A Mother And Daughter Upset Suburban Status Quo In 'Little Fires Everywhere'

Sep 9, 2017
Originally published on September 9, 2017 3:06 pm

Celeste Ng's new novel is about two families in the heart of America who can't seem to see into each other's hearts. The Richardsons are a happy family with four children. "The soft smells of detergent and cooking and grass mingle in the entryway" of their lovely Ohio home, Ng writes.

Then, Mia Warren and her teenage daughter, Pearl, pull up with everything they own in their Volkswagen Rabbit, and rent the Richardsons' guest house. The two families become enmeshed in each other's lives in all ways. The result is Little Fires Everywhere.

Ng herself is from Shaker Heights, Ohio. "Writing about my hometown is a little bit like writing about a relative," she says. "You see all of the great things about them, you love them dearly, and yet you also know all of their quirks and their foibles."

Ng says the Shaker Heights community is its own character in the book, and like any character, "it's got its strengths, and it's got its weaknesses."


Interview Highlights

On the community of Shaker Heights

It's a suburb on the east of Cleveland and it's known for being very progressive, very affluent, and very racially diverse, which is actually the reason my parents chose to move there. Every house has a front lawn. The architecture is sort of carefully designed. And the whole community was sort of planned to be — almost a utopia.

On planning to be an integrated community

It was very deliberate. In the '50s I think there was an incident where someone had started an explosion at the house of black professional. And the community really at that point came together and decided that they wanted to try to actively integrate the community. That's an attitude that's continued up to the late '90s — and to now.

On how two families become intertwined because of their children

There are the parents that you're born to, and then there are the parents that you choose, and they're not always the same people. And so, in the novel, the Richardson children are drawn to Mia Warren because she's so different from their mother. She's a little bit of a free spirit — she's a free thinker, she's an artist. And likewise, Mia's daughter Pearl is drawn to Mrs. Richardson who's a pillar of the community. She's very grounded, she's a rule follower. In some ways, they're seeking out things that they don't get from their own mothers.

On Mia, who had previously always been on the move, finding herself sucked in to Shaker Heights

Mia's guiding principle as she's been moving around so much has always been: don't get involved and don't get attached. What happens in this case is she meets someone in Shaker Heights. ...

[She's] a Chinese-American woman, she's an immigrant, she's not very well off, she's a single mother. She feels she's unable to care for her baby and she leaves her baby at a fire house and she's basically given up all her rights to her child. ...

When Mia meets her, this woman has kind of gotten her life together and she kind of wants to get her child back, and, of course, that causes some complications.

On issues of race and class in adoption

One of the reasons that this adoption becomes so contentious is that the baby is a Chinese-American baby and the family that adopts her is a white couple. And this raises all sorts of questions about race — can a white couple raise an Asian-American baby properly? Is she going to be missing out on something? It also raises questions of class — you know, this working-class mother versus this very affluent professional couple in Shaker Heights. And so it touches on a lot of the things that Shaker Heights wants to handle perfectly, and of course it doesn't.

On whether she's hard on the adoptive couple in the book

I tried very hard in writing the book to show that this is a complicated situation. I think that right now our sort of natural sympathies are often with the biological mother. We tend to prioritize that — in not all cases, but in many cases.

Even as little as about 20 years ago, often our sympathies ran in the other direction. There was a case in the early '90s known as Baby Jessica where a baby was adopted and then the birth parents wanted her back and public sympathy at that time was almost completely with the well-off adoptive parents. So I think it does say something about our position — where we are as a society — who we tend to favor.

On whether she intended for readers to identify more with free-spirited Mia Warren than rule-following Mrs. Richardson

That's part of our national spirit. We tend to favor people who go out on their own, who strike out and defy convention. We're not a culture ... that celebrates conformity, or rule-following, or that kind of sacrifice — and there are cultures that are like that.

I think, though, that many of us have a little bit of Mrs. Richardson inside us — I know that I do. And one of the parts of the book that I hope will spark some conversation is sort of looking carefully at ourselves and recognizing the ways in which we might be conformist, or we might be rigidly holding onto things that we need to be flexible about.

Ian Stewart and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited the audio of this interview. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Celeste Ng's new novel is about two families in the heart of America who can't seem to see into each other's hearts. The Richardsons are a happy family with four children and a lovely home in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where, quote, "the soft smells of detergent and cooking and grass mingle in the entryway." Then a mother-daughter pair, Mia Warren and her teenage daughter, Pearl, pull up with everything they own in their VW Rabbit and rent the guesthouse at the Richardson's. The two families become enmeshed in each other's lives in all ways.

Breaking the bubbles of their lives sets off "Little Fires Everywhere," which is the title of Celeste Ng's novel. Celeste Ng, whose previous best-seller was the huge best-seller "Everything I Never Told You" joins us now from the studios of WGBH in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

CELESTE NG: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Let me get you to describe this Shaker Heights of the time period in this novel, a suburb of Cleveland that is considered so quintessentially American, you know, it's a line in "South Pacific."

NG: I didn't know that, actually. There's a line about it in "South Pacific"? (Laughter).

SIMON: There is indeed, yes.

NG: I'm going to have to go and find that out? My mother loves "South Pacific." So Shaker Heights was my hometown. As you said, it's a suburb on the east side of Cleveland. And it's known for being very progressive, very affluent and very racially diverse, which is actually the reason that my parents chose to move there. Every house has a front lawn. The architecture is sort of carefully designed. And the whole community is sort of planned to be - it's almost a utopia.

SIMON: They really worked at becoming an integrated community.

NG: They really did. And it was very deliberate. It was in the '50s, I think, there was an incident where someone had started an explosion at the house of a black professional in the community. Really at that point, came together and decided that they wanted to try to actively integrate the community. That's an attitude that still continued up to the late '90s and to now.

SIMON: The novel reminds us that nothing is more compromising than children. Pearl Warren is drawn to the Richardsons. The Richardson children are drawn to the Warrens. What's this mutual fascination?

NG: I think it speaks a lot to the sort of truism that a lot of times, there are the parents that you're born to, and then there are the parents that you choose. And they're not always the same people. And so in the novel, the Richardson children are drawn to Mia Warren because she's so different from their mother. She's a little bit of a free spirit. She's a freethinker. She's an artist. And likewise, Mia's daughter, Pearl, is drawn to Mrs. Richardson, who's a pillar of the community. She's very grounded. She's a rule follower. In some ways, they're seeking out things that they don't get from their own mothers.

SIMON: Now, by the time we meet them, Mia Warren and her daughter have lived in 46 different towns. What makes her decide to kind of try and get involved in something?

NG: Well, Mia's guiding principle, as she's been moving around so much, has always been, don't get involved and don't get attached. And what happens in this case, she meets someone in Shaker Heights. And the struggles of this woman who's a woman who's given up her child for adoption and now sort of wants to find the child again resonates with her very strongly.

SIMON: May I fill in some blanks? She doesn't just decide to give her child up for adoption. She leaves the baby in front of a firehouse.

NG: Yes, she's a - so this is a Chinese-American woman. She's an immigrant. She's not very well-off. She's a single mother. And she feels she's unable to care for her baby. And she leaves her baby at a firehouse. And she's basically given up all of her rights to her child. And now, when Mia meets her, this woman has kind of gotten her life together. And she wants to get her child back. And, of course, that causes some complications.

SIMON: How does this divide Shaker Heights?

NG: Well, one of the reasons that this adoption becomes so contentious is that the baby is a Chinese-American baby. And the family that adopts her is a white couple. And this raises all sorts of questions about race. Can a white couple raise an Asian-American baby properly? Is she going to be missing out on something? It also raises questions of class, you know, this working-class mother versus this very affluent, professional couple in Shaker Heights. And so it touches on a lot of the things that Shaker Heights wants to sort of handle perfectly and, of course, it doesn't.

SIMON: We should mention the McCulloughs are the name of the couple who adopt the child who's left in front of the firehouse.

NG: Right.

SIMON: Are you a little hard on the McCulloughs?

NG: I might be. I tried very hard in writing the book to show that this is a complicated situation. And I think that right now our sort of natural sympathies are often with the biological mother. We tend to prioritize that in not all cases, but in many cases. Even as little as about 20 years ago, often, our sympathies ran in the other direction.

There was a case in the early '90s known as Baby Jessica, where a baby was adopted and then the birth parents wanted her back. And public sympathy at that time was almost completely with the well-off adoptive parents. And so I think it does say something about our position, where we are as a society as to, you know, who we tend to favor.

SIMON: Yeah. It just reminded me, there's some things in life for which you don't get a do-over. You know, and I understand that the birth mother, May Ling Chow, was hurt and sick and deserves sympathy, not a jail sentence for abandonment. But I don't know, can you leave your child in front of a firehouse and expect to come back a year later and say, everything's fine, I want her back?

NG: That - and that's the question. I honestly don't have an answer for that. I feel for all of the parents in this situation. Like you said, there are certain things where you don't get a do-over, you know, cases of abuse or neglect, which this arguably is. It's so hard to know. And I think those situations get so fraught because we're trying to figure out what the best situation for a child is. And yet, that's almost never a clear-cut answer.

SIMON: I noticed, looking at your travel schedule, you have an appearance with this book in Shaker Heights.

NG: I do, yes.

SIMON: How do you...

(LAUGHTER)

NG: The best comparison I have, I think, is that writing about my hometown is a little bit like writing about a relative. You see all of the great things about them. You love them dearly. And yet, you also know all of their quirks and their foibles and maybe their shortcomings. But I hope that people who live in Shaker Heights will see this as a portrayal of the community. The community is really a character in the book, just as all of the people in the book are. And it's got its strengths and it's got its weaknesses.

SIMON: Celeste Ng - her novel, "Little Fires Everywhere." Thanks so much for being with us.

NG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.