Celeste Ng Wants You to Ask Yourself the Hard Questions

The Little Fires Everywhere author talks her newest and most heart-wrenching novel yet.

by Rachel Simon
Originally Published: 

A collage of the book cover of Celeste Ng's new book
Book cover courtesy of the author; image treatment by Ashley Peña.

Although her first novel, 2014’s Everything I Never Told You, earned serious acclaim, Celeste Ng didn’t become a household name until the release of Little Fires Everywhere three years later. A #1 New York Times bestseller, the suspenseful, thought-provoking book was adapted in 2020 into an award-winning Hulu miniseries starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, with Ng serving as a producer. That kind of success would be enough to make any writer feel content to rest on their laurels for the next decade or two—but today, Ng is back with her newest novel, the searing, powerful Our Missing Hearts.

Set in an extremely-near-future in which anti-Asian racism is ubiquitous, the U.S. government in Our Missing Hearts has enacted a controversial law designed to promote patriotism; instead, it largely works to separate children from their suspected dissident parents. At the heart of the story is Bird, a Chinese-American 12-year-old boy longing for his missing mom—so he sets off on a dangerous quest to find her.

For Ng, writing Our Missing Hearts helped her process the bigotry and violence of the actual world, especially following the slate of anti-Asian hate crimes that have taken place since 2020 and beyond. “The way to get through the situation, for me, was to write my way into it and hopefully through it,” she explains over a recent phone call.

Below, the author opens up about the years-long process of writing the book, her love of librarians, and being Rick rolled by her preteen son.

Celeste Ng at the Hulu Little Fires Everywhere Press Brunch on February 19, 2020 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Erik Voake/Getty Images for Hulu

Our Missing Hearts is a (slightly) more dystopian version of our current world. Did any particular event or moment inspire the story?

It was more the general state of things. I’d started off with this idea of a mother-son story, right after I’d finished my last book, in October 2016. But pretty soon thereafter, a lot of things started to go sideways, with the 2016 election and the rise of the Far Right. It started to bleed into the novel; it felt like in order to investigate the questions that I was asking myself–like, how do we get through this and how do you raise a child in this kind of world and give them any amount of hope for the future?—I needed to create a world that was sort of our world, with the volume turned up a bit.

I can imagine that was a lot to handle emotionally, as a writer. How did diving into those heavy, difficult topics feel?

That’s part of why the novel took such a long time–I didn’t want to write it, and I didn’t know how to write it. It’s difficult to process what’s happening in real time, and it’s hard for me to process that on the page. But when the pandemic started—and I had been working on this book on and off at that point for several years—I started seeing a lot of the anti-Asian violence that was going on. And it clicked some things into place.

The novel is told largely through the eyes of 12-year-old Bird. Why such a young protagonist?

I think that’s an age in which, for many people, you’re waking up to the larger context of your world. When you’re a child, your world is very small; it’s really just your family, friends, your school. But when you start to become an adolescent, you gain the ability to zoom out, and get a sense of where you are in the world. So it made sense to me that Bird was this age, because that’s the journey that he’s going on as a person.

One of the most affecting parts of the book is how numb most people have become to watching the government remove children from their parents. What did you want readers to take away from that?

What I always want when I’m writing is less for the readers to take something and more for them to ask themselves questions. If you know that something is happening, what would you do about it, and what are you willing to risk? Ask yourself: am I willing to take a risk if it puts myself in danger? If it puts my child in danger? Those are the questions that I struggle with myself. You’d like to think, of course I’d stand up for my principles, but the calculus becomes very different if your family is in danger.

Did your own feelings about advocacy change as a result of writing the book?

It made me a little bit more compassionate towards myself and towards other people. We’re always like, “Why aren’t you doing this, why aren’t you out there fighting, why aren’t you driving an electric car, why aren’t you protesting in the street?” It’s easy to feel like everybody should do that. But writing this book made me sit with the reasons why people don’t. It made me aware of a much larger gray area and of reasons that people might not engage in ways that I might choose to.

Do you see something like P.A.C.T., the dangerous patriotic policy the government enacts, in our future?

I hope not, but there is certainly precedent for that to happen. For example, the Patriot Act– many laws were put into place that were intended to be in favor of national security and protecting us, all things that I think most people were like, “Yes that is important and good,” but the ways they get enforced end up often running counter to the reasons that those laws were put into effect.

And in researching that, what struck me is at some point in the Patriot Act itself was a notice from members of Congress in which they said, “We want to make clear that we know not all Muslims are bad, and many Muslims are loyal members of American society.” That was really chilling to me, to think that they knew, on some level, how this act was going to be used. And yet, it happened anyway.

On a lighter note (and without spoiling), librarians play key, heroic roles in the book.

I love libraries, I love librarians. I grew up going to libraries, and even as an adult, I often would go to the public library with my laptop to write. I was struck by how dedicated librarians are to getting you the information you want. It felt noble. It was natural to me to make the librarians the heroes of the book, because I feel like they are in real life.

Agreed. Now, I want to ask you some Culture Diet questions.

This is where I reveal to the world how behind on pop culture I am [laughs].

What time do you get up each morning, and what’s the first thing you do?

I usually wake up somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 or 7. I hate to admit it, but the first thing I do is look at my phone. I look at my texts and make sure nobody has been trying to get a hold of me, and I look at my email to remind myself of what I’m supposed to be doing today. Because I don’t understand what time is anymore, and I am very apt to think it is the wrong day of the week.

How do you get your news?

I mostly read it on my phone, honestly. I read a couple different newspapers, and then I also get the news from Twitter. If a lot of people are talking about it, it’s a good sign that I should pay attention. Also—I guess this is a sign I am entering middle age—I get some newsletters from the Washington Post and WBUR, which is my Boston NPR, that just say, “Here are the headlines you need to know.” At least, then, I know things like the Queen died [laughs].

What books are on your nightstand?

I just finished reading Hell of a Book by Jason Mott, which was fantastic. It actually made me laugh out loud, and I don't do that a lot. It is no longer on my nightstand because I immediately gave it to my husband and told him he should read it, so now he’s reading it and it’s on his nightstand.

I’m also reading a book called Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka. I’m going to be doing an event with her in Seattle, but I also just really enjoy her work, so it’s a joy to get to read that.

Have you had any song or album on repeat lately?

Because I have a child who is approaching adolescence, one thing that is on repeat—not by my own will—is Rick Astley. The youths are still rick-rolling! I was like, “Oh my god, that’s still a thing?” And my son was like, “Wait, you used to do that?”

Do you listen to podcasts?

The one that I most recently picked up is Ologies, by Alie Ward. Every week, she talks to a different person that’s an expert in some field, usually in the sciences, and asks them the questions we all kind of want to know but don’t normally ask. Like with a raccoon expert, she asked, “What's the deal with their tiny hands?”

What’s the last thing you do before bed?

Usually, it’s reading. During the day, I'm reading stuff that I have to for work, so night is when I get to do my fun reading. And that’s why I stay up later than I should.

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