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The Library of Congress > Poetry & Literature > Interview Series > “Memory at its core”: An Interview with Celeste Ng
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Celeste Ng is the author of the New York Times best-selling novels Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin). Her writing has been awarded the Pushcart Prize, the Massachusetts Book Award, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, among other honors. Everything I Never Told You was a New York Times Notable Book and Amazon’s No. 1 Best Book of 2014. Her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, was named a best book of the year by more than 25 publications. Ng earned an MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Kevin Day

Celeste NG (photo by Kevin Day)

Interview

This interview was conducted over e-mail by Phebe Miner in summer 2018.

In Everything I Never Told You, James and Marilyn have opposing feelings about what kind of success they want for their children: James, the son of Chinese immigrants, wants his daughter Lydia to experience the same “indistinguishability” that her white mother experienced, which for Marilyn was actually painful and frustrating. How do James and Marilyn’s respective identities inform this disparate thinking?

In the novel, James is keenly aware that he looks like a “foreigner” to those around him. That’s shaped his whole existence: every time he’s been singled out, it’s been a negative experience. So to him, being different is a terrible thing, and he wants to shield his children from that—by encouraging them to blend in. For a long time this was the attitude of many immigrants, by the way, including but not only the Chinese: assimilate and pass as part of the mainstream. Marilyn, on the other hand, as a white person, has had the opposite experience: she’s always blended in, so for her, difference is exciting. And, as a woman, she was expected to conform to the limited gender roles of her time, and her own dreams—which would have put her on a different path—were discouraged. For her, standing out is being highlighted; it’s freedom from the norm.

Your experience has so much to do with how you view difference and how you approach being in the world. For example, in the grocery store, if someone comes down the aisle, I always preemptively move to the side—I’ve had many experiences where I get a glare or a huffy scolding or even a racial slur if the person feels I’m in the way. My parents did the same; years of experience as part of a racial minority taught them that to be noticed often means being harassed, so they try to avoid attention of any kind. On the other hand my husband, who is white, continues whatever he’s doing. His reasoning is “If I’m in the way, they’ll just ask me to move,” and he’s right. The world treats him differently, so he sees it very differently.

Everything I Never Told You takes place in the 1970s, while Little Fires Everywhere transports us to the late 1990s. Can you discuss why you’ve set your novels in the recent past?

I find it really difficult to write about the moment we’re in while we’re in it—we don’t always know what’s going to be important, what’s going to be of lasting significance and what’s going to be a passing blip. In other words, it’s hard to see the big picture while you’re in the picture. The recent past, though, is close enough that we remember it well but just far enough away that we can get some perspective on it. It’s a little bit like looking at an outdated photo of yourself: you recognize yourself, yet you also see the difference between you and the person in the photo—and now, you may have to acknowledge that maybe that hairstyle was unfortunate, or that fashion was unflattering, or that kegstand was unwise. You probably wouldn’t have been able to admit that at the time, but now you can. So hopefully, when confronted with that past self, you reflect on where you are now, and how far you’ve come—or haven’t come. That’s the same kind of self-reflection I hope to encourage with my novels.

You’ve chosen to set both your novels in suburban Ohio. In both books, the reader is exposed to multiple perspectives—some coming from characters of color, and some coming from white characters. What is gained from experiencing minority narratives in a majority-white environment?

There’s tremendous value in seeing marginalized characters depicted within their own communities: readers who are familiar with those cultures get to see their culture centered in the story, and readers less familiar with those cultures can get a glimpse of—and hopefully an understanding of—a narrative very different from their own. So I’m always glad when those works gain prominence, and when groups that don’t often get represented get to tell their own stories.

But the truth is that most POC experience in the US takes place in a majority-white environment, so I think it’s also important to see that dynamic reflected in fiction. There’s a risk that a reader from the dominant culture will finish a book about a marginalized culture thinking: “Oh, how interesting; what a fascinating glimpse into some other way of life”—the key word being other, because we’re still othering that marginalized culture; we’re still presenting it as something completely separate, something that happens over there. It’s a kind of literary tourism: visit, look at the exotic local culture, then go home unchanged.

However, when a book is explicitly about how marginalized culture and dominant culture interact, it’s much harder to stay detached and voyeuristic. If you’re white, for instance, you may end up asking yourself hard questions: “What do I think about how these white characters—who resemble me—behave? Do I act this way? What’s my place in the system?” You’re asked to think in terms of the larger picture, and you can’t pretend that a marginalized group’s experience is totally separate and other from yours—because, in fact, it isn’t.

Both Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere begin with tragedies instigated by an element (in the former, water; in the latter, fire). The stories then backtrack, these elements increasingly permeating the narrative, until returning to the climax presented in the beginning. In both cases, the element begins as a tool under the control of a human character—until suddenly, it is unable to be controlled. What speaks to you about using natural elements in this way?

You know, I didn’t realize I was using natural elements in that way until someone pointed it out to me and asked if my next book was going to be about air, or earth! In my mind, it’s less about an “elements” aspect and more about the question of control. As humans, we like to believe that we can harness powerful forces and use them for our own purposes—in short, that we’re in control of the world. But time and time again we’re reminded that actually, we’re not fully in control of anything, even ourselves. Natural elements are one obvious reminder; nothing challenges our human sense of superiority more than seeing people stranded on rooftops by post-hurricane floods or neighborhoods destroyed by raging wildfires. I’m interested in the ways we try to take control—out of good intentions or out of hubris—and how we react when we lose that control.

I was struck by your decision to write your story “Girls, At Play” in the first person plural. What separates the “we” here from a hypothetical “I”? What was the intent in ascribing a kind of Greek chorus to this story? 

The story started as a technical challenge for me: I hadn’t seen a story written in the first-person plural before, and I wondered what that would be like. So I began writing, but I soon realized that the “we” implies some kind of group identity—there’s something that binds the speakers together, that shifts them from a singular “I” to a collective voice. That ended up being the key to the story: the girls of the story have become a “we” because they are the outcasts and they’re sticking together. And that unusual “we” voice reminds us of that us-versus-them mentality between them and the other girls at school. The boys in the story are described as wolves, but the two real packs on that playground are the narrators and the “good girls,” and the story is about which pack Grace ends up in.

Your story “Every Little Thing” presents a character with hyperthymesia, a neurological condition that causes someone to remember every detail of her life in perfect detail. In your story, this manifests itself in your narrator being regularly swallowed by memories against her will: “like falling into deep, deep water,” you write. Though you don’t explicitly refer to hyperthymesia in either of your novels, I’m interested in the role that remembered experience plays in those stories as well as in “Every Little Thing,” particularly in the context of parent-child relationships—can you speak to this theme?

I’ve realized it’s impossible for me to write a story that doesn’t involve the past in some way. For me, the past is such an integral part of the present: it’s the entire road that led us to this moment, and you can’t understand the present without also investigating that past. So both of my novels—and, indeed, nearly all of my fiction—has memory at its core. Can you ever truly leave the past behind, or will it always be with you? Is it inevitably passed down to the next generation, or is there a way to avoid that legacy? In what ways do we learn from the past, draw strength from it, make amends for it, or bear its scars?

These are the questions that interest me most, and they dovetail with my interest in parent-child relationships. Those relationships fundamentally revolve around what we pass on (or try not to pass on) and what we inherit (or do our best to avoid repeating)—because we’re inevitably shaped by who our parents are, and they were inevitably shaped by their parents, who were shaped by their parents. It’s turtles all the way down.

The way that you write young girls is particularly deft. I’m thinking especially of Hannah and Lydia, whose familial relationship connects them without homogenizing them, and Pearl, whose navigation of identity is not compromised by her love for her mother. Are there women and girls, whether from your own life or from literature, that influence the way you shape these characters?

I’ve always been drawn to books in which the children—particularly girls—are resourceful and brave and save the day, often without (or in spite of) the adults around them. Children who are orphaned or abandoned who survive on their own, as in Island of the Blue Dolphins and My Side of the Mountain; children who see further than the adults around them, who are aware of dangers and powers that adults don’t seem to notice, from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books and any number of books in which the children can see the magic but the adults cannot. Kids naturally want to see protagonists of their own age, I guess, but part of the appeal is for me the joy of seeing those who are denied agency in real life—children, girls, outsiders—as characters with power and wisdom. I see many of the young girls in my stories as falling into that mold: wise children who are a bit more perceptive and sensitive than those around them, though of course they still have their blind spots.