Hippo - Celeste NgCeleste Ng is the author of the novel Everything I Never Told You (Penguin Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, One Story, Five Chapters, Gulf Coast, the Bellevue Literary Review, The Millions, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere, and she has been awarded the Pushcart Prize, the Hopwood Award, and a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan) and has taught writing at the University of Michigan and Grub Street in Boston. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. To learn more about her and her work, visit celesteng.com or follow her on Twitter (@pronounced_ing).

From interviewer Jocelyn Eikenburg: Everything I Never Told You touched me on a personal level. Naturally, I was drawn to the family at the heart of the story. I write about Asian interracial relationships and am married to a Chinese national, so it was refreshing to read a book featuring an Asian father and a white mother raising mixed-race children. More importantly, Everything I Never Told You perfectly captures the insidious nature of race-based discrimination in America and reminds us that Asian Americans are not in any way exempt (despite the pervasive “model minority” stereotype about Asians which I previously debunked on Hippo Reads). While Celeste Ng set her novel in the 1970s, my husband (who lived with me in the US for nearly eight years) also faced discrimination similar to what the novel’s father, James Lee, suffered in the story. When I was reading Everything I Never Told You, I felt as if the Lee family’s sorrows could easily have been my own. It was an incredibly cathartic experience.

1. In the first sentence of your book, you reveal that Lydia is dead. It’s an incredibly haunting start to the novel. Why did you choose to write about a tragedy?

My sister’s comment after reading the book, was “I really liked it. But maybe your next book could be funnier.” Sadly, I’m not a naturally funny writer, though I wish I were. I’m always drawn to tragedies, because I’m fascinated by how people react. I think many writers are drawn to write about their fears as a way of domesticating—or at least managing—them. Frederick Busch, whom I met at the University of Michigan, said that he always wrote about what terrified him most, and as a man who’d been married for decades, that was divorce or losing a spouse. Ever since I was a child—and still, actually—the most terrifying thing I can imagine is losing someone you love. How can you go on? Can you go on? So on some level, the story grew out of that fear.

2. How did you decide to write about an AMWF (Asian Male, White Female) relationship?

I didn’t sit down and consciously make that decision. In my earliest conception of this story, I hadn’t really considered race; in my head, they were just people. Then a mentor asked about the ethnicity of the characters, and I started to realize that many of the feelings of being an outsider made a lot of sense if the father of the family were Asian, and the family mixed. It made them a family outside not just one culture, but outside two, and that double displacement was interesting to me. When I started to think of the characters that way, many elements of the story clicked into place, which is usually a sign that the story is on the right track.

Someone recently asked if I’d purposely made the father Asian, as opposed to the mother, in order to avoid the “Tiger Mom” stereotype. I was aware of the cliché, of course, and I didn’t want to perpetuate it. But really, I didn’t set out to deliberately counter it either, or to make a point: it just worked out that way. That’s who the characters were as the story developed in my mind.

3. The Lee family experiences race-based discrimination—often in subtle ways— throughout the story. If the Lee family were living today, do you think they could have faced similar forms of discrimination? Why or why not?

An early Goodreads commenter remarked that the racism in the book was unbelievable—she felt it might have been realistic “in the 1920s, maybe, but not in the 1970s.” And at one of the first readings I did, someone asked, “How did you research the racism?” The sad truth is that I didn’t need to do a lot of research on that front: with one exception, every racially-tinged encounter in the novel—from the more outright discrimination to the many microaggressions, intentional or not—is something that’s happened to me, to family, or to someone I know personally.

Here’s some research I did do: in 2001, the Anti-Defamation League, along with several other groups, conducted a landmark study on attitudes towards Asian Americans in the U.S. It found that 68% of Americans had a “somewhat negative” or “very negative” view of Chinese Americans; that more Americans were uncomfortable supporting an Asian American for president than a black, Jewish, or woman candidate; and that 24% disapproved of intermarriage with an Asian American. A 2009 followup found numbers had improved, but only somewhat. I’ll note, also, that so far, the only people who’ve expressed surprise at any of the racial attitudes in the book have not been people of color. For the most part, readers who have been minorities—Asian or otherwise—have pretty much reacted, “Yup.”

4. You did a lot of research on interracial relationships in preparation for writing the book. Could you share with us some interesting or surprising things you uncovered in the process?

Our acceptance of interracial marriages is a lot more recent than you might think. Not only were interracial marriages illegal in some states as late as 1967—which is just a generation ago—but it’s taken the country as a whole a long while to get comfortable with the idea. Gallup has polled people on whether they approve of interracial marriage since 1958, and the first year that a majority of Americans approved of it was 1997. In other words, until 1997, most people did not think interracial marriages were acceptable. That kind of dumbfounds me. My own marriage is interracial, so these issues are very much on my mind. But as interracial marriages become more common, I hope that attitudes will be very different a generation from now.

5.  The dynamics between the three mixed-race children in the book — Nathan, Lydia and Hannah — are fascinating, especially how appearance ultimately affects their relationship with their parents. Lydia, who appears more Caucasian, is the favorite, while Nathan and Hannah, who appear more Chinese, feel overlooked and even forgotten. Why did you choose to create this dynamic in the story?

It simply grew out of the characters—and it’s not just, or even primarily, about appearing Chinese. The more I wrote about the characters, the more the parents’ attitudes towards their children became apparent. Lydia is her mother’s favorite because Marilyn sees herself in Lydia: physically, yes, but more importantly in her potential and aptitude (at least at first) for math and science. Marilyn identifies strongly with Lydia, so it’s easy for her to imagine Lydia as an alter ego who gets to do all the things she herself didn’t get to. James, on the other hand, identifies with Nath—and for him, that’s not a positive feeling. Nath reminds James of all the things about himself that make him feel insecure—he’s shy, he’s small, he’s socially awkward. So he pins his hopes on Lydia, the child he sees as most different from him. Poor Hannah, of course, gets overlooked by everyone—not because of how she looks, but because she’s the youngest, and her parents’ loyalty has already been staked out.

6.  James and Marilyn Lee hail from different cultural backgrounds, with James the first-generation Chinese American son of immigrant laborers, and Marilyn the white American daughter of a woman who always aspired to become a kind of Martha Stewart housewife (in her era). There’s a moment in the story — which I’m not going to give away — when James wonders if he should have married someone from his own cultural background. How do you think cultural differences influenced the Lees’ marriage?

James and Marilyn love each other deeply, and that’s why they got married—and that’s what’s kept them together all these years. The problem really arises from them pretending there are no cultural differences between them. Both of them try to ignore the ways that other people, from Marilyn’s mother to James’s coworker to kids on the street, react to their relationship. They can’t even acknowledge them, or the pain those reactions cause, and that lack of acknowledgement itself ends up being hurtful. Cultural issues don’t have to be a barrier, but you can’t pretend they’re not there. Actually, I don’t really think there are any problems that can be solved simply by ignoring them. Transparency certainly won’t solve everything, but it works better than denial.

7. What message or messages do you hope readers take away from your novel?

I hope readers will close the book thinking about the things in their own lives they’ve been afraid to articulate—to people they love, or even to themselves. Those have been the most rewarding reader responses so far. Someone at a reading told me, “This is my relationship with my father.” Someone tweeted at me, “I just went into my daughter’s room and promised her her dreams would always be hers, not some version of mine.” Those moments of emotional connection are the best thing a writer could wish for.

Further Reading:

Image credit: Water level via flickr