This was before Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You made her a literary celebrity. The essay is not a criticism of Tan, whose writing Ng rightfully admires, but of how Tan and other Chinese-American authors have been received. “Comparing Asian writers mainly to other Asian writers implies that we’re all telling the same story, ” Ng writes. “Worst of all, such comparisons place undue weight on the writer’s ethnicity, suggesting that writers like Tan, Chang, and Kingston are telling first and foremost A Story About Being Chinese, not stories about families, love, loss, or universal human experience.”
Now, says Ng, who was only nine years old when Tan’s acclaimed The Joy Luck Club came out in 1989, “I write about issues of race and privilege and identity because I care deeply about them and because they affect my own personal life daily. I don’t know that I could write a book that didn’t engage with them. I truly believe that most of our conflicts come from a lack of empathy, so I try to extend that both to my characters and to other people.”
Ng accomplishes this empathy through writing about families and their secrets. Her first book, Everything I Never Told You, delves into the mysterious drowning of the favorite daughter in a multiracial Chinese-American family. Little Fires Everywhere tells the story of a white American family in the progressive, bourgeois utopia of Shaker Heights, Ohio, that is upended when a single mother and her daughter come to town and the custody battle for an adopted Chinese-American baby divides the community.
“I’ve always been interested in the relationships between parents and children,” Ng says. “So much of who we become is either because of or in opposition to the people who raised us.”
Born in Pittsburg in 1980 to scientist parents who had emigrated from China, Ng moved with her family to Shaker Heights when she was 10. Ng has spoken broadly about how, when she left for Harvard in 1998 (Ng also has an MFA from Michigan), she was unaware of Shaker Heights’ deliberate exceptionalism. In the town, uncut lawns are fined, there is no such thing as unsightly curbside trash pickup, and the pro-integration housing policies were implemented before the end of segregation. In Little Fires Everywhere, Ng’s character Lexie Richardson says, “I mean we’re lucky. No one sees race here.” “Everyone sees race, Lex,” Lexie’s brother Moody replies. “The only difference is who pretends not to.”
The complications of being visible as a minority tie Ng’s two books together. In an interview with memoirist Nicole Chung, Ng says, “The problem is with being seen only as an Asian American writer.” This is how far the issue Tan faced has progressed, for now.
When asked about the difference between being seen and being visible, Ng says, “It’s a double-edged sword: on the one hand, being seen is so necessary and validating—those of us who haven’t had much representation know how important it is to see yourself on the page or on the screen. At the same time, being highly visible also has its downsides. Sometimes, when you’re seen prominently, you inadvertently end up blocking out other people. You’re often held up as the representative of your group, which is deeply problematic and something that I actively try to counter. I don’t speak for all Asians, or all Asian-American women, or all Chinese-American women, or all women—because there are many stories within those groups, and mine is not the only one. Other people need to be seen, too, so I try to spread the spotlight where I can.”