Celeste Ng’s new book ‘Our Missing Hearts’ tackles several themes including surveillance, parenting, discrimination and the power of storytelling. Two particularly difficult topics for Ng to address: missing children and hate crimes.
“As a parent, it was difficult to write about abducted children as a means of political control,” said Ng, who will be at the University of San Diego on Oct. 21, an event presented by Warwick’s and USD’s College of Arts. and Science. “It was difficult to read the many reports of anti-Asian violence in the news, so writing about it was also difficult.
“These topics are close to home personally,” she said. “It’s especially important to write about them in a way that makes them personal to others who might not otherwise feel a specific connection.”
The main protagonist of “Our Missing Hearts”, Bird Gardner, lives in the wake of economic instability and violence. To maintain peace, the authorities are authorized to remove the children of dissidents, in particular those of Asian origin. And libraries have been forced to remove books considered unpatriotic, including the work of Bird’s mother, Margaret, a Chinese-American poet who left the family to protect them.
Ng’s previous novel, “Little Fires Everywhere,” has been published in over 30 languages and adapted into a limited series starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.
Q: Who are your main characters?
A: “Our Missing Hearts” centers on Margaret, a Chinese-American poet, her Caucasian husband Ethan, and their 12-year-old son, Bird. Three years earlier, Margaret left the family under mysterious circumstances. As the book opens, Bird receives a mysterious letter from his mother and is drawn into a quest to find her.
Q: Please describe the society in which these characters live.
A: This world is not quite our world, but it is not our world either. The America in the book is shaped by fear: the country is recovering from a huge economic crisis, anti-Asian sentiment is all too widespread, and “un-American” behavior has dire consequences. I suspect this will sound familiar to many of us, and that’s on purpose. Everything in the novel has a precedent in our past, or in many cases, our present. Maybe it’s less of a dystopia and more of our reality with the volume turned up a notch.
Q: When did you start writing this novel and has it evolved over time?
A: I started writing this novel right after finishing “Little Fires Everywhere”. At the time, I saw it as a fairly conventional story between a creative mother and a son who didn’t understand why his mother was drawn to this kind of work. It was October 2016 – and very soon after, with the 2016 presidential election, the rise of the far right and everything that happened in the following years, we started to feel to live in a dystopia. That feeling seeped into the book. At one point, it seemed dishonest to me not to acknowledge the problems that were so prevalent in the real world and the issues that I found myself struggling with because of the social climate we found ourselves in.
Q: Why is the book formatted in three sections and not chapters?
A: Folk tales are a major thread in the novel, so I wanted the book to feel organic in the same way – closer to a tale in the oral tradition, something told rather than written and structured. I wanted the story to unfold in a bit of a dreamlike way, with reality and myth, present and future and memory blending together. Removing some formal elements, such as chapter headings and quotation marks, contributed to both of these effects.
Q: Are libraries a character in your story?
A: They are less of a character and more of a guiding philosophy. For me, libraries are a magical place: they are repositories of information, where you are allowed, and even encouraged, to explore and learn. They are in a way the opposite of authoritarianism and an emblem of what Margaret and others are fighting for.
Q: How did Václav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless” affect you in relation to this story?
A: I had read it in college but came back to it a few years ago, looking for hope. He offers a compelling case that one person’s actions can make a difference – something I really want to believe.
Q: Please explain how you felt when Lucy Liu agreed to narrate your new book.
A: I was delighted ! Lucy is an actress that I have admired for many years, and not only is she an extremely talented performer, but she is also an Asian American and a mother.
“Our Missing Hearts” by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press, 2022; 352 pages)
Warwick’s and University of San Diego’s College of Arts and Sciences present Celeste Ng
When: 7 p.m. October 21
Where: University of San Diego Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Theater, 5998 Alcala Park, San Diego
Tickets: $29 (plus taxes and fees): general admission and a copy of “Our Missing Hearts”
Call: (858) 454-0347
On line: warwicks.com
COVID-19 Protocol: Masks are mandatory at the request of the author.
Davidson is a freelance writer.