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Celeste Ng on her latest novel 'Our Missing Hearts'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Celeste Ng's new novel opens with a preteen boy and a sense of foreboding, a la The Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act, or PACT, looms over everything.

CELESTE NG: (Reading) The letter arrives on a Friday, slit and resealed with a sticker, of course, as all their letters are. Inspected for your safety - PACT. It had caused confusion at the post office, the clerk unfolding the paper inside, steadying it, passing it up to his supervisor, then the boss. But eventually, it had been deemed harmless and sent on its way. No return address, only a New York, New York postmark six days old. On the outside, his name - Bird. And because of this, he knows it is from his mother.

RASCOE: His mother, a poet and an activist. She's been gone for years. In this dystopia, violating PACT, even questioning the law, puts families at risk. Authorities remove children from their homes, assign them to new families. Their parents have no idea where they are. The novel is called "Our Missing Hearts," and author Celeste Ng joins us now to talk about it. Hello.

NG: Hi. Thanks so much for having me on.

RASCOE: Introduce us to Bird. What is going on in his life when we meet him?

NG: Sure. So Bird is 12, and he is living in a version of America that's like ours but maybe with the volume turned up a little bit - is the best way I can explain it. It's a world that recently went through a period of economic turmoil and the social turmoil that comes along with it, and as the country has recovered, one of the things that sort of helped them recover is this sense of nationalism. They're really looking at China as their economic enemy, their political enemy. So when the novel opens, Bird is growing up without his mother. His mother has left the family some years before. And she's Chinese American, and his father is white, so he's multiracial. And he gets a letter from his mother, as we heard in that paragraph, and he starts wondering about where she is, why she's gone, and he's sort of drawn into a quest to find her.

RASCOE: You mentioned that the society where this is set, it's kind of like the United States that we live in today, but you said with the volume turned up. You know, a lot of these things are very recognizable to our times. I mean, there has been anti-Asian violence. There has been child separation. What led you to build the novel around those sorts of things?

NG: A lot of those are issues that are not academic to me. They're personal. My family is Chinese American. My parents are immigrants from Hong Kong. And then I am a parent as well, and I think that as for many parents, one of the worst things I can imagine is being separated from my child. And so when my mind started thinking in that direction, I started imagining, you know, what might that world be like? And then I started looking at history and finding, as you said, how many examples there are in our past, in the past of other countries and, frankly, still in our present, all kinds of ways that these prejudices are enacted in law. So everything that's in the book has its roots in something that's happened in our past or elsewhere in the world or a lot of times, things that are happening right now.

RASCOE: And I guess one of the things is that there doesn't seem to really be outrage about the fact that these children are being taken.

NG: Yeah, there's this sense, I think, in this world that, oh, if that actually happens, it must be some kind of egregious case. It must not happen that often. They probably deserved it. You know, there's a lot of rationalizations, I think, that we have. If we have had trust in those institutions before, that, well, they must be doing it for a good reason. That was something that I really wanted to explore in the novel, people's willingness to turn an unseen eye, to not get involved.

RASCOE: There's also, like, a lot of discussion about language and, like, the roots of words in this book. Bird's father Ethan is a linguist, and he's fascinated by the roots of words, because - like, as a way to understand the world. But Bird's mother, she's a poet. Her collection of poems is called "Our Missing Hearts." It says that for her, quote, "The magic was not what words had been, but what they were capable of, their ability to sketch with one sweeping brush stroke the contours of an experience, the form of a feeling." Is that what words were to you?

NG: Yeah. I had a Latin teacher in seventh and eighth grade. We had to take Latin class, and she taught us about the histories of words and the ways that words sort of carry these layers of stories with them, inside them, and how they're always changing. I don't think that I would have become a writer without being aware of those kinds of metaphors that every single word we use has within it. And so those are the two aspects of language that kind of came out in me in these two different characters, both the history and then the potential of what they could be.

NG: Bird's family, especially his mother, Margaret, like, they've gotten tied up in this movement against PACT, and her words are used by those protesting how children are taken away from families. Do you feel like art is an effective act of protest, that that's enough to move the world, to change the world?

NG: I don't know that art by itself is enough to sort of magically change people's minds, but what I hope is that if it can get people questioning and thinking and connecting with other people, that might be something that will get them to take action. I think art can touch us emotionally sometimes. It kind of blindsides us, but in a good way. And when you sit with those feelings, that might be one of the things that pushes you in the right direction.

RASCOE: Celeste Ng. Her latest novel is "Our Missing Hearts." Thank you so much for joining us.

NG: Thank you so much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.