Getting Personal with Nicole Chung
What do you share with the world—and what do you hold back? How do you talk about family secrets or childhood trauma with strangers? And what happens when you bring more of your most personal experiences to your work? This week, we go deep on the power of getting personal—and the choices we have to make along the way.
Before we start, Sara and Katel break some bad news: Jenn’s not here today, and it’s looking like she won’t be able to join us for the rest of the season. We’re sending some big hugs her way, but we have so much to talk about right now, we’re gonna keep on going.
Our guest today is the incredibly kind, talented, and just plain fucking rad writer and editor Nicole Chung. She’s the author of the new memoir, All You Can Ever Know—which is on sale T O D A Y (ugh just buy it already). It chronicles her story of transracial adoption, growing up in a white family in small-town Oregon, and finding her birth family while starting to raise her own children. Reading it made us laugh and cry and fall even more in love with Nicole.
In addition to being an author, Nicole is also the editor-in-chief of Catapult, a literary magazine, and the former managing editor of The Toast, everyone’s favorite weird-funny-feminist site. We had so much to talk with her about.
It was difficult to start sharing such personal stories about my family and about adoption and about racism that I’d experienced. And it’s not necessarily that I needed someone externally to validate them or to say, “this is legitimate, this really happened, this is important,” but I think just a little human kindness and, like, honestly went a very, very long way. The Toast was a fantastic community… Every time I wrote something there—I mean, both the goofy stuff like “If John Cho Were Your Boyfriend” and the more serious pieces on race or adoption or family—the response was overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and it was just really a privilege and a honor to get to edit and publish and write for that community at The Toast. I think it did make me braver.
—Nicole Chung, author, All You Can Ever Know
Links from the interview
- Nicole’s longread about writing while grieving
- The long history of Oregon’s racist exclusion laws
- Love for Nicole’s editor, Julie Buntin at Catapult
- Nicole’s writing at The Toast, including If John Cho Were Your Boyfriend
- All You Can Ever Know, on sale now
Also in this episode
Chatting with Nicole got us thinking a lot about what it means to share your story with the world—in your writing, in a talk, or, say…on a podcast. So we dive into some of our own stories, and the choices we’ve made to tell—or not tell—them in our work.
You spend a long time purposefully not talking about it and reminding yourself to push it down, push it down, push it down that when it all comes back up and you’re purposefully sharing it, that feels weird.
We touch on:
- Our most recent newsletter, where Katel talks about being sexually harassed by a boss.
- The conflict between wanting to speak your truth, but finding it exhausting. As Emma Gray writes, “I am so tired of women having to mine their pain to convince men of their humanity.”
- Sara telling hundreds of strangers that she was sexually abused—in the middle of a design conference.
- Lisa Maria Martin’s great post on keeping politics out of your talk.
Plus, did you know you can listen to books? Katel discovers the joy of audiobooks with Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. Meanwhile, Sara shares what she’s planning to read in her slippers this fall:
- Rebecca Traister’s new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, also out today!
- Dope Queen Phoebe Robinson’s new essay collection, Everything’s Trash But It’s OK, coming out later this month.
- Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, due out in November.
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Katel LeDû Welcome to NYG, I’m Katel LeDû.
SWB I’m Sara Wachter-Boettcher, and you probably noticed that Jenn’s not here today. And unfortunately it looks like she’s probably not going to join us for the rest of the season. She’s taking some time off from the podcast—as you know, she’s got a lot going on. But there’s just so much we still want to be talking about this fall. There’s political stuff—there’s the midterm elections, all the bullshit happening in the Supreme Court—and there’s also work stuff. Like me and Katel, we have started research for a little side hustle that we are hyped to start talking about with all of you.
KL Plus I feel like we’re kind of getting good at this whole podcast thing. And we have so many rad people we still want to interview, so we’re going to keep going. Starting with today’s guest, Nicole Chung. She’s the author of the new memoir out now: _All You Can Ever Know_—about being adopted into a white family, raised in rural Oregon, and then deciding to find her birth family as an adult. We tried to keep cool, but we were total fan girls.
SWB Talking to Nicole about writing a memoir just got me thinking a lot about my own writing. Especially—how I write about, and when I write about, personal stories. And I’ve done a little bit of that and I know Katel, you have too. In our last newsletter, you wrote about being sexually harassed by your boss and you told this story that really stuck with me where you just talked about him coming into your office and telling you how sexy it was that you spoke French and trying to get you to say something in French to him, which is all super gross and creepy. But I’m really curious—it was powerful for me to hear the specifics of what had happened and to sort of be able to see myself in that place with you and really feel for you there. And I’m wondering what it was like for you to write about it in that specific of a way?
KL Gosh, I—it was definitely hard and also great I think, in a way. I remember writing the first draft and it was like three pages long because I—all of a sudden I just was remembering it and I hadn’t thought about that whole experience in a while. And all of a sudden I just was word vomiting out every, single detail and every aspect. And then—you know—I had to go through and kind of—I did a few second and third drafts thinking about what exactly I wanted to share and how I wanted to tell that story and—you know—make sure I was still kind of protecting myself.
SWB That’s something that’s hard to sort out—right?
SWB Like how much do you want to talk about your history and when and why you’re doing it. I think about this when it comes to bringing up my history with sexual abuse, which is something I’ve done a lot. I’ve mentioned it in one of my books and I’ve mentioned it in a lot of my talks on stage at conferences and I’ve talked about it on Twitter. But it’s interesting—you know—for a long time, I never really talked about the details. In fact, I remember the first time I brought it up, I was giving a talk and it was relevant to the topic I was talking about. I was talking about sort of being asked about that later in a form, but I acknowledged being sexually abused in this sort of very evasive way or sort of blink and you miss it sort of way, it was very easy to not have heard that that’s what I was doing if you weren’t paying attention so much to the talk. And that felt really hard for me at first, but it was almost like once I’d done it, I wanted to keep doing it. And sort of like half step at a time, talk about it in more specific detail or talk about it with a little bit more sort of ownership of it and not sort of making it be something that I am vaguely alluding to, but just saying it as it is. And so I feel like half step at a time, half step at a time, up to now—you know—recently I posted this Twitter thread about sort of like how we want to let men who’ve harassed ourselves or abused people sort of like come back into the fold. And I sort of talked about my experience and I talked about it more specifically than I had before. And still not that specifically, honestly, where—you know—it was a teenage neighbor boy who had sexually abused me for a long time when I was a really little kid and I’m thinking more and more that I want to tell that story in a deeper way and with that kind of detail that allows you to kind of—you know—understand what it was like, and also understand sort of the aftermath of that and kind of let go of some of the sort of long-standing shame that built up around it that I know I don’t deserve to have, but—you spend a long time purposefully not talking about it and reminding yourself to push it down, push it down, push it down that when it all comes back up and you’re purposefully sharing it, that feels weird.
KL Yeah, it totally does. And I think just talking about that whole idea of shame—you know—I think with your experience and as I wrote in the newsletter with mine—you know—this isn’t—this isn’t a new story, but it’s also when you think about the fact that as part of those stories and experiences, we weren’t believed or we were doubted that the thing that happened to us even happened to us. That makes it so much fucking harder and it’s like—I don’t know—I think that perpetuates the feeling of shame, it makes us feel like we can’t go into detail and that feels—that feels really terrible. I was sharing with you earlier that someone wrote to me after the newsletter went out and the first thing they said was just “I am so sorry that happened to you.” And that made me so relieved and feel very emotional because I think that that should be the absolute first thing that we start saying in this situation. Not—you know—surprise at like “oh my gosh, really?” It’s like “yeah, no, I’m so sorry, now let’s talk about it.”
SWB You know, I don’t know that I’ve talked about this on the show before, but for about three years when I was in college I worked at a rape crisis center and I specifically worked in their education program, which meant I primarily talked to kids—middle schoolers was the number one audience we were able to get the okay from schools to go in and talk—to talk to them about sexual abuse and to talk to them about both child sexual abuse and things like consent. That’s a whole other show topic that we’ll get into at some point—
KL [laughing] Yes.
SWB —because actually I can’t believe we’ve never talked about this before.
SWB But one of the things that we learned very early on in the process of being trained to do this kind of work was to say literally that—right? “I’m sorry that happened to you.” There’s something powerful about it because it’s like there’s no question about whether it happened to you—right? And there’s no surprise, it’s more like there’s a tacit acknowledge that just exists that it happened.
SWB And that is something that people need to hear because they’ve often heard so many messages from the people who have abused them or from culture at large that it doesn’t happen or it’s something to be shameful about. And to just be like “no, this happened and we can take that as a foundation that it happened and then talk about how we feel about it and what we’re going to do about it.” The other kinds of things we learned very early were conversations about saying very explicitly like “I believe you.” People are so afraid they’re not going to be believed, they’ve been told they’re not going to be believed, and then also “it’s not your fault.” Because that’s another one that often times abusers will tell people that it’s their fault—something they did—or other people will tell them that or that’s where the shame kicks in. And just you have to do a lot of work to counteract those messages.
KL Yeah, to me when I hear that, it just boils my blood because it’s never a person’s fault when they’re harassed. Nothing you do ever warrants being harassed or abused, like that’s just—you can say that without having gender or anything in the mix. It’s like—we can all agree on that. [laughs]
SWB Yeah—as we’re talking about all of this, it’s interesting. We started out this podcast saying this is really about work and about—you know—ambition and careers and sort of what drives us and it’s interesting because people have questioned me before about why I would bring up things like sexual abuse in a professional setting or why I want to talk about this stuff when I’m also wanting to talk about my career. But for me, the more we talk about this, the more clear it is that I cannot actually separate those. I can’t separate out the professional I am now from the little kid who experienced abuse, or from the college student whose first experience with public speaking was going into those middle schools to talk to kids. Those are all me and all of that experience directly informs the work that I do and what happened to you that you talked about on the newsletter—being sexually harassed by your boss happened to you at work. It’s directly tied to your career. And so I think it’s so valuable for us to kind of dig deeper on this stuff and think about the way that that does shape and drive the people that we are at work.
KL Yes. I can’t separate the things that impact me at work from the work I do and I don’t want to. You know, I—when people talk about the idea of quote, unquote keeping politics out of work or anything we do, it’s like that question doesn’t even make sense to me. And it shouldn’t—you know—everything is political.
SWB Yeah—our friend, Lisa Maria Martin—shoutout to Lisa Maria—she wrote this post a while back after a conference organizer had told speakers not to be political in their talks where she was basically like “look, that’s impossible.” Because you’re asking for this sort of false neutrality like, as you said, there is no neutral—because by defining what is and is not acceptable to discuss on stage, what’s political, what’s not political, what’s too political, you are making choices. So, she’s basically saying the conference organizer is making choices and those choices come down to politics themselves. “You are always excluding something,” she says, “or more likely, someone.” And—this is one of my favorite quotes—“for too many people in the world, their entire existence has been coded by society as too political.” And we are too political because we exist. Because we were harassed or abused, because we have periods, as we talked about a couple of episodes ago—right? We’re too political just being here and so if somebody tells us to not be political, then what they’re really saying to me is “don’t be.”
KL Yeah, completely. I am not interested in that. You know, the other thing that I think about when we’re talking about this, is I was just on a podcast where I talked about work and our podcast and [laughs] my therapist being on our show and we just—you know—dug into a lot of stuff. Plus I’m writing more in our newsletters, which I love, and that is really cathartic to talk and write about that stuff, but it’s also resurfacing trauma. And I mean I’ve talked about this with my therapist—you know—after writing some of the letters I’ve written for the newsletter, I’ve [laughs] gone into therapy and just been like [sighs] “oh my gosh, that was big” and she kind of looks at me and is like “yeah, that is big. You’re reliving it—you’re reprocessing it.”
SWB Yeah and I think it’s really crucial to acknowledge that. That it is work to—to reprocess all this stuff and that that can be exhausting. So, for example, after—you know—[coughs] that guy that we have to call our president tweeted basically that if—if Kavanaugh had actually—had actually really assaulted Christine Blasey Ford, then why didn’t she report it at the time? So, women started posting all over Twitter—you know—all of the reasons that they hadn’t reported things that had happened to them. And there was this huge movement and then I saw a bunch of tweets talking about how tiring this was. So, there’s this one, for example, from this woman Emma Grey where she said—you know—“I’m so tired of women having to mine their pain to convince men of their humanity.” [KL sighs loudly] And that one really stuck with me like yeah, we shouldn’t have to mine our pain to convince other people that we exist and that we deserve to be treated better than this.
KL Ugh, gosh yeah that—[laughs] that is so fucking true. And there’s no perfect recipe for this. I think that’s definitely true from what we’re talking about here and deciding how much time and emotional work you want to spend on, it is definitely part of the equation, but I’m choosing to share because I hope someone hears it and at the very least just is—knows that someone else has been through something that they’re going through. But we shouldn’t have to feel like we have to expose every little thing just to be believed. And I think we’re seeing way more women sharing things about themselves and it’s so inspiring, but we have to remember that that comes at a cost.
SWB Absolutely. Like for—for me, I generally do want to share. Like I said, as I’ve shared more details about the things that have happened to me, it’s made me feel good and wanting to share even more. So, it’s something that I want to do, but I just—I guess I just want it to be acknowledged as work—right? It is labor. I’m choosing to employ a tool—that tool is my personal experience—and I’m doing it because I have a goal to help others and I have a goal of affecting change, but it is work and I want people to value that work and to understand that there is—you know—exhaustion that can come out of that work. And—you know—that’s actually something I really loved about talking with Nicole because it really feels like she shares so much of herself in her work and brings so much of her authenticity in. But I also noticed in our interview that she was really thoughtful about it. She’d really thought a lot about what she wanted to put on the table and what she wanted to keep to herself and so I loved her book, but I also loved the way that it got me thinking more about my own choices and thinking about how and if and when I share my personal history with the world.
KL Yeah, she really got me thinking about how I process things and how writing can help you do that, but it can also distract you from it—you know—it can distract you from processing things. Plus Nicole’s just so open and giving, it was so amazing talking with her. [music fades in, plays alone for five seconds, and fades out]
SWB Time to take a quick break to talk about one of our favorite topics—careers! This week we’re bringing you a job search tip from Julia Hurrelmann, a recruiting researcher at Shopify. She’s here to give us her advice for writing a cover letter that gets noticed. What have you got, Julia?
Julia Hurrelmann Thanks. Since I see so many applications, I wanted to give you my top tip for creating an awesome cover letter. Have a friend or even a neighbor review the letter, obviously to check for spelling and grammar. But also ask them to make sure your motivations are evident and most importantly that you haven’t minimized your experience or skills. We can be our own worst critics. Remember to tell your story and make it crystal clear why you felt compelled to apply.
SWB Thanks, Julia! Those are some great tips wherever you’re applying, especially if it’s one of the dozens of open roles at Shopify. See what’s new there, from marketing to mobile development in offices around the world. Visit shopify.com/careers to learn more. [music fades in, plays alone for five seconds, and fades out]
SWB Today’s guest is Nicole Chung, author of the new memoir All You Can Ever Know, which is on sale right now. It chronicles her story of transracial adoption, growing up in a white family in small town Oregon and finding her birth family while starting to raise her own children. Nicole is also the editor in chief of Catapult, a literary magazine, and the former managing editor of The Toast. We have a lot to talk about. Nicole, welcome to No, You Go.
Nicole Chung Thank you so much, Sara. Thank you, Katel.
SWB It’s so great to have you here and first up, we’d definitely like to have you tell our listeners a little bit about your book and also really about your story. So, you were born in Seattle severely prematurely and you were then adopted into this family in Oregon. Can you tell us a little bit about that and about what you learned about your birth family while you were growing up?
NC So, I actually didn’t know hardly anything about my birth family growing up, which was extremely common for adoptions of the time actually. Nowadays, a lot of domestic sort of infant adoptions are more open, but back when I was adopted, sort of the default was that it would be closed and there’d be no contact between the birth and the adoptive family. So everything I knew about them was sort of guesswork or it came secondhand through the adoption lawyer or through maybe the judge who finalized the adoption to my adoptive parents and then to me. My adoptive parents never met my birth parents, growing up—you know—I didn’t know their names, so what I was told about them was basically this sort of skeleton story, like a hard working immigrant story about how they came here from Korea, didn’t have much money. When I was born very prematurely they felt they didn’t have the resources to take care of me. One of the many effects of my early birth was that doctors thought I’d have a lot of health problems that I wound up not actually having. So—you know—they were letting my birth parents know kind of these different kind of worst case scenarios, I guess, because they were trying to really prepare them for what it could be like to raise me if I had all of these various problems and health challenges. And they really felt it was beyond them. So, this is the story that I heard growing up. It was not necessarily untrue for what it was, but [laughing] there were a lot of holes—right? Because nothing is really that straightforward or simple. So, when I set out to find them when I was an adult, one of the biggest reasons for searching was I was pregnant myself. I was pregnant with my first child and I just remember sitting there at my first prenatal appointment being asked all of these questions about my medical history and my birth and my birth mother’s pregnancy and why she gave birth so early and I had no answers to these questions—you know—I had no idea if this was going to happen to me, if I—you know—was maybe going to have a higher risk pregnancy or birth too. So, certainly one of the more pressing reasons to look when I did—apart from a lifetime of curiosity—was this really practical matter of “I’m in this exact position, I’m in the position she was in and I don’t feel prepared for what’s about to happen.”
SWB One of the things that I really loved in the book was your experience—after you found them—getting quite close to your biological sister, Cindy. And something that—that really struck me was the way you wrote about that relationship. It was really moving to hear about both the connection that you have, but also, honestly, the anxiety that you felt as you were getting to know her. Sort of wondering if you were being too much, like too ready to be this super close sister to her and not being sure that she had the same sort of expectations or desires around the relationship. And I’m curious—how did it feel for you to lay out that relationship, to really lay it bare for your readers?
NC It was honestly a gift. One of the best things I think that’s come out of this book is the chance to talk even more with my sister about it. Of course, the story of how we reconnected and how we grew close, we’ve kind of gone over and over again. It’s like our origin story, [laughs] we really like to sort of talk about it still, but—you know—as many times as we had been over it in the years since it happened, there were definitely some things that I wanted to follow up on, some things I wanted to check with her. Just more questions I had about her life and about her feelings, especially when she first started to learn about me and when we started to talk to one another long distance, especially because I was going to be writing it down for posterity and for—for wider audience, I wanted to make sure I had my facts straight. So it was just a great opportunity to go over all of that again and I did kind of just learn more about her—her life and how she thinks and what she was feeling about our reunion as it was happening. You know, just the other day we were talking and it was clear—you know—she said she felt really honored by the book, which is dedicated to her and to our kids, and I mean that just meant so much to me. I used to joke that if Cindy liked the book, I didn’t care if anybody else liked it [laughs] because her—how she felt about it was so important—you know—and I just feel really lucky both to have her in my life, and the fact that she really let me—not just let me, but encouraged me to write our story and has been so supportive of it and feels honored by it. That just means everything to me and it was a real privilege to tell not just my story, but her story too.
SWB Yeah, that’s so powerful to hear about because I think how—you know—how often do people get to have those kinds of almost incredibly vulnerable and honest and reflective conversations with their siblings. I mean, I guess all of us could, but we probably don’t [laughs] make the time for that that often and to really hear if the way that we remember things happening or what we understand to be true is also true for them and to kind of—you know—actually get on the same page. I love that and it makes me want to ask my brother some deep questions, but I don’t really have a reason to. [KL and NC laugh]
NC Well, good luck with that! Yeah, it was—it was interesting too because I think both Cindy and when we—when we met face to face for the first time—you know—there was all this pressure. I remember our husbands would look at me and then look at her and then look back at me and I could just see them trying to catalogue the ways they thought we were similar and the ways they thought we were different. And I remember thinking, “oh what if she doesn’t like me? And what does that mean if your own sister doesn’t like you?” [laughs] And I’m an adult. It’s kind of late to change, I can’t make myself into this version of myself who would be less—just like not too much for her. [laughs] It’s—it was sort of very much a “well, this is who I am at this point” and she had been getting along okay without me is the thing. She really had. She had a full, happy life and I wasn’t sure if she would really need me in her life the way I felt I really wanted and needed her in my life. But as it turned out, she was feeling exactly the same way about me so everything [laughs]—everything worked out great. But I do remember thinking, “am I asking too much of this person?” Yes, we’re sisters, but we’re also kind of strangers and—you know—there’s no particular reason for her to feel this connection or want to let me in. So the fact that she did was just a real unexpected gift.
SWB Yeah, so and I think what I’m also really interested in that you touched on a little bit there is that the process of writing a memoir that is so—you know—entangled with other people’s lives means getting—you know—getting into conversations with them about what happened then and how you write about it and also kind of dealing with potential fall out with them if the way the memoir comes out isn’t exactly how they would have liked it to come out. And I’d love to talk about that a little bit more because I was thinking about that a lot as I was reading about your childhood and—you know—writing about the parents who raised you. So—you know—you wrote in an essay a while back that you pictured your mom telling you that you had no right to do this, no right to turn them into characters. And then you said that she didn’t end up saying that, that she basically accepted that this was your story to tell and that your—your father did as well. And you wrote that you felt seen in that whole exchange with her and—and I’m wondering how important was that to you? And what was it like to hear that from her?
NC Oh it was very important to me to be able to share the book with my adoptive parents and have them understand why I wrote it and not hate it. [laughs] I don’t know, sometimes I have—I feel like I set my expectations low so I won’t be disappointed, so—I mean—I wasn’t necessarily expecting them to love it or give it to all their friends, but I wanted them to feel generally okay with what I had shared and how I had shared it. Which isn’t to say—you know—I asked for permission to share certain things, it was more like—you know—the very first draft I had that I felt was okay and good enough to show to people, I showed to everyone. You know, I sent it to my sister and my birth father and I sent it to my adoptive parents. I didn’t really want them to be surprised later on and I wanted to have time—on the chance I did get something very wrong—I wanted them to have time to correct me if I really needed to make some changes to facts. So, my adoptive parents [laughs] took a while to read it. I think after like four or six weeks or something, I hadn’t heard anything and finally I was like “so, you know, I know that you’re really busy, but”—this is what I actually said—I said “it’s not like War and Peace, so like” [KL & SWB laugh] “like—like how’s it going with the book—you know? I’m here to talk about anything you want. I would love to know what you think.” There was no reason why—of course I had talked myself into thinking like in my anxiety silence meant that they hated it—but in fact, they were just extremely busy. [laughs] And they were—they were going slowly because they were reading it together, chapter by chapter. You know, my mom would read a chapter one evening and my dad would read the next chapter the next evening, so that’s why it was going slowly. And they were both so positive about it and really supportive and—you know—I think one thing I wanted to get really clear in the book—and this was not about placating anybody or pretty up my story in some ways—like I think I’m pretty honest about places where I wish things had been different, but—you know—one thing I think it was—it was always going to be important to get through was just how loved I felt growing up. I could not have had parents who loved me more and I kind of just wanted that to be clear because I think—I mean, not just because it’s the truth and not just because I love them—but because I think you have to understand our bond and how much they cared about me and saw me as theirs to understand why it was so hard for me to search. Like why—why it took me so long to get to that point, despite being really curious for so long. It was just so difficult for me to imagine having other parents or other family besides the one I had and I was really worried about what they would think and how they would feel if I searched. So—you know—I think my parents were really happy that that came through. They both really liked this chapter where I spent a lot of time sort of telling their story, like how they—I did write them as characters, but I wrote their story—how they met and got married really young and moved out west and wanted so badly to have a family—you know—it just kept not happening for them. And I think you have to understand that too—have to understand the stakes for them to see why my adoption felt like—not just like wish fulfillment for them, but like destiny or divine intervention almost. They—they really built it up in their minds because it was the culmination of what they had wanted for so many years. And again, without understanding that—you know—there’s no understanding kind of the pressure I felt and the decision to search and how—how long it took me to get there. But I loved—I loved writing that chapter about them. That is still one of my favorites in the whole book and I—my father passed away in January and I think that chapter is the hardest for me to read now, but I still really love to revisit it, I just—it was actually really, really fun to get to write that about my parents and to get to write about my childhood and how much they loved me. I think we were all doing the best we could—you know—and I think that does come through in the story.
SWB Yeah, I think I hear that as well and I’m—I’m so sorry for the loss of your father. I’m glad that he got to at least read that chapter. I know that he didn’t get to finish the whole draft, right?
NC That’s right, I think he passed away pretty suddenly when they were about halfway through it. So, my mother’s read the entire book a couple of times, but my dad didn’t get to finish it unfortunately. He did—you know, because of how the book is laid out—he had read most of the parts that he was in. The second half of the book is—is much more focused on search and reunion.
SWB I’m glad that they could feel the love coming from what you were writing. I think as a reader, I could definitely feel that and see the nuance that you were writing these people with. I think that that’s—you know—that’s something that I found really powerful because, of course, the story isn’t simple. And like you said—right—it sounds a little bit simpler on paper, but in reality it’s complicated and one of the things that certainly complicated it and that you—you wrote about pretty extensively was, of course, race. So, you were a child of Korean parents and then raised by a white family in a small Oregon town. I am also from Oregon… it’s not a super diverse place [laughs nervously] for a number of reasons, one of them is a history of racist exclusion laws that if folks haven’t heard about, they might want to look up. I didn’t learn about them until I was an adult.
NC Yeah same, I learned in college.
SWB Yeah I mean it’s—you know—I do remember when I—when I moved to Oregon, I was actually eight years old from San Jose and I remember thinking, as I looked around my new school, “where are all the Mexican kids?” [NC laughs] I just didn’t quite get it at first like, “this seems weird, this seems so different” and then over time it just became really normalized because, of course, I’m white and so once I was there for a while, I stopped thinking about it and that was fairly easy to do. Now, that wasn’t quite as easy for you to do because you weren’t white and because you were always the one who was different and I’d love to talk about that a little bit. You—you wrote in the book that you would go ages without seeing anyone who looked like you and that you would hear racist comments at school starting at a really young age. I’m really curious—as you were reflecting on your childhood and the place that you were from, did that make you sort of change the way you—you think about where you’re from or sort of process that history differently?
NC Well, I think I had already started—maybe in my early twenties, maybe even in college—to think harder about what it was like for me growing up in a—in a very white pocket of Oregon. And it wasn’t even just that—you know—my town was predominantly white. It was that I went to a parochial school when I was in elementary school, so it was much smaller even than the public schools would have been. And I think less diverse. It wasn’t—not to say that I would have gone to school with tons of kids of color—you know—in a public school, but—I mean—at this little Catholic school I went to, often it was just me—you know—for years. And that was definitely I think extremely isolating. I had already started to kind of think about that as a young adult and in college because my college experience, thankfully, was very different. You know, I went to school on the East Coast, I went as far from home as possible. It was diverse as far as college campuses go and I think 25% Asian and Asian American, so for the first time in my life, I was far from the only one. I could actually blend in in a crowd if I wanted to. It was amazing, [laughs] I loved it—I just loved it. It never got old. And so honestly the word I kept coming back to, especially in my early twenties, was sort of the harm that might have been done—inadvertently, it wasn’t like anybody—well, I guess except for people who said racist things, actually racist things. But for the most part it was not something that anyone or any group did to me in particular, it was just the overall atmosphere. The default was whiteness, it was what I was surrounded with all the time. I didn’t have the experience of having been anywhere else where it was different and so I was just always used to being the only one or one of very few. And I really didn’t start to kind of unpack what that meant and—and the direct harm I think it caused until I was older. That said, I was pretty aware in the moment as racist things were being said—you know—as kids would give me the chink eye in school or call me slurs or—you know—tell me to go back where I came from or say things about my adoption. I knew in the moment that that felt very bad, obviously, and I knew—I knew even then it wasn’t teasing. I never thought of it as teasing. I didn’t know to call it bullying or something else or racist for that matter, but to me it felt very different than say, being made fun of for wearing hand-me-down clothes, which had also happened to me. Or being made fun of for wearing glasses—you know—it really felt like what they were attacking and targeting was the essence of who I was. It was something unchangeable and fundamentally part of me. And I don’t know, having—having that happen, having that happen before I had the words to describe it to anybody was certainly harmful. It was isolating. I didn’t really know what to do with it and for years, I kind of just put up with it in silence I guess. I don’t remember really trying to tell many people about it. And—you know—my adoptive parents confirmed this. They said, “you never told us that specifically was happening. We knew you were unhappy at—at school, but we didn’t know that was why.” And so—I don’t know—it was this thing I felt like I think I had to protect them from it too—you know—because they did raise me to think that my race shouldn’t matter and that it wouldn’t matter to—I don’t know—it didn’t matter to them, it wouldn’t matter to other people, but I was being confronted with this daily proof that it did really matter to other people and I remember feeling like if I told them, they wouldn’t understand and it would make them feel bad. So—you know—even at a very young age, I was kind of trying to protect them from the reality of what was happening.
SWB Yeah, the way you wrote about it in the book, it felt very much to me like they were trying to do their best and for them, what they perceived as doing their best was to pretend that your race didn’t exist and that that—you know—that that created all of these new problems for you. And I think—you know—when you talk about it as a harm, I think that that’s really powerful and it feels like part of that harm is also—you know—if the harm that’s being done doesn’t go acknowledged or understand, right? Like you don’t have anyone to talk about it who understands that it is harm.
NC I think too my parents were sort of following—I mean I know they were following—the advice they were given at the time they adopted me. I felt like that was really important to put in the book. Not as a defense, just as a fact—you know—they asked several people—like experts—before I was adopted “does it matter that she’s Korean and we’re not? Is there something special we should be doing? I don’t know, are there books we should read or classes we should take?” And everyone told them no—the social worker, the judge. You know, they did try at several points to at least ask the question and—you know—all of these people told them “no, it doesn’t matter, just assimilate her into your family and it will all be fine.” And “assimilate” was really the word the judge used and that’s the word that my adoptive parents would remember and tell me later. So—again this is not like an excuse—but I think it was just very much the prevailing attitude of the day when it came to transracial adoptions like mine. You know, I think people were thinking it was important not to try and like—not to other the child. They were already going to be in the minority in a white family, so—you know—don’t call lots of attention to it because how would that make them feel? And yeah—I mean—that was really—that sort of colorblind line was the line most people in my adoptive family took, so it was a cue that I really tried to follow. It just—it was a lot harder for me for obvious reasons.
SWB Thinking about that—you know—obviously people have been writing about some of the problems with the colorblind approach in general. How has your sort of perception of—of transracial adoption shifted at this point? Or sort of what kinds of things do you want people to be thinking about and asking about and questioning?
NC You know, I do try when I write about my personal experience or my life, I try hard not to be prescriptive or offer a lot of advice. I don’t feel like I have the training or the background—right—necessarily to do that. But there are a number of things I think are really important and to some degree I think are changing in adoption. I hear more these days about the importance of not just acknowledging, but celebrating a child’s culture and country of origin. That can look a variety of different ways, but I think it’s something that a lot of adoptive families feel comfortable with honestly because it’s the fun part. It is obviously way less fun and it’s much harder to really look hard and interrogate your communities, your schools, your churches and where you live and how you live and your social circle and think about if you were a non-white child—a child of color—entering these different circles and communities, what would your experience be? How would you feel? Would you feel comfortable? Would you find people who looked like you? You know, and that is a lot harder to do, it can be really uncomfortable. Also, I think it’s—it’s just hard as kids get older to talk about racism. I’ve been talking to my kids about it since they were verbal, but it is not always easy—you know—it can feel very difficult. It can sometimes feel heartbreaking and I understand this parental urge—right—to protect our children, but at the same time—you know—I think these are conversations that are so important that we can’t shy away from and—I mean—almost every parent of color I know talks to their kids about racism. It is unavoidable, it’s about survival and it’s about who they are as a person and what their experiences will be. It’s about being honest with them and we just—we do know from studies that a lot of white parents aren’t having these conversations or—you know—just find them really challenging. They are challenging, but if you’re the white parent of a child of color—you know—who is going to have the experience that a person of color has in this country, it’s absolutely something that you have to be able to talk about really honestly from a young age and not just wait for the child to bring up, but make it clear these topics are safe and they are always on the table and—you know—sometimes you’ll bring them up and sometimes your child might bring them up, but they have to know that they can come to you with these things. It is absolutely going to be relevant in their lives. Of course, even if it’s not relevant to how you love them, which it shouldn’t be. But yeah, I think there’s a tendency in adoption still to think that the differences are unimportant compared to the love. And I guess I would just say I think both of those things are really important. [laughs] And I think if you’re going to look at it realistically—you know—look at the child for the whole person that they are and think about what their experience is going to be. You know, these are conversations that you have to have before you adopt and then, obviously, after as they age in age appropriate ways.
SWB I really appreciate you bringing up sort of the—the need for white people to have conversations about race. I mean, obviously, in this particular subject when it comes to transracial adoption, yes, but I think in general. And that’s something we’ve talked about on the show a few times where—you know—white people are the only people who get to choose [laughing] not to have conversations about race and then because of that, we’re really bad at it, right? Because we’re just incapable of having intelligent conversations about things that we are nervous about and have no practice in, no vocabulary for, etc. So I think it really underscores something that is true in so many different areas that if we learn to talk about race, that that is incredibly helpful and important. Something that you mentioned in sort of this conversation around how do you help adoptive kids stay in touch with the cultures of their birth families or at what level that happens.
[39:52-41:20: Transcript unavailable]
KL Yeah, I love hearing all of this. This is like—it’s just so cool to hear your story. I have a question about sort of the writing and publishing process because you recently talked about how this book was passed on by many publishers and for a while, you thought you might not even get to write it. What do you think changed for you or sort of in the market that you were working in?
NC I mean, the first person in my acknowledgements is my editor, Julie Buntin at Catapult, and she deserves that place. She really fought for this book. I think even within Catapult—you know—I don’t know if everybody was immediately on board. I have no idea and I have not asked, but I know Julie always really wanted it. And she actually reached out to me even before I had a proposal and asked “hey, I really love your work, what are you working on? Are you working on a book?” [laughs and SWB laughs] And as it happened, I was, but I think honestly it took somebody with the kind of faith and commitment that Julie had to this book to get it to happen. All this to say, it is really wonderful to have a publisher that believes in your book even more than you do. I think—I’m not trying to sound self deprecating or falsely modest, but it’s such a deeply personal story—I am so close to it that it is difficult for me to evaluate it as a piece of literature. It just is. So, having really smart, really talented people in my corner the whole time sort of cheerleading for it made such a difference. I can’t imagine getting this kind of support—you know—from another publisher to be honest. I feel like all the things that other publishers thought were risks—like there aren’t very many Asian American memoirs out there, what if this only appeals to people who are actually adopted? I think that Catapult saw the things that made this book different in the marketplace as strengths and not risks. And I mean personally I very much hope that it’s well received, but also, I felt all along that I do not want to let them down because their faith in this book has just been extraordinary. And the way they continue to hustle for it—I mean, the fact that people are talking about it, that’s really because of their work, you know? So, I feel very lucky to have landed where I did.
KL I think that makes so much sense and, you know, it’s funny Sara and I have recently been talking about how something that we’ve noticed with authors and just in general folks who are wanting to write more—whether it’s in book form or not—getting some external validation of, you know, the fact that [laughs] what you’re saying is—makes sense and is important is critical. And I think having a really good relationship with the publisher you trust is huge.
NC It’s true. I really give them a lot of credit, honestly. This is a very different book. You know, there aren’t a lot of adoption stories out there by adoptees. For the most part, our stories are told by other people. And so I really do appreciate and give them so much credit for—I guess—taking a chance on this.
SWB So, in talking about how the book came to be and sort of the people who helped make it happen, I also want to ask a little bit about The Toast, where you were the managing editor.
NC Oh sure!
SWB So, for our listeners who aren’t familiar, The Toast was a site that Nicole Cliffe and Daniel Ortberg started that featured really funny, weird, feminist writing is maybe the simplest way to put it. It’s not publishing anymore so if you haven’t read it, go check out the archives because you have a whole lot of delight in store for you. [NC laughs] Anyway, so Nicole you wrote for The Toast a little bit and then you ended up being the managing editor and you once wrote that without The Toast, you probably wouldn’t be writing this book. And I’m curious what it was about your experience there that made it feel so crucial in sort of your—your development as a writer and your ability to be where you are now.
NC Well, I think that one thing writers talk about a lot is the importance of community. And that can take so many different forms. You know, I don’t get to hang out with a lot of writers in real life. My first writing communities were really online. I mean, it was LiveJournal, to be honest, and it was Hyphen Magazine, and it was The Toast. So, I think I am really a product of these different communities I found. You know maybe I just kind of lacked some crucial shot of courage or something, but it was difficult to start sharing such personal stories about my family and about adoption and about racism that I’d experienced. And it’s not necessarily that I needed someone externally to validate them or to say, “this is legitimate, this really happened, this is important,” but I think just a little human kindness and, like, honestly went a very, very long way. The Toast was a fantastic community, the commentariat—much has been written about how it was one of the only good comment sections on the entire internet. It’s true that every time I wrote something there—I mean, both the goofy stuff like “If John Cho Were Your Boyfriend” and the more serious pieces on race or adoption or family—the response was overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and it was just really a privilege and a honor to get to edit and publish and write for that community at The Toast. I think it did make me braver, I think it made me appreciate the work of other writers so much more, and it made me think—I mean it was one of the things, maybe not the only thing, but one of the things that made me think, there is interest in this beyond people who were adopted or beyond people who have adopted. And people who are curious or have their own complicated families or have their own family secrets, they will be interested, they will be able to connect, they might get something from this. It could be a story that people need. So, yeah. It was not any one particular experience at The Toast, just the overall privilege—you know—of getting to work for that particular community.
SWB Yeah, that concept of generosity rings so true to me because I do think that there is this peace that’s like really great editors and really great community make you feel like you are sort of receiving—even if you’re receiving something that objectively sucks like feedback on your work [laughs]—but you feel like you’re getting something that—that is—is good and enriching in some way and it feels like a gift. I think that that’s so powerful and to make that process come from this place of sort of genuine love and care and that—that I think is so much more powerful and so it completely shows. So, now fast forward to where we are right now. By the time our listeners hear this, the book will be out and there has been a lot of buzz for it. I saw that Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review and called it “stunning, vibrant and provocative,” which are some pretty good terms. And I saw it’s also on a lot of highly anticipated lists for the fall, so um… how are you feeling?
NC I’m feeling really overwhelmed! [SWB & KL laugh] Although, sometimes I feel oddly nothing. Like I was sort of a blank slate of expectations. I didn’t know—this is my first book—you know—and I didn’t know how it would feel. The fact that it’s a memoir and so personal—I mean—just kind of made it more—I think—anxiety producing and mysterious for me. But yeah, I kind of—I see all the lists and it’s all really lovely and I feel people are being very charitable and I try not to give into imposter syndrome, but sometimes I do wonder [laughing] “what is the source of all this?” I don’t know, it’s so strange to see something that just lived in your head and in your heart out in the world having a life of its own. Like people reacting to it, even positively, in ways beyond your control. I love every kind thing, every thoughtful thing that people say about it, but at the same time, it’s just—it’s just so strange too to know that it’s out there being reacted to—you know—not only can I not control other people’s reactions to it—you know—I don’t want to. I think that’s the experience of reading—that something that nobody—not even the author—can take away from you is how you read a book and what you take away from it. But it’s just really interesting to hear the parts that I maybe think of as slightly less what the book is about, sometimes those are the parts that really resonate for people. I keep taking screenshots of the lists or saving them because [laughs] I feel like I’ll read them later and maybe feel more. Right now it’s just like there’s a limit. It’s like by 11am every day, I’ve hit my limit of what I can feel about the book that day and I’ll have to [laughs] wait for another day to feel and process more. [SWB & KL laugh] It’s definitely a lot.
KL That makes total sense. I mean, we love it and we—we hope that you enjoy all the moments [laughing] no matter how overwhelming they might feel. But—so when you think about looking forward to once some of this frenzy of the release has passed, what are you most looking forward to?
NC I want to go on vacation for like a month! It’s not going to happen—it’s just not with work—but I want to take a little break. I’d like to take a nap for like three straight days. [laughs] And—I mean—I’ll be really honest. This has been—it’s been coming up in some other interviews too, but—I mean—my father passed away in January and I feel like I have not really even begun to like —I don’t know—not move past it because you don’t move past it, but there has not been a lot of time to think or to grieve. There hasn’t been as much time as I would like for my family this year and it’s just because of the nature of publishing a book, working a lot, not having a ton of vacation and—and having—you know—my father pass in the same year that my book comes out is—it’s been really hard. It’s been… really challenging and—and I’m honestly really looking forward to having some downtime for myself to process and maybe go to grief counseling finally. Just sort of spend a lot of time with my mom and my kids and—you know—certainly I’ll be thinking about what’s next, but I think probably some self care will be in order. [KL laughs]
KL Yeah that’s—
SWB Yeah, I hope you get both. I think you should have both a vacation and the time to properly process your feelings—
SWB —and deal with grief.
NC Thank you. I mean that said, I am so looking forward to the book being out there. I’m really looking forward to tour. I think it will be, again, overwhelming, but mostly wonderful. I feel very honored that anybody is spending time with the book and I really want to get out there and meet and talk with people about it because it’s a special thing and I know—you know—I’ll never have this exact experience again. This is it for this—for this book, this is my chance. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also looking forward to taking a really deep long breath [laughs] when it’s over. [SWB & KL laugh]
KL We’re sadly almost out of time, so I just want to make sure that everyone knows that “All You Can Ever Know” is on sale literally everywhere right now, so we hope everyone will pick up a copy. Nicole, where else can folks keep up with you?
NC My Twitter handle is @nicole_soojung—Soojung is my Korean name. And I’m on Instagram—Nicole Soojung—and those are my only public social media accounts so [laughs] but I would love to connect with people. My email is also not super difficult to find either. And if there are writers out there who have stories they would like to share, I do edit and publish fiction and non-fiction for Catapult so I would love to hear from you.
SWB Nicole, thank you so much for being here.
NC Thank you for having me! I had such a good time. [music fades in, plays alone for five seconds, and fades out]
SWB Listening to Nicole talk about her book is so great. I could give a fuck yeah for that. Buuuut I think we need more fuck yeahs than that. Katel, what have you got?
KL Oh, I’ve got a good one and it is on theme! I just started listening to audiobooks. Hi, welcome me to [laughs] the present day. [SWB laughs] I’ve started to read so many books in the last few months and I just—I don’t know—I never seem to be able to finish them in paperback so I got a Kindle a little while ago, which I love because I can keep a bunch of books on it. But all of a sudden, I took a chance, I got an audiobook and now I feel like I have this whole new option.
SWB So, what are you quote, unquote reading right now? [KL laughs]
KL So, I’m reading slash listening to Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. It is fucking great, unsurprisingly, but it’s really amazing because I get to just kind of lose myself in it for the first time. I haven’t felt that way in a while, so it’s great.
SWB That’s awesome. This is also really great because I actually wanted to do a fuck yeah to fall books because there are so many great books that are coming out. So, Nicole’s book obviously, which we got to read early, which was such a treat. But I’m also really excited for Rebecca Traister’s new book, it’s called Good and Mad. It is about women’s anger and hello, I have some of that [laughs]—in a healthy way. And then there’s Michelle Obama’s memoir and Phoebe Robinson from 2 Dope Queens has a new book that’s called Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay. [KL laughs] Great title. And there are so many more books that I’m hyped about, so I can not wait to get some of these new titles, curl up with them, get myself a warm beverage while it’s cooling down outside. I’m just very, very, very much looking forward to reading books all fall and winter.
KL I love it. I think we need to take a little trip somewhere to a fireplace-having location and just have a whole weekend where we read. Just—you know—putting that out there.
SWB That sounds so great. So fuck yeah to fall reading!
KL Fuck yeah!
SWB Fuck yeah. That reminds me, I’ve got to order some new slippers. [pause] Well, that is it for this week’s episode of No, You Go. Our show is recorded in our home city of Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn. Our theme music is by The Diaphone. Thanks to Nicole Chung for being our guest today.
KL If you love NYG, make sure to subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Your support helps us do what we do and we love that. See you next week!
KL Bye! [music fades in, plays alone for 32 seconds, and fades out to end]