A Conversation with Celeste Ng
What compelled you to write this book?
My stories almost always begin with images—in this case, the image of a young girl falling into deep water. I started writing to figure out how she got there: Was she pushed? Did she slip? Did she jump? As I wrote my way into the book, I discovered it was a story about not just the girl but about her family, her family’s history, and everything in her life that had led her to this point—and about whether (and how) her family would be able to go on. What seemed like the end of the story actually turned out to be the center.
The discovery of Lydia’s death spurs countless questions for her family. How did you approach writing about loss and grief?
When you lose someone you love, especially suddenly, there’s immense regret and immense self-doubt. It’s impossible not to ask yourself questions: Could you have saved them in some way? Could you, by leaving five minutes later or arriving a day earlier or saying just the right words, have changed what happened? Inevitably, you reconsider and reassess the relationship you had with that person, and it can be hardest if that relationship was strained. James, Marilyn, Nath, and Hannah each feel a lot of guilt about their relationships with Lydia—and the ways that, deep down, they know they’ve pressured, disappointed, or failed her—and that complicates their reactions to her death. Any act of writing is an act of empathy: you try to imagine yourself into another person’s mind and skin. I tried to ask myself the questions the characters would have asked themselves.
The relationships between the siblings—Nath, Lydia, and Hannah—are immediately recognizable and so well-drawn. They love each other, but they also get angry, jealous, and confused and take it out on each other. Can you speak to their dynamics? Did you draw on your own childhood?
Sibling relationships are fascinating: you have the same parents and grow up alongside each other, yet more often than not, siblings are incredibly different from one another and have incredibly different experiences even within the same family. You share so much that you feel you should understand one another completely, yet of course there’s also enough distance between you that’s almost never the case. It gets even more complicated when one sibling is clearly the favorite in the family: the family constellation can get really skewed when one star shines much brighter than the rest.
My own sister is eleven years older than I am. Because she was so much older, we never really fought; I actually think our relationship was stronger because we weren’t close in age. At the same time, though, I missed her terribly when I was seven and she went off to college—that informed Lydia’s feelings of abandonment when Nath heads to Harvard. And I always idolized my sister; there’s definitely an aspect of that in Hannah’s relationship with Lydia.
You began writing the book before you had your son. How did becoming a parent affect your approach to your characters and their stories, especially James and Marilyn?
Even before I had children, I often found myself focusing on parents and children in my fiction. Your relationship with your parents is maybe the most fundamental and the most powerful, even more than friendship or romantic love: it’s the first relationship you ever have, and it’s probably the greatest single influence on your outlook and the kind of person you become. Most of us spend our lives either trying to live up to our parents’ ideals or actively rebelling against them.
When I started writing the novel—having never been a parent—I definitely identified more with the children, especially Lydia. After my son was born, though, I became much more sympathetic to Marilyn and James. I started to understand how deeply parents want the best for their children, and how that desire can sometimes blind you to what actually is best. This isn’t to say that I “switched sides”; only that becoming a parent made my perspective more balanced, I think, and made the book more nuanced. Now I identify with the parents at least as much as I identify with the children.
The book is set in Ohio in the 1970s. You grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio—how did your time there inform the book?
Both of the small suburbs I grew up in—first outside of Pittsburgh, then outside of Cleveland—had a small-town feel. My first elementary school was tiny, one of those schools where the gym is also the cafeteria and the auditorium, and on my street the neighbor kids all played together. But more than that, I remember a distinct sense of restlessness in the air while I was growing up, a feeling that if you wanted an exciting or important or interesting life, you needed to escape. Pittsburgh in the 1980s and Cleveland in the early 1990s were depressed and depressing places: a lot of closed factories, a lot of tension and unemployment, a lot of rust. So I knew the kind of insulated, almost suffocated feeling teenagers like Nath and Lydia—and even adults like James and Marilyn—might have, the feeling that the place you’re in is too small.
Through all members of the Lee family, you write touchingly and perceptively about feeling like an outsider and being measured against stereotypes and others’ perceptions. Can you discuss your personal experience and how you approached these themes in the book?
My parents came to the United States from Hong Kong and moved straight into the Midwest: Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio. Most of the time I was growing up, we were virtually the only Asians in the community. In my school in Pittsburgh, for instance, I was one of two non-white girls, and the only Asian, in all four grades. Like most Asian Americans, my family experienced some outright discrimination. Once, neighborhood kids put cherry bombs in our mailbox; another time, a man got in our faces while we were waiting at a bus stop, spitting at us and telling us, “Go back to Vietnam or Korea or wherever the hell you came from.”
More insidious than those moments of outright hostility, though, and maybe more powerful, are the constant low-level reminders that you’re different. Many of us feel different in some way, but it’s really jarring when one of your differences is obvious at a glance—other people can tell you’re different simply by looking at you. (It’s hard to explain just how strange that is if you’ve never experienced it. My husband and I had talked about it many times, but he didn’t really know what it felt like until we went to Hong Kong and he—a very tall white man—was surrounded by thousands of Asians.) Even when you feel like you belong, other people’s reactions—even stares and offhand remarks—can make you feel that you don’t, startlingly often. I drew on that to imagine the experiences of James, Lydia, Nath, and Hannah, or at least their reactions to those experiences. In terms of actual encounters, I didn’t have to imagine much; they all came from life, from the girls who throw rocks at James’s car to the people who speak to you slower and louder as if you might not understand English to the woman in the grocery store who proudly identifies the children as Chinese before pulling her eyes into slits.
In the novel, though, I didn’t want to explore just racial difference—there are all kinds of ways of feeling like an outsider. For example, my mother is a chemist and my sister is a scientist—both women in heavily male-dominated fields—and I often feel like an outsider or an imposter myself: am I smart enough/experienced enough/insert-adjective-here enough? All of the characters grapple with some version of that feeling.
Marilyn is deeply conflicted about being a homemaker and wanting to finish her degree and achieving more in her professional life. What did you seek to explore through her desires and decisions?
This is a long-standing question that most women face: how to balance a family and a professional life of your own? I struggle with this myself, as does every other woman I know, and Marilyn’s situation is a magnified version. It’s striking to remember that in her time—just a generation ago—she had so many fewer paths open to her. But even with more options, we haven’t gotten this figured out yet, either. We’re still actively wrestling with the question of balance and women’s roles: look at the tremendous interest in Lean In and the uproar over Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Recently a Princeton alumna wrote an open letter telling young female grads that the most important thing to do in college was to find a husband. Many women were outraged—but she also just published a book. The debate over what women can and should do goes on.
Marilyn and James are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue, and we see the pressure this puts on Lydia and how it affects her. Today, parenting has evolved in myriad ways, but the ultimate aim is still to try to provide a better life for the next generation. How do parents’ hopes and fears for their children resonate through the book?
At my son’s preschool, I heard a group of moms comparing notes on what classes they’d enrolled their not-quite-three-year-olds in: music, art, swim, soccer, ballet. This isn’t unusual, nor is it limited to hobbies and sports. Think about all the tools now available to help parents teach their kids, from flashcards and educational apps to extra tutoring and SAT prep classes. Why? It really does come from love and wanting to give your child opportunities, especially if you didn’t have those opportunities yourself. It’s hard not to think and hope that your children might achieve great things—and to believe that they can accomplish anything if you only give them a boost along the way. But it’s also hard to know when you’re helping and supporting, and when you’ve crossed the line into pushing. And it’s so easy to fall into the mindset of “I’m doing it for your own good.” That’s the line that Marilyn and James straddle in the novel—and in fact, I think there are more than a few parallels between their approach and modern parenting.
You grew up in a family of scientists. What compelled you to become a writer? How did that shape how you approach writing?
I was always interested in stories—reading them, making them up, telling them to my parents and friends. There’s an argument for nature over nurture right there! But actually, there’s more overlap between science and writing than you’d expect. Scientists are really interested in figuring out how the world works and why things happen the way they do. A science experiment is really a what-if: “Hmm, what if I put these things together under these conditions?” I do the same thing in my writing, only I do it with people on the page: “What if this family were in this situation . . . ?”
What does the title, Everything I Never Told You, mean to you?
The title is actually an echo of one of the last lines of the book. Everything I Never Told You refers, on the one hand, to the secrets that the members of the Lee family keep from each other—all the things they lock inside because they’re afraid to say them or they’re ashamed to say them. But it also refers to all the things they don’t say by accident, so to speak: the things they forget to say because they don’t seem important. After Lydia’s death, each member of her family thinks back to the last time they saw her and what they’d have said if they knew it was the last time. The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you—whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.
Thank you for choosing Everything I Never Told You
for your book club! Everything I Never Told You
is the story of the Lees, a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Marilyn and James are determined that Lydia, the middle and favorite child, will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue: for Marilyn, that her daughter becomes a doctor; for James, that Lydia is popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.
When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy, Jack, is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family—Hannah—who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened.
Although the novel takes place in the 1970s, many of the issues the characters face are just as relevant today. Those who are different—racially, culturally, or in any other way—still find themselves pressured to be someone they’re not. Many more routes are open to women today, especially in medicine and science, but women still wrestle to balance careers and personal lives, trying to align what their families need and what they themselves want—as well as society’s expectations of what women, wives, and mothers should be. And, of course, parents yearn to make a better life for their children while the children themselves often feel defined (and confined) by their parents’ dreams.
In writing Everything I Never Told You
, I was surprised to remember how different things were just a generation or two ago—and how much they’ve stayed the same. Why do we keep secrets, even from those we love most? How well do we ever really know each other? What do we expect of our children, and of our parents? And what holds families together, even in the face of unthinkable tragedies?
I hope you enjoy the novel, and I hope it sparks lots of interesting discussion for your group!
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Discuss the relationships between Nath, Lydia, and Hannah. How do the siblings both understand and mystify one another?
2. Why do you think Lydia is the favorite child of James and Marilyn? How does this pressure affect Lydia, and what kind of impact do you think it has on Nath and Hannah? Do you think it is more difficult for Lydia to be the favorite, or for Nath and Hannah, who are often overlooked by their parents?
3. “So part of him wanted to tell Nath that he knew: what it was like to be teased, what it was like to never fit in. The other part of him wanted to shake his son, to slap him. To shape him into something different. . . . When Marilyn asked what happened, James said merely, with a wave of the hand, ‘Some kids teased him at the pool yesterday. He needs to learn to take a joke.’”
How did you react to the “Marco Polo” pool scene with James and Nath? What do you think of James’s decision?
4. Discuss a situation in which you’ve felt like an outsider. How do the members of the Lee family deal with being measured against stereotypes and others’ perceptions?
5. What is the meaning of the novel’s title? To whom do the “I” and “you” refer?
6. What would have happened if Lydia had reached the dock? Do you think she would have been able to change her parents’ views and expectations of her?
7. This novel says a great deal about the influence our parents can have on us. Do you think the same issues will affect the next generation of Lees? How did your parents influence your childhood?
8. “It struck her then, as if someone had said it aloud: her mother was dead, and the only thing worth remembering about her, in the end, was that she cooked. Marilyn thought uneasily of her own life, of hours spent making breakfasts, serving dinners, packing lunches into neat paper bags.”
Discuss the relationship Marilyn and her mother have to cooking and their roles as stay-at-home mothers. Do you think one is happier or more satisfied?
9. The footprint on the ceiling brings Nath and Lydia closer when they are young, and later, Hannah and James discover it together and laugh. What other objects bring the characters closer together or drive them further apart?
10. There’s so much that the characters keep to themselves. What do you wish they had shared with one another? Do you think an ability to better express themselves would have changed the outcome of the book?
About this Author
Celeste Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a family of scientists. She attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan), where she won the Hopwood Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in One Story
, Bellevue Literary Review
, the Kenyon Review Online
, and elsewhere, and she is the recipient of the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and son.
Fiction on families, love, and loss
Amy and Isabelle
by Elizabeth Strout: One of the most potent explorations I’ve read of mother-daughter relationships and the effects long-held secrets can have on a family. The Love Wife
by Gish Jen: A masterful portrait of a contemporary mixed family and the shifting identities, loyalties, and fault lines between its members. A Friend of the Family
by Lauren Grodstein: When his son falls for a woman with a shocking past, a devoted father sets out to derail the relationship—raising the question of how far we’ll go to protect our children and our hopes for them. The Dogs of Babel
by Carolyn Parkhurst: A haunting story about a man determined to understand whether his wife’s death was accident or suicide—but at what emotional cost? The Family Fang
by Kevin Wilson: Simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, this novel follows the members of a family of famous performance artists as the children try to create their own lives in the shadow of their parents’ influence. Nonfiction
Part Asian, 100% Hapa
by Kip Fulbeck: Based on “The Hapa Project,” these photos of part Asian people of all ages—and their answers to the question “What are you?”—are beautiful and thought-provoking. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History
by Iris Chang: A highly readable history for those interested in learning more about the history of Chinese Americans.