In fall 2016, amid the divisive U.S. presidential race, Ng began writing her third novel, Our Missing Hearts (Penguin, Oct.), as a dystopia. “I tried to imagine what terrible things might happen” in a future where the country is so polarized, she says. Her speculation included “widespread distrust and censorship, scapegoating of Asian Americans, and the removal of children from their families as a means of political control.” Much of it, she notes, came to pass. “I don’t think of the book as a dystopia anymore. It’s more like our world with the volume turned up one notch.”
In the novel, 12-year-old Bird receives a letter from his long-lost mother, a Chinese American poet who left her family when her son was nine, and he sets out to track her down. “The book is about finding connections in an increasingly fractured world,” Ng says. “It’s important to think of people not as abstractions, but as individual humans, and for empathy to outweigh fear. We can still connect with one another and find beauty and love and meaning in the world. Even when it feels like nothing matters, a single person can still make a difference.”
As with Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere, in Our Missing Hearts Ng considers what is or is not passed on from one generation to the next. She also addresses “the experience of those marked as other because of race or culture,” she says, “and the ways we try, and sometimes fail, to find compassion. Those are things I think about in my own life, so they’ll probably always be major questions in my work.”
Grappling with the isolation and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic has underscored to Ng the value of ties to family and friends, and the importance of being a strong role model to her children during difficult times. “I’ve found myself wondering, how do you raise a child when it seems like everything is falling apart? How do we keep hope alive through so much fear? What’s the point of telling stories and making art at times like these? In some ways, the novel is my attempt to work through those questions.”
Celeste Ng will be in conversation with PW reviews editor David Varno on Wednesday, May 25, 2:30–3 p.m. ET.
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