"I’m definitely one of those writers who thinks about how the people in my life will feel about what I’ve written,” Nicole Chung admits. These are unexpected words from an author whose unsentimental 2018 debut, All You Can Ever Know, examined her transracial adoption by a devoutly religious white couple and what she learned when she sought out her Korean birth family. Chung describes All You Can Ever Know as “mystery novel–esque,” given all the sleuthing she did to complete it; she interspersed her own first-person passages with the voice of Cindy, one of the two biological sisters she met while researching the circumstances of her 1981 adoption.
In her second memoir, A Living Remedy (Ecco, Apr.), Chung resets her origin story, reflects on her isolation as an Asian American in a small rural community, and helps her adoptive parents through their respective final days. A Living Remedy and All You Can Ever Know have similar themes of family and loss, yet “I’ve resisted thinking of A Living Remedy as a sequel,” she says, because the first book centers on her younger self and how her 2007 pregnancy lent urgency to her familial quest. “I sold the second book after my father had died [in 2018], but before my mother got her cancer diagnosis, which shifted everything.”
While Chung was caring for her mother and unable to make much writing progress, the pandemic struck. As a result of these cataclysmic events, she says, A Living Remedy “has an immediacy that the first doesn’t have. The narrative is more raw.” She wrote it from moment to moment and “with the intention of sharing,” she adds. “I knew so many others experiencing losses, massive disappointments, deep anxieties, especially during the first year of the pandemic, which is when a lot of this was drafted.”
The resulting book was not the one Chung had expected to write about her late father; instead, it became a reflective work of reportage, further hindered by her inability to be with her mother in her final days, due to the pandemic. “I started this while my mother was alive, before she had a terminal diagnosis,” Chung says. “The first parts—about my father’s illness, my parents’ experiences before he passed—are informed by the things she was telling me, like their history, which we would rehash through crying sessions on the phone. I was writing this as though she would be around to read it.”
With her mother’s death, that touchstone was gone, the feedback lost. “I’m sensitive now to the fact that it’s a strange thing to turn the people you love into characters,” Chung says. “As the writer, I’m the one deciding what’s important, the one interpreting things. It’s a fraught enterprise, a fundamentally unbalanced power dynamic.”
Yet feedback still comes from her readers, who respond to Chung’s experiences as an adoptee; as an Asian American raised without cultural awareness of her Korean roots; and, in A Living Remedy, as the daughter of terminally ill parents. “After writing two books, I feel that it’s never my place to tell a reader how to react,” says Chung, who feels “so moved, so honored” by readers’ engagement with All You Can Ever Know. “What happens between a reader and a book is sacred. I believe this now more strongly than ever.”