Unleashing the Spotlight on Extraordinary Talents.
Novelist Celeste Ng on the Big Power of Little Things

Novelist Celeste Ng on the Big Power of Little Things

This transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. Please review the episode audio before quoting from this transcript and email [email protected] with any questions.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

speaker 1

Love now and —

speaker 2

Did you fall in love [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

speaker 3

Love is stronger than anything you can —

speaker 4

Can you feel the love?

speaker 5

And I love you even more than anything.

haddaway

(SINGING) What is love?

speaker 6

What is there to love?

speaker 7

Love.

anna martin

From “The New York Times,” I’m Anna Martin. This is “Modern Love.” And today, we’re starting a special series in honor of the 20th anniversary of the “Modern Love” column. Long time listeners will remember the early days of this podcast when we had actors read “Modern Love” essays. And I want to be really clear. When I say actors, I mean like household name red carpet walk in actors. So we’re bringing that concept back with a bit of a twist. For the rest of the season, you’re going to hear actors read essays, but you’re also going to hear from musicians, writers, filmmakers, relationship experts, all kinds of creative and brilliant people who are thinking about love and making art about it.

Kicking us off today is writer Celeste Ng. She’s the author of three best-selling books. You may have heard of them. “Everything I Never Told You,” Little Fires Everywhere,” and most recently, “Our Missing Hearts.” Now, I know that Celeste is acclaimed in the literary fiction world, but the thing about her books is they’re also absolutely engrossing. I actually — This is kind of embarrassing. But I actually distinctly remember that I was reading “Little Fires Everywhere” when it first came out and I was reading it while walking and I bonked into a pole. It actually really hurt, but it was worth it. Because I was so completely absorbed in the world Celeste had created, I didn’t want to leave.

The way she captures the messy bonds between parents and children constantly surprises me and sucks me in. Today, Celeste reads a “Modern Love” essay about exactly that bond, a mother trying desperately to reach her child.

Celeste Ng, welcome to “Modern Love.”

celeste ng

Thank you so much for having me on.

anna martin

So, Celeste, before we get to the reading, there’s this piece of trivia floating around about you that I need to talk to you about. It’s that you are a miniaturist, you make tiny things as a hobby.

celeste ng

I do. That is true. I can officially confirm it.

anna martin

Tell me what that means. What are you making? What’s your Process

celeste ng

Well, I had a dollhouse when I was little. It used to be my sister’s. And when she outgrew it, I took it from her. And I just have always loved little things. I’ve loved making them, playing with them. I don’t have a dollhouse now, but there was a time when I was in college and then grad school where I was making little miniature foods out of polymer clay and I was selling them on the then brand new site eBay. And that was how I was kind of making some side money so that I could go out to eat every once in a while when I was in college. And now I just do it for fun. There’s something about small things that just fascinates me.

anna martin

I too am a big small thing fan, which is fun to say, a big small thing fan. What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever made?

celeste ng

One of the things that I made that I’m still fond of is I made a very small dim sum set. So it’s like a Chinese brunch. It’s a thing that I do with my family. And at least at the time when I was making miniatures, there was a lot of Thanksgiving turkey, there was a lot of green beans, a lot of hot dogs. There was no Chinese food. So I made a set and I gave it to my mom, actually, and she still has it.

anna martin

Are you making these things with tweezers? How are you getting the sort of details and the tiny, tiny bao buns for example?

celeste ng

Oh, well, I used tiny little tools, but really it’s just a matter of working in the clay and getting used to working in that small of a scale to get the little ripples of like a don tot, which is an egg tart, or the kind of bready texture of a bao, something like that.

anna martin

Did you have the bamboo containers as well? Did you make that?

celeste ng

I think I made them out of a manila folder that I then sort of painted to look like the bamboo of the steamer.

anna martin

That is so cute.

celeste ng

I always think some people have what I call the tiny things gene and some people don’t where you’re like, oh, my god, that’s amazing, How did you do that?

anna martin

100 percent.

celeste ng

And some people are like, oh, it’s really small. OK.

anna martin

Well, it’s very clear that I have that gene. Why do you think you’re so drawn to tiny things? Like, Where does that gene come from in you?

celeste ng

I’ve been poking at that myself because I’m hoping that I will be able to work miniatures into a project. I’m still kind of figuring out how that’s going to work. But one of the things that miniatures opens up for me at least is that it’s an excuse to pay attention. If you’re going to make something in miniature, you have to spend a lot of time really looking at it. What color is it really? What shape is it? What is that texture look like? It’s very much what brings me to fiction actually is just that I like to observe the world, and this is one way of doing it.

In order to recreate it in miniature, you have to observe really carefully. One of the things that I love about miniatures is that you often use them to tell a story. People who do have miniature scenes, or room boxes, or dollhouses, they often like to set up the things to sort of give you clues about, Who’s living there? What is this person like?

anna martin

Like a snapshot of life. Yeah.

celeste ng

Exactly. And that’s very much I think how I approach my fiction is I think about it through the people who are there. What are they like? What can you tell about them based on what they leave behind, or the kind of place that they surround themselves with?

anna martin

Well, I’m sure if there had been a “Modern Love” essay all about the world of miniatures, you would have chosen that to read today. But the essay you did choose does have some pretty uncanny connections to your life and to your work. It’s called “Bringing a Daughter Back From the Brink With Poems.” Now, I don’t want to give too much away before we hear you read the essay. But just to sort of set the emotional mood, if I asked you — and I’m sorry. This is a tough question, but you’re a writer. I know you can handle it. If I asked you to describe this essay in three words, what three words would you choose?

celeste ng

Well, I definitely say motherhood, poetry, and then I guess I would say persistence.

anna martin

That is a perfect miniature preview into the essay we’re about to hear you read. Celeste, take it away whenever you’re ready.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

celeste ng

“Bringing a Daughter Back From the Brink With Poems” by Betsy MacWhinney.

When George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, my 13-year-old daughter, Marissa, was so angry that she stopped wearing shoes. She chose the most ineffective rebellion imaginable. Two little bare feet against the world. She declared that she wouldn’t wear shoes again until we had a new president.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I had learned early in motherhood that it’s not worth fighting with your children about clothes, so I watched silently as she strode off barefoot each morning, walking down the long gravel driveway in the cold, rainy darkness to wait for the bus. The principal called me a few times, declaring that Marissa had to start wearing shoes or she would be suspended. I passed the messages on, but my daughter continued her barefoot march.

After about four months, she donned shoes without comment. I didn’t ask why. I wasn’t sure if wearing shoes was a sign of failure or maturity. Asking her seemed like it could add unnecessary insult to injury.

But all of her rebellion that year wasn’t quite so harmless. I feared she was acting out in dangerous ways. As we walked through the grocery store one day, she reached out for an avocado, causing her sleeve to fall back, revealing a scary-looking scab on her wrist along the meridian where a watch band would be. I grabbed her hand. “Oh, Marissa. You must be in a lot of pain.” She looked away, saying nothing. I tried to squelch a wave of nausea chilled by the knowledge that my daughter was harming herself. I did what parents do. I engaged with professionals and took their advice. Marissa went to a counselor alone, and we went to a different one together.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I felt a pit of horror in my stomach as a psychiatrist told me in front of Marissa, “She shouldn’t be left alone, and she shouldn’t be allowed to handle anything dangerous. No knives. If you have any medication in the home, keep it locked up and away from her.” Later that evening, we were unloading the dishwasher together. Her on one side, me on the other. I unconsciously passed her a sharp knife to put away. “Mom, Are you sure you can trust me with this?” she said jokingly. I had held it together pretty well up to that point, at least in front of her, but started sobbing uncontrollably when she said that. She looked surprised and gave me a hug. “I’ll be OK,” she promised.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I started Tuesday night dinners to which I’d invite everyone we knew who would be fine with the chaotic scene of a weekday family dinner. Sometimes three people would show, sometimes 20. And we would eat the kind of simple food that a working mother can throw together between getting home at 5:00 PM and having people arrive at 5:30. The parents of her friends would come with their teenagers, and at least for that one evening the house was lively with people. I wanted life to come to her. I wanted her to float on the current of rich connections. Other evenings were filled with sullen, delicate silences punctuated by minor conflicts, me resisting the urge to ask how she was doing, because I was afraid of what I might learn, and her courageously struggling to understand teenage-hood.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

As she played the guitar in her bedroom, I tried not to lurk outside the closed door. But when the music stopped, I had to breathe through my panic, wondering if she was still safe.

It wasn’t clear to Marissa whether she should bother growing up. She would ask me, “Do you like your life?” Her tone implied judgment of my life without her having to spell it out. “You drive, work in a cubicle, do chores, and are terminally single. What’s the point?” One day, my son came home from school talking about vandalism that had occurred at the elementary school. “Someone spray painted stuff all over the schoolyard,” he said. “Things like, ‘Too many bushes, not enough trees.’”

I glanced sideways at Marissa. She met my eyes and looked down, confirming my suspicions. I’m no fan of vandalism, but I was actually glad to learn she cared that much about something.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

It turns out she did the deed with a boy who was caught and required to pay a fine. I asked my daughter to call the boy’s family and confess, which she did, and offered to pay half the fine, which they accepted.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I started leaving poems in her shoes in the morning. She had used the shoes as a form of quiet protest. So I decided I would use them to make a quiet stand for hope. When one of your primary strategies as a parent involves leaving Wendell Berry’s “Mad Farmer Liberation Front” in your child’s shoe, it’s clear things aren’t going well.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

What I wanted her to know is people have been in pain before, struggle to find hope, and look what they’ve done with it. They made poetry that landed right in your shoe, the same shoe you didn’t wear for four months because of your despair. Before she went to school in the morning, I wanted her to read the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver that talks about not having to be good and not having to walk on your knees for miles repenting. As Ms. Oliver writes, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Or this from Mr. Berry, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Would that matter to her? Would she get my message that the world loved her and she should really try to start loving it back? I wasn’t going to talk her out of how dire things were on the planet, But could she even so find reasons to put shoes on each day? Raising a child who had no hope for the future seemed like my biggest failure ever.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I normally don’t invite poetry into my daily life. As an ecologist, I embrace science. But all I had to offer her at that point were the thoughts of others who struggled to make a meaningful life and had put those thoughts into the best, sparest words they could. It suddenly struck me the one who loves science, data, facts, and reason, that when push comes to shove, it was poetry I could count on. Poetry knew where hope lived and could elicit that lump in the throat that reminds me it’s all worth it. Science couldn’t do that.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I believed inexplicably that it was urgent to deliver the perfect words in her shoe each day. It felt like her life depended on it. One day, I called in late to work so I could purchase scissors and a glue stick from a gas station minimart. I took the supplies and a stack of discarded magazines into a cheap restaurant to drink bad coffee and assemble poems in the form of a ransom note, as if my daughter had been kidnapped and I had to disguise the writing to get her back. I frantically searched for the word “bones” so I could nod to her budding sexuality with Roethke’s, “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones.” But superstitiously, I didn’t want to clip the word “bones” from a grisly headline.

I hope no one would ask why I was late because I had no idea where to begin, how to explain.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

For a few weeks, Marissa didn’t comment on the poems. She had to know I was doing it because she had to remove the poems from her shoe before putting them on in the morning. I felt encouraged, though, when I’d find a well-worn, many-times-folded poem in her pocket as I did the laundry. As the days grew longer, she became more involved in life. She made plans, took up running, planted seeds, decorated her room. I could see that her putting on the shoes wasn’t defeat, but maturity. At some point, I knew she had come out of a long, dark tunnel. I also knew it wouldn’t be her last tunnel.

The most optimistic people often struggle the hardest. They can’t quite square what’s going on in the world with their beliefs and the disparity is alarming.

She was temporarily swamped at the intersection of grief over a bleak political landscape, transition to a mediocre high school, and the vast existential questions of a curious adolescent. In retrospect, my poetry project was a harmless sideline that kept me out of her way as she struggled, not just to see the horizon, but to march bravely toward it. A few years ago, she was interviewed to join a group of students on a long trip to Sierra Leone. The professor explained that it was likely to be a very difficult time, far from home with physical and mental hardship. “What would you do,” he asked Marissa, “if you get to the abyss and it begins talking?”

“Well,” she replied, “I would have a lot of questions for the abyss, indeed.”

[MUSIC PLAYING]

anna martin

After the break, more from Celeste Ng.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

celeste ng

I love this essay. This essay is magnificent.

anna martin

Isn’t it so good?

celeste ng

Amazing essay, amazing parenting, just amazing insight. I love it.

anna martin

I love that you have such strong feelings about it. And in fact, when you chose this essay, you said to us that it couldn’t be more perfect. What makes this essay so perfect for you?

celeste ng

Well, it touches on a lot of themes that I deal with in my own work, but that also are a really big part of my life. It touches on, first of all, the experience of parenting, both my relationship with my own parents and then my relationship with my child now. It’s such a small word it sounds, like, oh, it’s just parenting, that’s it, but what you’re really doing is you’re trying to make a human being who knows how to go out in the world, and to manage on their own, and hopefully make the world better.

anna martin

In her essay, Betsy spends most of her time quite terrified. She’s trying to reach her daughter, Marissa. She’s trying to give her hope, while at the same time, she really is acknowledging that her daughter has a point, the world is broken in so many ways. Who do you find yourself relating to more? Betsy, the mom, or Marissa, the daughter, or both?

celeste ng

Honestly, both. I mean, I remember feeling much as it seems like Marissa does in this essay as a teenager and, frankly, sometimes still as an adult. When I was a teenager, I also would get sort of really passionately angry about things that were going on. And yet, as a teenager, you don’t really have a ton of agency to do anything about that. I would learn that we had dropped missiles on yet another group of people for some kind of inexplicable reason. And I was really angry about it. And so I went through a phase where I was — my parents call my hippie phase, where I was a vegetarian, I was doing all these things and you’re doing all the things that we associate with, oh, teenagers being teenagers.

But for me, they were a way of trying to align my life with the things that felt important to me, right? Caring about the world, about the environment, about other people. And I had poetry-related rebellions as well actually.

anna martin

Really?

celeste ng

There was a period of time when I was very frustrated with the world and I went around writing quotes from T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” and sticking them onto the bulletin boards at my school surreptitiously. And then by the time I got out of class, someone would have torn, the custodians would have torn them down.

anna martin

What was the line that you were writing on it? Do you remember?

celeste ng

There were a couple. I mean, one of them was the famous, “Have I measured out my life with coffee spoons?” There’s another one. It was, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” I —

anna martin

Celeste, Celeste. This is so — It’s so funny. Because, OK, Betsey’s daughter spray paints, “Too many bushes, not enough trees,” and you’re going around putting, honestly, beautiful lines of T.S. Eliot poetry being like, take that.

celeste ng

So I felt Marissa very deeply there. I think there’s this feeling as a teenager of becoming aware of what’s in the world and, yet, you really don’t yet have any real power to do anything about it. And so, in some ways, all you’ve got is words and your own body, your shoes, right, or your wrists. And that’s a tension of adolescence I think that I keep coming back to in my own writing because I think it’s so powerful. You’re at the moment of becoming an adult and you’re just trying to figure out what you can do with this love, and this anger, and this desire to make things better.

But now that I’m a parent, I also really felt for her mother. The sense of knowing that your child needs something, but not knowing how you can give it to them and maybe realizing that you can’t give it to them. This is just something they have to figure out for themselves. I think most parents would wish that they could just wave a magic wand and have their child avoid all of the potholes that they fell into in their own teenage-hood, right? But the truth is that the kids have to go through it themselves. I think about things my parents said when I was a teenager, and my basic response was, “Why are you telling me this?”

And now as an adult, I’m like, “Oh, you were trying to steer me around that pothole.”

anna martin

Do you remember a specific thing they said that comes to mind when you mentioned that?

celeste ng

I’m trying to think. I was a very impatient teenager. And I remember there was one time where my mom just said to me, “You need to learn to be more tolerant of other people. You just have to be more patient.” And I think I kind of went, “Oh, whatever,” if I responded verbally at all. But she was right. And I guess it sank in because I do remember that moment. I remember thinking at the time going like, “Well, there’s all this stuff wrong. You can’t be tolerant of it. And if you’re tolerant about it, then you’re not doing it right.” It was a very 15-year-old response.

And it’s not wrong, but I could see that she had the perspective now that, like, there’s going to be a lot of fights and a lot of those fights will be very long. And in some ways, you have to kind of pace yourself. You can’t just run into one wall and expect that it’s going to fall over. And now I see that as her kind of trying to give me some of that perspective, but I couldn’t I couldn’t see things from that perspective yet because I hadn’t grown enough.

anna martin

Talking about as a teenager and another sort of line or resonance I see between this essay and your life is that Betsy is an ecologist, she’s a scientist, and your own parents were scientists, correct?

celeste ng

Yeah. My dad was a physicist. He actually worked at NASA.

anna martin

Wow.

celeste ng

My mom was — I guess, she would say is still a chemist, although she’s retired. So they’re both very rationally minded and scientifically minded.

anna martin

I was going to say Betsy writes in her essay that because of her science brain, she didn’t totally have the words to speak to her daughter Marissa. So she used the words of poets to try to get through to her. As a kid, did you feel like your parents ever struggled to figure out how to communicate with you in any way?

celeste ng

I think so. Partly, it’s a cultural thing because my parents were immigrants, so they came over from Hong Kong. I think frequently about how I will never have a conversation with my mother in her mother tongue, which is Cantonese. And there was also I think sort of a thought difference. But I think that from them. I really learned how to think like a scientist in some ways. It’s just not my natural mode of expressing myself. And so what struck me most about the essay I think was that even though the author was like, “I’m an ecologist. I don’t think that way,” she still felt the power of poetry and she still found these poems.

I think there’s something about poetry that really comes in sideways at us, and it gets around that rational bodyguard who’s at the front door of our brain and it sneaks its way in and it jabs us in the heart in a good way, though. And I think for my parents that was true as well. Even though they were scientists, they both loved reading, and we had books piled everywhere in our house. So there is something about that language that even if you think you’re rational, it’s getting to you somehow.

anna martin

Betsy chose the poets Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver to try to help Marissa navigate this world that was causing her pain, this adolescence that was bringing her pain. What do you think Betsy was trying to tell her daughter with these choices? What was she trying to tell her?

celeste ng

I read those poems as kind of — giving perspective sounds like such a condescending thing. But I think I’ve dealt with depression in my life in college and afterwards, and then I had postpartum depression. And so I’ve had a lot of times in which I’ve felt like the world was out of control, like I was in that long dark tunnel like Betsy talks about. And one of the things I realized that depression can do is it makes all of your problems the same size. So you’re literally — you’re losing perspective, right? You can’t tell what’s close up and really big and about to eat you and what’s really far away.

And one of the things I see both of those poems doing is in some ways kind of narrowing your view just a little bit. So in the Wendell Berry, for example, he says, “Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees,” right? He’s like just think about these little, little things. And he gets more and more specific as the poem goes on. He says, “Go with your love to the fields, lie easy in the shade, rest your head in her lap.” There’s this sense of the world getting smaller and more manageable in a way, saying, all that stuff is going on, but — It’s almost a permission both of these poems I think to feel pain, to feel that depression, to feel that anxiety or that hopelessness, and yet also look for ways to push through it.

anna martin

I really love what you’re saying. I think it’s so important that both of these poems don’t deny the pain, or the loneliness, or the alienation, or the suffering, or the terror of the world. But they say, like, there is this way, like you’re saying this small, individual way forward.

celeste ng

Yeah. I want to say also — I want to give Betsy a little more credit than she gives herself, which is that I think that often people who are in the sciences or the more hard subjects as they call them in book publishing, I think they tend to think that they’re opposites sort of like the writers, the artists, the poets, and I think that artists, and writers, and poets think of the sciences as their polar opposite too, but I actually think they’re much more closely related than it seems like they are. One of the things that I learned from my own parents is that you are dealing with big questions of the universe. How does the world work? How does this process work? But what you’re doing in your daily life almost always is you’re working on one very small piece of that puzzle.

anna martin

I’m so struck, Celeste. We started our conversation talking about miniatures and how they force you to focus on the small details. And it strikes me that we’ve returned again to the idea of the small, right? I just have one last question for you, Celeste. I know that you have a son. He’s a teenager. If you were thinking about words that you want him to carry through life, through hard times, Are there pieces of writing that you would put in his shoe?

celeste ng

There are. I pulled up one of my favorites, which is actually another Mary Oliver poem, which is called “When Death Comes.” And although the title, if you haven’t read the poem, sounds sort of morbid and despairing, what she’s saying is when death comes, she wants to feel like she’s lived a life. There’s a line in here where she says, “I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering, What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?” And she talks about how when she goes through life, she wants to know that she’s paid attention in a way.

She says, “When it’s over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom taking the world into my arms. When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing, and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up having simply visited this world.” And I think that’s maybe the best life advice that I can give to my own kid or to anyone, which is just sort of while you’ve got it, the purpose of life is living and doing what you can while you’re here. And there’s lots of reasons to be afraid, but there’s also lots of reasons to try anyway. That’s a message that I would put into his shoe. I don’t know if he’d read it, but he might think about it, right? You never know with parenting.

anna martin

He’d be like, “Mom, there’s this weird paper in my shoe.”

celeste ng

Yeah. “Mom, you left your paper in my shoe.” But that’s such a metaphor for parenting too, right? You say all these things and you don’t know what you say that’s going to stick with your kid or be meaningful. And so in some ways, you leave the notes in the shoes and you hope that your kids take them and put them in their pockets and carry them around for a while.

anna martin

Celeste, I could talk to you for so much longer, but I’m just going to say at this juncture, you’ve given me hope, you truly have. Thank you so much for this conversation.

celeste ng

Thank you, Anna. This was so fun and such a joy.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

anna martin

Next week, we continue our “Modern Love” anniversary party with the heart-stopping voice of singer songwriter Brittany Howard.

brittany howard

Love is still an adventure. The feeling of sending that text, and then running through your house like, eeee.

celeste ng

“Modern Love” is produced by Julia Botero, Cristina Josa, Riva Goldberg, Davis Land, and Emily Lange, with help from Kate LoPresti. It’s edited by our executive producer Jen Poyant and Paula Szuchman. The “Modern Love” theme music is by Dan Powell. Original music by Dan Powell, Pat McCusker, and Marion Lozano. This episode was mixed by Daniel Ramirez. Our show was recorded by Maddy Masiello. Digital production by Mahima Chablani and Nell Gollogly. The “Modern Love” column is edited by Daniel Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of “Modern Love” projects. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.

[MUSIC PLAYING]


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