Celeste Ng is an extremely friendly and polite person. If you use terms that she would use differently herself, she makes a clever suggestion instead of lecturing the other person. For example, when she is asked at readings or interviews that she lives in an intercultural marriage, because her husband is American. "I would say 'white American'," is Ng's calm reply. Because she's American too. With the difference that her parents immigrated from Hong Kong. Ng also succeeds in pointing out such nuances in her successful books. There, however, she sometimes has to turn up the volume in order to make her request clear. A small tattoo on the author's arm reveals that she has the will and the strength to do so: "good trouble" can be read there. Her novels can be described as "great trouble" in the best sense of the word.
In her latest book, "Our Disappeared Hearts," she takes readers into the near future. After years of crisis, the USA passed a large number of laws, the fictitious "Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act, PACT", which is intended to preserve "American culture". And that means that people who read Asian are not only discriminated against, but can also lose their children. Those who protest against the harsh system also risk having their sons and daughters taken away and transplanted into patriotic households.
With twelve-year-old Bird, the main character in "Our Missing Hearts", it is the other way around: his mother Margaret has left the family. She has been away for three years when the twelve-year-old receives a letter from her. Three years without a word and now just a piece of paper with drawings on it. Drawings of cats. Big, small, striped, cheeky. What is she trying to tell him? Bird goes in search. For his mother, the reasons for her disappearance, and the truth that underlies the world as he has known it. Suddenly he sees signs everywhere. Are they from his mother?
ntv.de: You've done what I'm sure only a few succeed in doing: you scared Stephen King with your novel version of the USA - you can read about it in his top review of your book in the New York Times.
Celeste Ng: Yes, that was a big surprise. I had to ask: is that really THE Stephen King?
It doesn't take much imagination to imagine a Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act, PACT for short, after the Trump years and the many racist incidents during the pandemic. Was that the starting point for the novel?
My book is often described as a dystopia. I would say it's still our world. I just turned the volume up a bit. I started thinking about Our Missing Hearts when I finished Little Fires Everywhere, around October 2016. After writing a lot about mothers and daughters there, I wanted to write about a disappearing mother and her child does not understand why? Shortly thereafter, the world began to feel like a dystopia. Bad things happened almost daily after the US elections. They got woven into the story. It was very easy to imagine where our world is going.
"The three pillars of PACT: Prohibits the promotion of un-American values and behaviors. Encourages all citizens to report potential threats to our society. Protects children from an environment that holds harmful views." - Excerpt from "Our Vanished Hearts".
Racism against people with Asian roots is part of your books. We've already talked about the fact that as a person with an immigrant background, you are brought up to always be polite and try to be as little trouble as possible.
Yes, I remember our conversation. Don't draw attention to yourself, right.
Has the need to disappear into society inconspicuously increased during the pandemic?
Yes, I felt it, but felt it was important to take a different path. Especially since we've seen so much hostility towards people of Asian appearance during the pandemic. I knew early on that I would write about anti-Asian racism, but hesitated. It's a very dark and scary topic, especially for parents. But I had to write about it to process and witness it. And urge the readers to realize and witness it. When the assaults, particularly on older Asians, made the news during the pandemic, no one of Asian background in the US was surprised.
For many others, it probably just wasn't an issue because they don't have to worry about their parents or grandparents being attacked.
I agree. I talked a lot about it with my husband. He's a white American, of course he's basically aware of these things, but he didn't have to think too much about it beforehand. It was a bit like the beginnings of
Anyone who fears racist hostilities behaves in a similar way. In the book, it's the small details that make this clear. That Bird wears sunglasses, for example, so that his Asian appearance is not conspicuous.
Yes, I wanted to be very subtle about the things you do to make yourself less noticeable - like his parents don't tell him why Bird should always wear his sunglasses.
Asian-Americans scapegoated by the pandemic, children separated from their parents at the Mexican border. Some things you wrote about suddenly became reality.
It was scary. I looked back into history and wondered how these patterns would carry over into our time. Then these very things appeared in the news. Of course I'm not a prophetess and of course it didn't happen because I wrote about it, but it felt like it at times. They're just patterns that repeat themselves.
You have been compared to Margaret Atwood ("The Handmaid's Report"). She once said that she sometimes scares herself with her own lyrics.
How did you work out the rules for PACT? The laws are very detailed in the book.
For PACT, I looked at many other laws in the US that limit or prescribe what people can and cannot do. For example the USA Patriot Act (was passed in October 2001 in response to the terrorist attacks, editor's note). I've looked into US history, to the times of World War I or the Civil War. Laws were established according to which one is not allowed to criticize the US government, for example. We always think we have freedom of speech everywhere, but far from it. I also looked to Hong Kong, where China introduced the "National Security Law" after the takeover. My parents are from Hong Kong, so of course I'm interested in what's happening there. These laws are tough: For example, you have to sing all the words of the national anthem clearly, you can't change the key because that could appear as if you were making fun of the anthem. It is very clear that the agenda is to control the people, it is not about patriotism.
"She remembered what her mother used to tell her: be extra careful around cops, say please and thank you. They'd put her in a big black car, a cop strapped her in the back seat, and she had said: Thank you. (...) After being taken to a foster family and realizing that she would not come back home, she regretted this "thank you" and also that she had left so quietly." - Excerpt from "Our Lost Hearts"
Mothers - loving but not perfect - are a recurring motif in your work. This time, Margaret faces the toughest decisions as the mother of 12-year-old Bird. How difficult was it to write the book as a mother to a son who is about the same age?
My son is that age, but only because I write so slowly! When I started Our Lost Hearts, he was only five years old. But he grew faster than the book (laughs). In fact, the mothers in my books are far from perfect, even if they try their best. Bird eventually realizes that his mother is human too, making mistakes, even a pretty big one at the end of the book. She is not omniscient, has no plan for everything, forgets to give him food.
And he's been repelled by it at times.
Yes, she forgot how to take care of him. For me it was about the moment when you realize that your own parents don't know everything either. For many, this is the moment when they grow up. For example, during the pandemic, my son asked me when he could go back to school, when this Covid would be over and I had to tell him: I don't know. This is very sobering. I still remember the moment I first noticed that my parents weren't omniscient. My grandmother was dying and my father didn't know what to do. When you have children of your own, you know that you're just pretending to know everything, never to be afraid. But in the pandemic I couldn't hide it anymore. I've since changed my mindset about the perfect super mom. When my son was little, I would have all the snacks ready before he was hungry, always bought the next size up, and so on. I felt this pressure very much. Now I think it's good for him to know that sometimes I struggle too, I make mistakes.
Our teenage hero in the story is indeed very youthful at 12 years old. Why did you choose such a young person to explore this dystopian world?
At this age you start to discover and understand the world. For children, the world is usually quite small. It's only when you get older that you realize: Oh, there's more to it than the place where I live with my family. You realize that your parents already had a life before you were there. With Bird, I wanted to reflect his growing understanding. The reader should discover this world with him. At 12, Bird is young enough not to know a lot, but old enough to see the world himself.
"Across the country, protest marches spread like wildfires. Anti-PACT demonstrators threw eggs at cars - then stones. And always, always they carried placards with Margaret's line of poetry" - Excerpt from "Our Vanished Hearts"
Margaret doesn't think much about PACT until an anti-PACT protester dies holding an excerpt of one of her poems. What does it take to get moving?
I think you often feel guilty afterwards, but you ignore a lot of things until it happens to you. For me, for example, police violence against black people in the USA is such an issue. I knew this was a problem but I didn't have to think about it so I ignored it. As in the famous quote: "When the Nazis got the communists, I kept quiet; I wasn't a communist." I always hope that I would stand up for my principles, but I don't know. What if that meant putting your child or family at risk? You'd probably end up putting yourself in danger.
The fact that children are used as a means of exerting pressure on parents has a sad tradition worldwide. There are also many lost hearts in Iran, Ukraine and elsewhere at the moment. What can we do now to change the world?
I am fascinated by the fact that not only young people are protesting at the moment, but also the elderly. Maybe they have less to lose, but maybe they've experienced it too often. For example, when you look at the older Ukrainian women who stand on the street and yell at the Russians. I hope as I get older I'll become just as fearless.
In the book, art actions draw attention to the abuses. Can we change the world through art?
I didn't write this down as advice, but out of the helplessness I felt during the pandemic, for example. As a writer, I felt useless. I am not a doctor, not a scientist. Does what I can do help people? Art helped me at that time. I listened to music, read poetry for comfort and inspiration. Art can reach people emotionally. You can read many articles about why you should get involved in certain things without being touched. After the unspeakable separation of children and parents at the Mexican border, art installations appeared on street corners with metal cages containing figures wrapped in protective silver foil. Audios could be heard of the crying children in the camps. That didn't solve the problem, but it did reach some more people who weren't reached by the news. I am also interested in protest through art because I also want to know: Can I make a difference with what I do? Am I just entertaining or can I change something?
"As they cross the street to their dorm, Bird sees it on the ground: spray-painted blood red on the asphalt, in the middle of the intersection. A heart surrounded by a ring of words: BRING BACK OUR LOST HEARTS-. (...) The next day the graffiti was painted over, the posters replaced, the flyers swept away like dead leaves. Everything clean, as if he had only imagined the whole thing" - excerpt from "Our Vanished Hearts".
In your book, libraries also play an important role in the protests and in society. I suspect that we have a similar view, but still the question again - how important do you still think libraries are in our digital age?
Libraries are so much more than places where books are kept. I often sit in libraries with my laptop and watch the staff helping people find all sorts of information. Early in the morning I saw how the doors were also opened for the many homeless people who can warm up, wash and rest a little there. This is also a service to society, a place that fulfills similar functions as churches did in the past. Such a free place, where you don't have to pay, with information, warmth, the opportunity to learn is really a radical concept. One that for me is the opposite of fascism. Everyone should be allowed to find what they are looking for without having to spend money. There are groups attacking libraries in the US right now and I hope we continue to talk about how important these places are.
Samira Lazarovic spoke to Celeste Ng