herself. Through them, Chung reveals a family story of heartbreaking truth — personal in its detail, universal in its complexity. B+