Celeste Ng teaches us how to listen
A conversation with the novelist Celeste Ng
In her latest novel, Our Missing Hearts, Celeste Ng depicts an America devastated by an economic crisis and civil unrest. In order to regain control, the government scapegoats China for the systemic failures and passes a series of laws to preserve “American culture.” These laws, which target Asian Americans, allow the authorities to remove children from homes deemed insufficiently patriotic.
Over the years, thousands of children go missing and parents have no way of finding them.
Bird Gardner is a 12-year-old boy being raised in this America by his white father. His mother, a Chinese American poet, left when he was only 9. Bird has learned to disavow his mother and her poetry. But one day, Bird begins to see the words of her most famous poem, “Our Missing Hearts,” appear alongside quiet protests – hearts painted in streets, hundreds of child-like dolls crocheted into trees.
The protests capture the country’s attention despite widespread censorship – the images spread on social media, and eventually Bird and his mother reunite, in a moment that tests the limits of the power of parental love in the face of violence, repression, and racism.
When I first read the novel, I was captured by the book’s portrayal of repressive actions like book bans and forced separation being done for “the good of the children.” I could see the parallels to what was happening in my own state with book bans, and in other states with laws threatening to separate transgender children from their parents. And then, when I spoke with Celeste, war had just broken out in Gaza and images of children murdered, injured, and kidnapped filled almost every news update. News stories not focused on the horrors of war discussed America's lack of affordable childcare and lamented the falling birthrate.
Who gets to be a child? Who gets to be safe? And who gets to parent? These questions are at the core of Celeste’s book and that of our current cultural moment.
I spoke with Celeste about the power of social media and how it affects her work; parasocial relationships; parenthood and book bans.
Lyz: To prepare for talking to you, I was listening to all these interviews you'd done. And I was just like, how have we never talked or met? Social media is so fun and interesting in the way that I think it draws these connections to people. I think you need these connections as a writer because I think writing is at its best when it is in dialogue with what other people are doing and saying. And so I loved that Twitter existed for the brief moment when it was so good.
Celeste: I totally agree. When I'm writing, I want to be, as you say, in conversation, in community with people who are out there. I don't want to just be writing in my cork-lined room.
This is where I think Twitter was really unusual and the part I miss is that it was a space where you could listen in on conversations. That sounds really creepy, but what I mean is that you can learn and listen without feeling like an intruder. So, I would listen to conversations — like, there's an entomology Twitter.
And I think that's one of the things that made it so useful, especially for communities that are often marginalized, that you can have these conversations amongst yourselves. But other people can, if they choose, listen and learn. And there's not a lot of spaces where you can do that.
On Twitter as it was, you could listen. And you could listen to people who knew more and you could hear what they were saying. And from that, you could learn a lot. It was really enriching. And a lot of that is not there anymore for all the reasons that I don't need to get into. But I think that's why I was on it for so long and that's why I'm still lingering in a way, because it was such an important space for me to learn.
“You don't actually want to have to have a thick skin. I mean, you don't want everything that brushes against you to leave a wound, but I think that it still seems so important to remain permeable…”
Lyz: What do you think you learned? How do you think it impacted who you are as a writer and what you write about?
Celeste: So one was for me as just a writer, a beginning writer, period. I joined Twitter in like 2011 maybe, so pretty early on. And it was because I had sold my book. And I knew that I was going to have to make a platform and I didn't want to. I just started by just listening. And I just listened for about two years. And actually the first time that I started actually tweeting with it and that I saw sort of potential in how I might use it was during the Boston Marathon bombings.
When the bombings happened, I was at home [in Watertown, Massachusetts]. There was this sense in which we could be in touch in real time, and that suddenly felt very powerful. And obviously there were many downsides to that. There was an incident where people put up pictures and they're like, "Here's the bombers." And it was not them.
When I started to actually dip my toe into the world of being a writer with a book, it was a space for me to connect with other people who were in the same situation.
When my book came out. I was asking, “What's going on in the book world?” Or, "This is happening, does that feel normal to you? Do you have advice?" Or, "I'm wildly overwhelmed. Anybody else feel that way?" There was this space in which you suddenly didn't feel alone. And as a writer, I was sitting in my office much as I am now, and I feel like I am physically alone.
And it was nice to feel like you actually were in this community. I started by just following other writers that I liked and cheering them on – writers who were my peers, writers who I admired and found that this was a space in which we could make community, at least at that time. So, I learned a lot from watching more experienced writers just navigate the public sphere. This is back in the day where Roxane Gay was very active on Twitter, and I would watch how she would handle harassers. I think at the time we talked about them as trolls, which I think is not the right word for them most of the time. I learned from watching Roxane that you can just be like, "I'm not going to engage with you. Good luck." And then block them.
Amanda Nelson, who worked for Book Riot at the time, she demonstrated a strategy where she’d post something and harassers would come and argue with her about it, and she would say, "Okay, for every one of you who does this, I'm going to contribute 50 cents to a cause that is directly opposed to what you're arguing about." "You're a misogynist. I'm going to donate to Planned Parenthood." “You're making antisemitic comments, I’m going to donate to the ADL.”
I used that for a long time. So through social media, I made connections with people and I got to then meet them and learn from them. But then in a larger sense, I just learned a lot about other communities that I hadn't gotten to be a part of.
Up until the point I joined Twitter, I was thinking about race, particularly from my own experience. But when I got onto Twitter, I was listening to a lot of conversations in the Black community, the Latinx community, the queer community, and hopefully without feeling like I was intruding on their space. But I got to listen, hear about what their perspectives were and find for myself spaces where I felt like, "Oh, I think we're fighting actually a lot of similar fights, and I want to learn about what your concerns are so that I can deepen my own understanding of who I am, who you are, what the shape of the world is."
Those are the big serious ones that I learned a lot about. But also the other conversations – the entomology Twitter or the linguist Twitter or all these things, places where you don't necessarily get to hear the insider view. I think that's so important for writers, but also just for humans to live in a society and know about how incredibly diverse and just nuanced the world is.
Lyz: I also love that you brought up harassment. Because no one teaches you how to be a woman in public. So often we just get tossed into the fire and we have to figure out how to do it. I’ve felt like I’ve had to learn on my feet. I haven’t always been graceful at it.
But having this stream of conversation and these examples of other women where I can see, "Okay, this is how you handle being a woman who has attained a moderate amount of success." That's such a hard lesson because it's so hard to occupy that space.
Also, I think social media was and is so good for breaking up silos. I don’t want to demonize silos exactly, because sometimes people need places where they are safe to be themselves. But in order to write with empathy we need to be able to listen.
Celeste: I think there's the idea of the bubble or the silo as a bad thing, and I think it's true that there are such negative things to it, but I think like you say, it can be a safe place as long as there is a door or I guess in the bubble it's permeable.
Lyz: There's a fluid mosaic around the bubble.
Celeste: Right, osmotic transfer can happen across the bubble, but I think the key is that you get to choose when to let things in, and you get to choose when to go out. There is that sense of sort of control.
But that's the thing about harassment, which is that you don't have control. I mean, it's essentially a form of consent that you are saying, "I'm going to engage with these ideas in a way that is manageable to me." Or, "I'm going to put my ideas out in a way that's manageable to me," versus the harassers that jump in and you're just barraged by that.
I had a very similar experience feeling like I was learning what it was like to be a woman online who had any degree of prominence, and this was happening to me even before I had a really big following.
I think the first time that I experienced this, I maybe had somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 followers, and the only reason I remember that is that I was in this barrage of comments, and it was the first time that it happened to me. And I remembered someone essentially coming to my defense and saying that Twitter was a broadcast medium, and that at a certain point in time when you have a certain following, you are not able to have conversations in the same way that you could when you have a much more manageable following.
And that was revelatory to me and going, "Oh, this is a whole new skill that I have to learn." I'm not just here talking to my 50, 100 friends. There are a lot of people out there who don't know me, who are maybe not going to give me the benefit of the doubt or even approach me in good faith, and I have to learn to navigate that. And like you said, that's such a hard lesson to learn. I mean, it's still one that I'm learning to do now.
Lyz: I think that every time I learn it and get to a place where I'm like, "Okay, I'm okay," something new will happen and I'll have to relearn it all over again, or it gets to me one day – it'll just hurt my feelings. And I think that that's okay. I actually would rather have one day a month where I cried because somebody hurt my feelings than never have my feelings hurt.
Celeste: You don't actually want to have to have a thick skin. I mean, you don't want everything that brushes against you to leave a wound, but I think that it still seems so important to remain permeable, as we were talking about before.
I think the thing that I had to learn from being on social media really was about who I needed to pay attention to and who was not engaging with me in good faith.
There are going to be people who disagree with me or people who criticize me rightly or wrongly in my view, but if they're engaging with me in good faith, we can have a conversation. What I learned was that there were lots of people who were really just not going to engage in good faith. They came to tweet at me because they wanted to argue with me. And so no matter what I was saying, they were just going to find a way. I've had men criticize me online and say that I'm pronouncing my own name wrong. They're like, "By the way, your handle is wrong. That's not how your name is pronounced." And that's where I am.
If I say something that is insensitive and you mention that to me, then we can have a conversation. I want to learn from that.
But someone who comes to me and is like, "That's not actually how your name is pronounced," I'm like, "I know, but that's how my name is pronounced in my everyday life. I don't think we have a lot to talk about, so I'm just going to let you go."
I think it's like you say you can get your feelings hurt because that means you still care, but in the other places you're like, "I'm just going to let that go." Yeah. It's learning to discern who is never going to have the conversation with you because that's not why they're there.
Lyz: Do you think that harassment has impacted the way that you write?
Celeste: I think it has. I would like to say no. I'm trying to think of how to put this because it's a big question and I think it's got a really nuanced answer. I mean, the obvious bad side is it's hard to write when you feel like someone is looking over your shoulder or when someone is looking over your shoulder with a big baseball bat and they're just waiting to find a reason to hit you with it, and it's really paralyzing, and I felt that and had to do a lot of work to try and get out of that dark pit.
But the positive ways are that feeling that I don't think that being careful is wrong. Being thoughtful is really important, and sometimes you need that reminder. I'm using the second person here, obviously, but I mean me. Sometimes it’s easy to be like, "Okay, I know what I'm doing." And then sometimes you say something and you're not careful and someone will say to you, "Hey, it sounded like you were meaning this." And again, if that's in good faith, I think that's useful to say, "Oh, you know what? You are right. It sounds like that. Let me clarify that is not what I meant."
I think any of those checks that encourage you to be precise and to make sure that what you say is actually what you mean can be really useful. Again, in moderation without the cruelty. As a writer who's had success, I want to make sure that I'm still holding myself to a high standard, but also to my own high standard. If I say something that isn't what I mean, I want to fix that. In that sense, that's the positive side of writing with someone looking over your shoulder. Maybe it's like the world is a big writer's group and they're saying to you, "Is that what you meant?
In moderation, that's really beneficial to a writer.
But if you give up in advance, you're doing the work of fascists for them.
Lyz: When we're talking about art being in conversation, being accountable with our ideas and being responsible and having these moral calculations, it does make me wonder, what is our responsibility as artists in time? All time is a time of conflict. We're never at a point in human history when we're not in conflict, but what is our job?
I've heard you talk about this book, especially coming from a sense of hopelessness in 2017. So what kind of responsibility do we have to the world, if any? I know some artists who would say, "We have none."
Celeste: I think the responsibility of the artist honestly is very selfish – it's to write or create or engage with the things that are meaningful to them in whatever that is. And so if you're joking around and you're like, "I'm going put a urinal on the wall upside-down because that has meaning for me." Cool. It's art. But on a personal level, I think it is extremely selfish. I'm always going to write books that are interesting to me. I'm never going to write a book where someone is like, "Here is a big social problem. I think you should write about it." If it's not important to me, I'm just not going to write about it. It has to come from within.
But the art that stays and continues to speak to people over time is the art that feels like it is in conversation with the world on a larger level.
So that example of the urinal being upside-down, it wasn't obviously just like, "Here's a urinal upside-down." It was an engagement with the idea of what art could be and how people would interpret things. All the things that we learn about in our history class. And likewise, I think that most writing that's successful is going to be permeated by the time that it's written in. I've heard it said that all writing is historical fiction in a way, because even when you're writing about the present moment, you're writing about your impressions of that.
And in the future, it's going to have little traces of the time in which you wrote it, whether you necessarily mean it to or not. Basically if your writing is successful, it is going to have influences of the world that it came up in. So it's this question of how inextricably it is tied to its context.
To go back to your question about what's the response, does the artist have a responsibility to talk about the world? I think they're going to do it whether or not it's their responsibility or not, if their work is going to stick around. Any work that we're looking at from the past, if it still has resonance for us now, it's usually because it speaks to us in some way. In Our Missing Hearts, there's a lot of fairytales and folktales, as I'm sure you notice.
And one of the reasons that those stick around is that even though many of those are very old, sometimes they're very ancient, they still speak to us in some way, depending on where we are, we still see ourselves in them, or we still find lessons in them or cautionary tales or even just inspiration, whatever it is.
I don't know that it's the artist's responsibility to do that, but I think that when the art stays, it is because of that they've tapped into something that's — I don't want to say eternal, that sounds horrible. If I said “I'm writing towards the eternal” I would just go and throw up somewhere.
But they're tapping into something that goes beyond your time. I guess they're tapping into something that is going to be relevant. Maybe just human. Maybe that's the way to say it.
Lyz: We started this conversation talking about the value of the open flow of information, and I think for so long it felt like that was this powerful force in our society. Now it feels like the spigot is being intentionally turned off in a very powerful way, by which I mean book bans. How do we fight this as writers?
Celeste: I think the first thing that we have to do is keep on making the work, because I think that self-censorship is a real thing, and it's totally understandable because you don't want to bring that on yourself when that person is standing behind you with a baseball bat. And it's so easy to shy away from things that are important to you, but that might cause trouble for you.
And it's not always going to be possible to fight. And I don't blame people for going, "You know what? I'm just not going to write that book right now. I can't take it on." I'm thinking about, for example, the thing that happened with Scholastic. I think they got themselves between a rock and a hard place. But if you give up in advance, you're doing the work of fascists for them.
And so, one thing I think that authors have to keep doing is keep on making the work that feels important to them, on all levels. If these are your stories, there's things you need to talk about, keep doing it even though there may be blowback — as much as you feel personally able to do that. And then the second thing is to keep emphasizing how important it is that literature, — especially the literature that is in schools and libraries, because that's what's mostly available to young people — represents the world that they're in. I just read this quote recently, and I think it was from Jodi Picoult: "You can childproof your world, but you can't worldproof your child."
Which I thought was an interesting way of putting it, which is to say, in a way, this is part of the world. Yes, be thoughtful about when and how your children encounter difficult subjects like sexual assault or all kinds of bigotry. But that is in the world. They're going to see this. You can't erase these things from the world, we can't erase sexual violence, unfortunately; we also can't erase gay people, fortunately.
And so this is part of the world and they're going to need to know about it. I think for authors to talk about that, not just as a principle, you should be able to read what you want. But to say, "Actually, we write these books because this is in the world. We're not putting it in the world." We are trying to represent that, and that's really important. I feel like that's one thing that authors can do: just keep talking about this, because in as much as anyone listens to authors, it's important to talk about this.