Celeste Ng wishes you could call it dystopia. That’s how she thought about the dark world she was creating in her new novel, Our Lost Hearts.
Then the real world darkened.
And the setting in Eng’s book — an alternate version of the United States, where Asian Americans are scapegoated and beaten, where books are banned and crushed — is becoming less imaginative and imminent.
“It seems to me less and less like a dystopia,” said Ng. Before Talking Volumes debuted in St. Paul this month. “It feels like we might be in 10 minutes.”
Speculative fiction is new to Ng. The 42-year-old author is notorious for turning the pages — including the groundbreaking movie “Little Fires Everywhere” — unraveling the complex family dynamics at the heart of its central puzzles.
Our “Lost Hearts” this month, It is a comprehensive thriller about the dangers of racism and authoritarianism. But it’s also an intimate story about a boy and his mother.
Ng said that when the novel began in the fall of 2016, the characters came first.
“In my mind at the time, it was a very traditional mother-son story,” she said during a Zoom phone call from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the novel is set. “I wrote about mothers and daughters, and I wanted to try to write about mother and son.”
Then President Donald Trump won. Families were separated at the border. The white supremacist groups came out of their hiding places.
She said that her fledgling novel almost inadvertently began to incorporate and revolve around the “really dark things that were going up.” After an economic disaster known as “The Crisis,” her novel lives in the United States under the American Culture and Tradition Preservation Act, an expanded law that allows the government to “reset” the children of parents considered dissidents, removing them from their homes.
Amid these policies, a 12-year-old boy named Bird searches for his mother, Margaret Mew, whose hair has become a rallying cry for resistance.
At first, Ing hesitated to plunge into bitter reality, in part because she never wrote anything that didn’t feel entirely real: “It was a stretch for me.”
But she appreciated the clarity he provided. “You can’t often see what’s going on in your relationship, your private life,” she said. “But you can see it in someone else’s relationship or someone else’s life – it’s really obvious.
“The speculative imagination can make our world kind of far away, and we can see it better there.”
In Ng’s novel, libraries are havens, librarians are heroes.
The bird breathes in “the strange smell of a library: a mixture of dust, leather, and melted vanilla ice cream. Warm like the scent of someone’s skin.”
Ng’s parents, who emigrated from Hong Kong in the 1960s, were scholars, “but they were also writers.”
As a child, she would pull from the library “as many books as I can carry.” As a middle school student, she spent several afternoons in the library in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where “Little Fires Everywhere” was set. As a college student, I raised books.
Then, as an author, she was writing in the Cambridge Public Library, where Bird’s father works on Our Lost Hearts, the shelves of which are painfully empty. She happened to sit near the reference librarians and could hear them talking to her clients.
“There was once—sorry, I’ll stop talking about library anecdotes then, but I love it—there was a librarian who was on the phone…” she began. Ng realized she was talking to an elderly person, and patiently walked her through Google Maps, starting with entering the name of the location in the box at the top of the page. Finally, said the librarian, ‘Would it be easier if I read these directions to you, and I wrote them down? “
“I found this really moving,” said Ng.
So when Ng weighed who would play a major role in the resistance movement in her novel, helping people like Baird find information at a time when information was dangerous, librarians seemed clear.
This resistance takes surprising forms.
“Look for signs of turbulence – potholes, burnt buildings, broken glass,” Baird once wrote. Then, as they cross the street back toward the tenement, Bird sees him on the ground; bloody red paint splashed on the asphalt, right in the center of the intersection. The size of a car, unmissable. A heart, he realizes, just like the sign in Brooklyn. With him this time, a ring with words.Relive our lost hearts.
“A snake trembles on its skin.”
This reflects Ng’s belief that “you can do small things, and still be important.” She tries to achieve this in her own life by recycling, and hiding – “your vulgar and liberal things.”
“We need people to resist R-capital, right? That’s important,” she said. But there’s also room for a softer resistance that, she continued, shocks you emotionally.
Paintings, poetry, story wise.
The only way Ing could screw herself up to finish her first book, Everything I Never Told You, was by telling herself that no one would ever read it.
It became a bestseller.
The front page of the 2014 novel, about a multi-ethnic American-Chinese family living in a small town in Ohio, brings up the mystery: How did middle daughter Lydia drown?
But it soon becomes clear that Eng is interested in questions that are not easily resolved: How does expectation affect the child? Why make the mother leave her children? Why, in the family, important things often remain unpaid?
Ng was surprised by how many people told her after reading that novel, “I didn’t realize Asians faced discrimination,” she said. And my response was always, ‘I’m really glad you’re thinking about this now. “
“But it’s true that for many people, race and discrimination in the United States is very much about black and white. I think the Asian population is not seen very often.”
With “Our Missing Hearts,” Ng creates a multi-ethnic family that looks more like her own, right down to her now 12-year-old son. It derives from past government-sanctioned racism. They reflect recent attacks, such as a 65-year-old woman being kicked and trampled on her way to church.
Ng used her fame to advocate for Asian American writers, on book jackets and On Twitter, where she has nearly 200,000 followers. When an event organizer commented on the rarity of writers like her, saying “there are not many of you,” she responded by posting a list Over 200 Asian American writers.
After the best lists, Reese Witherspoon streak, and the Hulu series, it’s impossible to pretend no one will read her next book. She said she had a greater sense of responsibility now, to do the right thing by certain groups of readers.
She said that Eng is still writing for herself. Ask questions and question answers.
“I go through each of these stories trying to understand something I don’t,” she said. “This is my way of trying to understand the world.”
Our lost hearts
by: Celeste Ng.
publisher: Penguin Press, $29.
Event: Ng will appear on Talking Volumes, 7pm on October 26, priced at $30-28. Musical guest: Megan Criddler. tickets in https://www.mprevents.org/event/talking-volumes-with-celeste-ng/