Conversations with Jody: Bestseller Ng talks new novel, hope in dark times, humanities crisis

Bestselling author Celeste Ng will be speaking about "Our Missing Hearts" on Oct. 18 at UCSC's Cowell Ranch Hay Barn.
(Via Kieran Kesner)

Bestselling novelist Celeste Ng is blessed with prodigious gifts. She writes gorgeous, lush sentences that make us look at ourselves and our world differently. Her first two novels have sold more than 2 million copies and her second novel, “Little Fires Everywhere,” became a popular TV series starring Reese Witherspoon. She comes to Santa Cruz on Oct. 18 for a Bookshop Santa Cruz event at UCSC’s Cowell Ranch Hay Barn to talk about her new novel, “Our Missing Hearts.” Witherspoon just tapped the book as her October pick. Community Voices editor Jody K. Biehl talks to Ng about the book, writing, the role of the humanities and artists, the rise of Donald Trump, motherhood and more.

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Jody K. Biehl Conversations

Bestselling author Celeste Ng (pronounced “ing”) is coming back to Santa Cruz next week to promote her new novel, “Our Missing Hearts.”

I say “back” because Ng was here in 2017 to promote “Little Fires Everywhere,” her engrossing literary whodunit about the complex racial and social tensions simmering between two intertwined families in small-town 1970s Ohio. It’s a novel about mothers and daughters, secrets and lies, rules and rule-breakers and the mystery of who set the explosive house fire that begins and ends the novel.

The book, Ng’s second, was a smash hit — winning gobs of awards, selling more than 2 million copies and landing on the bestseller list for 48 weeks.

Reese Witherspoon picked it for her book club before it was even published in 2017. And in 2020, Witherspoon adapted it into a popular, Emmy-nominated TV miniseries, which she starred in alongside Kerry Washington.

Book lovers beware: In case you missed it, the Hulu miniseries made key changes from the book. (Ng served as a producer and approved them.)

Witherspoon, who in recent years has become our nation’s high priestess of book clubs, has already named “Our Missing Hearts,” which came out Oct. 4, her October book club pick. Witherspoon’s power is immense and virtually assures a book a decent shot at stardom.

Ng is not your average bestseller.

She is a writer’s writer, a poet. She writes gorgeous, lush sentences that remind us why words matter.

Her novels are complex, big-hearted journeys that force us to look at ourselves and our community and question what lies beneath.

If you’ve forgotten or missed it, her debut novel, “Everything I Never Told You,” was a gripping page-turner focusing on the mysterious and tragic death of 16-year-old Lydia Lee. It shot Ng to literary fame in 2014 and became a New York Times bestseller and Amazon editor’s pick as best fiction book of the year.

Ng is also funny, charismatic and self-deprecating, as she proved last week when she appeared on Seth Meyers’ talk show to promote “Our Missing Hearts.” She laughs easily about the ironies of her life (her 12-year-old son says he doesn’t like to read) and the struggles parents face to raise thoughtful adults.

And she can rock a yellow-gold dress on national TV, which is no easy feat.

Ng is also brave.

In “Our Missing Hearts” — which she will be discussing at a Bookshop Santa Cruz event Oct. 18 at the UCSC Cowell Ranch Hay Barn — she doesn’t give us what we expect.

The book is sparer, darker and much more overtly political than her first two books, both of which took place in the past (the 1970s and 1990s) in small-town Ohio and offer a robust cast of characters and family dynamics that Ng then deftly peels back and painfully exposes.

Here, we are transported to a dystopian future in which the government bans and censors books, overtly persecutes Asian Americans and unexpectedly swoops in and “replaces” children into “more suitable” homes when parents are deemed “unpatriotic.”

This time, she doesn’t give us a sprawling family dynamic to unwind.

Rather, we have a child, 12-year-old Bird, a sensitive, biracial, bullied boy, as our anchor and narrator of the first part of the book. We also, as the story quickens, have his mother, Chinese American poet-dissident Margaret Miu, who left Bird and his linguist-turned-librarian father, Ethan, three years earlier. The 325-page book focuses on Bird’s search to find and understand his mother and figure out his place in the world.

I was watching the 2016 presidential election and the subsequent rise of the far right. It felt strange to pretend those things weren’t happening on the page when they were so present in the real world.

— Celeste Ng

It’s set at Harvard University (Ng’s alma mater) and in her current hometown, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The story began, Ng explains in this Q&A, with her frustration at the 2016 election and the increasing rise in anti-Asian violence we have witnessed during the pandemic.

It’s partly her journey of figuring out how you give hope to your children when the world turns dark and intolerant.

It’s sensitive and nuanced and heartbreaking. And it makes librarians heroes, which is a great, underappreciated truth.

Read our Conversation below. The upcoming event is co-sponsored by the Humanities Institute at UCSC and KAZU-FM 90.3.

Jody: Your new book, “Our Missing Hearts,” is a shift in style and location from your previous two books, both of which centered on families in small Ohio towns and tackled subtle questions of class, race and privilege. Now we’ve moved to the campus of Harvard University and to a dystopian, authoritarian society where books are banned, anti-Asian racism is rampant, and families have to constantly swear allegiance or risk having their children taken from them.

"Our Missing Hearts" is Reese Witherspoon's October book pick.
“Our Missing Hearts” is Reese Witherspoon’s October book pick.

How did you come to this story and what led you to become so much more openly political than in your past two novels? Do you think the huge success your first two books enjoyed has allowed you to be braver/more outspoken?

Celeste: The book really began with the mother-son story. In my second novel, I’d written about a mother who was a visual artist, and I wondered, what if there was a child who didn’t understand his mother’s creative work, and even saw it as a rival to him? While this idea was still forming, I was watching the 2016 presidential election and the subsequent rise of the far right. It felt strange to pretend those things weren’t happening on the page when they were so present in the real world. So I found myself writing a post-democratic United States, in which I could explore some of the questions I was asking myself: Can one person really make a difference? How do you hold on to hope — let alone pass it on to the next generation — in an atmosphere of fear?

Writing a world that wasn’t strictly realistic was a new thing for me, as was writing a novel that seemed more “political.” But I realized that my first two novels were also “political” — this book just looks at those issues from a different angle. And I realized the questions and themes I was exploring also run through my first two novels: parents and children and the ways they understand each other, or don’t; what role art plays; whether it’s possible to escape the past, or whether it’s always with you.

Jody: In “Our Missing Hearts,” art/poetry becomes a chief form of dissent to an authoritarian regime. We see pingpong balls dumped in a river, trees covered in yarn, hearts painted on sidewalks. How did you come to this idea?

Celeste: Art can sometimes reach us in ways that overt arguments can’t because it speaks to us on an emotional level. We might gloss over an editorial or skip past a news report, but art can ambush us when we don’t expect it. My favorite pieces of art have always been those that are embedded in the landscape, so to speak: not set aside in a museum, but placed publicly in ways that encourage us to interact with it.

Then, when family separations at the U.S-Mexico border were first in the news, I was struck by something the rights group RAICES did: They erected small cages on busy street corners, with small figures inside them, and played (real) sounds of children crying inside detention centers. It can be easy to ignore the news, but it’s harder to ignore something like this when you encounter it unexpectedly on the way to work. That felt like a powerful way to get people’s attention. And I found that throughout history, people have often used artistic gestures — large and small — to protest authoritarianism. That felt right: If authoritarianism is an attempt to control every aspect of behavior, then creative acts like art, especially nontraditional art, feel like the polar opposite.

Jody: So in a related way, we are suffering a crisis in the humanities, with fewer students choosing to study poetry, literature, art, linguistics – all subjects that play a role in your new book. More students are moving toward engineering, computer science and subjects more directly linked to a linear career path. How do you view this trend and what does it say if our universities are producing fewer poets/artists and students in general are studying/reading less poetry, literature, history, etc.?

Celeste: Those subjects are called humanities because in one way or another, they focus on our experience as humans: our idiosyncrasies and biases, our subjectivities and whimsies. There’s lots of joy and beauty in studying these things — I’d argue they make you a fuller and more interesting person! But those things are not directly “profitable,” so they get downplayed in our capitalist culture. Even if all you care about is profit, though, the humanities are still crucial.

I come from a family with many scientists and engineers. But all of them also appreciate the humanities, because without the humanities, you lose context for the work you’re doing. Generally, you aren’t designing a bridge or a computer program or a medicine in a vacuum; you need to consider the people who will use this thing you’re making. And you can’t do that if you don’t understand what it is to be human.

I found that throughout history, people have often used artistic gestures — large and small — to protest authoritarianism.

— Celeste Ng

Studying history, reading literature, learning about people who are different from you — all of that gives you context. Without that, we end up with machines and sites that people can’t work, because the buttons are in hard-to-reach places or instructions are worded unclearly, and this is how we end up with economic theories that are completely divorced from the realities of how actual people live their lives. Unless your work does not involve humans in any way — and that’s maybe theoretical mathematicians, but pretty much no one else — you need to have some sense of how we operate as humans, and that’s where the humanities come in.

Jody: Santa Cruz has been named a top-100 small art town in America. We have more artists per capita than most in the country. Yet artists’ voices are rarely heard in our policy/education/policing debates. Do you think more artists should be involved in politics?

Celeste: There are many ways to be involved in politics, and I suspect that most artists’ work has a political aspect to it. Debates are not a sphere for everyone, nor are they the only or even the most effective way of influencing policy. But I do believe that everyone — artists and nonartists alike — needs to advocate for the societal values they believe in. As the saying goes, the personal is political. So if we care about how our society functions, then we need to be living and championing the values we want our society to uphold, whether it’s in policy debates, in artistic works, or in our everyday behavior.

Jody: Bird, the 12-year-old at the center of your story, lives with his father, but spends a good part of the novel searching for his mother, Margaret Miu, who left the family when he was nine. You also have a son and, like Miu, are a Chinese American artist married to a white man. Do your characters relate to your personal life? Do you want people to make those connections?


What: Author Celeste Ng discusses her latest novel, “Our Missing Hearts,” with local writer Ellen Bass in a Bookshop Santa Cruz event cosponsored by The Humanities Institute at UC Santa Cruz and KAZU-FM.

When: Tuesday, Oct. 18, at 7 p.m.

Where: Cowell Ranch Hay Barn at 94 Ranch View Rd. on the UCSC campus.

Tickets: $33 fee includes event entry, a hardcover copy of “Our Missing Hearts” and signing-line access. More information here.

Notable: Masks are required for this event; the book signing will be masked, and socially distanced; no selfies or handshakes.

Celeste: Readers will always look for ways to map the author onto the characters, and vice versa — that’s natural; we’re always trying to suss out how fiction and reality relate to each other. And readers get to think what they want, that’s OK with me! In this case, the truth is that all of the characters are more like me than anyone else. I’m a writer and a gardener like Margaret, but also a word nerd like Ethan, and a fairy tale lover and dreamer like Bird. I give the characters attributes of myself, because that’s what I know. They have some superficial similarities to my own family makeup, because the questions I wanted to explore come from my own life: What does it mean to be more than one thing? How do you parent a child who doesn’t have the same ethnicity as you, who will have a different experience in life because of that?

Jody: You have a big presence on social media, not as big as Ariana Grande or Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift, but big. You have 94,000 followers and have used your platform to vanquish internet trolls, spotlight young writers, share your son’s art and promote activism, particularly on immigration issues and families separated at the border. Can you talk a bit about social media, how you use it and if you let your son use it?

Celeste: Like most things, social media has huge pros and cons. I think of it as a tool: whether it’s useful or harmful depends on what you’re doing with it. The downsides, such as harassment, are well known. However, social media can also be a tool to find community and share information, and it’s particularly valuable for people who’ve been marginalized or not been heard. I never expected to have such a large social media presence, and I’m still wrapping my head around that fact — but if I have it, I’d like to do something useful about it, and talk about things that matter. So I am trying to be aware of what I say online and use it to amplify things I care about. My son has no interest in social media at the moment, but if or when he does, we’ll have to talk about ways to use it constructively and safely.

Jody: Before your first novel, “Everything I Never Told You,” was published, you wrote the now-famous essay “Why I Don’t Want to Be the Next Amy Tan,” about how minority writers often get put in boxes and only get compared to each other. You wrote: “Somewhere in the Commandments of Reviewing must be written: Thou shalt not compare Asians to non-Asians.”

Do you think the literary world has changed since you wrote that essay more than a decade ago? Has your success changed your mind about how minority writers are treated?

Celeste: I hope that in the past decade, we’ve broadened our concepts of what an “Asian American writer” can be: both what kinds of stories get to be told and who gets to tell them. And I think that’s starting to happen. I’ve been thrilled to see more Asian American writers — like Hua Hsu and Cathy Park Hong and Sanjena Sathian, to name just a few — expanding the borders of what Asian American literature could be. At the same time, a few success stories still doesn’t mean the world has changed; if you look at the bestseller lists, or who shows up in magazines like the New Yorker, they’re still overwhelmingly white. So there’s clearly still a bias in who gets to be published and what they get to say. The only way out of that is more: We need to hear more voices and see more facets of Asian American experience, because the more stories we hear, the fuller a picture we get to see.

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