At one point in her new memoir, “A Living Remedy,” Nicole Chung recalls the colliding dates of her father’s death and the deadline of her first book. The final manuscript of “All You Can Ever Know” — her 2018 memoir about her search for her birth family as a transracial Korean-American adoptee — was due to her publisher just two days after her father died.
That dichotomy of experience encapsulates the relentless rigor of being a working writer while highlighting the terrible truth: that the very best and the very worst things can happen at the same time.
Following her father’s death in 2018, Chung’s mother, originally the focus of an earlier draft of the book, was diagnosed with a terminal, fast-moving cancer in the fall of 2019, just before life on a global scale hit pause in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chung, who is also a journalist, writes of these events as though in real time, capturing waves of disbelief and anger. The mostly chronological narrative is bookended by memories of her mother, who died in May 2020 while Chung remained quarantined on the opposite side of the country. Chung began revising the manuscript in late 2020, finishing just over a year later.
While there is overlap in the stages of writing a book and of grief, Chung said she is mindful of conflating processing and preservation.
“I don’t think writing the book felt like grieving so much as it was something I was doing while actively grieving. This book demanded that I bring my whole self to it every time, every day I worked on it. And it also required me to learn to show myself more grace and care and how to accept my limitations.”
“A Living Remedy” is also a condemnation of the failures and inequities of the American health care system, with the family’s lack of access to treatment and other basic health care needs presented as a clear and impossible foe. In the book, a friend of Chung’s deems the loss of her father a “common American death.”
“That phrase haunted me, because I recognized the truth of that,” Chung said. “It was kind of the crystallizing moment. It was important to my grieving process to accept that I wasn’t to blame for not being an expert navigator of the systems. It was helpful to realize and to sit with that truth. And I thought perhaps it was something other people might want or need to hear.”
While the tragic events of “A Living Remedy” still feel close to the surface, Chung hopes her stories transcend her experience while also bearing witness to the lives her parents lost. She said she writes memoirs for those who read them. “You don’t share your life and expect [readers] to think about you,” she explained. “[Memoirs are] supposed to be, when they work, a place for people to meet themselves.”
Nicole Chung will be in conversation with Nicole Cliffe at Porter Square Books: Boston Edition on Thursday, May 18 at 7 p.m.
Rachel Kim Raczka is a writer and editor based in Boston. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.