Celeste Ng on the GOP’s War on Children
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Bestselling novelist Celeste Ng joins co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to talk about the wide range of GOP policies and initiatives hurting children. This includes recent news of Ron DeSantis pushing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that authorizes Florida to take emergency custody of trans children “threatened with” receiving gender-affirming care, and justifies the action by classing that care as “physical harm.” They discuss her novel, Our Missing Hearts, which features a young protagonist separated from his Chinese-American mother because of a troublesome fictional law called the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act. Ng reads from her novel, newly out in paperback.
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: I wonder if you could start off by reading a passage from your novel that outlines the fictional Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act.
Celeste Ng: Sure. This is a passage from pretty early in the book. The main character is a young boy named Noah. He goes by Bird—that’s his name of choice. He’s grown up without his mother for the past few years. He doesn’t know a lot about why she left the family, only that there’s something strange about her disappearance and they’re not supposed to talk about her anymore. He’s also got a friend named Sadie. Sadie is a child who has been removed from her parents home by this law, PACT. Because they’re both outcasts—they both have missing parents—they’re drawn to one another.
In this scene, Bird starts to understand a little bit more about how this law, PACT, which has been in existence for his entire life, is influencing both his life and Sadie’s life in ways that he hadn’t expected.
At first it had just been a phrase, like any other.
Not long after his mother left, Bird had found a slip of paper on the bus, thin as a dead butterfly’s wing, in the gap between seat and wall. One of dozens. His father snatched it from his hand and crumpled it, tossed it to the floor.
Don’t pick up garbage, Noah, he said.
But Bird had already read the words at the top: ALL OUR MISSING HEARTS.
A phrase he’d never heard before but that sprang up elsewhere in the months, then years, after his mother had gone. Graffitied in the bike tunnel, on the wall of the basketball court, on the plywood around a long-stalled construction site. DON’T FORGET OUR MISSING HEARTS. Scrawled across the neighborhoodwatch posters with a fat-bladed brush: WHERE ARE OUR MISSING HEARTS? And on pamphlets, appearing overnight one memorable morning: pinned under the wipers of parked cars, scattered on the sidewalk, caught against the concrete feet of lampposts. Palm-sized, xeroxed handbills reading simply this: ALL OUR MISSING HEARTS.
The next day, the graffiti was painted over, the posters replaced, the pamphlets swept away like dead leaves. Everything so clean he might have imagined it all.
It didn’t mean anything to him then.
It’s an anti-PACT slogan, his father said curtly, when Bird asked. From people who want to overturn PACT. Crazy people, he’d added. Real lunatics.
You’d have to be a lunatic, Bird had agreed, to overturn PACT. PACT had helped end the Crisis; PACT kept things peaceful and safe. Even kindergarteners knew that. PACT was common sense, really: If you acted unpatriotic, there would be consequences. If you didn’t, then what were you worried about? And if you saw or heard of something unpatriotic, it was your duty to let the authorities know. He has never known a world without PACT; it is as axiomatic as gravity, or Thou shalt not kill. He didn’t understand why anyone would oppose it, what any of this had to do with hearts, how a heart could be missing. How could you survive without your heart beating inside you?
It made no sense until he met Sadie. Who’d been removed from her home and re-placed, because her parents had protested PACT.
Didn’t you know? she’d said. What the consequences were? Bird. Come on.
She tapped the worksheet they’d been given as homework: The Three Pillars of PACT. Outlaws promotion of un-American values and behavior. Requires all citizens to report potential threats to our society. And there, beneath Sadie’s finger: Protects children from environments espousing harmful views.
Even then, he hadn’t wanted to believe it. Maybe there were a few PACT removals, but they couldn’t happen much—or why did no one talk about it? Sure, every now and then, you heard of a case like Sadie, but surely those were exceptions. If it happened, you really must have done something dangerous, your kid needed to be protected—from you, and whatever you were doing or saying. What’s next, some people said, you think molesters and child-beaters deserve to keep their kids, too?
He’d said this to Sadie, without thinking, and she went silent. Then she wadded up her sandwich in a ball of tuna and mayonnaise and smashed it into his face. By the time he wiped his eyes clear, she was gone, and all afternoon,the stink of fish clung to his hair and skin.
A few days later Sadie had pulled something from her backpack.
Look, she’d said. The first words she’d spoken to him since. Bird, look what I found.
A newspaper, corners tattered, ink smudged to gray. Almost two years old already. And there, just below the fold, a headline: LOCAL POET TIED TO INSURRECTIONS. His mother’s photo, a dimple hovering at the edge of her smile. Around him, the world went hazy and gray.
Where did you get this, he asked, and Sadie shrugged.
At the library.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Thank you so much. When we were emailing about this before, you mentioned to me that hostility toward trans children was one of the things on your mind as you were writing. The third pillar of PACT is “protecting children from environments espousing harmful views,” justifying separating children from their parents under the guise of protection. It’s really exactly the same rhetorical strategy as the anti-trans Florida legislation that we mentioned earlier. I wonder if you can talk a bit more about the GOP’s attacks on trans children and their parents and how they influenced your portrayal of the state’s treatment of families—and specifically children—in the novel.
CN: When I was writing the novel, a lot of the anti-trans legislation hadn’t passed yet, but it was kind of in the offing. You could see it if you were paying attention. There were a lot of concerned citizen laws being proposed… “We have to protect children from books that depict homosexuality.” I think, when I was writing this book, the term “groomer” hadn’t even entered the public consciousness. But there was a lot of this sentiment that children somehow need to be protected from the possibility of being queer in any way, or from queer people in society, or the fact that queer people exist.
And so, when I was writing the book, I was looking at the news. I was pulling together a lot of things that were currently happening—book bans, or, you know, this sort of nascent movement toward criminalizing basically anything that has to do with trans people existing. And I was imagining: “What if we took that and we made it a little bit more obvious in the book?” I talked about it as just turning the volume up.
So it’s exactly what you describe—this idea that parents who are doing things that the government or certain aspects of society who are in control don’t like can be charged with endangering their children, essentially. And that’s what we’re seeing right now, unfortunately, in Florida, parts of Texas, and other places—this idea that if parents are affirming their children’s gender identity in any way, that somehow they’re harming their children, and that’s grounds for the children to then be taken away from those parents. To me, that’s a really horrifying development, and one in which I really wish the book were moving farther away from reality rather than the other way around
WT: We did an episode early on in this show’s run called “The Authoritarian Playbook” that I’d keep an eye on. Reading your novel, I felt like it was an imagining of how an authoritarian state would be created in America. Obviously, one of the excuses is the protection of children. And then that is an excuse for re-education, right? So it’s very important in your passage that Bird doesn’t remember a time before this act. And you realize, “Oh, there are people who don’t remember a time before the Patriot Act, for instance, which happened during 9/11.
We’ve done a lot of episodes of the show talking about how attempts to ban books have targeted books with LGBTQ+ themes as well as Black writers. And this is another form of information control—understanding that if younger people don’t have access to information, they won’t know what they’re missing. I wonder if you could talk about the way that book bans impact children and their role in your novel.
CN: One of the things that I did while I was writing this book was look a lot at history. I was looking at the past instances in which we had book bans, in which we had laws restricting all kinds of individual freedoms. And I realized how important it was to know that these things have happened in the past. Because if you know that, you’re aware that there are these patterns of history, and maybe you have the chance to break out of them. If you don’t know that—if you have forgotten that information, or if that information is not available to you—you basically have no way to prepare yourself and to prevent yourself from repeating the same mistakes all over again.
This is what strikes me about the book bans. The things that are getting banned, as you said, are anything that has to do with LGBTQ+ topics, or anything that has to do with Black history, for example. They’re ways of just erasing parts of our history and parts of our society. And if you don’t know about them, you don’t have any way of preventing those groups from being persecuted again in the future. And that’s what’s scary to me about it
I started thinking about this boy in the novel, who doesn’t know anything about recent history. As you said, he’s grown up with this law, PACT, and he thinks that’s normal. Everyone around him seems to be fine with it. That’s always how it’s been. One of the things that he becomes aware of through the course of the book is a larger context of history and his life. He starts to realize that actually, there’s a lot more to his history and his family’s history and the history of their whole society than he had been taught. He realizes that the little frame he’s been looking at the world through, which is only a little camera view, that there’s actually a lot more of the picture outside of it.
And that’s what I think about when I think about banned books in our society. They’re ways of giving children context. They’re ways of letting them know about parts of the world that are out there, about things that have happened, so they can actually be more informed. To me, that’s always a good thing. That’s always a way of helping kids understand better what the world around them is actually like.
VVG: For me, one of the creepiest things about the book bans in the novel is the way that they’re not actually announced. They’re silent. The books are missing from the shelves and Bird doesn’t necessarily know until he goes looking for a book by his mother, the poet Margaret Miu. She departs his life and also her book vanishes from shelves, and he goes wandering looking for it. And it’s not there. It’s not like there’s an announcement like “no one may read this collection of poetry.” And so I’m curious about the ways in which you announce and don’t announce this malevolent bureaucracy in the story and how it passes from being something like a law—like PACT, that is codified—into just being a pernicious tradition.
CN: That was an interesting thing to learn about, too. I always think about book bans as being this forbidden list, right? If all the books are on that list, you take them off, and everyone knows which books are not there. But the truth is that a lot of times when books are essentially banned, it’s done in a much quieter way. We’re seeing that with some of the library bans. There are books that are being removed preemptively, I guess, is the way of saying it. Librarians are concerned that having these books on the shelves will open them up to hostility, will open them up to violence, which is in fact happening. So they remove the books from the shelves before anyone makes them.
When you were talking about the authoritarian playbook, I think that’s one of the hallmarks of it. You get people to obey in advance. You get people to censor themselves, essentially, and not say things because they’re concerned about the kinds of trouble that they’ll get into. And that’s a frightening prospect too. It’s scary enough if there’s the idea that there’s a list of books that have been removed. But if people are starting to remove those books just on their own—just as a way of avoiding trouble—it’s understandable. But it also means, in some ways, that the people in control can say, “Oh, we’re not doing it, people are just choosing not to do it.”
One of the things I looked at was the way that censorship tends to happen in China, and a lot of times it happens in this sort of softer way. There’s the idea that you’re pressured in a societal way to not talk about certain things because it’s going to make trouble. Or it’s going to open you up to ramifications at your job or ramifications in society. And so people just don’t do it, because it’s easier than opening yourself up to huge risks.
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Han Mallek. Photograph of Celeste Ng by Kieran Kesner.
State Bill 254 • “Judge Sides With Families Fighting Florida’s Ban on Gender Care for Minors,” by Rick Rojas and Azeen Ghorayshi, The New York Times • “Florida Passes Bill Allowing Trans Kids to Be Taken From Their Families,” by Tori Otten, The New Republic • “Florida Advanced a Bill That Could Separate Trans Kids From Affirming Parents,” by Samantha Riedel, Them • “Parents seeking treatments for trans kids could lose custody of child under new Florida bill,” by Sam Sachs, WFLA • “Nebraska Mom Helped Her Daughter Get an Abortion. Now Her Daughter Has Been Sentenced to Jail,” by Madison Pauly, Mother Jones • “Houston’s plan to convert some school libraries into discipline centers is criticized,” by Dominic Anthony Walsh, NPR • Fiction/Non/Fiction, Season 5, Episode 13: “Censoring the American Canon: Farah Jasmine Griffin on Book Bans Targeting Black Writers” • Fiction/Non/Fiction, Season 1, Episode 10: “Anti-Semitism and the Authoritarian Playbook” • Fiction/Non/Fiction, Season 5, Episode 12: “Intimate Contact: Garth Greenwell on Book Bans and Writing About Sex”