Author Q&A: Celeste Ng - view from the 'other' side of the US racial divide

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 January, 2015, 10:20pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 January, 2015, 10:20pm

Everything I Never Told You

In placing Celeste Ng's debut novel on top of their list of the 100 best books of the year, Amazon's editors expressed the hope that this would help it become "the blockbuster it deserves to be". Ng says she was touched by the fact that so many people seemed to have connected with the book, which depicts the destruction parents can inflict on their children and on each other. Ng talks to James Kidd about the immigrant experience, academic pressure and racism.


Everything I Never Told You tells the story of the Lees, a Chinese-American family in 1970s Ohio, coming to terms with the death of their daughter, Lydia, who struggled to cope with her parents’ differing expectations. What was your starting point?

I am a first-generation Chinese-American; my husband is white. We have a little boy, so I think a lot about what it's like when people from different cultures and backgrounds start families, and how the world sees them. Most of my friends are in interracial relationships and I just wonder what the world is going to look like for their children.

Why did you choose that time period, which in the novel extends from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s?

I started thinking about this family and the issues they were wrestling with. The late 1970s seemed like a period where that might be highlighted. There wouldn't have been as many interracial couples, as many Asians visible then as now. In terms of the mother's storyline, she wanted a career in medicine but was not able to do that. The period must have been a poignant time for women like her. They had too many barriers in their way. But now their daughters were having these opportunities they didn't have. That was my mother's generation.

Your parents are from Hong Kong?

My mother wrote a teen column for the South China Morning Post in the 1950s when she was growing up in Hong Kong. Her name was Lily Mark but she sometimes wrote under her confirmation name, Margaret Mark. That was how she met my father. Other teenagers would write in to her and become pen pals. One of them said: "You should meet my friend." That was my father. My parents came to America in the late 1960s because my father studied for a PhD in Indiana. My mother joined him later. We had ancestors who came over at the turn of the century. One worked in a laundry, as is typical of Chinese-American immigrants.

Both your parents are scientists. Did they exert the sorts of academic pressures on you that James and Marilyn do on Lydia?

My parents did give me a lot of books - biographies of Marie Curie - and I did read them, because I was interested. My parents did hope that I would go in that direction, because that was what they knew, but also because they thought I would be good at it. I come from a family of over-achievers, and I am an over-achiever myself. I went to Harvard, and got straight As with one small exception. You can tell by the fact that I told you I got a B in calculus that it bothers me. My parents didn't push me in the way a lot of Asian parents do. They want them to do well, they want them to succeed. At least in the US, they are aware that they are representatives and ambassadors for what people will think about Chinese-Americans as a whole. The tiger mother idea is extreme, but there is something to it - and not just with Asian-Americans.

How similar was your parents' experience to James', the Chinese-American character? Did they, and indeed you, experience racism?

With the exception of a scene in the swimming pool [where the young son, Nat, is mocked for his mixed heritage], they were all things that happened to me or people I knew. Little girls throwing rocks at a car because a Chinese man was driving happened to my father in Cleveland. My parents and I had a better experience than the family in the book did, but I think a lot of those things happen more frequently than we realise, even now. My parents were always aware that they would be seen as different. We lived in places like Pittsburgh, which doesn't have a high Asian population.

Has this changed over time?

I saw a family who had a flagpole outside their house with the American flag alongside the British flag. I thought there was no way I could fly the Chinese flag and not receive some kind of pushback. I do think our perception of what is an outsider has really shifted. Asians or people from the Middle East are thought of as "other" right now. If you go back 100 years, it would be the Irish or the Italians. Race and the relations between cultures are very much on our minds in the US right now. There has been a lot of really open discussion about how we look at race - everything from how we look at the mascot of a football team to the legal system.

How did it feel when won's book of the year, beating Stephen King and Hilary Mantel?

I found out about it when I was eating breakfast with my son. Someone sent me a message on Twitter, which confirms that I do get all my news from Twitter, even news about myself. It was a huge honour. I am still surprised when people have nice things to say about the book. I have been touched by the fact that so many people seemed to have connected to it.