Long before Celeste Ng became a bestselling, prizewinning novelist, people kept an eye on her—for her face. Growing up in Pittsburgh and Shaker Heights as the child of Chinese-born scientists, she was often the only East Asian-American child in any room. “You have a sense of being on display, of being watched,” she said in a keynote conversation with PW fiction reviews editor David Varno, presented Wednesday at the U.S. Book show. “It does something strange to you, almost on a molecular level, of feeling like you have to be looking over your shoulder all the time.”
Surveillance is a running theme in the wrenching experiences of a mixed-race family in Ng's 2015 debut novel, Everything I Never Told You; in her 2017 novel exploring the tensions of art and the nature of motherhood, Little Fires Everywhere; and in her forthcoming book, Our Missing Hearts (Penguin Press, Oct.). It is one in a suite of themes Ng is drawn toward in her works—along with the impact of discrimination, the nature of justice, the legacies between generations, and the power of storytelling.
Ng began writing Our Missing Hearts in 2016 as a conventional exploration of the relationship between an artist mother and her child, she told Varno. Then reality intervened: the Black Lives Matter Movement, the turmoil of the Trump presidency, forced separations of families, the Covid pandemic. “Those things became so present for me as a writer, that it felt in some ways a little bit disingenuous to just write a book as if they didn’t exist,” she said.
Current events, for Ng, raised compelling questions: “How do we raise children in a world that feels like it is really hostile and falling apart and that we have completely failed to fix up? We are giving them this broken thing and saying, ‘Best of luck!” she said with a sardonic shrug. “How do you parent through that kind of fear, and what is it that you want the next generation to try and do?”
Two key characters in Our Missing Hearts are the pre-teen protagonist, nicknamed Bird—whose mother, a Chinese poet, vanished when he was nine—and his friend Sadie. Sadie was ripped from her parents as a child and put in foster care, because they were supposedly “Chinese sympathizers” who violated the “PACT”—a law to stamp out “un-American ideas.” Still, both characters hold tightly to their mothers’ stories.
In the novel, Bird’s mother unexpectedly sends him a drawing covered in sketches of tiny cats. The frame of the book is his search to discover its hidden message. Ng told Varno that there is a Japanese folktale about cats she heard as a child, although no one in her family could recall it. Even if they did, she said, “the same text will say different things to you than it will say even to someone who is very close to you. And it will say different things to you at different times in your life. You find that story, and you kind of map it over your life. That how it helps you to make meaning of where you are.”
Varno asked if a parent who is an artist has a “special opportunity to shape a child’s life.” Ng—mother of an 11-year-old boy, sitting before bookshelves decorated with plastic dinosaur figurines—is skeptical. “When I’m writing, I often feel that I’m not controlling the material as much as I am trying to understand what this material is and what it wants to be,” she said. “And that’s the attitude I try to take as a parent, too—to understand who he is, not who I think he should be, and to help him become the person he is trying to be.”
In both endeavors, Ng said, one is trying to surface the core ideas, and the values, one lives by. It is about, she said, “trying to get people to see clearly. ‘What do I really think or feel?’ Then, ‘What do I do with it?’ ”