Nicole Chung (photo: Erica B. Tappis)
By the time I received Nicole Chung’s proposal for All You Can Ever Know on submission at Catapult, I was already—like so many others—a fan of her work. Her essays about identity and family in places like the New York Times, Longreads, and The Toast had left a permanent groove in my imagination. When something happened in the news, I’d wonder what Nicole thought about it. To read one of her articles was like diving into clear water after months of wading through flotsam: here was moral and stylistic clarity, and writing with purpose. Nicole’s sentences have led me to a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be human. You can imagine how I felt when I learned our bid for her debut memoir had been accepted.
Even as a proposal, All You Can Ever Know had an urgency of intention that can take years to wrest from a manuscript. Nicole’s voice is so distinct, she could write compellingly about pretty much anything. But in making the story of her transracial adoption and the search for her biological family her subject, she has done us all a great service. There are so few narratives of adoption from the adoptee’s perspective. Despite having known many adopted people, I had never read or heard anything quite like Nicole’s story before.
After years of working together, Nicole and I sat down to have a formal conversation about her story, the evolution of her book, and what it means to both of us to be both writers and editors.
I know that as a child you struggled to find stories that matched your experience of growing up adopted. Did this absence of comparable stories present a challenge for you as you worked on the book?
Yes—people ask me for recommendations all the time, and it’s difficult to know what to say, especially if they’re looking for books that kids and teens could also read. The majority of the books that deal with adoption—both fiction and nonfiction—are written by non-adoptees. I don’t think I read any adoption stories when I was growing up, except for Anne of Green Gables and a few others from a different era, when adoption wasn’t the institution it is today. I certainly never got to read anything about transracial adoptees like me.
It must have been so strange to see versions of your story filtered through someone else’s perspective, with the subject, the adoptee, never at the center.
It can also feel as though adopted people are never really allowed to grow up in literature. Even as adults, we might lack agency or be defined primarily by what other people think about adoption and our stories. Who we are is nearly always presented in terms of somebody else’s wish, or somebody else’s problem. We overwhelmingly have stories from the perspective of adopters, which makes adoption literature fairly one sided. And I know it’s not because people aren’t curious: I got so many questions about adoption as a kid, and I still do. Many people, even if they aren’t adopted, can relate to the feeling of not quite fitting in your family, or growing up between different cultures, or wondering about the relatives missing from the family reunion or the family album. And they are curious about what it’s like for adopted people to grow up adopted; that’s just not really what most of the books or shows are about.
Though this book is first and foremost a story of transracial adoption, the questions about identity, how to make sense of your story when you’re missing a piece of your narrative, really resonated with me. I don’t have a relationship with my biological father. In the book, there’s a passage when you’re in Seattle, visiting the city where you were born, and you talk about wondering if you walked by your parents in the crowd—whether you’d recognize each other. I remember feeling a similar thing, as a kid, in airports, wondering whether I’d know my dad if he passed by. How did that feeling change when you actually searched—did you feel a real shock of recognition when you began to learn about your birth family?
I did feel a real sense of recognition when I saw a picture of my sister, Cindy—she sent it with her first email, so it was also the first time I read her words. I think that connection was almost immediate for both of us, and felt real even when we were just trading letters. At first the main thing we had in common was our curiosity—what the hell happened in our family all those years ago?—but it was a powerful place to begin. You know when you want something so much you almost bring it about through the wanting? I had always wanted to know other people like me, had fantasized about having a sister, and now here was my actual sister and I was talking to her.
One of the most exciting things about working on this book was watching Cindy’s story develop. When you started writing from her perspective, and even from that of your adoptive parents, it felt like you cracked something open, like you could write anything, come at this story from all sorts of different angles. How did writing from other points of view change the shape of the book for you?
My parents didn’t feel real enough in the book until I gave them that chapter. You need to see who they were before the adoption, before I entered their lives at all; you have to understand how much they wanted to be parents, how much they wanted me, in order to get so much of what happens after and why my race didn’t really matter to them. Obviously it matters deeply to me; it matters to the world; it never mattered all that much to them. Which isn’t to say they were “race blind,” because no one is—but where I was concerned, it was just so unimportant compared to how much they wanted a child. I think a lot of parents who adopt across racial lines feel similarly. You have to know how much my parents wanted the adoption in order to understand the stakes of my eventual search, why I hesitated for so many years.
You really look at it through their eyes. It’s such an essential thing for a writer to do.
I think that’s the job of a memoirist; I don’t think it’s fair or right if I’m the only character who’s allowed that kind of depth and complexity. Nor would that be fun to read!
I decided to try the same thing with Cindy, writing her story from her perspective. I knew I wanted to start with this story she had told me many times, about the day our mother went into labor with me and Cindy waited and waited and then her parents came home without a baby. She was only six at the time; she couldn’t understand what was going on, and no one really explained it to her. I wanted to show where her curiosity came from, what the mystery was like from her side of it, growing up in my birth family.
As an adoptee, it’s so easy to let your mind go to that question of what your life would have been like if you’d been kept, or just been adopted by someone else. In Cindy, I had one answer to that what-could-have-been question. Still, I wasn’t sure it would work, writing someone else’s point of view so intimately in a memoir.
It’s an act of love to go there with your imagination, to try and understand someone else’s story. But that can be a tricky balancing act for a memoirist. What were the challenges of writing into these scenes you weren’t present for, and did doing that work influence your budding relationship with your sister in real life?
I asked her questions I hadn’t thought to before, and learned more about her life and her young adulthood especially—the years after she’d left home but before we connected. Before I started writing, I promised her I wouldn’t publish anything she didn’t want me to share, and as the book took shape I checked in with her a lot. I was probably very annoying about it! I remember I was a little worried about writing her part of the story, though when you read the book you can see why it’s so important. I didn’t want her to feel exploited or exposed in any way. But our relationship is a decade old now, solid and built on a great deal of trust, and so I think in the end she just had faith that it would turn out okay.
You were always loyal to the truth over embroidering anything for the sake of the story, which I don’t think is the case in every memoir. The book has a kind of moral integrity that feels really rare.
Maybe at times I am too cautious, but when you are writing a memoir you really do feel this enormous pressure. It’s not that I thought everyone needed to come out looking saintly. But I do have real compassion for everybody in the story, even some people who make objectively bad choices. People are complicated. We all make choices in order to survive.
Has writing the book changed how you feel about your adoption story, and what your role is as an adoptee in the world?
In the book, you know, I write about how I spent so many years explaining adoption to people. That explaining is part of what kept me from interrogating it myself.
You had to be a “good adoptee.”
Exactly. I had to represent my family. I was always managing people’s questions and comments and expectations—and dealing with racism, too. It was only natural to kind of have my hackles up, to feel that if I could just control the story, tell it convincingly, people would leave me alone. I, too, was trying to survive. But living away from home, in college and after, people didn’t see me with my parents, and I didn’t have to answer so many questions. There was no reason to talk about adoption unless I wanted to. I could have just left it all alone, stopped thinking about it, and I was almost surprised when I realized I didn’t want to. Instead I searched for my birth family.
And in writing about it, sometimes I feel, again, that weight of others’ biases and expectations. I don’t feel I am a voice for adoptees. I think rare misreadings of my work happen when people assume I am trying to speak for all adopted people or adoptive families, or making judgments about adoption as a whole. I think a good and worthy practice should be able to stand up to questions and criticism, but I wrote a memoir, not a piece of opinion writing with the goal of criticizing a whole institution.
I am a little anxious about what will happen now that the book is out there, to tell you the truth. Of course, I don’t know how widely it will be read and I don’t know how it will be received, but I know it is one of very few adoptee memoirs out there, and there’s a lot of pressure when you’re one of a few. This is my life people will be reading and reviewing. At the same time, I know it’s a piece of literature, and readers are going to react to it in ways I can’t foresee or control.
The book belongs to other people now.
It absolutely does, and that’s a good thing. I know that needs to happen.
Your adoptive mother has read the whole book, and is supportive. But your adoptive father passed away just as we were wrapping up final edits on the manuscript, and though he read parts of what you’d written, he never finished it. We had some difficult conversations about whether or not to add a section in the book addressing his death, and ultimately decided against it. Can you talk about that decision, and how you feel about it now?
I remember the deadline was the day after I found out. Everything from that day is a little blurry; I know I texted you, and you said not to worry about the deadline, of course, and then I think many hours after that I thought to write back and ask whether you thought I had to address this in the book. We decided not to because, first, it could have worked only in some sort of afterword, as the events in the book wrap up about five years ago, not last year or this year. And I also just couldn’t see how I would write about it, for publication in this book, when it had just happened. Including it would have meant reworking the ending and also postponing publication. I did eventually write about grief, adoption, and finishing the book in an essay for Longreads. I think of that as a sort-of epilogue to my book, in a way.
You’re teaching this memoir-proposal class with Catapult now. Has that had any influence on how you think about the writing process, and especially what it means to distill a book-length idea into a proposal?
I wish I could tell aspiring memoirists that the size of your platform doesn’t matter at all, and that brilliant books are going to sell just on the basis of the quality of the writing and the clarity of the story. It’s hard to be the one pointing out that there are these structural, market-driven things that can make it hard to sell. It’s not like it’s impossible, I don’t mean to sound discouraging—books sell all the time!
But proposals can be tricky. As an editor, you have some awareness that what you get in the end might not be what’s promised in the proposal. And that can be exhilarating, but also very nerve-racking. Sometimes all you’re seeing is a couple of sample chapters and a chapter outline. So the question before making an offer becomes, Do I think the writer can do it? And the answer has to be yes. For me, and I think at Catapult generally, we’re also asking whether we’ve seen this story before. Or if we have read it, have we read it told in this way? From this perspective? In this style?
Exactly, and I think we like doing new things, but not every publisher wants to be the first to do something.
Not only are you an editor, we’re also colleagues, though we weren’t when I bought your book. And that’s added a layer to this relationship. I bought your book, and less than a year later you started working for Catapult. I was a little nervous about how it would influence the editing process. Were you anxious about that? And what is it like working for the same company that’s publishing your book?
I was a little anxious about it, but it was easy working with you from day one. I remember I felt kind of protective of the company—I didn’t want people to think it was doing something fishy by publishing my book!
When you all were reading my proposal, I was still at The Toast. I knew it’d be closing. Didn’t know what I’d be doing after. I had that great call with you and Yuka [Igarashi, now editor in chief of Soft Skull Press], and it was clear you just got the book really well. I was never at all worried about working with you. It probably helped that our day jobs don’t overlap—you run the writing program, I run the magazine. And this is my first book, so it’s not like I had all these other editing experiences to compare it with! I had no expectations, really; I was just really happy to be working with someone who was excited about the book and believed in it.
And then I tried really hard to just stay far away from any meetings about the book. Or any of our books. I have gone out of my way to keep my distance—I figure I have the rest of my life to learn about book publishing; I don’t want to know too much about the actual making of my own book. Come October, though, things will change! I’ll go to launch meetings and learn all about presales.
I felt very protective of you as your editor. I knew a lot about publishing before my book came out, and I don’t think that was always a good thing. Your job was to write the book. I didn’t want you worrying about any of the other stuff. I was traveling a lot when I was editing your book and we had a close relationship. Sometimes I wondered whether I was too blunt.
I mean, this is the thing about editing a memoir that’s really interesting and different from fiction—and maybe you feel like this about editing personal stories for the magazine. You’re not just editing a text, you’re helping somebody think about something that happened to them and put it in order and find the best way to bring the meaning forward.
Yeah. Writing is a job, it is labor, it is a vocation—but at times writing a memoir absolutely feels like therapy. There’s just no getting around it, because you are thinking so much about your history and your narrative and what it all means. You’re taking events and memories and looking for the larger meaning, sometimes thinking, Do I really have to face the truth about this? You can try to compartmentalize—and I am great at that—but there’s no getting away from the fact that it is your life on the page, your identity that you’re writing about. And you have to try and do it in a way that doesn’t feel like puffing yourself up, or in a way that would be of no interest to anybody but you and your best friend. You can’t go easy on yourself.
And that is why it meant so much to me to get to write this with you, someone I absolutely trust. It would have been, I think, hard to have some of those conversations and talk through these events and be really vulnerable with someone I didn’t feel close to. Or even someone I personally liked but who couldn’t understand what I was trying to say.
That’s something that can be hard to explain about the author/editor relationship. It can’t just be like, “I like this person.” It really involves so much trust. I always trust that the writer knows more about the book than I do, and I see my job as helping them preserve their vision for the work. My editing background is really not traditional—I essentially started editing when I began working at Catapult. What was your apprenticeship like? How did you learn to do it?
I learned to read critically and help shape a piece of writing in both college and graduate school. My first experience editing and publishing other writers online was a part-time volunteer editing gig at Hyphen, a magazine dedicated to telling the stories of Asian America. I was there for about a year before Nicole Cliffe and Daniel Mallory Ortberg announced they were hiring an assistant editor for The Toast. (I still can’t believe I got that job—I think I’ve become a pretty good editor, but at the time, they were betting on sheer potential.) A few months later I was promoted to managing editor, and for two years, until the site closed, I edited most of the freelance pieces, managed the schedule, and made sure writers got paid.
At a place like Catapult, every day is a workshop. Some of the most beautiful pieces we’ve published came in as beautiful drafts, and we still did a round or more of edits—because even in a great draft by a great writer, there are always some questions you have, some places where you want a little more. You’re absolutely right that you learn to edit by being edited well, which always feels like such a gift to me, and by reading a lot. And I also think there’s some element of “just do it” in there—you have to feel confident opening a piece and just diving in, asking your questions and making suggestions. Ideally it will be collaborative, more of a conversation with the writer than you exerting your will over the piece or changing their voice, but you also can’t be timid.
You’ve done such an amazing job building community as a writer and editor at The Toast and at Catapult, and on Twitter. What role has this community meant for you as a writer?
There’s a lot I could say about Twitter and a lot of it isn’t great, but I have found wonderful writers and friends who’ve been just incredibly open and generous and thoughtful, who’ve read and shared and challenged my work and helped me be better. And there’s no paying that back, is the thing. But I can try to help other writers. It’s a privilege to be able to edit and publish writers, and also just talk with them when they call or email and ask me about writing and editing and publishing as a career.
As a writer, until you publish, you spend a lot of time sort of isolated with your thoughts and your feelings. I love that moment when you write the story and then you’re not alone anymore. And other writers do the same for you. I just can’t imagine doing this alone.
Julie Buntin’s debut novel, Marlena, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vogue, The New York Times Book Review, Guernica, and other publications. She is the director of writing programs and an associate editor at Catapult.
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