Code Switch
3:22 pm
Sat June 28, 2014

'Everything I Never Told You' Exposed In Biracial Family's Loss

It's May, 1977, in small-town Ohio, and the Lee family is sitting down at breakfast. James is Chinese-American and Marilyn is white, and they have three children — two girls and a boy. But on this day, their middle child Lydia, who is also their favorite, is nowhere to be found.

That's how Celeste Ng's new novel, Everything I Never Told You, begins.

It's soon discovered that Lydia has drowned in a nearby lake, in what looks like a suicide. The incident pulls the family into an emotional vortex and reveals deep cracks in their relationships with each other.

This all takes place an era when interracial marriages are only recently legal (the Supreme Court struck down interracial marriage bans in 1967). Lydia's death forces members of the Lee family to confront their individual insecurities and grapple with their identity as a biracial family in the Midwest.

But would it be very different for them today? Ng answered that question for NPR's Arun Rath, host of All Things Considered.

Ng, who is a first-generation Asian-American Midwesterner, also spoke about her own experiences growing up and about the state of the American conversation on race.


Interview Highlights

On the father's background in the novel

James is a first-generation American who grew up in California and moved with his parents, who don't speak very good English, to the middle of the country where they work at a boarding school. [He] was the only Asian in the area that he was in and has always felt like he was an outsider throughout going to this boarding school, where his parents were employees, and trying to blend in and failing. Then, going to Harvard and feeling sort of misplaced — that's something that really sort of scars him.

On the mother's experience as an outsider

Marilyn has always wanted to go in the sciences. She's always wanted to go into medicine and become a doctor, and while she went to college in the 1950s, that was a pretty difficult path. She ends up meeting James and getting pregnant and getting married and giving up that career. And [she] is never able to find her way back into the life that she had wanted.

So, she understands a little bit more than James thinks about being an outsider, about having people look at you and making certain assumptions about what you must do [and] what you must be like. I think one of the reasons they maybe misunderstand each other is because those are difficult subjects to talk about. It's difficult to say, you know, "I really feel alone." It's a really hard thing to say.

On how Ng and her parents, who emigrated from Hong Kong, dealt with being in the U.S.

My parents talked to me about it, sort of, in the sense of, "Well, you need to sort of represent your race." I think they were very aware of the fact that we were different and that people would make assumptions about our entire nationality or our entire ethnic group based on what I did. So, there was a little bit of the sense of, "OK, well you need to do well in school because otherwise people may make these assumptions about Chinese people," or, "You need to make sure to be nice to people because otherwise people might think Chinese people are rude." It seems silly when you put it that way, but that's sort of how stereotypes form.

On how Asian-Americans fit into the American conversation about race

I think in the United States we talk about race as a black and white issue. ... We're generally talking about it as if it's a binary equation whereas, in fact, there's more than two races and in fact those races blend together. There are a lot of different ways that people identify. I think as we have more interracial marriage and we become more aware of all these issues, we may start to talk about race in a more complicated way.

On whether things would be different for the fictional Lee family today than it was in the '70s and '80s

I'd like to think that things would be a little bit easier for them. We just have seen a lot more Asians [in popular culture]. ... We're aware that there's more than one kind of Asian, for example. ... And also, interracial marriage, I think, is a little bit more common now. It wouldn't necessarily be the head-turning sort of event that it is in the novel.

At the same time, I was surprised in researching the book at how recent some of our acceptance of those issues are. Gallup, for example, has done a poll on attitudes towards interracial marriage since 1958. And 1997 was the first year that a majority of Americans said that they approved of it. That was a really stunning fact for me to hear that until 1997 most people did not approve of interracial marriage. Likewise, there was a study that was done in 2001 about attitudes towards Asian-Americans. It found that 68 percent of people had a somewhat negative or very negative view of Asian-Americans. That was again very startling to me to hear that in 2001 that was the attitude that most Americans had.

So, I'd like to think that things would be easier for the Lee family in a lot of ways, but at the same time, I think that we still have quite a long way to go in terms of really having a cultural understanding in this country.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Lydia is dead, but they don't know this, yet. From that opening, the Celeste Ng's novel, "Everything I Never Told You," has the reader hooked. It's May 1977 in small-town Ohio, almost summer, and the Lee family's sitting down to breakfast. James and Marilyn Lee are with two of their three children. And Lydia, the middle child, and their favorite, is late.

James is Chinese-American, Marilyn, white in an era where interracial marriages were still banned in many states and frowned upon just about everywhere else. But the family never discusses the challenges of navigating the world as a minority or being biracial. Not only are they unaware of Lydia's death, they're oblivious to the particular pain each of them is living with.

I spoke with author Celeste Ng, a first-generation Asian-American Midwesterner herself. To start, I asked her to explain the perspective of the father of the family, James Lee.

CELESTE NG: James is a first-generation American and grew up in California and moved with his parents, who are - who don't speak very good English, to the middle of the country, where they work at a boarding school - but was the only Asian in the area that he was in and has always felt like an outsider throughout going to the boarding school, where his parents were employees and trying to blend in and failing - and then going on to Harvard and always feeling sort of misplaced. That's something that really scars him.

RATH: There's an awful moment in the book where James has this realization. And I wonder if you could read this for us. This is - Marilyn has reacted to the police's investigation of their daughter's death and utters the phrase, if it were a white girl...

NG: Yes, she said, (reading) if she were a white girl, they'd keep looking. A rock plummets into James' gut. In all their time together, white has only been the color of paper, of snow, of sugar. Chinese, if it is mentioned at all, is a kind of checkers, a kind of fire drill, a kind of takeout - one James does not care for. It does not bare discussion any more than that the sky was up or that the earth circled the sun.

He had naively thought that, unlike with Marilyn's mother, unlike with everyone else, this thing made no difference to them. Now, when she says this - if she were a white girl - it proves what James has feared all along. That inside all along, she had labeled everything - white and not white - that this thing makes all the difference in the world.

RATH: And he puts all of that on her based on that one statement. But what's wild. Could you talk a little bit about Marilyn because it's not like she's just a privileged white girl who doesn't know the kind of pain at all?

NG: Right. So Marilyn has always wanted to have a career in the sciences. She wanted to go into medicine and become a doctor. And while she was in college in 1950s, that was a pretty difficult path.

And she ends up meeting James and getting pregnant and getting married and giving up that career and is never able to find her way back into the life that she had wanted. And so she understands a little bit more than James thinks about being an outsider, about having people look at you in making certain assumptions about what you must do or what you must be like.

And I think one of the reasons they may be understand each other is because those are difficult subjects to talk about. It's difficult to say, you know, I really feel alone. It's a really hard thing to say.

RATH: Well, with you, when you were growing up, you're a first-generation American. Did your parents talk to you, you know, about what it would be like being the only Asian, potentially, in the situation? And how you would handle it? Or was it - in your family, did you keep quiet about that kind of stuff?

NG: Well, I was a first-generation American and my parents talked to me about it sort of in the sense of, well, you need to represent your race. I think, they were very aware of the fact that we were different and that people would make assumptions about our entire nationality or our entire ethnic group based on what I did.

And so there was a little bit of the sense of, OK, well, you need to do well in school because otherwise, people may make these assumptions about Chinese people. Or, well, you need to make sure to be nice to people because otherwise, people will think Chinese people are rude. It sounds silly, when you put it that way. But that's sort of how stereotypes are formed.

RATH: And I know myself growing up that it was - it was almost like, you know, race is so much a part of the American conversation, not knowing where you fit in that conversation. It was a little bit bewildering.

It was like I - well, I don't have slavery in my past. So it's - I'm not quite sure. It's almost like I want to pull back and be on the sidelines and just watch, be an observer.

NG: Exactly, I think that in the United States, we tend to think about race as a black-and-white issue. Even when we talk about it now, it tends to be about black and white. You know, when we talk about, you know, President Obama or we talk about Donald Sterling, we're generally talking about them as if it's a binary equation, whereas, in fact, there's more than two races.

And in fact, those races blend together. There are a lot of different ways that people identify. I think as we have more interracial marriage and we become more aware of all of these issues, we may start to talk about race in a more complicated way.

RATH: Now, obviously things are different now. And reading this book, there are things like the way the word Oriental is used. It's kind of jarring now, but things are also different.

There's much more of a sense of, you see people of all different ethnicities on TV and popular culture. How will things be different for the Lee family, you think, if this were today?

NG: Well, I'd like to think that things would be a little bit easier for them. As you said, you know, we're aware that there's more than one kind of Asian, for example. You know, we just have seen a lot more Asians. And there are a lot more Asians in the world doing different things.

And also an interracial marriage, I think, is a little bit more common now. It wouldn't necessarily be the head turning sort of event that it is in the novel. At the same time, I'm surprised, in researching the book, at how recent some of our acceptances of those issues are.

The - so Gallop, for example, has done a poll on attitudes towards interracial marriage, since 1958. And 1997 was the first year that a majority of Americans said that they approved of it. And that was a really stunning fact for me to hear that until 1997 most people did not approve of interracial marriage. Likewise, there was a study that was done in 2001 on attitudes towards Asian-Americans, and it found that 68 percent of people had a somewhat negative or very negative view of Asian-Americans.

That was, again, really startling to me to hear that in 2001 that was the sort of attitude that most Americans had. So I'd like to think that things would be easier for the Lee family in a lot of ways. But at the same time, I think that we have quite a long way to go in terms of really having a cultural understanding in this country.

RATH: That's Celeste Ng, author of the new book "Everything I Never Told You." It's out now. Celeste, thanks very much.

NG: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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