The way we sometimes define identity formation feels a little more like myth than an account of what we have experienced in life and how it led us to who we are now. For instance, I think that the way we come to be is seen as a linear or progressive process where one stage leads to the next to the next, where each stage is a “better” you and the goal is to attain some level of completeness of identity where you wholly know who you are as a human being. Even if the personal narrative is presented with various obstacles or roadblocks, we overcome them and become a better, stronger version of ourselves because of it. These stories are always linear and end-oriented, so things makes sense in retrospect, because you can see how someone got from point A to point B.
What I like about memoirs or memoir-style fiction is that they can disrupt this illusion and show the twisted paths that many people take to find out who they are. Rather than being a linear coming-to-consciousness, most experiences of identity formation are non-linear and fraught; the path to get to who you are as a person is never a straight-shot and it is never promised that you will ever achieve it. Many people also take it for granted that everyone, deep inside somewhere, knows who they are. However, as Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know shows, there are some things that are some things consistent inside you from the time you are a child to the time you are an adult. However, there are other things in life — the people you are around, the way they see you, the way they interpellate you based on what they see, the stories you are told that make you believe some things are possible or impossible — that directly impact the way someone sees themselves.
I was really excited to pick up All You Can Ever Know because I was already familiar with Nicole Chung‘s work at Catapult as a writer and editor. Obviously, there is a lot than can be gleaned from someone’s own work, but I remember being particularly struck with the type of work that Chung indirectly encouraged, especially the columns she has helped bring out. I have mentioned Nina Coomes’ column, mistranslate, before and even have it linked in my Recommended Readings tab as something I think more people should read. Coomes’ column touches on the complexities within one experience of biracial (in this case ハーフ) identity. I’ve been reading these column since the beginning of 2018 and immediately being able to recognize myself in the work that these women are doing. And that recognition, the coming across a mirror of yourself that reflects something deeper than the physical, is what I pull out of a lot of the texts that have Chung’s stamp on it. There is also a strong drive towards opening up the narrative field and bringing many different stories and identities to the forefront, giving people (like me) who aren’t used to seeing ourselves or our internal struggles on the page. I love the range of experiences and voices that I have come across because of Chung’s work. Knowing that this was the type of writer and editor that would appear on the page, is it any wonder why I really wanted to read the book?
The book centers on Chung’s experience as a transracial adoptee — a Korean child who was adopted by white parents. The narrative traces her understanding of herself from childhood through her adulthood, beginning with her struggles to reconcile who see felt she was with how she was perceived by others in a tiny town where she is one of the few non-white residents and how she comes to terms with the complicated embodied experience of being a Korean adoptee. She touches on the “set” narratives in place for people in her situation, how they are often painted purely positively and how they treat the moment of reconnecting with one’s birth family as the end of the story. All You Can Ever Know breaks apart a lot of these set narratives and themes and explores the deeper, longer-reaching impact of adoption, the long searching for one’s biological family, what happens after contact is made, how everyone (and everything) changes after contact.
A lot of what Chung writes about are things beyond what I can know, yet so much of what she wrote impacted me, somehow, as I read. There were a few moments in the latter third of the book that made me close the book for a bit while keeping my finger between the pages to keep my place and actually blink away some tears. Why? I think it’s because Chung brings us along with her throughout the entire book; she is open and vulnerable, emotionally available to readers in a way that means we subconsciously open up to her and let her words inside. So when she describes her disappointments, her pain, and the shocks that are part of her journey of personal discovery, I feel it with her. Her voice in the book also helps with this connection between reader and writer; her writing is very conversational while still being prosaic. She doesn’t burden the writing with unnecessary words or descriptions, but she clearly manages to inject a lot of emotion without overworking the language on the page. I personally really enjoy this paired-down, direct style of writing, so the book flew by for me while keeping me entirely rapt with attention.
That being said, I was also really impressed by the pacing of the book. Rather than following a linear path from youth to adulthood, Chung moves between moments presented as she experienced them at the time, such as how she felt in the moment as a child, and how she reconstitutes these moments now more critically as an adult. This provides readers with a nice understanding of what it was like for Chung to experience what she did and how she had to work through different stages in her life to overcome the narratives that she came to believe about herself, her family, and her origins. I also thought that certain unexpected revelations were timed really effectively — there was a good affective punch when a certain something is revealed later in the book, which I could easily see another author wanting to reveal earlier. But Chung saves it and its placement in the narrative as a whole made the revelation itself really memorable.
If I must include something, formally, that did not really work for me it would have the be the somewhat overuse of italics for emphasis in the first half of the text. The italics became noticeable after a while and it disrupts my flow as a reader whenever the formal elements of writing start to make themselves known. This is such a minor point but most formal elements — the structure of the narrative, the movement of the narrative voice across time, the prose style — was all the type of writing I personally like, so I am definitely biased when it comes to the writing itself.
I’d like to reread it a few times, especially the parts where she reflects on what it means to have a family history and the privilege it is to have a family history to look back on for those of us who are not adopted. For me, family history (my mother and her Japanese family) was the lifesaving root that kept me grounded through significant trauma in my life — a family history that I carry through my non-social media name (Julia Megumi has been with me throughout my whole life but is only 2/3 of the story) that I legally changed some years ago, which may someday be revealed here. That name — my name on my driver’s license, my various diplomas, my credit card — carries a history, a genealogy that is important to me and provides a key element of identity for me. Mundane things become surprisingly important for those of us with complicated identities, so Chung’s exploration of origins resonated with me, though in a slightly unexpected way.
Overall, I enjoyed this book just as much as I was hoping to as someone who was familiar with Chung’s work and I can definitely recommend it, especially if you were also looking forward to it. For anyone who loves reading about the complicated lived experience of others, for anyone who felt that there was a deep disconnect between how you see yourself and the way you were seen by others, for those who want to support fellow Asian American/Korean American female writers, for those who just want a good new read — this one is for you.
* All You Can Ever Know will be available October 2, 2018 but, hey, why not preorder it? A huge, huge thank you to Catapult for sending me this ahead of its release date — I never expect anything to be sent to me and I am always deeply grateful for the chance to receive these texts, especially when it is a book I was already fully ready to buy. Please also take a peek at the Catapult columns I linked above, as well as the other work posted there as you will not be disappointed.