Finding “Enough”: A Conversation with Nicole Chung

April 4, 2023
A photograph of Nicole Chung sitting in front of a red brick wall. She is looking off into the distance.
Photo by Carlette Girma

Writer and editor Nicole Chung is the author of the best-selling memoir All You Can Ever Know (Catapult, 2018), the story of the search for her Korean birth family and a challenge to the stereotyped rescue narrative of transracial adoption. In her new memoir, A Living Remedy (Harper Collins, 2023), she reflects on the circumstances of her adoptive parents’ deaths. Her grief for them is complicated by the pandemic as she explores how “grief provides a living remedy,” a line from “Three Days,” by Marie Howe. With ailing parents on the West Coast and her husband and daughters in lockdown on the East Coast, Chung chronicles what she describes as “the agonizing decision of weighing my options when I really had no options”—a personal crisis that was amplified by the fault lines of the national health care system.

Chung is currently a contributing writer at the Atlantic, where she offers advice and insights about the writing life in her newsletter, I Have Notes. Her nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, the Guardian, Slate, and Vulture.

Renee H. Shea: Perhaps because of Prince Harry’s Spare, memoir seems to be in the spotlight right now with any number of people weighing in. Recently, Patti Davis, daughter of former president Ronald Reagan, wrote about the regret she felt for writing a memoir about her family: “There isn’t just one truth, our truth . . . the other people who inhabit our story have their truths as well.” How did you make peace with that idea of truth—or truths—as you wrote both All You Can Ever Know and A Living Remedy?

Nicole Chung: I think a lot about the fundamental power dynamic of memoir where, as the writer, it’s my truth that people are reading. I’m very conscious of that and take the responsibility seriously. When I read memoir, I’m always thinking that I’m glimpsing what the writer wants me to see because they’ve sifted through memories and decided what’s important for me to know. They’re the ones deciding how the story is framed. But I’m always aware as a reader and writer that there are whole vistas we don’t see when we are reading one person’s story.

In contrast to my first memoir, my parents weren’t able to read A Living Remedy, though there are certain sections that my mom and I talked about before she passed. When I started the book, she was alive and did not have a terminal diagnosis, so I began writing thinking that she would be involved as I went along and would read a full draft at some point. That was not to be. But to the best of my limited ability as a writer, my parents live in this book.

The cover to Nicole Chung's book A Living RemedyShea: After All You Can Ever Know came out, you commented that you’d been “telling some version of my adoption story my whole life.” Then you wrote in A Living Remedy: “I had not considered how my experiences as an adoptee would tint the edges of my grief when I began to lose [my parents].” Is it fair to call this new memoir a sequel?

Chung: It’s an entirely separate book. Many events in A Living Remedy, like my going off to college, took place before I wrote All You Can Ever Know, but ultimately my editor and I agreed that they just didn’t fit. A Living Remedy is a story about leaving home for the first time and the distance that grows between you and people you love. It’s a different story I wanted to tell through a different lens: a story of grief, of an adult daughter who’s also a parent who’s lost her parents in the midst of a changing world. So it’s a reckoning with all of that.

Shea: You’ve talked about the fact that you basically took what you thought was a solid draft of your first book and completely restructured it so that it was no longer chronological. How, then, did you determine that chronology worked for A Living Remedy?

Chung: I like skipping around in time. I don’t actually like writing in a linear fashion, and I didn’t intend to tell the story that way. But my editor and I realized that chronological order was the structure that worked—much to my surprise.

Shea: A notable exception to chronology is the opening chapter, which I find poetic in both thought and language, a kind of meditation. At what point in the process did you write it?

Chung: Thank you for your kind words. It was not the last chapter I wrote, but it was later in the process. Initially, I envisioned this book as a series of connected essays with some that could potentially stand alone. It became clear early on that’s not what this book was. It would be a memoir, a novelistic story.

I had so many different beginnings. At one point it was about me wanting to get my father a headstone and my mother’s resistance, something that felt emblematic of other things we were grappling with at the time. It didn’t work as an opener, but I kept part of it for later in the book. At another point, I had a preface that was a traditional nonfiction book overview explaining some of the themes, but I’m terrible at writing prefaces. So I thought, okay, the book has changed so much because since I started it, my mother received a terminal diagnosis, and the pandemic hit, so it was not only about losing my father and the battle over his health care. Once I realized it was going to be that and my mother’s story, I thought, What is the frame, where will the arc come from? I realized that my relationship with my mom was the thread we follow from beginning to end. Then I knew Mom had to be in the opening chapter, and it had to show what our relationship was and some shades of what was to come.

One day this memory came to me of sitting in her bedroom talking to her after I came home from school. She was home from work and not in good health. I would just keep talking until she fell asleep—and she never sent me away. It seemed such a quintessential mom-and-me moment that also gave me room to talk about my own motherhood. I liked this image of her resting and at peace but not gone, not out of reach.

I realized that my relationship with my mom was the thread we follow through from beginning to end.

Shea: In that opening section, you raise the concept of “belonging”—what it means biologically, emotionally, as a daughter and a mother—and that feels like a central question you explore throughout the memoir. What does “belonging” mean to you?

Chung: You’re spot-on in identifying it as not just one of the main questions of this book but something I’ve always been obsessed with. I grew up a Korean adoptee in a white town, very loved but never really feeling that I belonged. I remember wondering how it feels to belong in a place and be truly accepted. I couldn’t imagine it but thought of it as something that must be really comforting. I don’t remember feeling that kind of assurance during my childhood, which was on the whole a positive childhood.

I was very conscious growing up, and still am, that I lost one family at the very beginning of my life. Part of my grief for my adoptive parents has been coming to terms with losing the second. It brought up feelings of adoption loss and grief, but it’s also similar to what everyone feels when they lose a beloved parent.

Shea: One reviewer called All You Can Ever Know “an ode to sisterly love”—and your biological sister Cindy seems to bring a special dimension to your sense of belonging. The scene of her with you and your mother after your father’s funeral in A Living Remedy is lovely —so moving.

Chung: Those memories are painful because my father’s death was a sudden, if not unexpected, loss, my first major loss, and it turned out to be the only parental funeral I could go to. It wasn’t as if Cindy and her family showed up for us in place of our family: they were there because they are family. Cindy saw my mother as part of me, and my mom saw Cindy as part of me. So it was the most natural thing that they would trust each other immediately and comfort one another. It was surprising only because I wasn’t expecting such a tender, touching moment to come out of a grief-filled day.

Shea: Let me shift a bit here. In a comment on A Living Remedy, Imani Perry praises you for being able “to tell an intimate story with vast social implications.” You describe your father’s death like “a kind of negligent homicide, facilitated and sped by the state’s failure to fulfill its most basic responsibilities to him and others like him.” As your mother’s illness requires home health care, the grim reality hits you: “I do the math and realize how quickly it could bankrupt us all if my mother had longer to live”—something that reminded me of my own mother’s situation during the last years of her life. How did you entwine the personal and political so deftly without becoming didactic?

I think memoir justifies its existence when readers make connections to their own life and the wider world.

Chung: When I do any personal writing, I hope readers will think about their own lives, so it means a great deal to me that it made you think of your experience, even though I’m sorry you have that common ground to draw from. I think memoir justifies its existence when readers make connections to their own life and the wider world. Some of the blend of the personal and political happened organically just from sharing the facts.

I wrote about my father dying too young, in part because we often didn’t have health insurance, and because the social safety net failed him at multiple points and because this country has one of the highest costs of health care in the world—I didn’t have to get didactic or give a lecture for people to understand. The reality is that what my family went through is an experience shared by millions of Americans. I trusted readers to make those connections whether to their own lives or to people they have known who have slipped through broken safety nets. Unfortunately, my father and to some degree my mother were two of those people. Despite my best efforts and the things I blame myself for not being able to do, there was only so much I could do. Unless you’re a millionaire, you can’t cover someone else’s medical expenses out of pocket.

I do remember thinking to myself—and it’s not a line that went in the book probably because it would have been didactic—one of the great traps of the system we live in is that you feel guilty for not being “better” at navigating systems that are rigged against you. You end up thinking that it’s your fault or we’re encouraged to blame one another when the gap between what we all need and deserve, and what is actually provided in this country, is so vast.

One of my worries in writing about this is that people might blame my parents for their circumstances. The reality is, once my parents started getting older and sicker, there was not going to be enough in the way of resources or support.

So much of what I wanted to do was just tell the truth—not to tell a sob story but to further illuminate a reality. Working people like my parents should have been able to expect some degree of security or help when they got sick, and it was not there.

To the point about home health care: I’ll never forget that the day after my mother died, I got an email saying, “Be sure to watch for two more bills.” I know that’s just how the system works, they need their money, and their health-care workers deserve to be paid and paid more than they are paid. But—even so, this is grieving under capitalism.

Working people like my parents should have been able to expect some degree of security or help when they got sick, and it was not there.

Shea: I have to comment that while you write about how you always wanted to move away from the small Oregon town where you grew up but to which you felt “no strong connection,” the evocative language of your descriptions of the landscape in memory and the tangible comfort it affords in the face of loss suggest a pretty strong connection. Are these parallel narratives or maybe a contradiction?

Chung: The connection to the land is related to the connection to my family. As I wrote in the book, my parents were both from Ohio, and they were the ones in the family who pulled up stakes and moved to Alaska, Washington state, then Oregon, and rarely went back “home.” My mother had an aunt who lived in Seattle. Every few years when she was growing up, her family would pile into their station wagon and drive across the country to visit. My mother fell in love with the natural beauty of the Northwest. She was a very determined person, so I’m not surprised that by hook or by crook they ended up there.

So, while I don’t feel a strong connection to the town where I grew up, I have a deep connection to the natural setting, especially the mountains. Growing up, we didn’t have much money, so our vacations were to the Oregon coast, or we’d go camping in the woods near a lake. When my mom was sick, and I visited, it felt comforting to be in that familiar landscape and look at the same mountains she looked at every day and think about why she chose to be there. I’ve been on the East Coast for over twenty years, and I still get a pang whenever I leave Oregon and watch the mountains getting smaller in the distance.

Shea: You described the love your parents showed you as a love that was “never about ownership, or control, or whether I followed the path they expected.” Did you realize how extraordinary such a love is before you wrote this memoir—or perhaps while you were writing it?

Chung: I did not recognize what a rare thing that is. Do I think that’s what every child is entitled to? Yes. Nobody should have to live their life feeling they’re not enough for their family. Maybe this was my adolescent moodiness combined with being adopted, but I remember times when I’d be really stressed, staying up until 1 am studying AP Calculus. My mom would say, “It’s really fine, what’s the worst that can happen: you get a B?” Of course, I would think, The worst that could happen is that I might never get out of this town because I had to get into a college and get the money to go there. My parents truly didn’t care about any of that, and I used to take it personally—why don’t they care if I don’t go to a really good college and become successful? They would say, “Let’s wait and see what you do; whatever it is, it’s going to be great because you’re our daughter. It’s always going to be enough.”

In the final chapter, I write about how one of the things that terrified me about losing my mom was the thought that I would have to be enough for myself—and what would that even look like? How can anyone be enough for themselves? But I was enough for my parents. It turns out that even though they’re gone, knowing that has stayed with me. It lets me believe in myself more than I would have because they had this rock-solid faith in me. It makes me braver than I would be otherwise.

I took it for granted for many years and I didn’t know how rare being enough was until I got out into the world and saw how so many people were under such pressure from their family’s expectations. I think I’ll always be a person who is plagued by self-doubt and anxiety. I don’t want to ascribe everything to my adoption, but I always have this powerful sense that I need to be good enough for people to keep me and love me. Because I had the parents I had—and have—I always understood their love was not dependent upon my performance or fulfilling their expectations in any way. That has allowed me to find a lot more grace for myself, to realize that I deserve patience and gentleness and care, that I don’t always have to push myself to do more and prove I am good enough. I wish I had realized that earlier in life—I really do believe it now.

I think this book came about because I took a lot of time and care as I tried to be as gentle as possible with myself in remembering and writing it. That’s why it’s the book I needed it to be.

January 2023


An Excerpt from A Living Remedy

by Nicole Chung

Though dreams of escape had long held me in thrall, I missed my parents when I spent any considerable length of time away from them, and my mom was the person I most wanted to talk to at the end of the day. I’m sure plenty of people who knew me were surprised that such a homebody only child had set her sights on a life three thousand miles away. It would be years before I would understand that she was the one, all along, who had been preparing me to go. Who wanted me to have the choice.

I think of those late-afternoon talks with her now that I have my own children, knowing that the days of both of them falling asleep in their rooms down the hall from mine are dwindling; that a time will come when something trivial or life changing will happen to them—they will be hurt, or caught by surprise, or find that they are happier than they have ever been—and I will not be the first person they tell. That might be why I sometimes let them stay up past bedtime chatting with me or getting silly with each other, why even the brightest moments on the best of days can crack my heart wide open. But then sometimes I think, well, no matter where they go, no matter how far apart we are, maybe I will always be someone they think to call, someone they want to talk to, because my mother is far beyond my sight, beyond the reach of my voice, and not a day goes by when I don’t think of something I wish I could tell her.

Adapted from A Living Remedy: A Memoir © 2023 by Nicole Chung.
Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Renee H. Shea, formerly professor of English at Bowie State University in Maryland, interviews contemporary authors for World Literature Today. She frequently contributes to Poets & Writers, most recently a profile of Camille Dungy (May/June 2023) and “Dreaming up Her Own Salvation: A Profile of Safiya Sinclair” (November/December 2023). She is currently doing a series for the American Book Review on “The Laureates.” The initial interview with J. Drew Lanham, poet laureate of Edgefield County, South Carolina, appeared in the fall 2023 issue. She also coauthors English language arts textbooks for Bedford, Freeman & Worth.