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Heck YA, Diversity!: An Interview with Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng stops by to talk about her powerful debut, the best-selling Everything I Never Told You.

Heck YA, Diversity!: An Interview with Celeste Ng

Last year, Celeste Ng made a huge splash on the literary scene, racking up well-earned praise for her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. I'm pleased as punch to have Celeste here for an interview ediiton of Heck YA, Diversity!(Major pants to Meghan and Jennie for all their help on these questions!)

The characters in the book are so different from one another that readers can easily find at least one that they identify with the most. Whom would that be for you?

This is such a hard question—it’s like asking who my favorite child is! I identify with all of them, but if I had to pick just one, I’d go with Hannah. She’s much like I was as a child: she eavesdrops on everyone, ferreting out secrets, sure that there’s more going on than what you can see.  And I also used to save little mementoes from important moments—things like sugar packets, pens, used-up lipsticks—that have no meaning to anyone else but that ended up being like talismans for me, reminding me of people I loved.

What were you like as an adolescent? Where were you in the high school hierarchy? Did you or your family place any significant expectations on your teenage self?

I was pretty bookish, very introverted, and geeky. (Actually, I still am!) I wasn’t one of the popular kids, who were always throwing parties and looked up to, but I had friends I loved, and got along with most people. But I was also in the science club in middle school, and the editor of the literary magazine in high school. I was a vegetarian and went through a phase where I didn’t cut my hair and I made my own clothes and stuff like that. But at the same time, I read a lot of Sartre and Beckett and Chekhov, so my worldview was simultaneously very idealistic and very cynical.

My family is full of overachievers, so I was raised to be one too. They always expected me to do well, and so did I—I didn’t have to be the best at everything, but if I did something, I wanted to be The Best at it. Because my parents were scientists, they hoped I’d go into science too: it was what they knew, and they thought I’d be good at it. But fortunately for me, they were okay with it when I decided to go into English instead!

The Lee family have inadvertently isolated themselves from society and each other: Marilyn sees herself as being different from other housewives because of her former ambitions, and separate from other white people because of her interracial marriage; James has never been accepted as being the American that he feels he is; the kids are too Chinese to fit in with their peers, but too white for their parents to even consider that could be a problem; and the entire family is lousy at communication. What did you draw from to tap into these experience?

Although I had a pretty stable childhood and adolescence, I never felt like I totally fit in anywhere. Take race, for instance: I grew up as one of very few Asians in my community. So when I was home, I was always conscious of how Asian I was. But I don’t speak Chinese and didn’t know a lot about Chinese culture—so when I went to visit family in San Francisco or in Hong Kong, I was very conscious of how unChinese I was. And I had quirky interests, so I was obsessed with things that, uh, most people were not interested in: 19th century literature, obscure TV shows, miniatures, the Pony Express. So I had a sense of what it was like to feel different from those around you.

Despite the common genetics of the Lee kids, their different physical appearances -- in particular, Lydia looking the most white -- yield different experiences of being biracial. Was this inspired by something you've witnessed in real life?

As I’ve come to know more people of mixed-race, I’ve been curious about the ways their ethnicity appears in their features—or rather, how people interpret their ethnicity based on their features. A friend of a friend was part Asian with blond hair and Japanese features and confused everyone; a friend’s daughter—part Indian, part white—has pale skin, dark hair, and bright blue eyes. (I didn’t know that could happen!) Appearance is such a huge part of the way people assign us identities, and I wanted Lydia’s appearance to be puzzling to people, just as her own feelings about her internal identity are also somewhat jumbled.

Being a parent, does your own book scare you? Do you worry about making some of the mistakes that James and Marilyn did?

It absolutely does. I didn’t appreciate how hard it is not to have expectations for your kid, until I became a parent! And I see how difficult it is not to impose your own worldview on your child. I love books (obviously) and so does my son—but he really, really loves math, and this is not something I’ve ever pushed. So I’m always going, “Hey, want to read a book?” and he’s going “No, but will you play a math game with me?” and I have to remind myself to go with what he’s interested in, and to stop pushing my own interests on him!

Would you consider the book ultimately hopeful? Why or why not?

I do, and I hope readers do, too. Although what happens to Lydia isn’t a happy ending, per se, I think the book is really about the possibility of change. Can you change your behavior? Can you change your relationships with other people?  Can you change the way you think about the world? I want those answers to be yes, and so do the characters.

Which was the most challenging part about writing the book? And which part are you most proud of or did you find most rewarding?

Figuring out the structure of the book—the best order to tell the story—was the hardest. I went through four drafts, over six years, and the fundamental story stayed the same, but in every draft I was telling it in a different way. The story is really about how past and present overlap and influence one another, so I had to find a way to show how they intertwined. I’m proud of how it eventually shaped up. But I’m also such a word person—I started off wanting to be a poet—so I also enjoyed all the nitty-gritty of polishing language and finding just the right images.

With the (well-earned!) accolades and media coverage for the book, you're probably giving tons of interviews these days. Is there any aspect of the book that you wish would receive more attention than it has?

This is certainly an Asian American story—and there aren’t that many of those out there, at least not yet­—so I’m always thrilled to talk about cultural and identity issues. But at heart it’s really a family story, and I’ve been so happy that many interviews have focused on the universal aspects of the novel, on the relationships between parents and children that cut across cultural lines.

You've mentioned elsewhere that "[your] stories almost always begin with images", and that this book in particular took six years to write. What was the process of turning that image into a book like? How did you develop the central characters? Was there research involved?

Images for me always suggest characters: it’s like looking being at a flea market, finding an old photo that intrigues you, and wondering: Who are these people? What’s going on here? I start with the image and write about the people who are in it, the people who are just outside the frame, the story that the image suggests. Once I have an idea about who the characters are, the story grows and—hopefully—becomes the book.

In this case, I started with the image of a girl falling into the water. What was she thinking as she fell—was this an accident, or on purpose? Where were her parents? Why was no one there to pull her out—what was going on with her family at this time? I ended up writing each of the characters’ stories separately, and then working to braid them all together. I did some research on each—I watched the Gemini 9 space mission that Nath watches as a child, for example—but I also just did a lot of daydreaming about the characters, thinking about what kinds of people they were. I wrote hundreds of pages that aren’t literally present in the finished book, but that inform everything else.

How long did it take to write this book, and then to publish it? Did you encounter any obstacles or pushback when you were trying to sell it? Conversely, was there any particular early support that made you realize you had something special?

It took 6 years to write, so I’m incredibly grateful to my agent for taking me on when the project was just beginning. She had faith in it from the get-go, which was a huge support. Once the book was done, she sent it out and within two weeks—one of which included Thanksgiving—it had gone to auction and sold to Penguin Press. So that part happened very quickly. Having so many editors interested in the book was the first sign, to me, that it might actually go somewhere.

Has your approach to writing changed after the release and positive reception of Everything I Never Told You?

I generally second-guess myself a lot (like, a LOT) when I’m writing: is this story worth telling? Are these pages any good? Will anyone ever want to read this? So to have so many people connect with Everything I Never Told You has been a huge confidence boost. I’m trying to trust my own instincts more, about what makes a powerful story and how to tell it.

What do you think of the state of diversity in the book industry right now, both in terms of authors and characters? As a writer of colour, do you feel obligated to write about diversity and diverse characters? And what's your take on writing cross-culturally and cross-racially, especially when it comes to mixed races?

We’re making progress, but we still have a long ways to go. More and more people—and publishers, and readers—are recognizing that diversity is valuable, and something that deserves our attention. So I try to be optimistic that we’ll be seeing more diverse books, with more diverse characters, by more diverse writers.

It’s funny that you call me a writer of color, because that’s something I only recently started to identify with. I never felt like enough of an authority on Chinese culture to write about it, so whenever I did tackle the subject in my fiction, it was through a character who was approaching it as an outsider: a white woman who turns to Chinese burial rites to mourn her husband; a girl adopted from China by a white mother who tries in college to connect with her birth culture. But as I worked through the novel—which deals quite explicitly with some cross-cultural issues—and have been lucky enough to have the book reach a wide audience, I’ve realized more and more how important it is to talk about diversity. I don’t feel obligated to write about these issues, like that’s my territory and I’m not allowed to step out of it. But I suspect that these issues—culture, ethnicity, difference and feeling different—will continue to worm their way into my work, because they’re issues that have shaped who I am, and I think about them a lot.

As for writing cross-culturally and cross-racially: my rule about writing, always, is that you can write whatever you can get away with. Which means if you can convincingly write about a race—or a culture or a gender or a circumstance—not your own, then go ahead! At the same time, if you’re writing outside your own knowledge in any way, it’s crucial to listen if people tell you that what you’ve written isn’t accurate, or misrepresents the groups you’re writing about.

We also have to remember that there’s a very different power dynamic when you’re writing from a marginalized group, and when you’re from the dominant group writing about a marginalized group. Whatever your background and whatever the story, you need to think carefully about what this story is. Why are you, personally, the person who needs to tell it?

Thanks so much for stopping by, Celeste! Check out her website, or find her on Twitter (@pronounced_ing) or Facebook.

Everything I Never Told You is available now.

Mandy Wan's photo About the Author: Residing in Edmonton, AB, Mandy unabashedly loves YA lit, frozen desserts, and terrible puns.