A series of brief but wide-ranging interviews with authors about ancestry.
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng’s intimate, prickly, and elegantly coiled first novel, is a psychologically layered mystery with a disappearance right out of Twin Peaks — if Twin Peaks were a small Ohio community in the 1970s and Laura Palmer and her siblings were the only mixed-race kids in town. Ng and I share an agent and editor, so I expected to enjoy the book. I didn’t expect it to be a story that reckoned so tenaciously and beautifully — from four distinct points of view! — with so many things I’ve been thinking about, myself.
Maud Newton: In Everything I Never Told You, as in life, every character has secrets— worries or ambitions or misdeeds no one else knows, mostly because no one is paying the right kind of attention. Only the reader knows exactly why Lydia ended up drowning in the lake. Did you intend from the outset for this to be a book about secrets in families?
Celeste Ng: Yes—they fascinate me. We tend to think of family secrets as big, earth-shattering things: a child out of wedlock, finding out your father isn’t really your father, etc. How can you not be fascinated with those? A few years ago, I learned that my grandmother had a sister who was kidnapped by bandits. She was never heard from again, though there were rumors that she was alive and living with the bandits. But she was seldom mentioned in the family after she was taken. Those memories were just too painful, so those things stayed secret by default.
But there are small secrets too, things that aren’t intentionally kept private but just never end up being shared. When I was about ten, I took a trip to China with my parents, and we visited the house in rural Canton where my father was born and spent his childhood. It had been uninhabited for years, but as we walked through, my father told me little tidbits about his life there: how his father used to catch fish in the nearby river for the family to eat, how he and his brothers would jump down through the hatch in the kitchen ceiling to scare their mother.
Were these stories important, life-changing family secrets? No. But they helped shape my perception of my father, and where my family had come from—maybe even more than the “big” secrets. He hadn’t kept them from me on purpose; he’d just never had an occasion to remember them, let alone tell them to me. Often, things go unsaid and get lost because there’s no occasion to jog our memory or nudge us to reveal them. So I’m fascinated by the big secrets, yes, but I’m just as intrigued by what information gets transmitted—and what information gets lost—as stories get handed down over generations.
MN: Marilyn reacts against her mother’s home-ec, MRS-degree world by planning to be a doctor. When that doesn’t work out, she projects her own ambitions onto Lydia without seeing that, in her own fashion, she’s repeating history. Do you think all parents, however loving, however accepting and well-meaning, are likely to do this in some way?
CN: I do. Parenting is inherently rather arrogant: you believe your genes are worth passing on and (at least fleetingly) believe that you’re qualified to raise another human being. There’s often a godlike desire to create in your own image—you want your kids to be just like you in all the ways that you like, and to one-up you by avoiding all of your own shortcomings and mistakes. If we like who we are, we encourage our kids to emulate us or surpass us, from very early on. This is one of the reasons we have things like toy Dyson vacuums and toy chainsaws (note the copy: “Just like Dad’s!”). And it only goes on from there.
All this comes from a good place: the desire to help your children lead a better life. But that of course assumes you know what “better” means and how to get your children there—and that your experience can be mapped onto theirs, which often isn’t true. Parenting is this potent combination of projection and wish-fulfillment. I feel it myself every day, and try to resist it, but I’m not sure it’s always possible.
MN: James thinks Lydia, whom Alexander Chee describes in his admiring review as “a blue-eyed Amerasian Susan Dey, the most white-looking of her siblings in her mixed-race Chinese and white family,” fits right in. It’s only when he reads a newspaper article after her death that he “finally starts to see his family as the town does: a living exhibit on the question of whether an Asian man and a white woman should marry.” Was it easy or difficult for you to imagine the kinds of things people might have projected on this family in the 1970s in a small Midwestern American town?
CN: I grew up in a Chinese-American family in a small town in the early 1980s—not too very long after the events of the book—so I had a fairly good sense of what it might be like to be the only Asians in a mostly white area. I’ve said this elsewhere, but all the instances of racial tension except one were things that happened to me or to people I know. For example, an Asian friend told me how her (white) husband’s (white) mother was curious if they planned to have children, because—as she put it—“The children won’t be white.” Those kind of things happen way more often than many people realize.
I don’t want to pretend that this book speaks for everyone, by any means. But a lot of readers have written to me to tell me that this book spoke to or even captured some of their experience, and I’m so grateful for that. After his review came out, Alexander Chee and I were chatting on Twitter. When I said some readers found the racial tension hard to believe for the 1970s, he said, “Having lived through the 70s as a mixed Asian kid I’ll tell anyone, yes, it was like that.” That meant a lot to me as well.
MN: Do you know of any other writers in your family background?
CN: The bio on the inside of my novel’s dust jacket says that I come from a family of scientists. This is definitely true. However, there are also a number of writers in my ancestry, especially among my Hong Kong relatives, who were bilingual because Hong Kong was a British colony at the time. My great-great-grandfather Luk King Fo published An English Grammar for Chinese Students in 1896; apparently it was the first such book of its kind. My mother recently told me that her fifth aunt, Ada Luk, is also an author; she was the editor of the Chinese Student Weekly, an English-language youth magazine in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, and, according to my mother, helped to translate Peanuts comics into Chinese.
A bit closer to home, I have an aunt who loves to write poetry and stories for young children, and my mother herself has always enjoyed writing. As a teenager, she had a column in the “Children’s Corner” of the South China Morning Post. In fact, if it weren’t for that column, I might not exist: after reading her columns, other teens would write to her at the paper and become her pen-pals, and one of them introduced her to my father.
MN: Did you ever have the feeling your family was trying to hide some aspect of your lineage?
CN: Like most people of Chinese descent in the U.S., some of my ancestors immigrated as “paper sons”—i.e., under assumed names—as a way around the Chinese Exclusion Act. From 1882 to 1943, when the act was repealed, all Chinese immigrants were barred from the United States. The law was based almost entirely on racism against the Chinese, as other racial groups were not banned; in fact, it’s the only law in U.S. history to deny entry based on a specific nationality. The only Chinese who were allowed to enter the country were those who were already U.S. citizens or the children of citizens. So, those seeking to immigrate would claim to be the sons of Chinese men already in the United States, and would take on new names and new identities. The result is that many families, including mine, lost a lot of family history when they came to America.
My paternal great-grandfather came to the U.S. in the early 20th century as a paper son. He returned to China a few times, to marry and then to visit his wife, who remained in China. But he stayed in the U.S. for the rest of his life, working at a boarding school in Iowa (which helped inspire Lloyd Academy, the school in my novel) and later serving in the army during World War I. Meanwhile, my grandmother—and later my father—grew up in China not knowing him. They didn’t come to the U.S. until decades later, when my father immigrated legally as a student and became naturalized, and was then able to bring his parents and siblings over as well. In the 1960s, the U.S. government offered amnesty to paper sons, and my great-grandfather, like many other “paper sons,” gave a full affidavit and was granted citizenship. He’s buried in the Chinese cemetery in Sacramento, California, where I visited his grave many times as a child. But I didn’t know the details of this story, nor did my father, until I wrote to the INS for a copy of his file when I was in college.
So, like many Chinese immigrants, my family did have to hide things (at least for a time), and I don’t know much about my ancestry on that side before my great-grandfather. Traditionally, each Chinese family has a poem that records its lineage: each generation takes the next character of the poem and uses it in the names of everyone in that generation. If you know the poem, you can tell who’s in your family and which generation they’re from. But we don’t know our family poem anymore; it got left behind somewhere along the way. In rural China, I think records were always somewhat spotty, and when the Communists came to power, a lot of records were destroyed. I’m not sure if we’ll ever find out much more, and that’s both a huge loss and a space for imagination.
MN: Those of us who attempt to trace our ancestry: what do you think we’re seeking?
CN: Reasons. It’s natural to wonder why things are the way they are and why things happen. You really only have two choices. You can believe everything is totally arbitrary—either because the universe is governed by random chance, or because the universe is run by God’s will (which is essentially another way of saying it’s arbitrary: we can’t understand it via our own logic). Or, you can believe the universe is run by cause and effect—which means the reasons for the present lie in the past. And in that case, what better place to turn to understand yourself than in your own ancestry?
Celeste Ng is the author of the novel Everything I Never Told You (June 2014, Penguin Press). She grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a family of scientists. Celeste attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan), where she won the Hopwood Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, the Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere, and she is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize.
Maud Newton is writing a book about the science and superstition of ancestry.