In many ways, Celeste Ng’s hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, was all about conformity. When the best-selling author of Everything I Never Told You was growing up there, she says the affluent town’s rules included mandatory lawn mowing (infractions were penalized with a $100 fine) and a regulation putting only one mailbox and one street number on two-family homes, to disguise them as single-family homes.
On the other hand, it was relatively diverse—at least in terms of black and white—and racial prejudice was frequently discussed and dissected. But when the 37-year-old Ng was growing up, there were few Asian families like hers, and slights were not uncommon. “If there was an Asian boy, the other kids would be like, ‘Oh, you two are going to have an arranged marriage,’” she tells TIME. For her parents, immigrants from Hong Kong who came to America for graduate school and moved to Lafayette, Ind.; Chicago; and Pittsburgh before settling outside of Cleveland, racially charged incidents in the Rust Belt could be more serious. In Pittsburgh neighborhood kids would put cherry bombs in their mailbox, and in Shaker Heights prank calls happened regularly. “At the time I thought, Oh, they’re just playing around,” Ng says. “Now that I’m older, I don’t think it was an accident that they called our house.”
The surface tranquility and the tension just beneath make Shaker Heights in the ’90s a ripe setting for Ng’s new novel Little Fires Everywhere. The arrival of a single mother and her teenage daughter upends the picture-perfect life of their landlord and her family of six; meanwhile, a white couple find themselves in court after they adopt a Chinese baby. The poor, immigrant mother was having a postpartum episode when she left her daughter outside of a fire station, and now she wants her back. A judge must decide whether the baby is better off with her affluent adoptive parents, who know nothing about Chinese culture, or with her birth mother.
“I didn’t want there to be a villain or a hero—I just wanted to sort of show how incredibly complicated the situation was,” Ng says. “I do feel like it’s important to allow adoptees to have access to their birth cultures to the extent that they want to. For most people we are very much shaped by where we came from, either because of what we know or because of what we don’t know. I think this is part of why people of all cultures are interested in questions of genealogy and heritage.”
Ng’s first novel focused on a multi-racial family in the ’70s struggling to understand their relationships to one another. She used her own experience as a touch point—her husband is white, and she feels grateful to live in a time when marriages like hers are more accepted. “One generation ago I think that it would have been a lot harder for us to have gotten our families’ approval, and it would have been a lot harder for our kids,” she says. The lawyer making the case for the Chinese mother in Little Fires argues that the white family will have a hard time exposing the baby to her culture, since there are hardly any books or dolls representing Chinese boys and girls.
That has changed somewhat since the ’90s. When American Girl introduced its first Asian doll, in 1995, Ng’s mother bought one for her, “even though I was 15 and I was kind of too old for dolls,” she says. “But it felt really important to both of us to get me a doll that looked kind of like me.” When Ng’s son was a toddler, he gravitated toward an Asian boy doll in a toy store, and she made sure to buy it for him. He’s now about to turn 7, and she makes a point of getting him books that feature Chinese characters (they especially like Grace Lin’s books) as well as other underrepresented groups.
The representation in Ng’s work has proved deeply meaningful for her readers. During her paperback book tour for Everything, she says, “It was interesting to hear teens, a lot of them mixed teens, say, ‘I haven’t read a book about somebody who looks like me, and this is the first time I’ve gotten to do that.’ I feel really honored by that.”