Interview by Michèle Dawson Haber
I encountered Nicole Chung for the first time in 2021 through an online writing series she participated in while still editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine, and then devoured her debut memoir, All You Can Ever Know, in a single day.
When I heard she had written a second memoir, I couldn’t wait to read it. A Living Remedy (Ecco Press; April 2023) did not disappoint. In her exquisite, lyrical prose Nicole explores the complex landscape of grief as she loses both her adoptive parents under agonizing circumstances. First, her father dies at sixty-seven of diabetes and kidney disease, his death hastened by economic precarity and a lack of consistent access to healthcare.
Then, less than a year later, her mother is diagnosed with cancer, and the pandemic prevents Nicole from being with her in her final months and from being able to attend her funeral in person. As one disaster piled on top of another, Nicole brought me alongside her panic, disbelief, anger, and excruciating despair—but she did not leave me drowning. Her unfaltering love for her parents kept me afloat throughout, inspiring in me awe and gratitude for the memory and hope that the living carry with them.
A tender and searing memoir of family, class, and grief, A Living Remedy is a triumph. I was honored to meet with Nicole last month over Zoom to talk about writing and some of the important issues addressed in her book.
Michèle Dawson Haber: Nicole, congratulations on the publication of A Living Remedy. This book touches on so many BIG topics: class and how it intersects with the horrifically inadequate and unequal U.S. healthcare system, the intersection of racism and adoption, the changing parent-child relationship over time, the uncertainty of living through a pandemic, identity, and, of course, how to survive and learn to live with grief.
I’m guessing that had you asked anyone’s advice about whether all of this was doable in a single book, you might have been told to dial down your aspirations. But you’ve done it, and masterfully. Your exploration of each of these topics is just enough to inform and maybe also outrage the reader without weighing down the main narrative. Was touching on all these big topics something you set out to do or did the scope of your memoir evolve more organically?
Nicole Chung: First, thank you so much for spending time with the book, I’m really grateful. I intended to write about grief from the beginning—the story of how I lost my father at age sixty-seven due in part to economic precarity and a lack of access to health care that exacerbated his illness. It’s such a common experience in this country, but those weren’t elements I saw in many of the grief stories that I was reading at the time. In my case and in my mother’s case too, there was just no facing that grief without acknowledging the reality of why and how we lost him.
At the time that I started writing that story, my mother was alive, and as far as we knew, healthy. We didn’t know her cancer would come back. And so, while I had always envisioned writing about loss, inequality, and other large ideas around class and how our relationships with our parents change as we get older, I didn’t know that I would be writing about losing my mom as well. And, I had no idea that the pandemic was coming, or that she would start hospice care as the first Coronavirus cases were being reported here in the US.
At certain points, I didn’t know if or when I would ever get back to the book. But many months after my mother died, I did find myself called back to it. I wanted to write a story that was also about her and about our relationship and what it meant to have lost both my adoptive parents. So, parts of the book were very much planned ahead of time, and then other parts changed in the telling. With memoir that’s what’s required—when your life changes and the world changes, that’s reflected in what you write.
MDH: Above all else, A Living Remedy is about the grief of losing your parents and about your unbounded love for them. Most adults will go through the experience of losing their parents, but your losses felt like they came too soon, and, as you say in Chapter 14, were especially merciless in how fast and close together they were. As if this wasn’t enough, there was also the torment of losing your mother at a time when you couldn’t be with her because of the pandemic. It’s all pretty heartbreaking. But the book isn’t, “I cried, and then I cried some more”—you somehow conveyed the all-consuming, implacable scope of your grief in ways that didn’t feel at all repetitive while also giving the reader space to maintain their own emotional equilibrium. Can you talk about some of the strategies you leaned on during the writing process that helped you achieve all this?
NC: One of my concerns when I was trying to write the book was, obviously, this very heavy subject matter. Even if it was only about the grief over the death of one parent, that would be very intense. But I had no choice but to write about both my parents’ deaths because it didn’t feel right to just ignore what had happened in that two-year span. One thing I tried to think about was what was most important to convey in the story. It can’t just be this unrelenting, tragic experience. For there to be love in a story, there also has to be some amount of levity and joy and humor. My parents, despite going through very hard things, never saw their story as one of tragedy and loss. They were very realistic about the hard things, but there were so many things that they took great joy and pleasure from in life and were really grateful for. And so, I tend to think of their story also as one of love and struggle and resistance.
And then for my own sake as a writer, I wanted to look for places where the narrative could open up a bit, where the reader could breathe and rest. One example of this is the three lists that are in the book. I used them to play around with what they could convey about me, my parents, and what we were experiencing, and to do so with a little bit of humor and lightness—a place to pause while still in the story.
To your other question, I think that when writing you have to be very sparing in naming emotions. One of the great challenges in writing is to convey how something really felt in a way that is more active and accessible than me just saying, “I was heartbroken” or, “I was devastated.” If you use those words too often, they’re robbed of any power. And so, what I tried to do was remember how a moment felt in my body. Was I hot, was I cold, did I feel something in my chest, my stomach, was I talking fast or slow? In what ways can I bring that kind of emotionally honest experience to readers and make them see and feel it with me? Also, memory plays tricks on you, especially with trauma. You might forget exactly what you felt or said, but I think a lot of us can remember how we experienced and embodied those moments. I relied on that when recreating many scenes.
MDH: The title is from a line of poetry, which, for me, was a lovely way to extend the reading experience. After finishing the book, I went to read the poem, which got me thinking about your story all over again, and what you were trying to illuminate for me by choosing those lines. Titles are so important, but also very hard to get right. How did you arrive at your title and what advice can you give writers of memoir that are having trouble with this?
NC: I had written the whole book—everything was done but the title. One of my tricks when I was an editor was to comb the text and look for phrases that jumped out at me. But that didn’t really work with A Living Remedy. So, I began reading other texts. I was reading a ton of poetry while writing this book. While rereading Marie Howe, one of my favorite poets, this phrase leapt out at me from her poem, “For Three Days.” Though I had bought her book What the Living Do ages ago, I had never really noticed this poem before. The phrase that leapt out at me was, “because even grief provides a living remedy.” I loved it so much and wrote to Marie to ask her permission to use it. I love that it includes living—I didn’t want to have death or grief in the title, I wanted it to feel active and living and maybe even a bit open and forward looking. The poem is about recognizing that grief is how we remember and how we love people. It’s not something that we seek out, but it’s also not something we should run from when it happens. Grieving is honoring those we’ve loved and it’s so important to how we learn to keep living.
MDH: The story of your hard-working parents who couldn’t ever count on a stable period of health care coverage as they were bounced from one precarious job to another, starkly sets out the real-life consequences of a for-profit healthcare system that leaves millions without coverage and even more with inadequate coverage. Memoirists have been tackling political and societal issues within the parameters of very personal stories since the sixties. I would like to believe that each one of these books, including yours, moves the needle just a little bit toward a more just and equitable society. A Living Remedy is already being recognized as contributing to a necessary conversation in America. What are your views on the capacity of memoir to be a force for social change?
NC: I certainly think that stories can be a valuable way into broader societal issues. I think it’s important to read widely—to read journalism and policy and to face squarely the shortcomings of our country, our safety net, and be aware of the people being left behind. Memoir and personal storytelling can be another avenue into an issue, helping people reconsider it. Sometimes just understanding what one family or one individual’s personal stakes are can help crystallize your thoughts and push you to see the real-life impacts in a way you might not otherwise. I do hope that A Living Remedy can be part of some of these important conversations. Sharing what happened to my family is also an indictment of the systems that we live in. There’s no telling the story of my personal grief or what happened to my family, without also going into detail about the structural failings.
MDH: As a step-adoptee and someone who writes about identity in the context of adoption, I was keenly aware of your portrayal of grief over parental loss from the perspective of an adoptee. In a few places you allude to or talk directly about your need to prove yourself, for example: “I have always felt as though I have something to prove: I have to do more, be better, to make other people’s gifts and offerings worthwhile; to earn their care or justify their faith.” Was this need you felt a part of what would later, “tint the edges” of your grief? Recognizing, of course, that every adoptee’s experience is unique, do you think it is nonetheless possible to conclude that grief is different for an adoptee?
NC: An adoptee friend of mine said recently that adoptees are experts in grief. Part of that is that we have lost our first families, and in many cases, we’ve lost culture too, and other connections. Even in an open adoption with more contact, there are things you can never fully regain. And so, we’re very familiar with this concept of family loss and the toll it takes.
Of course, not all adoptees have the same experience. For me, I was surprised by how much I thought about my initial adoption loss in grief, and that need that I always felt to prove myself or prove that I was a good and loyal daughter. To be fair, this was not something my adoptive parents put on me, but something that grew inside, partly because of things other people said to me. All that came up again when I was grieving my father—the sense that I had not been good enough, hadn’t been able to help him enough, hadn’t saved him. And it also brought up feelings about having lost my first parents through adoption and the ties that I haven’t really been able to restore, despite being in reunion with my birth family. I found myself thinking about the question: what is it to be an adoptee now that both my adoptive parents are gone, and what have I lost along with them?
I know they remain a part of me and because they were my parents, that has determined so much of who I became, how I live, and how I parent myself. But I won’t see physical traits live on in me and my children, and there’s no one left in my family who really remembers my childhood or can talk with me about my adoption. There are so many memories that I now carry alone. So yes, certainly being an adoptee has affected how I grieve, why I grieve, and what I grieve.
MDH: Speaking of adoption, your debut memoir, All You Can Ever Know, about your search for your birth family, was a national bestseller. How hard was it to undertake a second memoir after the incredible success of your first?
NC: Actually, I think in certain ways the first book is harder because you don’t really know you can write a whole book until you do. Embarking on it a second time, I knew I could do it because I’d done it before. But what made the second book harder was everything else: the emotional terrain of this book, how recent and fresh the grief was, writing during a pandemic while my kids were home doing zoom school, and trying to work a full-time job—all of that was very, very difficult. And then the pressure ramped up as we began talking about publication and the expectations—all the normal things that you always worry about as an author, but you worry about a little bit more when you’ve already had one book out, partly because you know what’s coming.
I guess I should say that I also didn’t set out to write a second memoir. I wasn’t really thinking about it in those terms, defining it by genre. I just knew this was the next book and that it felt urgent; it mattered too much to me to put it aside indefinitely. Also, in the beginning, I expected it would take shape as more of a linked essay collection. I didn’t know until I was deep into drafting that that was not going to work. What made it feel like I wasn’t doing the same thing over again was that the form and structure are still very different. Even though they’re both novelistic-type memoirs and it’s only been five years since the first book came out, I’m a different writer, I’m a different person.
MDH: What have you learned writing this book that you wish you had known when you were writing your debut memoir?
NC: I wish I had known that really treating myself more humanely as a writer is important, that I deserve rest and care and to give myself grace, and that it can actually serve the work itself. There was no way to write this book without giving it everything I had, and that meant I had to really trust myself; I had to listen and think about what my creative needs were.
I couldn’t have written this book as my first, and I probably couldn’t have written it five or ten years ago. I had to get to a point in my career and in my life when I could have more patience for my limitations and needs and learn not to put those needs at odds with my work, which is what I’ve done my whole career up to this point. I muscled through a lot of the first book—I’m proud of it, but it was written in the margins of my life in the evenings and weekends; I couldn’t give it everything I had. For this book, I had to learn to work in a different way. It was still very rigorous, and I was still hard on myself sometimes—I remember telling my editor, “This has to be the best thing I’ve ever written. It has to be worthy of the effort; it has to be worthy of my parents.” And I think it is the best thing I’ve ever done, but it is because I learned to show myself more grace.
MDH: That’s such a great answer, I love that advice! I have a nerdy craft question. I was really taken by the unconventional choices you made around tense and time in your narrative. Although written primarily in past tense, a handful of chapters are written in present tense. Similarly, although the narrative is mostly chronological, you do jump around a bit in time. Can you talk about how you came to make some of these craft decisions?
NC: I love craft questions! Yeah, if anything, I was surprised the narrative doesn’t jump more in time. In my first book I’d initially written a lot of it in chronological order, but the pacing was off and the emotional beats, the parts with heightening tension, weren’t lining up between past and present. The only thing that fixed that was taking the whole thing apart and having these overlapping layers hopping back and forth in time. With A Living Remedy, it was kind of the opposite. I played around with several different structures that didn’t work. As you’ve mentioned, there’s so much in this story, and the different elements weren’t lining up properly. It made more sense in chronological order. Still, as you’ve noted, some chapters and scenes aren’t chronological, like the last chapter for example, because I’m always going to do that.
As for the tenses, sometimes present tense helps to separate memory, which is often in past tense, from what is happening in the present of the story. I do tend to write more in past tense, but there are a few chapters that really felt as though they needed to be in present. I don’t know how to explain it other than it felt like the present tense was needed for the reader to live in that moment. I wanted to bring the reader into the experience, the memory, in a different way.
MDH: You tell your readers that you left a high-level professional publishing position to write for yourself. Can you tell us more about what you’re doing now and what you’re dreaming about doing next?
NC: I’m currently a full-time freelancer—I’m a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a regular Time contributor, and I write an advice column for Slate. I’m always looking for more freelance opportunities with other publications. I have my first—hopefully not my last—young adult book coming out this fall, an anthology of short stories by transracial adoptee authors that I coedited with Shannon Gibney. In terms of my next solo book project, I’m trying to not put a lot of pressure on myself at the moment. Once the book travel slows down, I’ll have more time and space to think about other things, like a novel. I’m sure I’ll write more books, but I’m also hoping to keep pushing and challenging myself when it comes to new freelance assignments.
MDH: Thank you, Nicole. It has been an absolute pleasure to talk about writing with you.