“I’ve Always Been Political”: Celeste Ng and Nicole Chung in Conversation
On Transracial Adoption, Social Media, and Little Fires Everywhere
A couple of years ago, I found myself talking with a small group of Asian American women writers about authors and books that inspired us. We hailed from different ethnic groups and wrote in different genres, but we had all wanted to be writers since we were young, and we’d all grown up hardly ever finding ourselves or our experiences in the books we loved. We shared a cautious optimism that things were changing, however, nearly three decades on from The Joy Luck Club and four since Maxine Hong Kingston’s groundbreaking The Woman Warrior—each of us could name not just one or two but multiple Asian American women writers whose books we’d recently loved, obsessed over, given to friends and loved ones. I distinctly remember asking my friends if any particular name rose above the rest; everyone thought for a moment, and then we all said: “Celeste Ng.”
Celeste Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, was a New York Times bestseller and Amazon’s #1 Book of the Year. In her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, the tension revealed when a single mother and her daughter arrive and unwittingly flout the status quo in idyllic Shaker Heights, Ohio (Ng’s hometown) is ratcheted up by the contested adoption of a Chinese American baby. As an adoptee who’s often gravitated toward adoption stories, I’m accustomed to seeing treatments in both fiction and nonfiction that treat it as a goal, an end in itself—a happy ending for adopting parents and adopted child. In Ng’s novel, adoption represents a beginning, a means of illuminating and exploring complicated issues of privilege and desperation, culture and identity, grief and loss. Last month, Celeste graciously took the time to chat with me about Little Fires Everywhere, her writing process, and how she tries to use her own platform for good.
Nicole Chung: I absolutely love Little Fires Everywhere, and I’m so grateful to you for writing it. I read it in one sitting on the train back from New York last October, which means I have been waiting almost a year to shout about it to everyone I know. How did this story come to you?
Celeste Ng: I remember when you read the book and emailed me from the train! That meant a lot to me. The book started with the two families at its heart—the Richardsons, who are very much of Shaker Heights and embody its ethos, and Mia Warren and her daughter, who are outsiders and stir up trouble. And, of course, there’s Shaker Heights itself, which is my hometown, and a place I love and that fascinates me—it’s a kind of character as well.
So I started with the characters, and as they got more entangled with each other, the tension between them ratcheted up—but something had to push things over the edge. And then I remembered, vaguely, a case where a white family had wanted to adopt a Chinese American baby. I didn’t really know the details of the case—I don’t remember the names of the families involved—but that clicked everything into place, all the issues of class and race and privilege that were simmering in this crucible I’d built. I’d never intended to write a novel about transracial adoption, but it resonated with so many of the themes I was already exploring—including who gets to mother—that it soon became the thread that linked everything.
NC: Please explain more about Shaker Heights, Ohio, for those unfamiliar with it. What was it like when you were growing up? What are some of the challenges inherent to writing about your hometown and the community there?
CN: Shaker Heights is a suburb on the east side of Cleveland—it’s known for being racially diverse (at least in terms of black/white), progressive, and affluent. For a long time, it was known for having excellent public schools—they were some of the best in the nation in the 1990s, which is one of the reasons my parents moved there. It was also one of the first planned communities in the nation; it was built on land that had previously been owned by the Shakers, a utopian religious group, and it was intended to be a kind of suburban utopia itself.
It’s a very green community, both figuratively and literally: every street is lined with trees, which the city plants, and every house has a front yard. There’s a lot of care taken with appearance—I talk in the book about how you can’t put your trash cans on the curb on trash day, how garages have to be at the back for aesthetic reasons, how you get fined if you don’t mow your lawn. The city does yearly inspections of the houses, inside and out, to make sure they’re following regulations. But it isn’t exactly a Stepford kind of place: we weren’t allowed to use any pre-fab plans, so all the houses look somewhat different. All this made it a beautiful place to grow up, though now, as an adult who’s in charge of taking out the garbage and mowing the lawn, I see it somewhat differently. As far as I hear from friends still there, these things are still pretty much the same.
When I was growing up there—from 1990 to 1998, when I left for college—there was definitely a particular ethos to the community as well. Shaker was known for being a leading-light kind of community, and the town really took that to heart. Maybe the best way to explain it is that if Shaker Heights was in high school, its goal would be to be the pretty, straight-A, honor roll student who is also Homecoming queen and co-captain of the field hockey team, who is also well-liked and totally down to earth and volunteers at food banks on the weekends. For what it’s worth, I think many of the communities around Shaker looked (and maybe still look) at it like that too: you admire them, and you kind of want to be like them, but you maybe secretly also would like to see them trip and fall on their faces, just once.
It’s tricky to write about your hometown the same way it’s tricky to write about your family: sometimes you are so close that you can’t see them properly. And it’s hard to be emotionally honest, as well. I loved—and love—Shaker Heights, so I want to portray it lovingly. At the same time, it has its faults like any community, and I wanted to try and be clear-eyed about that. I’m sure I’m going to get readers telling me about facts I got wrong and taking issue with my portrait of the community. But I hope I get people telling me that they think I got it right, too.
“If Shaker Heights was in high school, its goal would be to be the pretty, straight-A, honor roll student who is also Homecoming queen and co-captain of the field hockey team.”
NC: I honestly can’t remember the last time I read a novel that took such a nuanced, unflinching look at the issues in transracial adoption. How much did you know about transracial adoption before you began this book?
CN: Not a lot, but it was something I’d thought about quite a bit. The first transracial adoptions from China were starting to happen when I was in high school, and the sight of little Asian girls (always girls) surrounded by white families filled me with a lot of complicated emotions. I’d had the experience of looking at photos and seeing myself as the only Asian face in a white crowd, and wondered what it would feel like to be visually different even within your own family.
When I was in grad school, a friend forwarded me a website she’d found: local resources for parents of children adopted from China. This was in Washtenaw County, Michigan, in the early 2000s, so the resources were, let’s say, developing. It listed Chinese restaurants, places where you could buy toys made in China, places where you could buy bamboo and other Asian plants. In that list I saw so many good intentions running smack into the brick wall of privilege, cultural differences, and assumptions. That list inspired a short story, “How to Be Chinese,” about a transracial adoptee, and I was glad to explore it in a different way in this novel.
NC: I think you’ve hit upon one of the biggest issues in adoption, historically and continuing today: So often, people don’t get far beyond those good and honorable intentions and into the much harder work of questioning privilege and interrogating adoption processes and practices—it’s easy to want to “celebrate” an adopted child’s culture; it’s much harder to talk about race and prejudice, and the loss (including loss of culture) that’s so often a part of adoption. What was most challenging in writing about some of these issues in the book? And what kind of research did you do when preparing to tackle this storyline?
CN: I wanted to be really careful about not pretending to write The Transracial Adoptee’s Experience, because (1) there is no such thing, it’s going to be different for everyone, and (2) I feel strongly that those stories should be told by the adoptees themselves, if they choose to share them. But I wanted to make sure that what I was writing was as emotionally accurate as I could make it, if that makes any sense: that I was at least looking in the right direction at the right things, even what any given person might see there might be different. The thing I most wanted to get at was just the complexity of the whole situation, how many conflicting feelings there often must be: you love your family, yet you also recognize the ways they may have fallen short or misstepped or misunderstood. That’s true of many families, but especially heightened around adoption.
I tried to read accounts of transracial adoptions where I could find them—there weren’t a lot at the time, but your work, Nicole, was some of the best! Matt Salesses’s essays about his own experience as a transracial adoptee was another touchpoint. I was particularly interested in stories about Asian girls being adopted into white families—and by coincidence, there were a spate of them in the mid-to-late 2000s, as the first generation of Chinese adoptees began coming of age. There was this New York Times article, “When Parents Adopt a Child and a Whole Other Culture,” as well as this reader response. And then there was this great piece about adoptees from China celebrating their bat mitzvahs.
NC: How long did this particular novel take to write, from spark to research to finishing your manuscript?
CN: This particular novel started when I was avoiding finishing Everything I Never Told You, so it gestated for a long time. I started writing it in earnest in about 2015, so it took about two years to draft. But I’d been thinking about it since before 2009. I think that long development process made the writing of it faster—a lot of work got done in my head rather than on the page, is all.
NC: How often does that happen—working things out for a long time, in your head, before you start writing? (I always love to hear about how writers work. Like when and how you set up and organize your writing life, when you have the luxury of choosing.)
CN: I usually have a few ideas marinating—stewing? fermenting?—in the back of my head while I focus on writing one. Then, when I get stalled on the first one, I let my mind stray to the backups. Usually, that gets things moving on the first idea again. It’s pretty much the only case in which I think cheating actually helps anything.
I used to be a nighttime writer—I did my best work between maybe 10pm and 2am. And I didn’t write every day; I wrote in long slogs and then I’d take a week or two to recover. Right now, as the parent of young kid, my writing time is when he’s at school, or not at all. So I’ve become one of those writers that chips away, a few hours a day. I can’t remember the last time I wrote at night, but I have a lot of insomnia, so when I’m awake I think about what I’ve been working on and woolgather and hash out plot and character issues in my head, and the next morning I try and get it all down.
I write either at home in my office, which is up at the top of the house, where it’s quiet and where I can look down on the street; or at the Cambridge Public Library surrounded by books; or at my favorite coffee shop, Darwin’s, surrounded by great conversations to eavesdrop on and the most eclectic selection of music—sometimes the staff spontaneously sings along. It depends on my mood, and on what else I have to do that day. I’ve been encouraged by how well writing flexes itself around all the mundane stuff of life.
NC: Speaking of your son, is he at all interested in your writing? Do you talk about it a lot with him? (My older daughter wants to be an author when she grows up, but has only become mildly interested in my writing over the past year or so.)
CN: He knows that I write books, and he’s delighted when we see them in the bookstore, or when a foreign edition comes in the mail and he sees my name on it. But he isn’t particularly interested in what’s in them, any more than he’s interested in what his dad does in his office all day. He does like to write and illustrate his own books—though right now they’re focused less on narrative and more on world-building: what all the rooms in this giant house are, who’s in each of them, how many volumes he’s going to make in the series.
NC: We both spend a lot of time on Twitter—I would never say too much; your Twitter presence is a delight. I think there has been a kind of shift since the election—not that you were ever apolitical, or avoided frank discussion or hard topics, but I think on a lot of writers’ feeds now we’re just seeing a lot more political conversation, a lot more about resistance. You, for example, started sharing your own #smallacts every Tuesday, encouraging your followers to do the same. For those who might not be aware, can you talk a little more about #smallacts and why you started it?
CN: Like many people, I felt so helpless after the election in November—so I started trying to do small things to resist and to encourage kindness and empathy. I used the hashtag so others could share ideas, and I called for them every Tuesday, since the election was on a Tuesday—a kind of weekly anniversary-slash-moment of silence.
I actually had to stop calling for #smallacts after about six months because I couldn’t keep up. It was taking a lot out of me to suggest actions and retweet others’ responses, and after a lot of anguish I decided to put that energy towards doing my own small acts instead. But I’m glad to see the hashtag and movement living on—that’s what I’d hoped for all along, that it would gain momentum and a life of its own.
NC: One of so many things I admire about you is how you’ve chosen to use your platform to support and reach out to others, advocate for justice, promote the work of fellow writers and artists. What do you enjoy about having that kind of public platform, and how have you cultivated and used it?
CN: When I joined social media, I did not want to be one of those people who talked only about her own work. We’ve all seen accounts like this, and the constant self-promotion is often grating—and frankly would have been uncomfortable for me. I decided instead to spend at last 90% of my time talking about other people’s work: calling out books I’d read and admired, sharing essays and articles on issues that were important to me but that affected many other people too. That was a much more comfortable way for me to use social media, and I felt it was more useful to others, too.
I started tweeting more about social issues that were close to me—Asian American representation, LGBTQ rights, and compassion—as I started to get more well-known. It just seemed to me that if people were listening, I owed it to others to try and speak about something that mattered, and call attention to things that were getting overlooked. You could say I became much more political with the advent of the 2016 election, when the stakes became much higher for me as a woman, a woman of color, and a child of immigrants. But really I’ve always been political, because when you’re in any marginalized group, your existence is politicized for you, whether you like it or not.
Over time, I have also ended up tweeting more about myself and my own life, especially my kid—the world is just such a quirky and weird place and I love the moments of recognition and connection that come from sharing that with others. That’s brought me a lot of joy and is for me social media at its best. You know when something wacky happens and you catch a stranger’s eye and you both burst out laughing? It’s like that.
“It just seemed to me that if people were listening, I owed it to others to try and speak about something that mattered.”
NC: Yes, it totally is! I knew there was a reason I had not yet forsaken Twitter.
What are you working on now? Or, if you have not started a new book yet—TOTALLY REASONABLE, IMO—what are your plans?
CN: Right now I’ve got two ideas elbowing each other for space in my brain. Neither of them is fully formed yet, so I don’t want to say too much about them! But they’re both novels, both centering around parent-child relationships, as that appears to be something I keep coming back to.
I’m also trying to finish some short stories. I’ve been working on novels for so long now that I miss the short form. Some of them are old ideas that have been waiting patiently for me. But I’ve recently read some really great linked short story collections (Fen, by Daisy Johnson; The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra; A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan) and I would love to try writing linked pieces, but don’t know if I have the chops for it. We’ll see!