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‘Little Fires Everywhere’ author says new novel’s dystopic vision is ‘plausible — and plausible soon’

<i>Penguin Press</i><br/>
Penguin Press
"Our Missing Hearts" by Celeste Ng.

Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

In best-selling novelist Celeste Ng’s vision of a near-future or alternate America, children of dissident families are displaced from their parents, anti-Asian attacks become a terrible, inescapable fixture of American life and librarians form a secret underground network of rebellion as the stewards of information considered seditious under a sweeping new law.

“Our Missing Hearts” is Ng’s first book since the Hulu-adapted, explosive suburban drama “Little Fires Everywhere.” It takes place after an economic crisis —— for which China becomes the scapegoat — upends life in the United States, allowing authoritarianism to fully take root and flourish.

At the center of the story is 12-year-old Noah Gardner, also known as “Bird,” a Chinese American boy whose mother goes into hiding after one of her poems becomes a symbol of resistance. He begins a dangerous search to find her, without having a full understanding of why she disappeared or how imperiled he is merely by being her son — and by being biracial.

To build a framework for the dystopian tale, Ng said she drew inspiration from a number of contemporary and historical events, including today’s volatile political climate, Japanese American internment during World War II and the United States’ long history of separating children of color from their families as a result of slavery or, more recently, border policies.

As she was writing the book, she noticed hate crimes against Asian Americans were happening with a nerve-wracking regularity and that sharpened the direction of the story.

“I wanted it to be something that would feel like it was plausible — and plausible soon. But at the same time, I did want it to feel just at least a couple steps away from our world,” she said of the book. “I thought about it as if it were a train, but it’s one track over from us. Because I did want people to be able to see with some distance. It’s hard to see what’s going on in the world when we’re in it.”

Art during crisis

Ng chooses to contrast oppression and violence with poetic dissidence, which is woven throughout the narrative.

Rather than protests, strikes or sit-ins, acts of rebellion are carried out in the form of mysterious guerilla artworks, such as red yarn-bombed trees that appear in Cambridge, Massachusetts, overnight, or ghostly ice sculptures of children that disrupt Nashville, Tennessee, one morning. Children’s stories and library books, too, become conduits for subversion, hiding clandestine messages, while most books are banned outright.

“(I was) looking at the ways that people have resisted … the big ways but also in the very small ways in their everyday lives,” she explained. “We’re used to seeing protest marches and editorials, and sort of the more expected forms of resistance. And I think those are important and really valuable. But at the same time, I think a lot of people start to get tired of them, they tune them out.”

But art has the power to “catch people by surprise,” she said, citing the attention that “Fearless Girl” sculpture drew in New York City, or the ephemeral, pop-up performance art of the “Trump Statue Initiative” in 2020. “(It’s) something that kind of stops you in your tracks and makes you pay attention just for a second, in a way that you might not have before.”

Cultural battlegrounds

As Bird comes of age, access to information is scant. Print books have become rare objects only handled by librarians, and the internet is highly controlled, reflecting a future that countries with expansive censorship laws could face.

In the United States, banned and challenged books are nothing new, but since Ng finished “Our Missing Hearts,” libraries have become a battleground in a heightened culture war — where various tactics are put to use to censor books on the topics of race, gender and sexuality, and where extremist groups have disrupted LGBTQ-friendly events.

To Ng, the public library has always been a “radical” institution, which gives free access to information and is vital to the health of a country.

“(The library is) the opposite of authoritarianism — it’s the opposite of the government trying to control the story,” she said. “We’re giving them very few resources, and we’re asking them to do something incredibly important. I do think it’s heroic, without exaggeration, that libraries are there to serve the public.”

Here, Ng shares some of the creative works that have influenced or share themes in common with “Our Missing Hearts.”

Our Missing Hearts” is available now through Penguin Press.

Add to queue: Poetic dissidence

Read: Deaf Republic” by Ilya Kaminsky (2019)

Ng poured through poetry volumes while writing “Our Missing Hearts,” and Kaminsky’s volume particularly moved her. “The poems interconnect to tell the story of a village where everyone mysteriously goes deaf in an act of defiance, but it’s also about the small moments of joy and beauty and love that sustain us through the darkest times,” she explained. “You don’t have to read a lot of poetry to immediately be able to step into this world.”

Read:On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder (2017)

This book from Snyder, a 20th-century European historian, is “pocket-sized, written in everyday language, and powerful,” Ng said. “There isn’t a better introduction to authoritarianism — and how we can counter it — than this.”

Watch:Everything Everywhere All At Once” (2022)

If you haven’t yet seen the experimental A24 hit film, which stars Michelle Yeoh as a Chinese American laundromat owner trying to keep her family and business afloat before she’s dragged into a sinister multiverse-spanning plot, Ng recommends that you do, immediately.

“Am I recommending this just because I loved the film and can’t stop thinking about it? Yes, yes I am,” she said. “But the themes in it are some of the questions that I asked myself as I wrote the novel: When the world feels absolutely grim and pointless, can a single action matter? Does love and beauty and joy have any power? This is one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen in ages.”

Listen:Don’t Wanna Fight” by Alabama Shakes; “Fight Test” by The Flaming Lips; “Walls” by The Lumineers

Ng offers this trio of songs for a soundtrack to “Our Missing Hearts,” saying she “hit repeat” on these tracks during the years she was writing the novel.

“For some reason they resonated with what I was thinking about,” she said, from Alabama Shakes’ energy-giving bluesy anthem to The Flaming Lips’ song about “regret, of not taking action about the things you care about,” she explained.

For The Lumineers pick, a cover of Tom Petty’s original from 1996, she said, “I hear it as a song about the need for connection and love — to break down barriers between people — and the Lumineers’ harmony highlights that feeling of not being alone.”

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