Celeste Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, about a Chinese American family in 1970s Ohio, became a bestseller in 2014. Her follow up, Little Fires Everywhere, explored the underside of the seemingly utopian community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, where Ng lived in her teens, and became a hit TV series starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. Her latest, Our Missing Hearts, is something of a departure; it is set in the near future, when laws have been passed to preserve “American culture”, resulting in discrimination against Asian Americans and ultimately tearing families apart. She explains why what she planned as a domestic novel turned so dark.
Your new book reads as a nightmare scenario, yet it could so easily be true. How did it take shape for you?
I started writing in October 2016, right after I had finished Little Fires Everywhere, and I thought it was going to be a fairly realistic and conventional novel about a mother-son relationship. And while this idea was still coalescing, Trump was elected. We saw the rise of the far right, we saw a lot of the elements that had been bubbling under the surface come right up to the top. These feelings of anger and resentment and hatred and bigotry. That only increased throughout the years that followed, and that started to leach its way into the story. The book felt like the only way for me to wrestle with some of these questions that I was asking myself, like how do we move through this? How do you raise the next generation in this world?
So here we are six years later, and things that are even more disturbing have actually happened …
Yes, and part of the reason the book took such a long time to write was that it was very scary to think about these things and to spend time in that world. During the Trump years, and then during the pandemic, I was getting all these books from the library – books like Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism – and my husband was saying: “Are you sure this is what you want to be reading right now? This does not seem like soothing reading.” But I wanted to look at what had happened in the past, and the dark times in which we have dealt with authoritarianism, and to remember that we’ve gotten through it before. Part of why the book took such a long time was trying to come to terms with that idea.
In the novel, a boy is living without his mother. And of course the story of children separated from their parents is one that played out during the Trump presidency.
Absolutely. And that arises, again, from the questions I was asking myself as a parent, with a young child, when we started hearing about the separations that were happening at the border. It was devastating to think about what that experience would be like, and it was difficult, because my son was just old enough at that time to understand some of what was going on. How do I explain this to him? I went with some other families to a march to protest against family separations. And, you know, it’s difficult to explain to your child that you could be taken away from your parents. All of this found its way into the book, because I was asking myself, how do I explain to him why terrible things happen? How do I try to give him any amount of hope?
It’s easy to think of Trump as an aberration, but that seems to miss the point.
Exactly. I mean, he was this sort of pinnacle, but there’s all this other terrain, and it didn’t come out of nowhere. For anyone who is “other” in any way, whether it’s in terms of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, there’s a sense that if you are not fitting into that idea of the melting pot – that was the image I grew up with, anyway – that if there’s any part of you that doesn’t fit, it becomes quite clear, the friction between the life that you are living and the ideas of America that are held up.
One of the things that’s painful in the book is the image of a child whose father is saying, your mother has nothing to do with us.
I’ve always been a writer who believes that the political is personal. And that’s become more and more clear to me as we go on. To think about these very big political issues, or global issues, like climate change or the pandemic – it’s very hard to get our minds around something on that scale. I bring it down to the personal level, because that’s where the story is.
That seems to be a theme among novelists at the moment – in your novel, and new work by Ruth Ozeki and Louise Erdrich – the importance of stories and books and libraries, as things we need to protect.
Stories are the way that we make meaning out of things. It’s always been the way. The alternative is that the world is totally random, and that’s a very difficult thing to accept. We don’t have control over anything, we can’t influence the future. No one wants to think that way. And I don’t think it’s true. I think we can understand part of what’s going on. And so I think that it is a very deeply felt human need for stories to make meaning out of our experience.
But I think you’re right, I think there is something that feels very pressing right now. Because it feels like we are deliberately not looking at what happened in the past, we’re refusing to learn from the past, we’re refusing to see the cause and effect. Here in the US, it’s happening in a number of ways. How we’re teaching history, or not teaching history – there have been a number of [state] bills saying, we’re not going to talk about the evils of slavery because it will make some people feel guilty or uncomfortable. There’s this whole story we’re not going to tell or preserve. That’s scary, because it suggests that there is then going to be a generation of children who will never have heard that story.
Likewise, here, there have been attacks on libraries, where libraries are being made to remove certain books. So again, there’s that sense of needing to preserve those stories and not let that history be removed. It feels very pressing.
The Asian American experience features in all your books. How important is it for you to make a space for that history to be reflected upon and to endure?
It feels very important. Not necessarily just that I do it, but that there is a space for it. Because that is an experience that is often overlooked. As an Asian American, I often felt like when we were talking about race relations, and particularly about Black and white, I don’t know where I fit into that question. And the more space we can make for saying, well, this isn’t the same, but there are resonances … The same with Latinx history, and Indigenous peoples.
My mother did a lot of trying to teach me about this stuff; she would always get me any books she could find. This was in the mid 80s and there weren’t a lot, so I was getting a lot of books about Japanese internment when I was a young child, which is a little odd. But I recognise now why she did that.
And you were in the midwest?
Yes, and there was very little around about any kind of Asian American experience. And so it feels very important to me to help make a space for those stories. Because I want them to be out there for myself and for other people.
That’s what the novel can do so well. In Little Fires Everywhere, you were drawing on your own upbringing in Shaker Heights, and creating what to the reader, and then subsequently to the viewer, looks like a crazy place where people are measuring the length of their grass. But it’s very relatable. When I watched the TV adaptation, I thought, I’ve got too much of the Reese Witherspoon character, Elena, in me. Because I would have a colour-coded chart. I would be that person.
I mean, there’s much of that character in me. That’s why she came out. People would say, are you more like Elena or [her neighbour] Mia? And I’m honestly like both of them. Those two facets are constantly butting heads with each other in me. That’s what the novel, if it’s doing its job, can do, make you hold on to those contradictory things and sit with them together.
Tell me about the transition of that book to the screen, because the key change is that Mia is of no specified race in the novel, but Kerry Washington played her in the TV series, which brings a whole different charge.
Yes, I love that they did that. When I started writing, I felt that to make Mia an Asian American woman made things a bit too neat. But I didn’t feel like I was a person who could authentically bring an experience of a Black woman or Latina woman’s life to the page, I didn’t want to assume that I would get it right. And so I wrote her without mentioning any particular ethnicity. Then when I started working with Reese Witherspoon and [her media company] Hello Sunshine, they said, we would like to approach Kerry Washington to play Mia. And I loved it. That was a sign to me that they were thinking about the project in a way that I hoped they would, they weren’t going to shy away from talking about race, they were going to lean into that. I thought that was a brilliant decision.
Often these conversations play out on social media, and there can be a lot of anger there.
I think it is less a cause and more of an outlet for those things. There’s certainly a lot that’s ugly on social media. But I tend to think that these are things that were already there: this anger and these resentments would be coming out elsewhere. It’s just that they’re more obvious online. It is a space where people can connect with each other, and it’s a place where you can find your people. And of course, that goes both ways. But when I was a teenager you’d go on a message board. I was interested in writing and miniatures and weird historical subjects. Nobody around me was interested in those things. And one thing that makes me happy now is that if you are interested in those things, or if you’re dealing with something and no one around you seems to be dealing with that, it’s a space where you can find other people.
What’s next for you?
I haven’t been writing, but I’ve been trying to read more, and that always gets me thinking. I read a lot of nonfiction when I’m between projects, because you don’t know what’s going to spark something. I had another novel that I was working on, and I had a whole draft of it that I put aside to work on Our Missing Hearts. So I will look at that and see what in there still feels alive after this period of dormancy. It’s a little bit like in the spring, you come out and you wait and see which of your plants have come up, and which ones have not made it through the winter. Thematically, it has a lot in common with all the books I’ve written. It’s about parents and children. I’m interested in the ways that two siblings can have completely different experiences with the same parents, and the ways in which they might grow into very different people.
And that happened in your family – you’re the outlier, as a writer?
I am, but I’m very much like my father in a lot of ways, even though he would have scoffed at the idea that he was anything other than a scientist. And my sister is 11 years older than me, she was born right after my parents immigrated to the US. They were grad students, my father was finishing his PhD, my mother was getting a second bachelor’s degree, on top of the one that she got in Hong Kong. And they were living in a tiny apartment; my sister’s nursery was in the closet. But by the time I came around, they were much more settled. They had been living in the country for more than a decade, my father had finished his PhD, my mother was starting her PhD, they had stable jobs. They knew where they were, in a sense, and I feel my sister and I got such different childhoods. We even got different parents – where they were in their lives was so different. And I’m fascinated by the way that happens in a family. So I’m hoping to get back to work on a new novel, or this old, new novel.
• Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng will be published by Little, Brown on Tuesday. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.