“We’re Starting to Realize That You Can’t Ignore Race.” Celeste Ng Talks Her New NovelAuthor photo by Kevin Day Photography Books Features Celeste Ng
Little Fires Everywhere appropriately begins with a blaze: “Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.” After this explosive first line, author Celeste Ng then backtracks to reveal how a custody battle has pitted family members against one another (producing an arsonist in the process).
Following her acclaimed debut, Everything I Never Told You, in which a biracial Chinese-American family unravels after their daughter’s death, Ng has returned with a sophomore novel exploring racism, classism, privilege and family. “I’m really interested in how we understand each other, and whether we can understand each other,” she says in an interview with Paste.
And given our current events, Little Fires Everywhere couldn’t be more timely. When Ng began writing the book in 2015, she says, “We were in a very different political and cultural moment. And even when I sold the book, we were in the run-up to the election… So now it takes on a slightly different resonance.”
The novel is set in late-‘90s Shaker Heights, Ohio, an affluent planned community that prides itself on its progressive ideals and inclusivity. Ng, who lived there as a child, says she views Shaker Heights differently as an adult. “I can see the flipside of the idealism that drives the community, so I wanted to try and write about the complexity of that place. And I came up with this family, and I came up with this mother and daughter who come from out of town and stir up trouble.”
The mother, itinerant artist Mia Warren, and daughter, 15-year-old Pearl, disrupt the Richardsons’ picture-perfect family. Mia and Mrs. Elena Richardson become entangled in opposing sides of a bitter custody battle, fought between a Chinese mother who abandons her baby and a white couple who tries to adopt the child. Against the backdrop of this conflict, Ng examines the tension that builds from acting on one’s beliefs. “This is a debate that we feel a lot inside ourselves,” Ng says, “between having these ideals…and [doing] things to make the world better, and then the desire that we not upset the system that we’re in.”
On one end of the spectrum is Mrs. Richardson, who believes that the spark for social justice should be “carefully controlled.” On the opposite end is Izzy, the youngest Richardson daughter, who compounds her acute sense of right and wrong with an eagerness to see justice meted out. “Izzy is a teenager,” Ng says, “and I remember being something like that as a teenager; I had these principles and I wasn’t able to see the nuance in them.”
Between these extremes is Mia. “Mia, of all the characters in the book, has the most measured sense of what’s going on,” Ng says. “She’s still like, ‘I’m going to do this, but I just recognize that I’m going to lose this other thing.’”
Perhaps Mia should guide our responses to the injustices we see in our world today. “I think, to a certain extent, that kind of awareness is the best that we can hope for,” Ng says. “You’re never going to be able to keep everything that you want…you’re going to have to give up something. And the question is, what are you willing to give up? Are you willing to give up being comfortable? Are you willing to give up your personal safety? Are you willing to give up money? Are you willing to give up power? That’s the question that people are reckoning with now and that they’re reckoning with in the book.”
Whereas racism is at the center of the custody battle subplot, Little Fires Everywhere revolves around the relationship between mothers and daughters—and between mothers and mothers. “I’m also interested in the ways that parents relate to each other,” Ng says, and it’s here that her understated brilliance shines. She delves deep into even her most unlikable characters, turning over their dreams and fears with both incisiveness and tenderness.
This shows in how Ng describes two mothers: Mrs. Richardson and Mrs. Linda McCullough. Mrs. Richardson’s constant disapproval of Izzy stems from her own fear following Izzy’s premature birth, and Ng writes, “Though [Mrs. Richardson] would never quite articulate it in this way, resentment began to sheathe concern.”
Mrs. McCullough, the (culturally ignorant) prospective adoptive mother of the Chinese-American baby, receives the same treatment. Ng describes how, after multiple miscarriages and failed attempts to conceive, “all that pain, all that guilt, those seven little ghosts—for Mrs. McCullough never forgot a single one—had, to her amazement, packed themselves into a box and whisked themselves away at the sight of baby Mirabelle: so concrete, so vivid, so inescapably present.”
And so Ng guides her characters through murky territory of racism and motherhood with compassion. As an Asian-American woman married to a white man, she is intimately familiar with the intersectional facets of a person’s identity. “We have to figure out why we see the world in different ways and then how are we going to adjust so that we can at least still understand each other,” Ng says. And that understanding is more important now than ever. Unlike Shaker Heights in the ‘90s, she explains, we live in a time where “we’re starting to realize that you can’t ignore race; [it] is a part of the world, and where we are and who we are.”
At the end of the day, Ng says, “I wanted to write a book about people who have the best intentions and think—really, truly think—that they’re doing the right thing. And then they realize that when those ideals come knocking at their windowsill, a lot of times they will suddenly disavow those ideals.”
As an example, Ng cites the reactions to the tragedy in Charlottesville: “Something that people are going to have to reckon with now is the feeling of, ‘Well, I don’t know if I want to go march in the street…Well, I do really condemn what happened at Charlottesville, but I don’t know what I can do about it. I don’t want to stir up trouble; I don’t want to call attention to myself.’ And a lot of that has to do with fear for people who are marginalized already and then discomfort for the people who are privileged.”
Little Fires Everywhere might just be the signpost that we need, pointing a way forward with the gentle suggestion that sometimes doing the right thing means breaking some rules.