Nicole Chung’s Memoir “All You Can Ever Know” and the Future of Adoptee-Focused Literature

“All You Can Ever Know,” a beautiful memoir by Nicole Chung, was published October 2 and is already in its fifth printing. The book had been glowingly reviewed all over the map: the New Yorker, Boston GlobeSeattle Times, Buzzfeed, NPR,  and many more, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and from Library Journal.

Nicole is on a book tour that includes chatting with Trevor Noah TONIGHT on The Daily Show. Seriously. I am guessing she is the first transracial adoptee to be on the show.

It’s all off the charts, really. And here’s the thing: it’s well deserved for a book that is nuanced and elegant, telling a story that is woven carefully around family, race, adoption, and the complexities thereof. As the Washington Post noted, “Chung’s search for her biological roots, after being raised in Oregon by white parents who adopted her from Korean parents, has to be one of this year’s finest books, let alone memoirs. Editor in chief of Catapult and former editor of the Toast, Chung has literary chops to spare and they’re on full display in descriptions of her need, pain and bravery.”

There’s not really much I can add to what so many others have already said.

Still, as an adoptive parent (and we ap’s are really good at holding the mic in the adoption community), I will offer this: It’s a beautifully crafted memoir, a carefully balanced story of an adoptee’s efforts to find her way in the world, and especially to find her truth. Nicole’s reflections on her pregnancies, her birth mother, her adoptive mother, her daughters, and her sisters are candid and heartfelt. There are questions and loose ends and tangles and more questions. She’s a Korean adoptee not born in Korea. She loves her white adoptive parents and has struggled with racism and privilege. Perhaps the best part of her search and reunion journey has been the deep bond with the sister she found as an adult.

The memoir reminded me that, as an adoptive parent, as much as we deeply love our children, if we are not adopted ourselves, we cannot fully understand what it means to be adopted. If we are white, we cannot fully understand what it means for our children to be and grow up as people of color. We must acknowledge and not dismiss or minimize those truths. We must listen and learn—and read and talk.

That the book has been wildly successful does not surprise me: Nicole is a highly accomplished writer and editor. (Full disclosure: she was my editor at Catapult for my article “How My Daughter’s Pregnancy Made Me Rethink Adoption.”) The reviews, the tour, and the acclaim are deserved.

Here’s my hope: Nicole’s book (and all the accompanying attention) will open even more doors for adoptees to write and publish their stories, whether they are happy, frightening, shocking, sad, or even mundane. “All You Can Ever Know” will find a solid niche as Asian-American literature as well as adoption literature as well as mother lit and memoir. Some adoptees will embrace Nicole’s story as resonant for them; some will have had a polar opposite experience. We all need to hear the wide and fascinating range of adoptee stories, told not by their adoptive parents, but by the adoptees themselves.

I’d be remiss if I did not say that there will soon be news about the anthology by Ethiopian adoptees from 7 countries,  “Lions Roaring, Far From Home.” I am one of the editors, and while there have been significant, unanticipated delays, we are moving ahead toward publication.

Brava, Nicole! Your book is a gem. I hope you get some rest along the roller coaster of a book tour. I hope John Cho loved the memoir. I hope you continue writing (I know that’s not an issue), and I know that the rest of us will continue enjoying and learning from your stories, your candor, and your generous soul.

With Nicole at her reading at Seattle Public Library, October 4, 2018.

Tell Trevor I said hello.

 

 

 

While “All You Can Ever Know” has received amazing attention and reach, there are many other books written by adoptees as well, and hopefully even more in the future. Be sure to check out AdopteeReading.com for “books written and recommended by adoptees.”

How great if we had a large collection of books by birth mothers and birth fathers as well, from around the world,

Small Town Football, Schizophrenia, and Transracial Adoption: A Devastating Perfect Storm

In the U.S., we have lots of small towns where high school sports are entrenched. There are many traditions, and much enthusiasm, for the games, the players, and the coaches. Playing high school football is tough work: memorizing dozens of plays, completing and repeating complex drills, working through pain, following instructions that are yelled, living up to history and traditions of the team. Sometimes there is also character building, camaraderie, and excellence in sportsmanship.

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Dietrich High School football team practice

I can understand why young men in high school, especially in a small town, would want to be on the football team. I can understand why those who didn’t play sports would feel like excluded outsiders. Take tiny Dietrich, Idaho, for example. Why not try out for the Blue Devils team? The whole town (all 330 people) would know and maybe love you.

 

If you were part of an unusually big (25 kids) family, your family was the main reason the town had a black population at all, and you were a black 17-year-old who wanted to be part of the team and the town, maybe you’d try out for football. Maybe your only role models for black men were pro football players that you’d seen on tv. Maybe you’d hope to fit in, be part of a community where, as a transracial adoptee, you felt like an outsider, an “other.”

I get that.

What I don’t get is why a teen with disorganized schizophrenia would be considered by his parents or his coaches as a good candidate for lineman on a small high school football team.

The adoptee’s mother has said in news reports that her son, adopted at age four, was exposed to drugs and alcohol (Fetal Alcohol Effect or Syndrome?) before he was born, and was diagnosed with disorganized schizophrenia. “He struggles to carry out tasks that involve a sequence. When writing the first sentence of an essay, for instance, he may forget the point of the project. He carries this huge backpack” full of all his books so he can be sure to have the one he needs, the teen’s adoptive mother told news media.

People with disorganized schizophrenia have disorganized speech and thinking, and grossly disorganized behavior, They often have a flat affect, and inappropriate emotions and facial responses. Treatment for disorganized schizophrenia is more difficult than most of the subtypes of schizophrenia. They can be successful in life, of course–with support.

A teen with disorganized schizophrenia would not likely be safe or successful on a high school football team, unless appropriate safeguards and resources were in place, where people (coaches and teammates) were willing to work with him closely and intensely.

For this teen, playing football had to have been a nightmare. “As a lineman with the football team, the teen could seldom avoid jumping offsides; the quarterback’s play calls confounded him,” say news reports. Imagine–under the best circumstances–how that affected the teen himself, and imagine the responses of his coaches and teammates.

Add to that baseline the horrific racist taunting that (apparently) the coaches and the high school staff knew about and condoned. Add to that physical bullying in the locker room. Add to that being humiliated by teammates taking naked pictures of him on the team bus.

Add to that sexual assault by 3 teammates–a coat hanger in the rectum.

I hope that the alleged criminals–his teammates–are prosecuted to the full extent of the law, for “forcible penetration by use of force or a foreign object,” and for every possible charge. The federal criminal lawsuit will take time to wend its way through the system, as information is gathered and witnesses deposed. I wonder if one of the witnesses will be Hubert Shaw, who owns Dietrich’s feed lot, and is related to the main defendant, John Howard. Shaw is quoted saying about Howard and the other two defendants: “They’re 15-, 16-, 17-year-old boys who are doing what boys do.”

The adoptive family has filed a $10 million civil lawsuit, and that will no doubt take a long time to settle as well. The Dietrich school system has a $2 million annual budget. Maybe they have a lot of liability insurance. I don’t know how that works. I am heartened that the Dietrich School coaches, principals, and other staff members are explicitly named in the suit. They must be held accountable. Everyone who let this teen down in such a cruel, traumatizing way must be held accountable.

The mentality of small town sports can be overwhelming and consuming. Football is a tough, unforgiving, complex sport.

Adoption is complex, and can be traumatic. Children adopted at older ages (and 4 is older in adoption) have likely gone through some difficult experiences, or otherwise would not be placed for adoption. Adoptees often need and can benefit from clinical and other support services, especially in the teen years.

Transracial adoption has its own challenges. A good adoption agency and any adoption-competent licensed therapist would recommend that families have access to resources, role models, racial mirrors, same race mentors, and a deep understanding of racism (both on an individual and systemic level).

Treatment of mental illness often involves medications, therapies, counseling, and other services. Schizophrenia is particularly serious. I agree that stigma needs to be removed from mental illness. But mental illness is real, and should be treated with appropriate care.

There’s so much misunderstanding of special needs and of mental illness, of the realities of racism for people of color, and of the complexity of adoption. What a devastating perfect storm for this teen in Idaho.