On November 10th, author Celeste Ng took the stage at Helmut Stern auditorium to thunderous applause. Her impact would only begin, however, after a silence. Ng turned to the crowd, and offered the following simple words: “It is a complicated moment, but it matters that we’re here.”
Celeste Ng’s visit to Ann Arbor couldn’t have come at a more necessary time. Despite political tensions, literature is - and has always been - about exposing the faults of humanity in order to create a more just world. Ng, a Michigan alum, was the featured author for this week’s installment of the Zell Visiting Writers Series. In 2007, while studying for MFA, Ng won the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Award, a prestigious writing prize famous for its ability to identify young writing talent.
The Hopwood judges certainly picked well. Seven years later, Ng published her first novel, Everything I Never Told You, to both commercial success and critical acclaim. In just a few weeks, Everything would become a New York Times Bestseller. The novel would go on to become Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, a New York Times “Notable Book” of 2014, and the winner of that year’s Asian/Pacific-American Award for Literature. Ng has since begun work on her second novel.
For the event, Ng chose to read the beginning of that second novel (title: Little Fires Everywhere) which is due out within the year. According to Ng, Fires is set in her hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio. Similar to her first book, the novel deals with issues of race, culture, and bias. Although Shaker Heights was racially-diverse, its economic comfort made it a “bubble” in the region all the same. This Ann Arbor audience certainly knows nothing about living in “bubbles,” Ng joked.
She then prefaced her reading with some quick introspection on the topics her book explores: “We often suppress these feelings [racial and cultural biases] in ourselves, though we can identify them in someone else.”
Just like before, there’s a brief silence, then the impact of Ng’s words is felt.
Little Fires Everywhere opens with the Richardson family’s house burning to the ground. Though the book has hardly begun, it is evident through Ng’s quirky descriptions that this family is anything but ordinary. The enigmatic Mrs. Richardson, who discovers that gasoline has been poured into each of her family members’ beds, believes she knows the culprit. Yet, even as flames of arson consume her home, Mrs. Richardson seems removed from the catastrophe, as if neither the crime nor the fire even affect her.
Suddenly, before this emotional disconnect is explored (or even identified), the scene shifts to the story of Mia and Pearl, a mother-daughter pair living in a duplex owned by none other than Richardson herself. In classic suburban fashion, Shaker Heights is obsessed with its façade: duplexes are seen as “unseemly,” so the town disguises them by making them look like single houses. Mia and Pearl are set to live in the disguised “top floor” of one of these units. After their arrival in Shaker Heights, the lives of Mia and Pearl become intertwined with the members of the Richardson family in multiple ways, but for now, these connections will have to remain a mystery—it is this moment that Ng closes the book.
It is clear why Ng has found such success in the literary sphere. The topics of her work are profound and invigorating. Readers of all backgrounds can easily identify with her beautifully-realized characters, and it is through these characters’ intricacies the reader explores their own. Ng exposes the faults of humanity in a humble-yet-sincere manner that leaves the reader more able to reflect on the feelings they have, giving them lease to improve their own lives. In short: she reminds all who encounter her words why literature matters.
One last time, it is Ng’s impact that’s felt after a brief silence: Fires in hand, she leaves the stage to applause.