Author photo by Kevin Day Photography
Cover design by Jaya Miceli; Painting by Amy Bennett
Celeste Ng grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio (which is the setting of her latest novel), and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her short stories and essays have appeared in such renowned publications as the New York Times, TriQuarterly, and The Guardian—among others—and explore everything from adolescence to racism. She was awarded the Pushcart Prize for her story “Girls, At Play” (2010); her first novel, Everything I Never Told You (Penguin Books, 2014), was a New York Times bestseller and won several awards as well (among them, the ALA’s Alex Award and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature). Its popularity is evident from the numerous best-book-of-the-year designations and the attention it gained from both the New York Times and Amazon. Her highly anticipated second novel, Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin Press, 2017), has just been released and, personally, I suspect it will be met with similar acclaim.
I picked up Everything I Never Told You a couple of years ago at a bookstore in Reno, Nevada, when I was in town for a conference. I finished it before I even left the city, having read it in a single sitting in my hotel room with the bright lights of the city’s casinos blinking and flashing in the dark outside my windows. As an Asian American who has spent some years living in the Midwest myself, I was captivated by Ng’s portrayal and exploration of what such an identity in that region can look like for different people. Upon reading Little Fires Everywhere, I felt a similar sense of connection to the characters—so many of them women struggling with the sometimes small but often formidable challenges of their daily lives. For me, this is part of the magic of Ng’s writing: her ability to shape characters who embody all the complicated emotions and motivations that those of us living our lives off the page are also teeming with.
When I contact Ng via Skype for our interview, she greets me with a smile, immediately putting me at ease (I turn into a nervous fan-girl every time I encounter an author whose works I’ve enjoyed as much as hers). The cheerful green of her walls reflects her effervescent and open personality, so prevalent in my favorites among her characters, and her warm manner makes our conversation feel like a chat with a long-time friend rather than an interview with a woman I’m meeting for the first time. I find myself leaning forward in my chair to hear her responses, absorbing her words as eagerly as I consume her books. She delivers her answers with a captivating combination of conviction and grace, making her beliefs clear while creating space for different perspectives. When our time is up, I find myself sad to have to say goodbye, and end up engaging her in more casual conversation beyond the scope of the interview. We laugh together and share bits of our own experiences with one another, and when I finally have to let her get back to her life, I find that I’m immensely looking forward to her upcoming book tour (details of which can be found on her website).
Kartika Review: I really admire the way you’re able to capture the nuances and complexities of relationships, especially when it comes to family dynamics. What draws you to this particular aspect of the human experience—these ties that bind us?
Celeste Ng: Partly, it’s the thing I keep being drawn back to. I never do it on purpose, so for me it’s much more like, okay, why do I keep writing, what is it about it that draws me to it? I think a lot of it is that our families are both who shape us—they’re the people that we either are trying to become or that we are trying to not become—and at the same time, we can’t get away from them. You’re always going to be shaped by the family that you had or that you didn’t have, the family that you lost or the family you were stuck with. Whenever I think about a character, I start with who they are and I try to trace back: how did they become this sort of person? And at a certain point, it always ends up going back to the family. For me, that’s the root of the universal human experience.
KR: Little Fires Everywhere offers a multi-faceted exploration of women, especially the idea of motherhood and the question of whether it’s biology or love that makes a family. Can you talk a little bit about this aspect of the novel?
CN: It’s something that’s very much on my mind now because I find myself in that stage of life where I have been a daughter all my life (my mom is still living and we’re close) and yet I’m also a mom now—I have a six-year-old son. So I find myself in the middle of this sandwich where everything that I do with my son I see in comparison to where I was with my mother: Oh, that’s how my mom did it, and I want to do that again or I always wished we had gotten to do this, so I want to try to change things that way. I think being in the middle, that kind of in between space where I’m both a daughter and a mother at the same time, has gotten me thinking a lot about this. It has me thinking a lot, too, about what does it mean to be a mother and what are you supposed to give? Is it that you just have the child and therefore that’s who you are? But there’s more to it than that, because I think most women have mother figures who might be their own mothers or they might be other people. I was really interested in that difference between the mothers that you’re born to and the mothers that you need or that you choose for yourself. That was part of what I wanted to explore in the novel—a lot of the characters have two of those relationships: they have their own biological mother, but then they have these other people who are filling in things that they need that they’re not getting from their own mothers. Each of the characters in this book has the surrogate mother that they get to choose for themselves, and they get different things from those women.
KR: That’s true—there are so many instances of motherhood or not-motherhood, or even sisterhood, in this book. With all these explorations of women, do you consider your work to be feminist?
CN: I do! There’s a current thing going on where people are really hesitant to claim the term “feminist”—(laughs) which seems so weird to me—because for me, feminist means someone who thinks that women and men are of equal importance, and that doesn’t seem very controversial to me. I understand different people’s qualms about it, because the term gets used in a lot of different ways. But for me, I think the book is partly exploring the different things that women can do, and the different feelings that you have about the roles you’re asked to take on. In Everything I Never Told You, feminism is right up there at the top where there is a mother figure who is really wrestling with the role that she’s been allowed to play and the role that she wanted to play—and, in fact, the role that her mother wanted versus the role that her mother got to play. In Little Fires Everywhere, it’s also about where women are allowed to be nice, where they’re allowed to be pushy, what they’re allowed to claim, how they’re supposed to feel about motherhood—and those things can overlap and intersect with each other. So often, we set up this dichotomy where If you want a career, then you have to sacrifice your family! or If you don’t want children, then you’re not maternal at all! and there’s not a clean bright line between those things. You might be very maternal and yet, for various reasons, not take to certain aspects of motherhood. I don’t think a lot of people would consider Mia, in the book, to be a traditional mom. She doesn’t do a lot of the “mom things,” but at the same time I don’t think it’s because she’s not maternal. There are certain parts of motherhood that click with her, and certain parts that are not important to her. And the same with Mrs. Richardson and all the other moms and surrogate moms in the book. So I do think of it as feminist, whatever wave of feminism we consider that to be—we’re now in, like, the fourth wave of feminism? (laughs) Some of these things can coexist with each other, and part of what women can do, well, there’s maybe more than one right path and maybe those paths intersect with each other.
KR: Another significant element of Little Fires Everywhere is this idea of the importance of art—what a gift it is, how it can illuminate things, its ability to heal. In light of these ideas, what do you see as the role of fiction (as an art form) today—either your fiction specifically, or fiction broadly?
CN: Let me start with the close to home part and move outwards. For me, I never come to fiction with the idea that I have an answer and I want to give it to you! (laughs) That’s never led to good fiction for me! I feel like the role of fiction, and art, for me is that it illuminates questions that, when you think about them, you’re able to take meaning from it. I go to talk to high school students sometimes, and they’re often asked in class to look at reading as if it’s one of those hidden picture things—it’s sort of like Where’s Waldo: find the Waldo in here, find all the hidden things and then you’ve got it! So they’re often asking, What does this mean? What am I supposed to take out of it? I keep telling them it’s not a treasure hunt. There are things in there, and there are things that I mean to say, but the meaning comes from when you bring yourself to the story and you take something out of it. If you come back to this book in ten years, you might take something different from it. There have to be things in there that it’s opening up for you; it’s not like a box that you open up and there’s a thing in it. For me, that’s what I hope for for readers when I sit down to write: that it’s going to ask them to reconsider some of the things that they think or it’s going to ask them to ask themselves some questions that they might not have had. Moving outwards, for me that’s the best art—what I always turn to art for myself, whether it’s poetry or visual art or dance or even theater, and, of course, books—that it’s going to be sort of like a lens. It’s almost like a secret decoder ring where if I look through it at my life, then I’m going to see certain things in my life in different ways and it’s going to open them up. Much more for me, that’s what I’m looking for than I’m going to come to this and it’s going to tell me some important lesson. There’s a place for that—I love Aesop’s Fables, right?—but that’s the most effective art for me, and the art that I keep coming back to over time.
KR: In an interview for the website Goodreads in 2014, you spoke about why you chose the Midwest as a setting for Everything I Never Told You. On a related note, I wonder if you could talk about some of the reasons behind the periodization of both novels—one in 70s, the other in the 80s and 90s. Is there something about setting your books in the past that allows you to accomplish something that a book set in the present might not?
CN: One aspect is a purely logistical thing: for writers, there are different challenges to writing about the present. It’s something we’re immersed in right now, and to a certain extent it’s so close to our faces that we can’t really see it. I had a playwriting teacher in high school who, whenever we asked him questions, would make this gesture (she holds her hand up about six inches in front of her face so the back of her hand obscures my view of her face). He didn’t say anything, and we didn’t know what that meant! (laughs) It was like this Zen parable with no words. (laughs again) Eventually, we interpreted that as meaning sometimes things are really close to you and you can’t actually see what they are, and it’s only when they move away from you that you can see them in the proper perspective. I have a really hard time looking at the world today and writing about that world and being able to have enough perspective on it to find some meaning in it. It’s easier for me to write about something that was a decade or two decades ago or thirty years ago because there’s a little bit more space. The unimportant things have fallen away and the things that stick in my mind and are important to me are still there. It’s easier to see what things interest me.
The other logistical concern is that if you have a lot of instant communication like we have now, a lot of plot points just disappear. (laughs) So it’s like, Oh, you would just text her, you would look for her, you would get her GPS and you’d figure out where she was. You’d trace somebody—you can now Google them, you can find out all kinds of stuff about people online. I needed to preserve a little bit of that mystery.
More important, though, is the sense that a lot of what I’m writing about is the things we don’t know about other people and the things we conceal from other people, or that are kept away from us or lost in translation. That’s something that I think was just a bigger part of life in the 90s when a pager was the most effective way of getting someone immediately, or in the 70s there was no internet, there were no cell phones, there was none of that—you had to work a lot more to find these things about people and it’s interesting to me to have that kind of space in which to work where there’s unknowable space between us.
KR: Yeah, I can see that in your work. I’m thinking of the image of the bed that’s unmade and hasn’t been touched since Warren got in his accident and Lydia’s bed that has been made and hasn’t been slept in—the traces that people leave behind when there’s no way to trace them.
CN: Exactly, and it’s not to denigrate works that do take place in the present, but for me, I like that mystery. For instance, we’ve got a little home security camera and it goes off of our cell phones, so I can tell if my husband has gone out and come back, he went for his run, he came back at 6:51—it tells us when everyone is going and coming. I would have to write a very different kind of book to use that information and still preserve the mystery. I like having fuzzier traces of what people have left behind.
KR: In a 2014 interview for All Things Considered on NPR, you discussed the ways race is often talked about in terms of black and white in the United States. You said, “I think we still have quite a long way to go in terms of really having a cultural understanding in this country.” Along these lines, what does it mean to you, as someone who grapples with race in her writing, to write about Asian Americans in the current political climate?
CN: The current political climate has been interesting—interesting is an understatement (laughs)—because I started thinking about this book [Little Fires Everywhere] in 2009. That was right after Obama had become president, and we were in a very different mental and political frame of mind. When I sold the book, it was 2016, which was not that long ago, yet it feels like a lot has happened. For me, as an Asian American, that’s something my antennae are always up about—issues around Asian Americans of many kinds—because it’s personal for me. So I look at the different ways that Asian Americans are starting to come into the conversation around race in the country because for such a long time we have thought about race as black people and white people. I think that’s still how we’re thinking about it, yet we’re starting to become aware that there are more than two races in the country. We don’t share the exact same concerns or goals, but there are certain barriers in our society that affect a lot of people—all people of color (to use a slightly problematic term) are in some ways affected by that. I want to be really conscious that I don’t talk for other ethnicities, but at the same time I want to add to and enrich the conversation to say, Okay, coming from an Asian perspective, here’s what I can tell you—let me try to add that to the picture so we have more shades in our understanding of what’s going on in our world.
In both of these books, I wanted to try to talk about race, but to do it in a way that wasn’t being talked about as much before. The only way I could find to do that was to talk about things as I’ve experienced them. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s piece about having a single story gets right at the heart of it—we just need more and more and more stories. So in Everything I Never Told You, I wanted to write about being Asian in a place where there weren’t very many Asians because most of the Asian American literature that I got as a teenager—and even a lot now—was an immigration story. I’m a first-generation American, so that was familiar to me, but that is not exactly my experience. Now, there are a lot more stories about first- and second-generation Asian Americans out there, and I wanted to put another one out there. In Little Fires Everywhere, I wanted to come at the issue of race from a slightly different direction and look at the ways that people who have the best of intentions sometimes are a little bit blind about their privileges—about what they believe they deserve and how they think the world should work. That ended up—again, this was never my intention when I started the book—but it ended up making more sense coming at the “official race story” from the side.
KR: I think that in Little Fires Everywhere, especially, you tackle the nuances in the “colorblind” politic in a way that exposes the problem of what you do with good intentions when the good intentions aren’t necessary functioning in the best interests of everyone involved. It’s complicated!
CN: Yes! I don’t know that there’s a right answer to the situations in the book, but what I wanted to do was to highlight that it’s complicated, and there are a lot more complexities that often I think we realize there are. There are a lot more sides to think about, so if there’s a moral to the story—if this were an Aesop’s Fable (laughs)—I guess the moral would be, “It’s complicated!”
KR: On a relatedly complicated note, there are so many different ways one could classify your work—Asian American literature, contemporary American literature, literary fiction, feminist fiction, etc. How do you characterize your ever-growing body of work?
CN: When I’m writing, I have to take the editor and literary critic hat off, because otherwise I get paralyzed with indecision. All the categories you listed are ones that I would hope the book would fall into. It would fit into Asian American literature, even though most of the characters are not Asian Americans, because it is dealing with one aspect of race and that it comes from my perspective. I do think of it as a feminist book because it is talking about broadening the definitions of what women are allowed to do and what they can do and what we get to see them doing. I feel like it fits into literary fiction which, in publishing, is this sort of catchall of what doesn’t fit neatly into any of the particular categories—we just call it literary fiction! I started off wanting to be a poet as a teenager, so I have an interest in language and the way that the story is told. Everything in there is deliberate, and I feel like that’s a concern of literary fiction—that the form of it is as much a concern as the story. I guess the best answer is that I hope that it can fit neatly into a few of those things, because I’m a big fan of intersectionality as a concept, and the idea that a lot of these books fit into more than one category. The only thing that frustrates me is when it gets pigeonholed into one thing: This is only a book for Asian people, so only Asian people are going to enjoy or understand or get anything out of this book. Other than that, I’m happy to be in as many categories as there are!
KR: Are you willing to share anything about your current projects? I know that in the past, when you published Everything I Never Told You, you talked about this image of a girl being pushed into the water that kind of stuck with you. Is there perhaps an image or idea that’s sticking with you right now, or something you could talk about in more detail?
CN: There are two! I’m going end up being vague, I apologize in advance, but that’s mostly because I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing. I have two ideas that are battling for attention and brain space in my head. They’re both about parents and children, because that seems to be what I keep coming back to. One of them is about a mother and son, and I had this idea about what might happen to them. These dystopian elements kept creeping in, the more news that I read. I don’t know how to tackle that. That’s something that I’ve never done, to write a book in a world that is not ours, but is sort of adjacent to ours—that is maybe one step different from ours—but that’s where the news keeps pushing me. Things that I thought were dystopian fantasies are becoming less and less fantastical. That’s something that I’m toying with in the back of my mind, so I’ve been reading a lot of books on Stalin and living under authoritarian regimes—my library history is very interesting! The other book that I have is set in our world and has to do with two sisters and their relationships with each other, their relationships with their parents, and their relationships with their children. That’s a very hazy idea right now, but I’m starting to tinker with both of these ideas and at some point, hopefully, I’ll get something down on the page instead of just ideas in my head! (laughs)
KR: Hey, your new novel isn’t even out yet—I think you get a little bit of a pass on this!
CN: (laughs) I’m feeling this pressure where I know that I’m going to go out on the road and there’s going to be at least a month or two where I’m just doing the book tour, and I really want to have something down before I go out so I have this idea when I come back. It’s like when you go on vacation and you come home, if you’ve got a clean house you’re ready to get going—and if you don’t, then it’s really difficult to get started! So this is the pressure I’m feeling from myself to leave myself a to-do list for when I come back so I can get going again. We’ll see—it is what it is!
KR: Your latest novel has so many beautiful passages about sparks and fires—sparks igniting fires, fires burning things down so that new things can grow…. I’m curious what ideas you hope catch fire when people read your writing, especially with Little Fires Everywhere.
CN: This fall is going to be an interesting time to be going out on a book tour because the book comes out on September 12 and I’ll be doing the book tour for a month on the road—I’m going all over the country, and then when I come back I’m doing another month of events locally, and a couple other farther afield. I feel like we’re in this never ending election season—election time is a very fraught time, and I feel like we’re all very raw (for a lot of really good reasons). I’m actually very excited about it, but I’m also hoping that this book will spark some conversations about how we think about race, and about complacency (for lack of a better word): the assumption that many people, including myself, often operate under that if we do what we’re supposed to do and we follow the rules and we have good intentions, things are going to turn out well for us—good will prevail, we can place our faith in the system. I’m very much a goody-two-shoes by nature (laughs), and yet my belief in those things is somewhat shaken—not just by the election, but also by events happening in the world. Part of what I hope is that people will read this book and start thinking about the blind spots that they have, or the way that things they do are inadvertently enabling other things that they don’t want to happen, to happen. I guess what I’m talking about is sort of a general political awareness, but I hope it will get people thinking about not just race, but also class and really, at heart, the question of privilege. It’s a privilege to be able to assume that if you follow the rules, the system is going to work for you, and that’s not true for a lot of people. I guess the big thing is to shake people a little bit and get them to wonder if their faith in the system is warranted—and what ways they play into that… or not.