“I’ve always thought of myself as a fairly realistic writer,” said Celeste Ng, author of “Everything I Never Told You” and “Little Fires Everywhere.” But her latest novel, “Our Missing Hearts,” is set in a world we don’t quite recognize, though it does seem frighteningly plausible. In it, a 12-year-old boy, named Noah but called Bird, leaves home to search for his mother, a Chinese American poet and activist who disappeared three years ago in order to save her son from being taken by government officials — who are authorized, thanks to a law that requires citizens to espouse “American values,” to seize children from the homes of dissidents. Bird and his father, who is white, don’t talk about his mother; as Bird reflects, “both of them would rather not miss these things they can’t get back.”
Ng, speaking from her home in Boston (she’ll be in Seattle with her book for a Seattle Arts & Lectures event at Town Hall Oct. 17), said that when she first began writing the book it was a more conventional story, set in the present, of a creative mother and son trying to understand each other. But after the 2016 presidential election, the world seemed to be changing. “We started seeing the rise of the far right, bringing to the surface all this stuff that has been present for a long time,” Ng said. Particularly as the pandemic brought a wave of anti-Asian discrimination and violence, “it started to feel a bit as if we were in a dystopia.”
It seemed urgent, she felt, to write this book, but challenging to figure out how to write a dystopia. Ng studied numerous books, both nonfiction and fiction. Among the latter: Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One,” Naomi Alderman’s “The Power,” Leni Zumas’ “Red Clocks” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Inspired by a statement Atwood wrote about that book — “If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real” — Ng was determined to ground her fictional society in real incidents. “None of this stuff is totally made up,” she said, noting the long history of government agencies removing children from their homes. “All of it has happened at some point in time, and some of it is still happening now.”
Some passages in “Our Missing Hearts” do indeed make painful reading — there’s one graphic depiction of anti-Asian violence that Ng based on a horrifying real-life attack in New York, in which nobody stepped in to help the victim. “It felt so crucial to witness it, to say, this happens,” she said. “It felt like a really important scene to write, and to write without looking away.” But the novel is also a beautifully written, moving tale of the power of words and stories (librarians emerge as heroes), and a celebration of how poetry “can focus our attention on the very particular,” Ng said. “It can take a very small moment, a very small detail and just get you to pause and look at it and spend some time — that felt really right for what this character is doing. In a way, she’s asking people to give her their attention, for just a minute, and that feels like it is in short supply right now.”
“Our Missing Hearts” arrives at bookstores Oct. 4 on a wave of acclaim: the cover of The New York Times Book Review, with praise from reviewer Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King), and recognition from Reese’s Book Club, whose founder, Reese Witherspoon, announced the book as the club’s October selection.
Since she was last in town in 2017, Ng has seen the transformation of her work from page to screen. For the 2020 Hulu limited series adaptation of “Little Fires Everywhere,” a story of two fictional families in Ng’s own hometown in suburban Cleveland, the author was “somewhat involved,” she said. “I wanted to be one of the voices at the table, but I didn’t want to be the dominant voice … Because for me, for an adaptation to be successful, it has to have space to grow into something different than what the original was.” She read scripts, shared feedback, spent some time in the writers’ room (she loved meeting the show’s “huge and really diverse group of writers”), and visited the set.
And she thoroughly approved of a change to her book: The character of Mia Warren, written as a working-class white woman, was played by Kerry Washington, who is Black. “I thought it was brilliant,” she said of the casting. “It would allow them to explore some issues of race in a different way than I had been able to do. I didn’t want to try to speak for a Black woman but Kerry Washington can bring her experience as a Black woman to the screen. That was the moment when I thought, I’m in very good hands. I love what they did.”
After an extensive author tour this month (it includes stops in Cheltenham, Toronto, and Cleveland, among many others), Ng is looking forward to getting back to work on her fourth novel, an idea she began developing almost two years ago but put aside in order to focus on “Our Missing Hearts.” Like her previous books, it’s about families, and the way they understand each other — or don’t. “I’m eager to get back to the desk,” she said. “I always feel more like myself when I’m writing.”