Author Celeste Ng Believes That Cultural Visibility Should Include Everyone
Celeste Ng is the author of the novels Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You. Her books have been New York Times bestsellers and Amazon year-end Best Books, won multiple awards, and published abroad in over 20 countries. In March 2018, her second book Little Fires Everywhere received a direct-to-series order from Hulu. The series is produced by and will star the actresses Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. Asia Blog caught up with Ng over email to chat about becoming a television producer, writing outside one's own race, and how 2018 might be a breakthrough moment for Asian-Americans on screen.
With the release of Crazy Rich Asians and Jenny Han's To All the Boys I've Loved Before films, 2018 seems like a watershed moment for Asian-American representation on screen. What do you think has led to this moment?
I hope you're right that it's a watershed moment. When The Joy Luck Club came out in 1993, it was rightly heralded as a huge step forward for Asian-Americans on screen, but then a huge drought followed. This is one of the many reasons people are so excited about Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I've Loved Before. It's been a while since we saw so many Asian-Americans onscreen, and it's so great these films are coming out.
Over the past few years, communities of color have been working hard to call attention to the lack of diversity on-screen. Campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite and #StarringJonCho have raised awareness of the problem, and there's much more public conversation about why whitewashing Asian characters and casting non-Asian actors in yellowface is problematic. In addition, high-profile people in the industry — like Kumail Nanjiani, Constance Wu, and Mindy Kaling, just to name a few — are talking openly about the lack of substantive roles for Asian-Americans, and we see things like Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park highlighting pay disparities by walking away from Hawaii Five-O after the show refused to pay them as much as their white co-stars. It's getting harder and harder for people to pretend they aren't aware of the problem.
Meanwhile, the huge success of features with more onscreen diversity, like the new Star Wars films and A Wrinkle In Time, has shown that onscreen inclusion is actually an asset, not a hindrance. So that dismantles two of the claims often used to explain the lack of diversity onscreen — that there aren't talented actors of color, and that audiences won't come to see films with inclusive casts. We're slowly disproving all the objections to having Asians, and other people of color, on-screen.
I also think it's really important to note that many communities of color have been pushing for more diversity onscreen, and that's part of why we're seeing results: our communities are supporting each other. Black Panther is especially meaningful to the black community, but it's important that the Asian community, the Latinx community, and others also support it and similar films. All people of color are harmed when whiteness is the default, and we all benefit when there's more inclusion. Similarly, I've been so heartened to see calls from the black community to turn out and support Crazy Rich Asians. I hope all these different communities continue to champion each other in making Hollywood more inclusive overall. There's space for all of us.
For Little Fires Everywhere, what is your role as a producer? Which aspects of the adaptation are you most looking forward to seeing on screen? Which ones are you nervous about?
I'm answering questions for the producers, the screenwriter, and the cast as they come up, but aside from consulting, I'm taking a backseat and letting the amazing team [production company] Hello Sunshine has put together take the lead. Every time I talk to Reese, Kerry, the screenwriter Liz Tigelaar, and the producer Lauren Levy Neustadter, I'm struck by how deeply each of them gets the novel, how personal their connections are to the material and the characters. So I have complete faith that the adaptation will be true to the spirit of the book, and I want to step back and give it space to become its own thing.
I'm really excited to see Reese as Elena Richardson and Kerry as Mia Warren — they're both such excellent actors and perfectly suited for their roles. I'm especially looking forward to seeing Kerry bring Mia to life as a black woman; I'd wanted to do that in the novel, but didn't feel I was the right person to do that. Kerry is, though. And I'm really looking forward to seeing the teens brought to life; there's so much potential there for finding new up-and-coming actors. As I said, I trust the production completely, so I'm not nervous about anything. However, one thing that will have to be handled sensitively is how Bebe, the Chinese-American mother, is portrayed. There's a known stereotype of the poor Asian immigrant with broken English, but I'm confident they'll cast the right actress and show that's she's much more than the stereotype.
You've addressed the issues of writing characters outside one's own race in past interviews. As writers and readers of color, it feels like we are always on the alert for the issue of appropriation vs representation (such as in The Orphan Master's Son). How do you approach this phenomenon in your own writing? What are your feelings on the idea of "writing outside one's lane"?
A big part of it, for me, is acknowledging what I don't know. I've grown up in white communities my whole life, and like most people of color in the United States, I have a pretty good understanding of what it's like to be white in America — so I feel comfortable writing characters who are white. On the other hand, I don't claim to know what it's like to be black in America. I can imagine some aspects of it, but I don't feel I know that experience well enough to write about it. That's part of why I didn't write Mia as a black woman, as I mentioned above; I wasn't sure that was a story I personally could tell. So I try to be honest with myself about what the limits of my knowledge are, and then I try to make sure each of my characters is present as a fully rounded person, rather than as a type.
I could probably write a whole essay on the idea of "writing outside one's lane" — it's such an important and complicated subject. My teacher and mentor Peter Ho Davies has said that being afraid of writing outside your lane isn't a sign that you shouldn't; that fear is actually the thing that can help you do it well when it makes you double-check yourself to get it right. It's also important for writers to think about the power dynamic. Are they punching down (writing the perspective of a group with less power), or punching up (writing the perspective of a group with more power)? Do they really have a full sense of what it's like to be in this other group? And why is this a perspective that they, in particular, need to write? You can write about anything you want, but that doesn't mean you should.
Incidentally, these are basically the same questions writers should ask themselves when writing outside their experience in any way. The questions are just a little more fraught when it comes to race because race is such a fraught topic in our society.
One of the side effects of the 24-hour news cycle is that information is put out there faster than ever and so are the immediate reactions and address/redress to that information. For example, you started a dialogue on Twitter with the Cambridge Public Library following the Junot Diaz [sexual misconduct] revelations. How are you deciding when to engage, and how do you see this form of direct action leading to more institutional or long-term change?
I have to give all credit for the replacement [Summer Reading Kick-Off] panel to the Cambridge Public Library — they're the ones who are putting it together and running it, which I think speaks volumes about them. All I did was suggest it, and I suspect they'd have come up with the idea themselves even if I hadn't said anything!
My parents raised my sister and me to help others, so that's my general outlook: Whenever you can, you boost others, and you speak up when there are problems and try to help fix them. There are certain issues where I feel like I have some credibility — Asian Pacific Island American issues and issues of inclusion in general are important to me as a person of color; feminist issues are important to me as a woman; and so on. Where those issues intersect with the arts, which is my field, that's when I try to engage.
Honestly, I'm still adjusting to the idea that anyone cares what I have to say, but if I have a platform, I want to use it to talk about the things that matter to me. Over the past years, I've seen what can happen when a powerful voice speaks up to raise awareness around an issue: people listen and it's a call to action, both from the top down and from the bottom up. Look at Lin-Manuel Miranda and the post-hurricane devastation of Puerto Rico; Ava DuVernay and the roles of women in the film industry; countless women and the #MeToo movement. They inspire me and make me hope that if I speak up where I can, even in much smaller ways, it can create a ripple of change.
You've been outspoken on the need for intersectionality within the Asian-American and [other] people of color (POC) communities, whereas there are segments of the Asian-American diaspora who are less aware of the challenges facing other communities of color. In what ways do you raise awareness for this kind of support and how do you approach those who are less supportive or unaware of the need for support for other marginalized communities, in the writing world and outside of it?
It's complicated. The Asian-American and black communities, for instance, have historically not gotten along well, in part because they're often pitted against each other, with black people being cast as everything negative and Asians being cast as the "model minority." So there's a long history of anti-blackness in the Asian-American community and a long history of distrust of Asians in the black community. And of course, there are similar dynamics between the Asian-American community and other communities of color like the Latinx community, and even within the Asian-American community: South Asians and East Asians often face very different issues, for example.
I'm not interested in blaming anyone here, just pointing out that there's a lot to overcome as we move forward. One of the biggest steps is acknowledging that we all need to support each other while also not erasing or minimizing the different struggles each group faces. Call me idealistic, but I think we can hold both of those ideas in mind at the same time. We have to believe that race in American isn't a zero-sum game, that progress for one group doesn't have to come at the expense of another group. Again, there's space for all of us.
I'm definitely still learning on this front, and don't want to pretend that I have all the answers — or even any answers. But what I'm trying to do is support other people of color where I can, whether by championing their books, boosting their voices, or supporting their causes. I'm trying to encourage others to do the same, even in very small ways: by picking up a book they might not have thought was "for them," by prodding them to engage with art and culture and social causes that they might have shied away from. The more we can see parallels between our situations and those of other marginalized groups, the better we're able to support each other.
There appears to be a vibrant community of Asian American writers on- and offline. Are you close with the other writers? Is there a group chat?
Yes, there's a secret clubhouse, but you have to know the secret password and the secret handshake to get in! I'm kidding, of course. But there is a great community of Asian-American writers; we don't all know each other, but many of us are one or two degrees apart, and generally, I've found it to be really supportive and helpful: You learn from the experiences of others, and you share your experience with the newcomers.
Over the years I've gotten to know many Asian American writers, either through their work or in person or usually both, and am lucky enough to count some of them as my good friends. And there's no mass group chat — at least that I know of — but I do know a group of Asian American women writers in the Bay Area who regularly get together to discuss books and then do karaoke, and I'm hoping to inveigle myself into one of their gatherings the next time I'm out there.
Finally, what do you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to music when I'm writing — it distracts me. I like a medium level of background noise, like a coffee shop or the main reading room of the public library, where people are allowed to talk quietly.