By Nur Nasreen Ibrahim
Can we truly know everything about our families? The time before our birth belongs to our parents, and their mixing of truth and memory influences our second-hand knowledge. But in Nicole Chung’s story of adoption—where even that ordinary, embellished knowledge was taken away—the questions and answers become fraught with a different kind of significance, a kind of significance that Chung ties to her self-worth, her place as an Asian American raised by a white family in a majority-white town, and her own motherhood.
Even as Chung searches for the truth, All You Can Ever Know leaves many questions unanswered. As a narrator, she works hard to balance the revelations of her family history with thoughtful moments of pause. Every sentence brims with impending surprise, her reflections hint at difficulties ahead, and as readers we have to be patient. Living in Chung’s narrative, one soon becomes intimately attuned to her hesitations and insecurities. Until the inevitable reunion, one can even anticipate, and yearn for, the information withheld.
This book is also about an adoptee reclaiming and rewriting the accepted narrative. A running theme in the first half of the book is the responsibility parents have for the narratives they construct for their children. Chung seems to have started with the understanding that she would never truly know everything from her past. As a child, she asked her adoptive parents about her birth parents: “How could they give me up?” She knew she was born too early, that her birth parents were told she would struggle all her life, and they couldn’t afford to keep her. Her adoptive mother’s answer always ended with: “They thought adoption was the best thing for you.” This story, a reassurance of love, was created out of love. Yet, Chung was haunted by alternative possibilities.
Then we encounter a different narrator early on, who we later learn is her birth sister, Cindy. Cindy was told a different story about the disappearance of the sister she would connect with in adulthood, and she did not question it: “All she could know was what they told her.” Cindy’s narrative, also deeply influenced by information given and withheld, pain and trauma held back until the crucial reunion, is both moving and confounding. Introducing Cindy earlier presents a unique test for Chung. She indicates that she will find her birth family, and as readers we breathe a sigh of relief. But she also withholds key information for later, as revelations folded inside revelations.
But this is a trajectory that Chung has fashioned for herself—even early on. It seems critical, for instance, that with Chung’s birth story, she was “worthy of memory” for her birth parents. Worthiness, or the lack of it, defined Chung’s quest for her birth family. Whether it was the loss of one aspect of her identity through adoption, or the dissonance between her adoptive parents’ love and the perception others had of them, she craved answers that would help her understand her place in the world. This search for belonging began with her reflection in the mirror: the first sign that she was different from her family.
The task Chung sets for herself in the memoir is daunting, and unenviable. A big challenge of writing a story about your own adoption is that there are far too many perspectives to consider—each with their own version of the truth. Cindy’s perspective arrives following a chapter about Chung’s adoptive parents and her adoption story. We have the adoption story they gave Chung, followed by the story Cindy grows up with, and the truth is somewhere in between, excavated with painstaking care. The realizations Chung brings as an adult enrich the childhood narrative, and give space to her adoptive parents’ perspectives. Chung acknowledges the deep love her parents had for her, but also felt she didn’t fit their “radiant” narrative that she was “not their Korean child [but] their child, their chosen gift from God.” The idealistic erasure of her differences did not extend to the society she grew up in. She experienced racism at her majority-white school and craved fitting in. She imagined that if she had a fairy godmother, she “would ask for peaches-and-cream skin, eyes like deep blue pools, hair like spun gold instead of blackest ink.” Then she “would be worthy of it all.” And yet—her adoptive parents’ awareness of her differences does make it into the story in small and touching ways: “An Asian baby doll appeared under the tree one Christmas, specially ordered.”
Perhaps because of the early gap in communication between Chung and her adoptive parents, one occasionally wants the narrator to confront the silences as an adult, reveal her deepest emotions to her family, and move beyond the simple acknowledgement that some topics were taboo. Chung’s mother’s perspective on smaller details, like ordering the Asian baby doll for Christmas, could—for instance—fill the narrative gap. But simultaneously, Chung’s choices as a narrator makes us wonder how much a reader can expect her to do. She does not have to satisfy all our curiosity, but we are deeply curious all the same. She does not have to let us in so intimately, but she does it anyway.
Even the most moving storytellers must eventually face the mundane. Unavoidably, Chung’s quest—life-changing though it may be—involves a great deal of bureaucracy: letters to the attorney who facilitated her adoption, dealing with the legal aspects of closed adoptions, where neither party shares details about themselves. It is impressive, then, that each part of the process feels urgent in its banality; every communication with the court, or the people facilitating the search a matter of grave consequence. A process of second-guessing Chung’s decision to search for her parents recurs continuously until she became pregnant herself.
It’s not difficult to get pulled into Chung’s experience of motherhood, her fears, her desire to give her children a sense of history. Her narrative shines with her love for the family she creates; and here, she stands on far more certain footing in contrast with the story of the family she was born to, and the family with which she spent her childhood. With the birth of her first child, she thinks, “I wouldn’t be alone anymore. There would be someone who was connected to me in a way no one else had ever been.” And she was comforted in the fact that her daughter will always know her. “She would never have to fight to know her story.” We encounter a touching parallel with her adoptive parents’ experience after they adopted her—a moment of connection: “No matter how a child joins your family, their presence changes all the rules; they […] build new rooms, knock down walls you never knew existed.” Both families, past and present, are transformed.
After she becomes pregnant, she hires Donna, a “search angel” who petitions the court for her adoption papers, and tracks her parents down to send a letter from Chung which they can choose to respond to, or not.
As she comes closer to communicating with her birth parents, the birth/adoption narratives become progressively more complicated, and contradictory: all stories become equally dubious. But when she learns the truth about her birth mother and the tearing apart of the birth family, the reality is especially difficult. As she finally connects with them, her writing alternates between glimpses of hope, and the fear of disappointment. In a small, but significant moment, she wonders if her birth father hoped she was “more Korean.”
But her relationship with her sister, Cindy, is better than she had imagined. Cindy, who has sections devoted to her experience, the sister she found “at last,” begins their bond by offering “nothing except for the truth.” This semblance of comfort amidst difficulty is a relief; we want Chung and her multiple families to be okay.
No family is free of complication; everyone carries with them their share of secrets. Chung touches upon other stories of adoption, and minority experiences, but doesn’t attempt to lump them together. After all, hers is such a specific story. How many of us will ever go on a search like this? And yet how many of us have—in some way or another—been forced to question the ties that bind us? Her story may not be strictly universal, but we still feel the pathos, joy, uncertainty, and even familiarity.
Chung’s best shift is when she assumes full control over her story. Then, the narrative transforms from simply an adoption story that she once imagined would “remake” her, to “another kind of story.” We see her, not as the adoptee narrator constantly searching, but the narrator who has accepted her past, and is now reshaping her identity on her own terms.
Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a television producer by day and a writer by night. Born and raised in Pakistan, she is currently based in the United States. She was a finalist for the inaugural Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction. She has written essays and reviews for Catapult, The Millions, The Collapsar, and other publications. Her fiction has appeared in Specter Magazine, Platypus Press, and is forthcoming in Salmagundi Magazine, and in an anthology of South Asian speculative fiction from Hachette India.