The metaphor of the melting pot is so simple and beautiful, yet the very concept of assimilation is intensely complicated

Interview of Celeste Ng by Lara Touitou (November 13, 2014)

Celeste Ng is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Everything I Never Told You is her first novel.

Your writing is extremely acute and you delve deep into the characters’ psyche even though you write from a close third-person narrator. Why did you choose this angle?

I usually gravitate towards the close third person—that’s just my natural comfort zone. I seldom write in the first person unless the character is particularly voicey; I like being able to get inside a character’s head and still step out of it when need be. There’s a flexibility there that I don’t always feel in the first person.

But I didn’t settle on the omniscient narration until the very last draft. In earlier drafts, I used the close third person but focused on one character at a time—each section of the novel centered on just one character and his or her thoughts. There were many cases, though, where two characters interpreted the action differently, and it was important for the reader to see both sides. The point wasn’t who was “right”; it was how very different these characters saw the same events. I kept having to show scenes twice: to show an argument from James’s point of view, for example, and then Marilyn’s—and seeing everything twice really slowed the momentum of the story.

Around the third draft, I realized that I needed an omniscient narrator who could move from one character’s psyche to another’s, and back, at will. It was the only way I could find to show all the characters’ minds at once.

We follow the story of the Lee family throughout the parents’ youth, their marriage, the birth of their children, up until the year 1977. The historical and societal context matters as you explore the expectations and the pressure put on women from both sides, with Marilyn’s mother pushing her daughter to find a man and learn how to be a perfect housewife, and later on, with Marilyn, pushing her own daughter to pursue the scientific career she never had. How meaningful was it for you to explore this subject?

This is something I think about a lot: the expectations we have, both conscious and unconscious, for our children. If we like who we are and where we are in life, we tend to want our children to follow in our footsteps; if we aren’t happy with who we are or where we are, we look at children as a second chance, an opportunity to correct our mistakes and take the path we didn’t. Although Marilyn’s mother pushes her daughter towards the domestic sphere, and Marilyn tries in turn to push Lydia away from the domestic sphere, the irony is that they’re essentially doing the exact same thing: trying to get their daughters to live the lives they themselves couldn’t. That kind of vicarious living can be so dangerous, yet it’s so common.

I think a lot about the idea of women’s roles, in particular, as well. My own mother is a scientist—she has a PhD in chemistry, taught chemistry at the university level for many years, did laboratory research, published academic papers, and became chair of her department. From my childhood on, she wanted me to know that route was open to me. She bought me a lot of books about science, biographies of Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin, and so on. When I decided not to go into the sciences and pursue a career in writing, I think she was fine with it, but I felt some regret that I wasn’t continuing in her footsteps. And now, as a parent, I try to be very conscious of the expectations I hold for my son and what kinds of nudges and encouragement I give him. I’m not sure I always succeed in being neutral—can one ever be?—but I try.

The opening sentences are very powerful. What kind of influence did it have on your writing process?

The opening sentences actually didn’t appear until the final draft! The opening in earlier drafts was quite different: “At first they don’t know where Lydia has gone.” Neither the family nor the reader found out where Lydia was, or even that she was dead, until about 40 pages in.

That gave the book a very different feel—it focused the reader on the question of whether Lydia was alive or dead, rather than how she ended up dead and everything that led up to that. I never wanted to write a whodunit, so eventually I realized that the reader needed to know upfront that Lydia was dead. With such a big reveal, it seemed important to put it right up front, literally in the very first sentence. First sentences really set the tone of the story, and I didn’t want to pull any punches.

Once I had that opening in place—“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet”—the narrative voice clicked into place right away: the narrator can see more than the family can, and can give us perspective that they lack. That narrator has a kind of double vision—it can let us see the family’s blindered view, but it can also step back and give us the bigger context, weaving in information about (say) the history of interracial marriage in the United States, and making connections between the past and the present. That was all information that had been part of the story but that I’d had trouble working into the novel. Writing-wise, it felt like a straitjacket had been removed. The fourth draft couldn’t have come together without those opening lines and the tone they set.

The father is a Chinese American trying to blend in and to forget his background, which taints his relationship with his son as he deliberately overlooks the racial discrimination he suffers from. Was it a way for you to show the cracks in the American melting pot?

Yes—though sometimes, I can’t believe anyone doesn’t see those cracks. The metaphor of the melting pot is so simple and beautiful, yet the very concept of assimilation is intensely complicated. The melting pot implies an effacing of your ancestral identity, shedding parts of your ethnicity to become more “blended” with the mainstream. There’s certainly a cost to that, and cultural blending—within a nation or within a family or within a person—is much more fraught, both emotionally and practically, than we like to think.

I set the novel in the 1970s because that period best highlighted the issues with which the characters were grappling. But these are issues still very much alive now. For the past few months, the news in the U.S. has been dominated by riots over race relations in Ferguson, Missouri; responses to illegal immigration from Latin America; debate over whether the Washington football team, the Redskins, should change their name—I could go on, but it’s clear that questions of ethnicity and culture are at least as present today.

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