Ravenous With Story: A Profile of Celeste Ng

by
Renée H. Shea
10.12.22

“Stranger than fiction” seems meaningless during a time—our time, now—when the unimaginable is a daily reality. Yet in her new novel, Our Missing Hearts, published in October by Penguin Press, Celeste Ng creates a dystopian setting that is a reminder of what is at stake, what we have to lose: “It started slowly at first, the way most things did,” she writes midway through the book. “[P]eople began to lose their confidence, their sense of purpose, the willingness to wake up in the morning, their ability to keep trying, their optimism that something could be different, their memory that anything had ever been different, their hope that anything would ever improve.” Those ominous sentences sound eerily familiar and refuse to let us turn away, capturing the tone for Ng’s third novel. “None of the things that are in this book are completely made up out of thin air,” the author acknowledges—or laments.

Celeste Ng, author of Our Missing Hearts. (Credit: Nicole Chan)

Ng says that she “spent a lot of time trying not to write this book.” Her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, was published by Penguin Press in 2014, followed three years later by Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin Press, 2017), but Our Missing Hearts took nearly seven years to complete. It was, she says, “a difficult book to write” because, for one, she was working on another novel at the same time: “I had two ideas and was figuring out which one had the heat of the moment and was drawing me to it.” Currency was initially a source of concern: “My first two novels take place in the not-too-far-away past. It’s always been harder for me to write about things happening now because I need distance to step back and think about them—not with objectivity because I don’t know if that’s possible or even what writers should be doing. But with perspective.” She and her agent had agreed to move forward on the other novel and let this one percolate; then during the start of the pandemic, Ng says, “I realized this book was calling to me.” It was the book she needed to write not despite but because of its immediacy.

With the novel approaching publication, Ng began bookmarking articles that resonated, intending to follow Margaret Atwood’s statement, itself fashioned from a line of poetry by Marianne Moore: “If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real.” The resonance in conventional news, on social media, and in current events was so profound that, Ng says, she found it downright frightening. The world of Our Missing Hearts is governed by PACT, an acronym for Preserving American Culture and Traditions—a system that “is not about race, the president was always saying, it is about patriotism and mindset.” PACT, dedicated to “keeping America safe from being undermined by foreign influences,” arose out of “the Crisis,” a time of economic and political instability. Within a proliferation of surveillance culture, school curricula are monitored by the state, books are banned, any hint of resistance is met with draconian punishment. The most heinous threat is the government’s power of “re-placement,” that is, removing children from parents who are somehow deemed “unpatriotic.”

The emotional core of the novel is familiar Ng territory: a mother and child. The first section is told through the eyes of twelve-year-old Noah Gardener, dubbed “Bird” by his mother, Margaret Miu, a Chinese American poet who disappeared three years earlier after one of her poems went viral when it was interpreted as a criticism of PACT. He and his father, a former professor of linguistics who shelves books at a university library, live a lonely existence circumscribed by PACT’s rules. Bird’s quest to find his mother and the story of her past three years form the central plot—stories within stories.

In Ng’s deft hands a memory or a moment is where past and present intersect and often collide. The extraordinary amount of research she did is, not surprisingly, presented as story. Bird hears a history different from the one he learns in school from a librarian, a dissident who is part of a kind of librarian underground that tries to keep track of re-placed children who have been taken from their families. She begins, “My great-grandfather was at Carlisle,” a reference to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, whose mission was to westernize Native Americans by stripping them of their culture and language, and then continues to tell Bird about the Japanese American internment at Manzanar, enslavement of Black people, and “what happens at the border.” Fellow author Anthony Marra points out that “one of the most brilliant aspects of the book is that it uses the trappings of dystopian fiction to challenge the reader to reconsider American history. If we think the novel is a dystopia, then what do we think about our country’s past and present?” He and Ng became mutually supportive writing friends at similar stages in the drafting of his novel Mercury Pictures Presents (Hogarth, 2022) and Our Missing Hearts, meeting weekly to discuss their work and offer a sympathetic ear. He sums up what he believes is central to her novel’s power: “It’s about the stories we tell ourselves—those that demean us and those that fulfill us—and, in the end, it becomes a superlative example of the latter.”

As Ng probes the historical past, she is asking how change can occur, and she ultimately leans toward the individual, the small acts of how we treat one another. She cites “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, writer, dissident, and the last president of Czechoslovakia, as “a real touchstone” for her thinking about how to combat the feeling that there’s nothing any one person can do. Writing in 1978 as a critic of the Communist regime, Havel might have been describing PACT: “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth.” Resistance is “living within the truth” through quotidian acts of normal citizens who call attention to injustice. “It’s terrifying,” Ng says, “to have seen over the past few years that sometimes people are tired or afraid and reach their limits, so you see them not helping each other. One of the things that drove me into this book is asking what happens if you feel no one is there to help.” As a contemporary take on Havel, Ng started the hashtag #SmallActs on Twitter after the 2016 election to share everyday but meaningful actions of resistance and to encourage others to do the same: “It began as a kind of existential hope reflecting my philosophy that the things you do in your own neighborhood have a cumulative effect.”

In many ways, Ng has lived a pretty stock version of the American Dream—with a couple of bonuses. The second child of parents who immigrated from Hong Kong in the 1960s, she was born in Pittsburgh, spent early years in Indianapolis and Chicago, and moved to Shaker Heights, an affluent suburb of Cleveland, when she was ten. She talks with affection for her father, a physicist at NASA who died in 2004, and remains close to her mother, a retired chemist at Cleveland State University, and her older sister. Ng earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and an MFA from the University of Michigan. She has received numerous honors, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and son.

Ng paid her literary dues before she sold her first novel. She kept track of rejections with what she called her “Spreadsheet of Shame” and submitted “Girls, at Play,” her short story that eventually won the Pushcart Prize, seventeen times before it was accepted. But that was then. To call both of Ng’s previous novels “successful” by just about any measure is to deal in understatement. Both were New York Times best-sellers and have been translated into over thirty languages. Sales and awards abound, building an enormous fan base for novels that blur (or ignore) the line between literary and popular fiction. Little Fires Everywhere was adapted into a series now streaming on Hulu. Ng, who had a cameo role, is a producer along with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, who also starred as the central characters. Everything I’ve Never Told You is currently in development as a limited series produced with a director and screenwriter already on board. Lucy Liu has agreed to narrate the audiobook, a first for her, of Our Missing Hearts.

With these remarkable accomplishments and accolades, Ng seems to be taking her celebrity status in stride. When asked what it’s like to be pals with luminaries such as Witherspoon and Washington, she admits that at times it feels “surreal” yet deftly shifts the focus, saying what a “privilege” it was to work with them, both “genuinely kind, smart human beings.” When they talked about why they wanted to adapt the novel, “they were thinking about relationships with their kids and experiences in their own lives” and how that influenced their interpretations of Ng’s characters. She is especially admiring of the fact that both women are keenly aware of the power they have to gain attention yet choose to use it in altruistic ways—e.g., Witherspoon’s commitment to broaden access to the film business and Washington’s efforts to focus on election rights. “That’s how my parents raised me: You help other people; it’s what you’re here for. It’s what I want to do with whatever platform I have.”

And she already has. Through her active social media presence Ng promotes the work of her fellow authors. Some are in her writers group, the Chunky Monkeys, which still meets regularly: “Getting feedback and support from other writers is an essential part of the writing life for me, so we make time for each other.” Her enormous Twitter following (nearly 200,000) gives her a platform to comment on social and political issues. Independent booksellers have nothing but praise for her and not only because of the brisk sales of her novels. Lucy Yu, owner of the indie bookstore Yu and Me in Manhattan’s Chinatown, is herself a huge fan and enjoys seeing customers buy an extra copy of one of Ng’s books even if they already own one: “Her books will always consistently sell at Yu and Me Books because they are stories that relate to so many while still representing most of our customers’ stories and backgrounds.”

Our Missing Hearts launched at an October event at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Owner David Sandberg and manager Sarah Rettger praise Ng’s “generosity” not only as an author, but as “a part of our community,” pointing out that she sits on the board of the Porter Square Books Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to reading and the love of books that brings authors into local schools. Giving both time and money to support the next generation is part of what Ng does. She recently partnered with We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit created to promote diversity in children’s literature and publishing. Inspired by the writer Shea Serrano, who founded a program for interns in the publication of children’s literature, Ng says, she wanted to do something similar for people from underrepresented groups: “More and more I realize that we don’t just need writers from diverse backgrounds; we also need people at every stage of publishing—acquisition, editorial, marketing, publicity, sales—who can bring different experiences and perspectives to champion these writers and their work.” She funded a parallel program for mentorships in adult publishing and reports with obvious satisfaction that four interns from last summer’s program found full-time jobs in the industry.

“Embarrassingly sincere” is one of the descriptors in Ng’s Twitter profile: “I mean this completely unironically,” she explains as part of her self-characterization as “a very direct person.” Nowhere is this more apparent than when she speaks up and speaks out about her Asian heritage. In 2016 she wrote a Thanksgiving essay on what she is grateful for with a headnote defying the caveat from the editor that he would not accept “anything about politics.” She began her essay, published by Literary Hub, by acknowledging that given the acrimony surrounding the recent election, she understood that everyone wants a break. “But,” she wrote with bull’s-eye directness, “as a woman and a person of color, my very existence is political through no choice of my own. I don’t get to take a break even if I want to.” In Our Missing Hearts, Ng continues her study of how profoundly the personal is political—and the dire consequences of failing to recognize their convergence.

“Kung-PAO” (Person of Asian Origin) is how Bird’s classmates refer to his mother, though, “Being a PAO, the authorities reminded everyone, was not itself a crime.” Anti-Asian sentiment runs throughout PACT’s rhetoric, in which those who protest the regime are labeled “Traitorous Chinese sympathizers. Tumors on American society.” As PACT searches for a common enemy to rally support, China is an easy target: “Over there you got Chinese rice farmers with smartphones, one congressman ranted.” Yet Ng reminds us that “what is really being targeted is difference as defined by whoever is in power.” She continues: “I focused on the anti-Asian sentiment because that story is mine to tell, my experience. But it was important to acknowledge that this is not happening only to East Asians. What happens to someone else is never the same as what happens to you, but it’s important to say I can imagine something of what it is like for you because I have felt something like that. Then maybe we can find a common viewpoint, a kinship, especially at a time when the world feels extremely fractured.”

In the wake of the so-called spa shootings in Atlanta in 2021, the New York Times invited Ng to write an essay to accompany images by East Asian photographers for a feature called “Keeping Love Close,” an exploration of what it means to show, express, or receive love as an Asian American during dangerous times. Ng agreed, calling it “a beautiful synergy” as she wrote her narrative, only occasionally seeing the photos under consideration: “It struck me as a sense of convergent evolution: We were thinking about the same themes even though we were expressing them differently, in different contexts and places. It was magical how the words and pictures came together.” Likely neither magical nor coincidental are the parallels between Ng’s essay and Our Missing Hearts because she was writing them concurrently. In “Keeping Love Close,” she writes: “There is value in choosing how to be seen, in reclaiming the right to select the face you show the world, in insisting that others see you as you know yourself to be.” The fictional equivalent is Margaret, who is seen as a revolutionary, a dangerous figure, even a terrorist. “Yet,” Ng asserts, “that’s not how she frames herself. For her to be able to frame herself or to lose the ability to frame herself is related to how she knows herself versus how other people decide to frame her.”

This tension is explored more deeply in the character of Bird. Ng sets this adolescent boy—at once confused, defiant, and tender—on what feels much like an archetypal hero’s journey. Within the novel, Ng references “an ordeal the hero had to endure” and the need “to trust strangers on your quest.” She grew up with these stories and studied them, she says, “as an English major and a general nerd. One of my favorite elective courses [at Harvard] was with Maria Tatar, a specialist on Grimm’s fairy tales.” The idea of the hero who must strike out on their own, faces obstacles, and returns fundamentally changed is the narrative line, she says, in the Chinese and Japanese folktales as well as the Western ones she grew up on: “The thing that fascinates me about these tales is that they are universal, and they are endlessly retold, remixed, and reimagined. I remember as a child I was given a school assignment to rewrite a fairy tale from the point of view of a different character. I got so carried away that I wrote a whole little booklet with five or six retellings from a minor character’s point of view.”

At the novel’s outset, Bird, feeling abandoned by his mother, rejects the stories she read and told him, stories that he once believed “could explain everything.” But the way Bird learns to value and carry the stories, ultimately seeking to find and pass along his mother’s words, echoes the “bird” of language that must be protected, nurtured, and passed on—a central image in Toni Morrison’s Nobel speech. “I hadn’t thought about that consciously,” Ng says, “but I know and love that speech, so I imagine it was somewhere in my DNA.”

She continues: “One of the things I keep coming back to in my writing is legacy, what you choose to pass on. In my living room I have a photo of one of the installations of the artist Robert Montgomery that says: ‘THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE BECOME GHOSTS INSIDE OF YOU AND LIKE THIS YOU KEEP THEM ALIVE.’ A friend who saw it commented that it was bold of me to have this big reminder of mortality, but I had thought of it in the opposite direction—how we continue. It’s two sides of the same coin. So Bird can gather up his mother’s poems, piecing them together as something of someone’s legacy. He won’t get it all, and he’s not the only one carrying it. It’s kind of a beautiful idea.”

Bird must learn to “listen,” a word that comes up over and again in Our Missing Hearts, in which listening is described as “a token of trust,” itself a form of art. Margaret insists that Bird listen to her story bit by bit in her own time. She herself becomes a kind of professional listener, an amanuensis and storyteller all at once. Ng says that she never starts with anything like a thesis; however, “this is one of the conclusions I’ve come to: We talk a lot about being seen, but I think we also want to be heard. Everybody has stories inside them but not always someone to tell them to. It’s an act of generosity to just listen.” Margaret carries the desire of parents who have lost children and are “ravenous with story” to keep them alive. One of the most moving scenes is the experience of people who hear a disembodied voice telling those stories and feel it “like a voice inside them, speaking somehow both to them and from them.” That possibility of connection through story in and of itself sounds hopeful. Is it?

Not exactly, Ng says: “It’s not the movie transformational moment, but I think that even when things feel grim and set in stone, art can still reach us. We don’t need to be too rose-spectacled to think about ways that art might pause us or wake us up, whether it’s a book, a song, a movie. It’s a question of listening to those things, of sitting with them. That’s where change starts to happen.” She cites the example of art installations that a group called RAICES (the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) placed in various cities: what looks like a figure in a cage and wrapped in a Mylar blanket with recordings smuggled out of some of the detention centers of actual children crying. Ng believes that people who would not have been moved by an op-ed or a newsfeed might pause and take notice: “If you’re walking past this and hear a child crying, I like to think that will stop you, even for just a second. You might forget about it later, but something human is being kept alive, like a little ember being tended.”

It’s no wonder that poet Maggie Smith, one of Ng’s inspirations, believes Our Missing Hearts should be “required reading.” And not just because she sees some of her own experience (with the poem “Good Bones”) reflected in that of Margaret—a woman writes a poem, it’s just another poem of hers inspired by mothering a young child, until it goes viral for reasons she could not have anticipated—but because she sees Ng “holding up a mirror to show us ourselves and grappling with big questions about art, freedom, and ethics. What parts of ourselves, including our freedom of expression, might we be tempted to trade away for the illusion of safety or belonging? What difference can one voice make?”

Ng submitted the initial manuscript of Our Missing Hearts to her agent with the headnote: Title Goes Here. “I always have trouble with titles,” she says, so she went through the book, listing phrases that she felt captured something essential. At first skeptical that this phrase was “too self-referential, even a little twee,” she came around to it.

Our suggests, she says, that it’s not an individual problem “but that we as a community are thinking about it.” Hearts speaks emblematically to the children “and to the empathy we’re missing when we turn away from other people’s stories.” And Missing offers hope that the human connection is not destroyed; it can be found—one story, one voice, one small act at a time. Overly optimistic? Perhaps, but in Our Missing Hearts, Celeste Ng makes a persuasive case that we should—and need to—believe it.

 

Renée H. Shea, formerly a professor of English and modern languages at Bowie State University in Maryland, has written extensively for Poets & Writers Magazine, including profiles of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, Rita Dove, Imbolo Mbue, Naomi Shihab Nye, Arundhati Roy, Namwali Serpell, and Tracy K. Smith. She is a frequent contributor of interviews, most recently with the poet David Baker and novelist Lisa Bird-Wilson, for World Literature Today. She is lead author for the English Language Arts High School Series for Bedford, Freeman & Worth.