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Why Celeste Ng's new book places an Asian American mom in the eye of a social justice movement

“The way that you raise your children and the act of having children and trying to raise them into members of society feels very political to me,” the author said.
Author Celeste Ng
Author Celeste Ng appears on "Late Night With Seth Meyers" on Tuesday night. Lloyd Bishop / NBC

Author Celeste Ng’s latest book, “Our Missing Hearts,” is her most political yet, and that’s why, she said, it was appropriate to center the relationship between mother Margaret Miu and her 12-year-old son Bird.

The novel, which came out Tuesday, largely parallels the climate of the past few years, mirroring not only the “rise of the far right” amid the Trump administration and scapegoating of Asian American communities during the pandemic, but also the racial reckoning and resistance efforts that emerged alongside it, Ng said. For the author, it was critical to place Miu, an Asian American mother and fugitive poet, at the forefront of a protest movement in her book.

Our Missing Hearts
Penguin Press

Parenting lends itself to being inherently political, she said, when one has the opportunity to instill values of protesting and organizing.

“The way that you raise your children and the act of having children and trying to raise them into members of society feels very political to me,” Ng said. “For many people, you only start thinking about the future when you start being involved in raising a child or you have some stake in the future. … Your investment immediately in the future becomes very tangible.”

In the book, Bird, who’s Chinese American, lives with his white father in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during a time when the U.S. is under PACT, the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act. The era is marked by a nationalistic fervor, rampant anti-Asian and anti-Chinese sentiment, and strict censorship of books or materials that may lead to any unpatriotic ideas. Those who do not comply are seen as traitors and are separated from their children. Later on in the book, it’s revealed that much of these policies and racist reactions is tied to what’s known as “The Crisis,” a period of severe economic downturn that led many to point fingers “firmly east.”

Much about Miu, who disappeared three years ago, is initially a mystery to Bird. His father, who abides by the rules of the state, has allowed few traces of her in their lives. But with the prodding of classmate Sadie, who was forcibly separated from her own parents, and a mysterious drawing addressed to Bird, he begins to seek information and finds help through a network of librarians bent on finding missing people as a result of PACT. Though unintentionally, the book later reveals, his mother’s work has been adopted as a galvanizing call to action in the anti-PACT movement. And Bird’s yearning to reconnect with his mother supersedes the consequences, as he embarks on his search.

Ng said she hoped to collapse the boundaries between what many consider to be domestic, “women’s work” and political activism by thrusting Miu into the eye of the anti-PACT movement amid the pain and family separation she had been contending with.  

“In our culture, there’s this broad idea that what is domestic is not political. Things that happen in the home — the raising of children, usually by women, managing the house, doing all those things — those are domestic and therefore they’re small,” Ng said. “Whereas the political was the stuff that’s outward-facing and trying to be changed versus trying to preserve and conserve and nurture.”

Citing the gun safety movements that arose from several mass shooting tragedies, Ng said it’s perhaps more accurate to reflect how many forms of activism grow out of parenting.

“A lot of times it was the parents — not just the moms, but often the moms — who were like, ‘We have had enough of this,’” Ng said. “They are the ones who are on the ground, so to speak. They can see very directly what the effects of these big social questions are.” 

While Miu had never set out to become a well-known dissident in the anti-PACT movement, Ng said she felt it was important for an Asian American woman to feature prominently in the resistance. It was, in a way, a nod to the awareness that Asian American women more generally have long had around violence, preceding the rise in anti-Asian hate during the pandemic. Research previously showed that 21% to 55% of Asian women in the U.S. report having experienced intimate physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetimes, according to the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence.  

“As an Asian American woman, I feel like I’ve been aware of the possibility of violence for most of my life. That’s a thing that most women grew up being aware of. And it’s a thing that anybody who’s nonwhite is aware of intimately; you’re at the intersection of those two things,” Ng said. “Part of what I wanted to do with Margaret was acknowledge that many times it’s the women who are aware of this because I think we’re aware of just the ways violence can visit itself on us seemingly out of the blue.” 

While the book has been described as “dystopian,” Ng said she barely sees it that way. There’s but a thin veil of fiction separating the racism, book bans and family separation in the novel from reality. While the story takes on the contours of the political climate that arose with Donald Trump's election, Ng said, PACT represents some ideas that have been “simmering” under the surface.

“In the case of PACT, it’s the idea that there’s a right way to be American,” Ng said. "And if we think that you’re deviating from it, then we’re going to put pressure on you to stop doing that.” 

To mitigate the harm done to families and those impacted by PACT, or similar policies in our own reality, Ng said readers can look to the novel’s title.

“A lot of the book is about the idea of seeing other people’s problems as being your problems, not just something that happens to other people. And the idea of it being ‘our’ missing hearts, it’s a collective issue we’re going to have to work together to solve,” she said. “It’s not a problem that just one person can magically lead the resistance and overcome.”