Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You opens with a crushing revelation: "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet." Lauded by The New York Times as "a deep, heartfelt portrait of a family struggling with its place in history," Ng's debut novel (Penguin Press, $26.95) is tinged with views of small-town Ohio collected during her childhood in Shaker Heights.
Centered around the Lees, an Ohio family of mixed race, Ng's prose unwinds a tale of expectations unmet and inherited. Crushed under her mother's own snubbed ambitions, Lydia, the favored middle daughter, dies mysteriously, shattering the brittle normalcy her parents sought to build. Ng, now hailing from Cambridge, Massachusetts, returns to Cleveland for a reading at Market Garden Brewery's Brews and Prose Oct. 7. We spoke with Ng about her inspiration and what's next.
On her inspiration for Everything I Never Told You:
"The seed of the story came from an anecdote my husband told me in passing. He was a little boy, and a friend of his from school had pushed his own little sister into the lake. The parents were nearby and grabbed her and everything was fine. ... [I was] just thinking about what it would be like for Lydia, as a teenager, to end up in the water. How did she get there?"
On race in the story:
"I was maybe 10 and I was down at Tower City with my aunt. We were waiting for our bus and this man was saying all sorts of really terrible things, like 'Why don't you go back to Vietnam or Korea or wherever you came from?' and spitting at us. These sorts of things happen every now and then. That was something I wanted to get at in the book. It's not that you feel weird all the time. It's that there's this seesawing that happens between feeling like you belong and feeling like you don't belong."
On her next novel:
"One of the things that, since I've moved away from Shaker, I've started to find interesting ... is that [the city] was really planned. All the things that I thought were just weird quirks — like putting your garbage in the back of the house and the truck coming down your driveway to get [it] — leads to an interesting mindset. That's something I want to explore in the next book — what it means to be in a place that's trying really hard to be perfect and what kind of weird quirks that leads to."