Celeste Ng on New Book, Anti-Asian Racism and Vulnerability
It was at first the tale of a boy and his mother. He could she make her understand the work of his mother? Can he possibly forgive her for love of something so much or more than she loves? These are the types of intimate questions that have long driven Celeste Ng’s fiction. In her new novel, she started to explore darker and more complex themes in the autumn 2016. As Donald Trump claimed victory in the presidential election and images circulated of families torn apart at the border, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe and anti-Asian racism raged across America and beyond, Ng’s story changed. The setting, grounded on Harvard University’s campus, became an alternate version of the U.S., one defined by anti-Asian racism, censorship, and the constant threat of children’s “re-placement” as a consequence of speaking out. Margaret Miu was a well-known dissident and Chinese American poet. Bird’s 12-year-old brother was also a constant threat as they struggled with coming-of age.
Resting in the shade near Harvard Yard, the author, 42, describes how she mapped Bird and his father Ethan’s world onto the Cambridge, Mass., neighborhood where she attended college and has lived for the past 15 years. Ethan was pictured at work in the library near Bird’s dorm. Ng, an undergraduate from Ng, lived there as well. She made their lives devastatingly small, capturing a claustrophobia not unlike Offred’s in The Handmaid’s Tale,This book is also available here. This was just one of the many books Ng rereads as she transitions her domestic story to a dystopia. “A lot of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 is kind of an angry blur for me,” she says. “When everything in the world started to go to sh-t, the book took a darker turn as well.”
It was the result that we saw, and it is moving. The Missing Hearts to be published Oct. 4, is a “hard” read—Ng’s word, and not one that readers of her past two novels, The Everything I Never Told You There are little fires everywherethat she would use to describe her work. These books dealt with race, class and tensions between children and parents in subtler ways. Missing Hearts represents a departure into the explicit—and a somewhat conflicted one. Ng is aware that it can be dangerous to take a departure from the standard of what her readers expect and openly discuss a politically charged book. “I spent a significant portion of the time I was writing this book trying not to write it,” she says. She hesitated to write about a family that, on its surface, looks like hers—a Chinese American mother, a white father, and their biracial son—because readers tend to assume other details are also true to life. And for a long time, she tried to leave anti-Asian racism out of the story, but incidents like the 2021 attack, captured on security footage, of a 65-year-old New Yorker being stomped while doormen looked on, found their way into her scenes. “I know that by talking about these things, it puts me out there,” Ng says. “But it also felt really important to do, not because I need to make a statement, but because that was where the project went.”
Taking in her surroundings—this morning, the campus is flooded with shiny-eyed parents and teens—she reflects on the distance between the book she intended to write and the one she did, the optimism that was once there but faded. October 2016 was a different time. “Like all of us, I had dread,” she says. “But I really had no idea.”
Celeste Ng, author at Harvard University’s Cambridge campus.
Allie Leepson and Jesse McClary are TIME
Ng’s first sale book to a publisher, she worried that readers wouldn’t connect with it. The story was about a family of mixed-race people. “Is anyone going to relate to this?” she remembers thinking. “They’re going to be like, ‘Oh, those are Asian people. I’m not interested.’ Which was a lot of times the response I saw to books that had come out by Asian women.”
So what? The Everything I Never Told You was published in 2014, became a best seller, and was named a best book of the year by more than a dozen outlets, Ng was genuinely surprised by its success—and by the unintended consequence that suddenly the media and her readers were looking to her as an “expert” on the Asian American experience. “That’s when I thought, ‘OK, I didn’t mean for everyone to look at me, but people are. So I guess I should say something worthwhile.’ ”
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In order to speak more freely about race and emphasize the variety of viewpoints that comprise Asian American identity, she began talking openly. Her interest in that nuance began when she was young; her parents, both scientists, came to the U.S. from Hong Kong in the ’60s, and Ng explored racial affinity groups in school. So when a university invited her to speak in 2014 and the organizer made a comment about the scarcity of authors like her, she took it upon herself to create a list, which she published in Salon, of 209 Asian American women writers of diverse backgrounds.
Ng’s reach only grew with There are little fires everywhereThe film was released in 2017, and quickly rose to No. 1 best seller, landing on more than 25 best-of-the-year lists, and, in 2020, arriving on Hulu with an adaptation from Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.
The two-for-two nature of Ng’s success is rare—so rare that it’s hard to believe she ever struggled. In the six years that followed her graduation from Michigan, she was a M.F.A. program and publishing The Everything I Never Told You. Ng maintained a “spreadsheet of shame” to track all her failed submissions to literary magazines.
“I started off feeling like I was in this position of invisibility, then when my first and second books came out, I suddenly felt very visible,” she says. This visibility has allowed her to help others, such as advocating for other authors or partnering with We Need Diverse Books in order to sponsor publishing interns hailing from underrepresented backgrounds. But she admits that there’s a flip side to her level of success: “When you are very visible, it’s also scary—because you’re vulnerable.”
It is a vulnerability that manifests itself inDifferent ways. Sometimes it’s the stuff of gossip, and all you can do is try to ignore it. Ng’s was the most famous name dragged into the media-world obsession sparked by the New York Times feature “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?,” the story of two writers whose interpersonal conflicts escalated into legal drama. Ng knows both the writers, and screenshots of her text messages with one—in which she says several unflattering things about the other—were shared online. “If you look at the texts or emails you send in private, especially when you’re commiserating with a friend or reacting in the moment, probably most of us would have things we’d never say in public,” she says. “I feel so much sympathy for both of those women, because all of their private business was dragged out in public. I really wish all that had been able to be kept private, and mine as well.” She has decided to continue being the kind of person she knows herself to be and move on.
Other times, the vulnerability that comes with visibility feels more like danger, and it can’t be ignored. As an Asian American woman who has dared to share her voice with the world, Ng has received the type of vitriol we’re all too accustomed to seeing online. She’s been accused of self-hatred because she’s married to a white man; strangers have suggested she hates her son for the same reason, that he’ll grow up to hurt Asian women because of her. A Twitter account was even created by one person with the explicit threat of his death.
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With the exception of that account, which she rallied her followers to help get taken down, Ng has learned to hit “block” and be done. “It sucks to feel like there are random strangers out there who hate you. You want to be like, ‘No, I think I’m a nice person,’ ” she says. “But if people have decided they hate you, you’re not going to find the right words to convince them otherwise.”
It’s a version of that attitude that she wants to bring to the release of The Missing HeartsShe does her entire work as she did. There’s no controlling a reader’s reaction, and Ng lives by Ann Patchett’s philosophy that meaning is made between the reader and the book, not the reader and the author.
Still, with this particular story and all it represents, she’s nervous. She was at the beginning of editing and began to doubt everything. She was asked why she wrote this book. It is for whom?
The answer lies with Ng. Ng finds that writing a novel allows her to face the fears she has. Right now, it’s this: How can a person raise a child in a world that threatens his very existence? “I don’t pretend to have the answers,” she says. “But every book I’ve written is me trying to tell you what I see in the world. Not how the world is—just what I see.”
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