Celeste Ng: What Place Does Art Have in the Fight Against Fascism?
In Conversation with Jordan Kisner on Thresholds
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the essay collection Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Celeste Ng joins Jordan to talk about her new book Our Missing Hearts, motherhood and parenting while writing, and the big questions of what kind of place art can have in the fight against fascism.
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From the conversation:
Celeste Ng: One of the reasons that big question was on my mind, the question being essentially how do we fight fascism, or authoritarianism if you prefer to call it that, and is there a role for art in this—a lot of that really came out of the questions that I was asking myself over the past five, six years, because it felt like we were living in a dystopia.
A lot of the things that were happening politically in the US and also abroad felt like the sort of things that we always wanted to believe, oh, those things can’t happen. Except, of course, they do. You were having voting rights suppressed, and you were having journalists and judges threatened, and you were having racism normalized, and you were having families separated, and all of those things.
And I was sitting at home with my computer and feeling really useless. I was thinking, I make up stories about people who don’t exist. And this feels, at least right now, like a really useless thing to be doing. If I were a lawyer or a labor organizer or anything like that, I could do something more tangible. But as a writer and as a fiction writer, I felt like, what am I doing with myself? And so I had this sort of crisis of faith.
Maybe it’s rationalizing, but what I eventually came around to was thinking the things that are giving me comfort—not as a writer, just as a person—are things like music and poetry that remind me what kind of world I want to live in. I was reading poems and I was listening to music that gave me hope for the future.
And in a way it was reminding me, I’m not just fighting against things, but I’m fighting for things as well. There is a vision of a world that I want my kid to grow up into, and art is giving me a glimpse of that. Where it’s easy to forget that those things can exist, art can prop the door open to possibilities that aren’t present. It can remind you that the world can be different from the way that it currently is, which I think is something that’s really easy to forget about.
That became one of the driving questions in the book, is to what extent can art do that? I don’t know that it can change the world, but it can maybe inspire us or encourage us to take the actions that we might need to take.
A friend of mine, whenever we talk about writing, they always say, “Give the problem of your book to your book.” So I tried to do that. I tried to make that a question that the character in the book, Margaret, was really grappling with. And for her, I think the art that she makes and the art that the other sort of resistors in the world, for lack of a better term, are doing—in a way, the act of them making something is the opposite of the fascism they’re confronted with. Because the fascism says “This is the way to do it.” And art is saying, “Well, but what if we do it this way? What if we make it another way?”
Celeste Ng is the number one New York Times bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere. Her third novel, Our Missing Hearts, will be published in October 2022. Ng is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and her work has been published in over thirty languages.