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Kaitlyn O'Connor / Gavel Media

Celeste Ng Speaks at Cornerstone Conversations Event

On the evening of February 12th, award-winning author Celeste Ng sat down in front of dozens in Gasson Hall to talk about writing. The event was a part of Cornerstone Conversations, sponsored by the Cornerstone Program responsible for courses like Courage to Know and topic seminars for first-year students.

Ng, 43, is the author of three novels: Everything I Never Told You, Little Fires Everywhere, and Our Missing Hearts. According to the interviewer, Professor Elizabeth Bracher, who is also the director of the Cornerstone Seminar Program, Ng is a long-awaited guest. Unsurprisingly, she brought with her an audience of fans lined up to have their books signed. 

Ng talked briefly about growing up in the Midwest and being a voracious reader. She claimed to have first loved books about places she hadn’t been to, like the fantastical lands of the Wizard of Oz and Narnia, but later shifted to works that spoke to her own experience. 

Being a daughter of Hong Kong immigrants, Ng remembered how being an Asian American at the turn of the century made finding similar voices harder. She recounted how her mother would actively seek out books with Asian characters or written by Asian authors. This led her to encounter a variety of Asian literary works; from stories about being an Asian young girl in New York to biographies about the Japanese internment camps. 

The lack of representation described was also a part of growing up in suburban Cleveland, where, despite feeling  ‘like everyone else’, she was not seen ‘like everyone else.’ Her works touch on the disconnection between these two worlds of experience.

When talking about her writing, Ng jokingly described her writing process to be “eating snacks and making faces at the screen”. She went on to talk about her writing process more seriously, describing it as the need to “give [the work]  a little bit of water everyday, but also [letting] it grow.” She said her routine now revolves around her son’s schedule, and that she starts the writing process by looking at what was done the previous day. Ng defends the importance of not necessarily writing, but at least engaging with the text every day. 

After her first draft is done, Ng says she takes two to three months away from her work, to be able to come back to it with fresh eyes.

Characters play a central role in her process of writing fiction.“I’m an introvert, but I like people,” she said between slight laughter. She added that "at a party she’s the person in the corner taking notes... but it's not creepy.".

Professor Bracher asked Ng about her favorite novel, to which Ng said she "couldn’t choose one."  She believes each novel represents a piece of her. She described her novel Everything I Never Told You as being about growing up in a small town, and her novel Little Fires Everywhere as a story about her own hometown and her memories of being a teenager in Shaker Heights, Ohio.  Her latest work, Our Missing Hearts, she claimed, is “a question on how to get a child ready for an unkind world and keep a positive attitude towards it.” She said this is something our generation is faced with a lot, that is, how we move forward and strive for change while the world tends to fall apart. 

When asked about the difficulties she faced being an Asian American author in the publishing industry, she stated that at first, she was afraid of people not reading her work - that it would be “pigeon-holed” as a book for Chinese Americans. However, she was glad that other people were able to enjoy and identify with it. Ng hopes she is able to show that there is space for Asian Americans in publishing and hopes she is able to “pass the microphone” to other voices as well.

Ng said that her work was well-received and emphasized by people from various backgrounds, not just Asian Americans. She believes this is something that gives her hope, as “we’re not in a world where there is much empathy” and fiction therefore can "be meaningful in asking as it asks people to put themselves in others positions", to “imagine what it's like to be someone else.” She wants people to come away from her books with the “recognition that the way you see things is not the same as other people see things.”