An Interview with Celeste Ng, Author of Everything I Never Told You -The Toast

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Celeste Ng is the author of the novel Everything I Never Told You, which was a New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, and named a best book of the year by over a dozen publications. Everything I Never Told You was also the winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the ALA’s Alex Award, and was a finalist for numerous awards, including the Ohioana Award, the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award, the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and the Massachusetts Book Award.

Celeste grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a family of scientists. She attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won the Hopwood Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, the Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere, and she is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize. Celeste and I first connected on Twitter after I read her book, and she graciously agreed to chat with me about the novel, her writing routine, being part of and writing about interracial families, how to address issues of race and representation without being pigeonholed, writing outside one’s own culture, what she’s working on now, and much more!

Nicole Chung: Celeste, I have told you this so many times it must be getting old by now, but I absolutely loved your novel. My husband bought it for me, and then I bought it for half a dozen of my friends and relatives, and every single one of them sang its praises. My sister particularly enjoyed it; her exact words were: “Thank you. And damn you, too. By the end I was crying and slightly traumatized, but I loved it.”

How did the idea for this novel come to you? Was it difficult working on such a tragic story, and why did you decide to focus on such tough issues — misunderstanding and racism and unfulfilled dreams and the grief of losing a child?

Celeste Ng: Thank you! Both for the kind words and for sharing. The novel emerged, as most of my work does, when several seemingly unrelated things collided in my mind and I had to try and figure out why my mind was connecting them. My husband happened to tell me a story about his school days: when he was about 8, he was at a friend’s house when the friend pushed his own little sister into a pond in the backyard. She was pulled out immediately by her parents, but I kept thinking, what if they hadn’t been there? What was the relationship between this brother and sister like before he pushed her — and what was it like after?

Around that time, I was also working on a story about two sisters whose mother has abandoned the family, which kept getting longer and more unwieldy. That story eventually found a life of its own, but that idea of the absent parent, and the effect it might have on siblings, stuck with me. That was maybe the tonal seed of the novel, the echoes left behind when someone leaves.

And finally, morbid as it sounds, I had been thinking about young women who die for a long time. I grew up in a lovely suburb of Cleveland, but in the ten or so years I lived there, three young women from the high school were murdered, including one who had been in my grade. Those deaths really haunted me, and I wondered if there was some way they could have been saved, as well as how their families could go on after losing them in such a sudden and tragic way. All of those things came together in my brain, and the novel grew from there.

As for the larger themes you mention, I’ve always been drawn to writing things that scare me or puzzle me. In particular, I wonder if it’s ever possible for any two people to truly understand each other, or if there’s always going to be some scrim of incomprehension between them. This plays out in so many ways: in a marriage, between parents and children, between siblings, between cultures. So I guess it’s only natural that those questions wove their way into this book.

Apart from being caught up in the story and the beautifully drawn characters, your book was important to me personally because I’ve always been part of an interracial family — first through adoption and now through marriage as well. I so rarely read stories or see portrayals of families that look anything like mine. Why did you decide to make the family in your novel an interracial one, with biracial children? Was that always the plan for this story?

In the very early stages of the novel — when I was no more than about 15 or 20 pages in — I didn’t really think about the races of the characters at all. If anything, I thought of them as white because that’s so often the default mode for our culture. Then one of my advisors, Eileen Pollack, asked me about the characters’ ethnicity, and I started to realize that this was a racially mixed family: that tied into many of the issues they had to face and the concerns and misunderstandings they had with each other and with outsiders.

everything_paperbackBoth my parents are ethnically Chinese, but growing up in an area with very few Asians, I have always felt somewhat distanced from that Chinese heritage. I don’t speak the language, I don’t cook Chinese food, I don’t know a lot of the customs and traditions that might be second nature to someone growing up in a more Asian area. Yet at the same time, I have enough of a sense of my Chineseness that I didn’t feel totally at home in suburban America, either. I don’t pretend that’s the same as being interracial, but I relate to feeling somewhere in between two different cultures, and wanted to explore that. Most of the stories I’ve written that deal with ethnicity focus on people in that in-between space: an adoptee who tries to connect with her Chinese heritage in college; a non-Chinese widow who finds comfort in Chinese grieving rituals, and so on.

Writing about an interracial family felt even more urgent to me after I got married — my husband is Caucasian, so our son is biracial. Well before he was born, I was thinking a lot about what his experiences might be and how he might relate, or not, to his two cultures.

I’d love to read the other stories you mentioned. When you decided to write about an interracial marriage and family, did anything you learned in your research surprise you?

I’m in an interracial marriage myself, so I had some first-hand experience to draw on — though happily, I think my marriage is a little more stable than Marilyn and James’s. Still, there are moments of friction where I see how my husband’s background and my background made us into people with very different outlooks, and it was all too easy to imagine how those differences could get magnified into huge rifts that could destroy a relationship.

In addition, I read about the history of interracial marriage — for example, books about Richard and Mildred Loving, whose interracial marriage was at the center of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage across the United States. I hunted for academic studies on interracial marriages, particularly Chinese-white marriages, and specifically marriages between Chinese males and white women. There aren’t many such studies out there, but I read what I could — and as a side note, I wonder if more research will be done in this area as interracial marriages become more common.

And I read books about interracial children, from parenting books like Does Anybody Else look Like Me? A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children to Kip Fulbeck’s Hapa Project, which photographed Hapa adults and children along with their own thoughts on their identities. Have you seen this project, by the way? There are so few images of part-Asians out there — I was really grateful to see these, just to have members of that group be seen and celebrated.

There were definitely some surprises. One study, conducted in 2001, aimed to assess attitudes towards Chinese Americans in particular. It found that nearly 75% of those polled had somewhat negative or very negative attitudes towards Chinese Americans, and that 23% would feel uncomfortable if a family member married an Asian American. I was appalled to see that those attitudes were so prevalent even so recently. I think most Asians have encountered racism, on both small scales and large — but even so, those statistics were startling.

You must receive so many messages from readers. What have been some of the most rewarding responses?

On average I get a few emails a week about the book, and every single one of them moves me. One part-Japanese teen wrote to me to say she felt as if I had been standing in her home with a tape recorder listening to her family speak. That was incredibly powerful. Quite a few people who are multiracial have emailed to say that this was the first time they had seen themselves and their experiences reflected in a book — one said, “I wish I had had this book when I was younger, and so badly needed to see myself reflected in literature.” One woman painted a picture of Lydia and sent it to me! And just the other day, a teen wrote to say that growing up as up as the only minority in a white town, he felt suffocated, and that the novel made him feel better. I can’t tell you how moved I am by messages like those.

I’ve been happy that the book seems to resonate with both Asian American readers and non-Asians. The problem is never being seen as an Asian American writer; the problem is with being seen only as an Asian American writer.

Recently I laughed and cringed with you over the casting of Emma Stone as “Allison Ng” in Aloha. On Twitter, you often comment on representation and diversity in pop culture — in particular the way Asian/Pacific Islander Americans are portrayed (or not portrayed, as the case may be). 

It’s funny, that was just an off-the-cuff remark I made about Emma Stone, but it seemed to hit a nerve: that tweet got shared so much, and many people wrote to say how perturbed they were by this instance and this issue. At the same time, I got a ton of tweets from random strangers accusing me of racism — for not wanting a white actress to play a part-Asian character, mind you. I am still getting replies to that tweet, months later.

Twitter is truly the gift that keeps on giving even when you wish it wouldn’t!

What gives you hope, in terms of recent representations of Asian Americans in the media? And where would you still like to see real progress?

What gives me hope: that there are more and more Asian Americans visible in the media today. When I was growing up, there were probably three Asians on TV or in the movies people could name: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Connie Chung. Maybe Sammo Hung if you were a real TV buff. But that has gotten longer: from Lucy Liu and Margaret Cho to Sandra Oh, Jet Li, Kelly Hu, Daniel Dae Kim, John Cho, Mindy Kaling… And of course there’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” which feels like a watershed moment: a TV show, on network TV, about an Asian American family! This fall, there will be another TV show with an Asian lead — “Dr. Ken” — which I believe is the first time there have ever been two sitcoms featuring Asian Americans on network TV.

Beyond that, I’ve spotted more Asians on screen in smaller, more subtle ways too. The first time I saw an TV spot for “Sullivan and Son,” I was like, wait, is this a show about a half-Asian guy in a mixed-race family? I always get really excited when I see Asian families in commercials and it’s not about them being Asian — so it’s not that ’80s laundry detergent commercial (“Ancient Chinese Secret!”), it’s just a family eating Cheerios or yogurt or whatever and oh, by the way, they’re Asian. Recently I saw an commercial for Eggo that appeared to show an adopted (?) Asian son with a Caucasian family. There was absolutely no commentary on the racial makeup of the family, which was sort of refreshing: it wasn’t About Being Asian, it was pure shilling for waffles. I’m always pointing those ads out to my husband: “Look! It’s an Asian family! Look! It’s an Asian wife and a white husband!”

That cuts both ways — there are more Asians represented in media, but they’re still so rare that every sighting is like spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker or something. We still need more representation, and we’re still fighting some of the same old stereotypes. It was great to see Jeremy Lin get the spotlight, but the narrative was always about his Asianness and how he met — or didn’t meet — the stereotypes we have for Asian men. Margaret Cho’s performance at the Golden Globes was problematic — I get what she was trying to do, but I suspect many viewers just saw the generic Asian caricature. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” has a major Asian character, but it too walks a fine line between undercutting the stereotype and reiterating it — I’m still working out how I feel about that one.

I think we see so few Asians in the media that people think any representation is progress, even if, as you say, some of those portrayals play to stereotypes or are used just to sell products. It’s frustrating that interracial couples and multiracial families are common in commercials but not at all centered in actual shows or films.

Not long ago, you compiled a list of Asian American fiction writers in response to someone remarking, “There aren’t a lot of you out there.” (I love that that was your response to that comment!) Do you feel a responsibility to speak and write about issues surrounding race and diversity?

I’m starting to. I used to feel reluctant to talk about race, as I think many people of color sometimes do — there’s an exhaustion that sets in after a while because you’re constantly forced to confront your race in a way that Caucasians aren’t. Like, “Just because I’m Asian it doesn’t mean I have to talk about Asian issues, I think (and write!) about more than that!” All of that is true, but these are issues that have always been important to me, and now that the book is out in the world and found an audience, it feels like I have a responsibility to speak up while anyone is listening.

And I’ve seen firsthand how these issues affect me personally — we might like to think of ourselves outside of racial terms, but the fact is that your race is a big part of how the world sees you. The same goes for being a woman — I knew, intellectually, how different things are for women than for men in pretty much every aspect of life, especially work and public life, but now that I see it, I feel like I have a duty to speak about it and engage in the conversation.

Do you feel, with a platform as wide-reaching as The Toast, you have to speak or write about these issues? I know you’ve said you don’t want to become the “Asian Issues” person, so how do you balance those things?

Oh, I’ve pretty much embraced being The Toast’s Asian American Correspondent. (I’m kidding.) I used to worry more about being pigeonholed, so now it’s refreshing to feel like I have the freedom to speak to my own experience, and issues that matter to me. It would feel strange if I only wrote about race and Asian American issues, but it would feel just as strange to purposefully avoid those topics.

As an editor, it’s also very important to me to publish work by other writers of color and promote that work. At the same time, I think writers can sometimes feel frustrated or bewildered when it comes to publishing about issues of race and culture — some feel pressure to write about these things, as if that’s all that is expected of them; some think when they actually do, it leads people to typecast them and their work. Were or are you ever concerned about being thought of as “an Asian writer”?

I was and am, as you might guess from the above. I wrote an essay once called “Why I Don’t Want to be the Next Amy Tan” — the reasons are less about anxiety of influence and more about the ways that minority writers tend to get boxed into only writing about one thing.

I’ve been fortunate that my publisher appreciated the Asian American aspects of my work without ever trying to pigeonhole me, and I’ve been happy that the book seems to resonate with both Asian American readers and non-Asians. The problem is never being seen as an Asian American writer; the problem is with being seen only as an Asian American writer.

What do you think about white authors writing about Asian families or experiences? Should they do it? How can they ensure they are doing it well?

This is a tough one. I never want to tell someone they can’t write about a race not their own — isn’t fiction about imagining your way into someone else’s experience? That said, if you’re going to write about Asian experiences as a non-Asian, you have to be extra sensitive to stereotypes and exoticization, because that’s so common in depictions of Asians. It’s worth thinking long and hard, too, about why you need to tell this story. That doesn’t mean don’t do it — but as with any story, you need a compelling reason that you must tell it, and in this particular voice or through this particular lens. And you need to be sensitive to the reactions of people who do have similar experiences to the group you’re writing about — if they have concerns about your depiction, you owe it to that group and to your story to acknowledge what you don’t know and to take those critiques seriously.

Really, now that I read that over, it’s the same rules as any time you’re writing outside your own experience. The stakes are just exceptionally high when it comes to race.

Before Amy Tan, when I was a little kid, I just never read many stories about people who looked like me — I remember reading a memoir about the Japanese American internment, a YA novel called April and the Dragon Lady, and a Judy Blume book with an Asian best friend, and that was really it in terms of kids’ books for me. Who were some of your first Asian American authors?

My mom made a point of buying any books she saw by or about Asian Americans, because at the time there weren’t that many, and she felt very strongly about representation. And I think she realized, way earlier than I did, how important it was to see people who looked like me in literature. So I grew up with a fair number of books by and about Asian American: Journey to Topaz and A Jar Full of Dreams by Yoshiko Uchida, Who’s Hu? by Lensey Namioka, Child of the Owl and Dragonwings by Lawrence Yep, Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord. I had biographies of Sun Yat-Sen and Madame Chang Kai-Shek.

Reading those books was powerful — sometimes I related so closely to them that it was almost painful. At the same time, I also got the impression that if you were Asian American, you had to write about being Asian American. And I was very resistant to that idea when I was younger, partly because that didn’t fully feel like my culture and I didn’t always feel qualified or moved to write about it, and partly because of the kind of racial-explaining fatigue I mentioned earlier. At Chinese New Year I would always have do this presentation to the holiday to the class, and any time anything Asian came up at school, I was usually the one called on to try and explain it. So while those Asian American authors certainly shaped me, I was almost running away from them in my early writing life — I was writing imitations of Anne of Green Gables and Little House in the Big Woods and A Little Princess instead.

I’m nosy and I like to know how people spend their time, so can you please describe a typical day for me? What is your writing routine, if you have one?

I have a four-year-old, so my writing schedule has to flex around his schedule. On a typical school day, I take him to preschool around 8:30 and then write, at home or at my favorite cafe or at the public library, until I have to pick him up at either 12:00 or 3:00. Usually I start by answering my email, checking Twitter, reading some stuff online — I used to fight this but now see it as the warm-up stretches I do at the keyboard before diving into actual writing. Then I open up my document and start by rereading what I wrote last time — usually I’ll see something in there I can fix or want to tweak, and that’s how I ease myself back into the story. I’m a recent convert to Scrivener, so sometimes I’ll write a chunk of story that’s come to mind, and save it figure out where to put it in later. Other parts of the routine: tea, Haribo candies, a lot of eavesdropping on the people at the next table.

Usually once I get into a good rhythm, it’s just about time to go pick up my son. I am usually running late, so sometimes I end up stopping literally mid-sentence. This has turned out to be a benefit, though, because the next day I open the document and there’s half a sentence and all I have to do is finish it to get rolling. It’s like a writing prompt from my past self.

Who are some of your favorite up-and-coming writers?

One of the nicest things about the book doing well is that now people send me ARCs — I love discovering new writers and I love championing the writers whose work I love. Mia Alvar’s debut, the collection In the Country, is a knockout. Jennine Capó Crucet’s first novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, is great. The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, by Mira Jacob, is one of the best debut novels I’ve read in a while — funny and poignant and loving all at once. Justin Torres’s We The Animals is like poetry — I’ve heard he’s working on another book, and I can’t wait for that one. Elliott Holt. Kim Fu. Taiye Selasi.

What advice do you offer to writers just starting out?

The best advice I have for people just starting out is: (1) read a lot, and try reading things outside your comfort zone; (2) write a lot, and try writing things outside your comfort zone — different genres and different forms; and (3) keep at it.

One of the most encouraging things anyone ever said to me was, “You’re very talented and you work very hard, so I have no doubt you’ll succeed.” Often I think we forget about the working-very-hard part and get discouraged when success doesn’t happen right away — but every “overnight success” probably has 10+ years of work behind them.

What’s next for you? Are you working on anything right now?

I’m still doing a lot of events for Everything I Never Told You, but I’m hoping to get back into writing mode soon. I’m working on another novel — no title yet — that takes place in my hometown, Shaker Heights, Ohio. Shaker Heights is a very lovely, progressive, affluent, and relatively racially diverse place, but the flip side to that is that it’s also hyperaware of appearances. I’m still working out the story, but there’s a family that lives in Shaker, and a mother and daughter who come from outside the community, and the story is about how they get entangled with and stir up some trouble for each other.

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