Celeste Ng Did Not Set Out to Write This Book

9 minute read

At first, it was the story of a boy, his mother, and her art. Could she ever make him understand her work? Could he ever forgive her for loving something as much as or even more than she loved him? These are the types of intimate questions that have long driven Celeste Ng’s fiction. But in the case of her latest novel, which she began to write in the fall of 2016, they slowly gave way to broader, darker themes. As Donald Trump claimed victory in the presidential election and images circulated of families torn apart at the border, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe and anti-Asian racism raged across America and beyond, Ng’s story changed. The setting, grounded on Harvard University’s campus, became an alternate version of the U.S., one defined by anti-Asian racism, censorship, and the constant threat of children’s “re-placement” as a consequence of speaking out. The mother became Chinese American poet Margaret Miu, a famous dissident. And the coming-of-age struggles of her 12-year-old son Bird took on an edge of constant danger.

Resting in the shade near Harvard Yard, the author, 42, describes how she mapped Bird and his father Ethan’s world onto the Cambridge, Mass., neighborhood where she attended college and has lived for the past 15 years. The library nearby is where she imagined Ethan at work shelving books; the dorm apartment he and Bird call home is one where Ng lived as an undergrad. She made their lives devastatingly small, capturing a claustrophobia not unlike Offred’s in The Handmaid’s Tale, which is also set here. That book was one of many novels Ng revisited while transitioning her domestic story into a dystopia. “A lot of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 is kind of an angry blur for me,” she says. “When everything in the world started to go to sh-t, the book took a darker turn as well.”

The result, the moving Our Missing Hearts, to be published Oct. 4, is a “hard” read—Ng’s word, and not one that readers of her past two novels, Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere, would necessarily use to describe her work. Where those two books tackled race, class, and the tensions between parents and children in more subtle ways, Our Missing Hearts represents a departure into the explicit—and a somewhat conflicted one. Ng knows that to deviate from what readers have come to expect from her, and to step into the open with an indisputably political book, is a risk. “I spent a significant portion of the time I was writing this book trying not to write it,” she says. She hesitated to write about a family that, on its surface, looks like hers—a Chinese American mother, a white father, and their biracial son—because readers tend to assume other details are also true to life. And for a long time, she tried to leave anti-Asian racism out of the story, but incidents like the 2021 attack, captured on security footage, of a 65-year-old New Yorker being stomped while doormen looked on, found their way into her scenes. “I know that by talking about these things, it puts me out there,” Ng says. “But it also felt really important to do, not because I need to make a statement, but because that was where the project went.”

Taking in her surroundings—this morning, the campus is flooded with shiny-eyed parents and teens—she reflects on the distance between the book she intended to write and the one she did, the optimism that was once there but faded. October 2016 was a different time. “Like all of us, I had dread,” she says. “But I really had no idea.”

Author Celeste Ng at the Harvard Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Author Celeste Ng on Harvard's campus in Cambridge, Mass.Allie Leepson + Jesse McClary for TIME

When Ng sold her first book to a publisher, she worried that readers wouldn’t connect with it. It was the story of a mixed-race family. “Is anyone going to relate to this?” she remembers thinking. “They’re going to be like, ‘Oh, those are Asian people. I’m not interested.’ Which was a lot of times the response I saw to books that had come out by Asian women.”

So when Everything I Never Told You was published in 2014, became a best seller, and was named a best book of the year by more than a dozen outlets, Ng was genuinely surprised by its success—and by the unintended consequence that suddenly the media and her readers were looking to her as an “expert” on the Asian American experience. “That’s when I thought, ‘OK, I didn’t mean for everyone to look at me, but people are. So I guess I should say something worthwhile.’ ”

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She began speaking more openly about race, emphasizing the diversity of perspectives that make up Asian American identity. Her interest in that nuance began when she was young; her parents, both scientists, came to the U.S. from Hong Kong in the ’60s, and Ng explored racial affinity groups in school. So when a university invited her to speak in 2014 and the organizer made a comment about the scarcity of authors like her, she took it upon herself to create a list, which she published in Salon, of 209 Asian American women writers of diverse backgrounds.

Ng’s reach only grew with Little Fires Everywhere, which came out in 2017 and upped the ante, becoming a No. 1 best seller, landing on more than 25 best-of-the-year lists, and, in 2020, arriving on Hulu with an adaptation from Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.

The two-for-two nature of Ng’s success is rare—so rare that it’s hard to believe she ever struggled. But during the six years between graduating from a University of Michigan M.F.A. program and publishing Everything I Never Told You, Ng maintained a “spreadsheet of shame” to track all her failed submissions to literary magazines.

“I started off feeling like I was in this position of invisibility, then when my first and second books came out, I suddenly felt very visible,” she says. She has used that visibility to give back, advocating for fellow authors and partnering with the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books to sponsor publishing interns from underrepresented backgrounds. But she admits that there’s a flip side to her level of success: “When you are very visible, it’s also scary—because you’re vulnerable.”

That vulnerability manifests in different ways. Sometimes it’s the stuff of gossip, and all you can do is try to ignore it. Ng’s was the most famous name dragged into the media-world obsession sparked by the New York Times feature “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?,” the story of two writers whose interpersonal conflicts escalated into legal drama. Ng knows both the writers, and screenshots of her text messages with one—in which she says several unflattering things about the other—were shared online. “If you look at the texts or emails you send in private, especially when you’re commiserating with a friend or reacting in the moment, probably most of us would have things we’d never say in public,” she says. “I feel so much sympathy for both of those women, because all of their private business was dragged out in public. I really wish all that had been able to be kept private, and mine as well.” She has decided to continue being the kind of person she knows herself to be and move on.

Other times, the vulnerability that comes with visibility feels more like danger, and it can’t be ignored. As an Asian American woman who has dared to share her voice with the world, Ng has received the type of vitriol we’re all too accustomed to seeing online. She’s been accused of self-hatred because she’s married to a white man; strangers have suggested she hates her son for the same reason, that he’ll grow up to hurt Asian women because of her. One person even made a Twitter account with a name explicitly threatening his life.

Read More: How a History of Racism and Misogyny Leaves Asian Women in America Vulnerable to Violence

With the exception of that account, which she rallied her followers to help get taken down, Ng has learned to hit “block” and be done. “It sucks to feel like there are random strangers out there who hate you. You want to be like, ‘No, I think I’m a nice person,’ ” she says. “But if people have decided they hate you, you’re not going to find the right words to convince them otherwise.”

It’s a version of that attitude that she wants to bring to the release of Our Missing Hearts, just as she does all her work. There’s no controlling a reader’s reaction, and Ng lives by Ann Patchett’s philosophy that meaning is made between the reader and the book, not the reader and the author.

Still, with this particular story and all it represents, she’s nervous. There was a moment in the editing process when she started to question everything. Why did she write this book? Who is it for?

One answer is, of course, herself. For Ng, crafting a novel is a way to stare down the things that scare her. Right now, it’s this: How can a person raise a child in a world that threatens his very existence? “I don’t pretend to have the answers,” she says. “But every book I’ve written is me trying to tell you what I see in the world. Not how the world is—just what I see.”

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Write to Lucy Feldman at lucy.feldman@time.com