Author Celeste Ng and the questions that drive her

At the annual Yoonmee Chang Memorial Lecture, Ng spoke about her writing process, the model minority stereotype, and the role of legacy, art, and belonging in her work.

Three people sitting on a stage discussing books
From left to right: David Eng, Celeste Ng, and Lynnea Bao. (Image: Cory Shin)

Three questions drive Celeste Ng, a literary powerhouse with three novels to her name: What is the nature of legacy? What is does it mean to belong or to feel other? And what is the role of art and what are the limitations on its power? 

“They’re the questions I deal with every day,” Ng said to a group of Penn students on March 27 at the Yoonmee Chang Memorial Lecture, organized by the Asian American Studies Program (ASAM). “I go to writing because there’s something I don’t understand and I’m trying to figure it out on the page.”

The annual lecture honors Yoonmee Chang, who received her Ph.D. in English in 2003 from Penn, where she was active in the founding of the Asian American Studies Program. Chang went on to publish “Writing the Ghetto: Class, Authorship, and the Asian American Ethnic Enclave” and was associate professor of English at George Mason University when she died in 2018, said Fariha Khan, co-director of the ASAM, who introduced Ng. 

In conversation with David L. Eng and Lynnea Bao, a third-year student at the Wharton School from Oakland, California, the author of “Everything I Never Told You,” “Little Fires Everywhere,” and “Our Missing Hearts” spoke about her writing process, the model minority stereotype, and what Reese Witherspoon is really like in person.

Eng, co-director of ASAM and the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English, and Bao, who is a member of the Undergraduate Advisory Board of ASAM, first discussed the author’s background. Both Ng’s parents were professors in STEM fields who immigrated to America from Hong Kong. She now sees their support of her humanities education—Ng graduated from Harvard with a undergraduate degree in English and earned her MFA at the University of Michigan—as “a huge leap of faith,” Ng said. It was only in her adult life that Ng learned that both her parents were judged unfairly, she said, and they were concerned about her future in the arts. “If you take a physics exam, you can prove that you’ve got the right answer, and nobody can argue,” she said, “whereas in the arts, you have no such guarantee.”

But in a way, Ng was influenced by her parents’ scientific bent, she said. As a small child, Ng said she was observant and liked to ask people questions. “Scientists are always very interested in how the world works and observing or figuring out how anything is put together. And I feel like that, but I don’t express it in science; I express it in writing,” she said.

“When I’m writing a character, I usually am starting with something that puzzles me,” Ng said. “So, for example, how did this teenage girl end up at the bottom of the lake?” she said, referring to Lydia in “Everything I Never Told You.” “Or, why would someone burn down their own house,” she said, referring to “Little Fires Everywhere.”

The Widener auditorium, showing a crowd listening to three people on a stage.
Celeste Ng (center), the speaker at the annual Yoonmee Chang Memorial Lecture, was chosen by ASAM’s undergraduate advisory board. (Image: Cory Shin)

Eng asked the author about her choice to write from a third-person omniscient perspective, often referred to as “the God voice,” Ng said. Ng initially chose that form in her first novel because rotating between a multitude of first-person voices wasn’t working, Ng said, and she needed to find a unified voice.

Rather than speaking from a position of social authority, Ng uses an omniscient narrator to create space. “This character sees one thing, but there might be a lot more than that,” she says. “Can we open up the lens a little bit so that you can see more?”

“I never think of my books as trying to provide answers,” Ng said, “which has been a great disappointment to a number of high school students who have written to me and are like, ‘What is the moral of your book?’”

Rather than writing books with a thesis statement or a raison d’etre, “I go into the book, really, with questions,” Ng said. If the reader leaves thinking about those questions, “that’s kind of my goal, rather than to try to impart an answer. And I think that’s what makes them work,” she said.

One student asked Ng about her experience translating literature to film. “I was very lucky,” Ng said of her experience with “Little Fires Everywhere,” which was turned into an eight-episode miniseries starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. 

“The book is kind of your baby, and having someone else dress up your baby can be a little weird,” Ng said of the process, but “I was working with partners who loved the source material.” 

Ng said she was initially terrified meeting Witherspoon “because she’s exactly like you would imagine her to be—super smart and very intense.” But when Witherspoon approached Ng, eager to ask questions, wielding a copy of “Little Fires Everywhere” with Post-its bristling, Ng was disarmed. 

“Oh, you’re just a nerd,” Ng thought of Witherspoon, and immediately trusted her. 

Another student asked Ng about the role of pain and trauma in art. Ng, who has been open about experiencing depression in college as well as post-partum depression, said there is still shame attached to seeking help or admitting to mental health struggles, particularly in the Asian American community. 

“We need a certain amount of empathy for ourselves,” Ng said. “Human beings have these problems because life is hard. Like, it just is, and it doesn’t mean that you’re doing it wrong. It just means that you need help.”

Another student asked Ng about the role of art, which Ng had mentioned as one of the primary questions occupying her thinking. During the pandemic, she felt useless, Ng said. She knew doctors who were helping people in hospitals; she knew geneticists who were working on sequencing a vaccine. Meanwhile, Ng said, “I’m sitting here in my office making up people.”

Ultimately, what got her through the day was poetry, books, music, screening her favorite movies and “watching some pretty bad television,” Ng said. Art was what distracted her from pain; art was what let her imagine an end to pain. 

One of the things art can do, said Ng, is encourage people to envision different realities. If you can picture a different world you can maybe imagine, she said, “What if the world were like that? What if things were different?”