I’m dedicating this #FavoriteFemalesFriday post to one gal: Celeste Ng. Not only did she write the amazing Everything I Never Told You, the New York Times bestseller, New York Times Notable Book of 2014, and Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, but she’s also super bad ass, discussing race boldly (the family in her book is mixed Asian-White in the 1970s Midwest, a time when biracial marriage had recently been illegal in some states. *Cough* Looking at you, Virginia) while invoking the feeling of isolation associated with being a person of color in a sea of white. (Which is also something that could be said of the U.S. publishing industry.)
Ng had this to say about how Asian American fits into the conversation on race in America on NPR’s Code Switch:
I think in the United States we talk about race as a black and white issue. … We’re generally talking about it as if it’s a binary equation whereas, in fact, there’s more than two races and in fact those races blend together. There are a lot of different ways that people identify. I think as we have more interracial marriage and we become more aware of all these issues, we may start to talk about race in a more complicated way.
But race is a factor in Everything I Never Told You, not the full story. The novel is much more complicated than that. Throughout 300 pages of tightly woven family history, secrets, and unexpected twists, we learn the story of the Lee family, and the 15-year-old daughter who drowned in the lake near their house. The novel is air-tight; Ng knows exactly what she’s doing. Furthermore, we have a present tense omniscient narrator. Yes, present tense. And this is how good Ng is: I had to check to make sure I was right. I almost always tire of the present tense within a short story, let alone a novel. But Ng is so damn skilled that it is seamless.
This is how the book opens:
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.”
What? So bad ass.
Back to the issue of race, since it is a component of the novel. In an interview on Hippo Reads, when asked to dive into the choices for the characters’ racial identity and how true to life the racism is, Ng responded:
An early Goodreads commenter remarked that the racism in the book was unbelievable—she felt it might have been realistic “in the 1920s, maybe, but not in the 1970s.” And at one of the first readings I did, someone asked, “How did you research the racism?” The sad truth is that I didn’t need to do a lot of research on that front: with one exception, every racially-tinged encounter in the novel—from the more outright discrimination to the many microaggressions, intentional or not—is something that’s happened to me, to family, or to someone I know personally.
Here’s some research I did do: in 2001, the Anti-Defamation League, along with several other groups, conducted a landmark study on attitudes towards Asian Americans in the U.S. It found that 68% of Americans had a “somewhat negative” or “very negative” view of Chinese Americans; that more Americans were uncomfortable supporting an Asian American for president than a black, Jewish, or woman candidate; and that 24% disapproved of intermarriage with an Asian American. A 2009 followup found numbers had improved, but only somewhat. I’ll note, also, that so far, the only people who’ve expressed surprise at any of the racial attitudes in the book have not been people of color. For the most part, readers who have been minorities—Asian or otherwise—have pretty much reacted, “Yup.”
And finally, I’ll end with this, my favorite quote that definitely resonated with me as a writer:
I think many writers are drawn to write about their fears as a way of domesticating—or at least managing—them.
Yes. Feel that one. Deeply.
Thanks, Celeste Ng, for being a truly gifted, bold writer. The world needs more of you.