Reading Diversely · stuff I read

All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
What does it mean to lose your roots—within your culture, within your family—and what happens when you find them?

Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From early childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hopes of giving her a better life; that forever feeling slightly out of place was simply her fate as a transracial adoptee. But as she grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.

With warmth, candor, and startling insight, Chung tells of her search for the people who gave her up, which coincided with the birth of her own child. All You Can Ever Know is a profound, moving chronicle of surprising connections and the repercussions of unearthing painful family secrets—vital reading for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out where they belong.

I’ve been following Nicole Chung’s work at The Toast (ah, The Toast, loved it) and other places for some time now. When her memoir deal was announced, I (rather) impatiently kept an eyeball on Catapult’s catalogs. When All You Can Ever Know was announced as a BN Discover Fall 2018 selection, I did a little wriggle. And I really savored the galley

Chung opens her memoir about life as an transracial adoptee by juxtaposing “the story of her adoption” with a meeting to talk to a couple in the process of adopting a child. Was she happy? (Well, yes, on the whole, but also it was incredibly lonely.) Was she OK as a Korean child adopted by white parents? (Again, yes, but there was no one else in her town who even looked like her and people can be cruel.) As the book moves forward, she writes about her birth family, her adoptive parents, her birth, and growing up in a small town in Oregon. She experiences overt and covert racism from both children and adults. Her decision to begin searching for her birth family was not an easy one and, to my surprise, weirdly very hard to accomplish (there was an intermediary, which kind of blows my mind). The “story of her adoption” develops layers upon layers as Chung meets each member of her biological family.

This is a beautiful memoir. What I found most poignant was Chung’s writing about learning to be a Korean-American as an adult. What makes one Korean? Knowing the language? The food? The traditions? One’s family? These sections reminded me very much of Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, which delves into questions of what connects a person to their Native roots. The questions become more complicated as Chung begins to raise her biracial children.

All You Can Ever Know is definitely one of my “best books” of the year. I loved every sentence. I highly recommend picking this up for basically everyone on the planet.

Incidentally, I started listening to Lisa Ko’s The Leavers on audiobook while reading Chung’s memoir. Sometimes the universe serves up unexpected connections. The two books had an amazing juxtaposition of adoption stories in their similarities and differences, one real story and one imagined.

All You Can Ever Know will be out October 2.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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dies · happy dance · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

35721123Summary from Goodreads:
From the author of The Queen of the Night, an essay collection exploring his education as a man, writer, and activist—and how we form our identities in life and in art. As a novelist, Alexander Chee has been described as “masterful” by Roxane Gay, “incomparable” by Junot Díaz, and “incendiary” by the New York Times. With How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, his first collection of nonfiction, he’s sure to secure his place as one of the finest essayists of his generation as well.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel, Edinburgh, and the election of Donald Trump.

By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack.

I will tell you right now that I was in Michael’s buying fancy writing/drawing pens when I got a DM from Rachel Fershleiser (bless you, lovey) asking me if I would like an early galley of Alexander Chee’s new book. Which I had been coveting hardcore. Pretty sure I shrieked out loud in the checkout line.

I have been waiting since DECEMBER to tell y’all about this book.

“To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth, but into it.” – “On Becoming an American Writer”

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a collection of essays – some previously published elsewhere, some brand, spanking new – that outline Chee’s development as a writer and provide a peek into his experience growing up as a queer, biracial kid in Maine. Meditative pieces such as “The Curse” and “The Querent” give way to heart-breaking examinations of identity and lost love in “Girls” – a powerhouse essay anthologized in The Best American Essays 2016 – and “After Peter.” (Note: I will never not weep reading “After Peter,” it is sublime.) Chee then takes us on a tour of the Struggling Writer’s Life: jobbing as a yoga teacher, tarot reader, and cater-waiter (“Mr. and Mrs. B”), getting an MFA (“My Parade”), various living arrangements (“Impostor”), and creating a garden (“The Rosary”). At times, he is wry and cheeky in pieces such as “100 Things About Writing a Novel.” And then, if you have read his previous novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, he quietly turns you inside out with “The Autobiography of My Novel” and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.” (Side note: if you haven’t read his novels get on that because you are seriously deprived of amazing sentences.) The order of essays builds over the course of the book to a moving examination of what it means to be an American writer, especially at this present time, in “On Becoming an American Writer.” 

Alexander Chee has a gift – he can write sentences that just stick in the mind like tiny bits of grit, to be worked over and polished and revisited.

“That afternoon, I tried to understand if I had made a choice about what to write. But instead it seemed to me if anyone had made a choice, the novel had, choosing me like I was a door and walking through me out into the world.” – “The Autobiography of My Novel”

These are not complex sentences nor filled with over-flowing description but are complex and beautiful in their simplicity. It is such a privilege to read his words. I could read them forever.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is out on Tuesday, April 17. Bravo, Alex. Thank you so much for your beautiful book. I look forward to making as many people as possible buy this book.

ETA: I would like to introduce you to another writer, Brandon Taylor, who stans for Alexander Chee even more than I do and writes far more eloquently and intelligently about Chee’s work than I could ever possibly hope to write. Please read his essay about How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, “Sad Queer Books: When You’re a Queer Person of Color, Writing is Tough Yet Vital,” at Them. Keep an eye on Brandon, by the way. He’s going to blow us all out of the water.

Dear FTC: You know I rubbed this galley all over my eyeballs when I got it.  I’ll be buying a copy whenever Alex manages to get himself to Iowa for a reading so I can be weird and awkward in person and gush all over while he signs it (and the galley, too).

dies · Extra Extra · happy dance · stuff I read

Pre-order alert: New Alexander Chee essay collection!

35721123“To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth, but into it.”
– “On Becoming an American Writer,” Alexander Chee

Y’all, mark April 17, 2018, on your calendar, get your pre-order in at your bookseller, prepare your spring reading nest. Alexander Chee’s new collection of essays How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is stellar beyond words. I’ll have a longer review much closer to the review date.

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book offered by the publisher and I’m surprised I’m still alive to tell you this because I almost died in the fancy marker pen aisle of my local Michael’s when Fersh’s text message appeared to ask if I wanted a galley. There may have been shrieking.