Celeste Ng wishes she could call it a dystopia. That's how she used to think about the dark world she was crafting in her new novel, "Our Missing Hearts."
Then the real world darkened.
And the setting in Ng's book — an alternate version of the United States, where Asian Americans are scapegoated and beaten, where books are banned and pulped — became less imagined and more imminent.
"It feels less and less like a dystopia to me," Ng said ahead of her Talking Volumes appearance in St. Paul this month. "It feels like where we might be in 10 minutes."
Speculative fiction is new for Ng. The 42-year-old author is known for page-turners — including the blockbuster "Little Fires Everywhere" — that tease apart the knotty family dynamics at the heart of their central mysteries.
"Our Missing Hearts," out this month, is a sweeping thriller about the dangers of racism and authoritarianism. But it's also an intimate story about a boy and his mother.
When she started the novel in the fall of 2016, the characters came first, Ng said.
"In my mind then, it was a pretty conventional mother-son story," she said during a Zoom call from her home in Cambridge, Mass., where the novel is set. "I had written about mothers and daughters, and I wanted to try writing about a mother and a son."
Then President Donald Trump won. Families were separated at the border. White supremacist groups came out of hiding.
Almost unintentionally, her fledgling novel began incorporating and spinning forward "the really dark things that were rising up," she said. After an economic catastrophe known as "the Crisis," the United States of her novel is living under the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act, an expansive law that allows the government to "re-place" children of parents deemed to be dissident, removing them from their homes.
Amid these politics, a 12-year-old boy named Bird searches for his mother, Margaret Miu, whose poetry became a rallying cry of the resistance.
At first, Ng hesitated to lean into the dystopia, partly because she had never written anything that didn't feel strictly realistic: "It was a stretch for me."
But she appreciated the clarity it offered. "You often can't see what's going on in your own relationship, your own life," she said. "But you can see it in somebody else's relationship or somebody else's life — it's really obvious.
"Speculative fiction can kind of hold our world at a distance, and we can see it better there."
Libraries shine a light
In Ng's novel, the libraries are sanctuaries, the librarians heroes.
Bird breathes in "the peculiar smell of the library: a mix of dust and leather and melted vanilla ice cream. Warm, like the scent of someone's skin."
Ng's parents, who emigrated from Hong Kong in the 1960s, were scientists, "but they were also book people."
As a kid, she checked out from the library "as many books as I could carry." As a middle-schooler, she spent many afternoons at the library in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the setting of "Little Fires Everywhere." As a college student, she shelved books.
Then, as an author, she would write in the Cambridge Public Library, where Bird's father works in "Our Missing Hearts," its shelves achingly empty. She happened to sit near the reference librarians and would hear them talking to patrons.
"There was one time — sorry, I will stop with the library anecdotes after this, but I love them — there was a librarian who was on the phone ... " she began. Ng realized that she was talking with an elderly person, patiently walking her through using Google Maps, starting with entering the website's name in the box at the top of the page. "Finally, the librarian was like, 'Would it be easier if I just read these directions to you, and you wrote them down?"
"I found that really moving," Ng said.
So when Ng was weighing who would play a key role in her novel's resistance movement, helping people like Bird find information at a time when information was deemed dangerous, librarians seemed obvious.
That resistance takes surprising forms.
At one point Bird "looks for signs of the disruption — craters, scorched buildings, broken glass," she writes. "Nothing. Then, as they cross the street back towards the dorm, Bird sees it on the ground; spray painted, blood-red against the asphalt, right in the center of the intersection. The size of a car, impossible to miss. A heart, he realizes, just like the banner in Brooklyn. And circling it this time, a ring a words. BRING BACK OUR MISSING HEARTS.
"A tingle snakes across his skin."
That reflects Ng's belief that "you can do small things, and they still matter." She tries for that in her own life by recycling, masking — "your cliched, liberal things."
"We need people who will do the capital-R resistance, right? That is important," she said. But there's also a place for a softer resistance, she continued, that hits you emotionally.
Paintings, poetry, a story well told.
The only way Ng could psych herself into finishing her first book, "Everything I Never Told You," is by telling herself that no one would ever read it.
It became a bestseller.
The first page of that 2014 novel, about a multiracial, Chinese-American family living in small-town Ohio, sets up the mystery: How did middle daughter Lydia drown?
But it quickly becomes clear that Ng is interested in questions not so easily solved: How does expectation weigh on a child? Why would make a mother leave her children? Why, in a family, does the important stuff so often remain unsaid?
Ng was surprised by how many people, upon reading that novel told her, "I didn't realize that Asians faced discrimination," she said. "And my response was always, 'I'm really happy that you're thinking about this now.'
"But it's true that for many people, race and discrimination in the U.S. is largely about black and white. The Asian population, I think, is often not seen."
With "Our Missing Hearts," Ng centers a multiracial family that looks even more like her own, down to her son, now 12 years old. She draws from past, government-sanctioned racism. And she reflects recent attacks, such as a 65-year-old woman being kicked and stomped on her way to church.
Ng has used her fame to advocate for Asian Americans writers, on book jackets and on Twitter, where she has nearly 200,000 followers. When the organizer of an event commented on the scarcity of authors like her, saying "There aren't a lot of you out there," she responded by publishing a list of more than 200 Asian American writers.
After best-of lists and a Reese Witherspoon anointing and a Hulu series, it's impossible to pretend that no one will read her next book. And she has a greater sense of responsibility now, she said, to do right by certain groups of readers.
But Ng is still writing for herself, she said. Posing questions, interrogating answers.
"I'm going into each of these stories trying to understand something that I don't understand," she said. "That's my way of trying to make sense of the world."
Our Missing Hearts
By: Celeste Ng.
Publisher: Penguin Press, $29.
Event: Ng will appear at Talking Volumes, 7 p.m. Oct. 26, $30-28. Musical guest: Meghan Kreidler. Tickets at https://www.mprevents.org/event/talking-volumes-with-celeste-ng/