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“Memory at its Core”: An Interview with Celeste Ng

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Six years ago, the Poetry and Literature Center celebrated its historic 75th anniversary by introducing a host of new online features, including its Interview Series. Between 2012 and 2015, the Center’s staff, interns, and friends across the Library of Congress engaged 16 emerging and established literary writers in dynamic and thought-provoking conversation.

Over the past year, with a team of dedicated new editors, we’ve been dreaming up plans for a relaunched series. Today, we’re excited to bring you the first in this newly envisioned feature: a conversation with novelist and short story writer Celeste Ng. Conducted by our new Interview Series fiction editor, Phebe Miner, the conversation probes the author’s ties to memory, identity, and the other forces at play in her work.

If you’re headed to the National Book Festival on Saturday, make sure to catch Celeste Ng on the Fiction Stage at 6:45 pm. Right now, read these introductory words from fiction editor Phebe Miner before you settle in for a generous conversation with Celeste Ng:

Celeste Ng. Photo credit: Kevin Day.

Often, we read fiction because we are searching for insight into the human experience. A novel allows us to relate to characters whose backgrounds and circumstances differ from ours, and through this, we discover new perspectives. Although well-written fiction stands on its own, haven’t we all read a piece of captivating prose and wished desperately that we could probe the author’s mind for her motivation or her method? This Interview Series seeks to create a space for contemporary fiction writers to share the challenges, inspiration, and joy of their process in a way that is accessible to everyone. For me, it’s both a privilege and profound learning experience to be able to converse with writers about their work—particularly, as in the case of Celeste Ng, when that work has such a meaningful place in our cultural moment.

I read both of Celeste’s acclaimed novels, Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere, back to back. I was struck by how these books, different in story and cast of characters, seemed to complement each other. In her interview, Celeste discusses some of the thematic elements that stitch her work together, and in doing so she draws back the curtain on her own experiences. Celeste’s generous and thoughtful responses in this interview invite her readers to engage further with her stories.

Not only were Celeste’s books critically acclaimed—both were best-sellers. In a landscape that often falls short of productive representation, two literary novels featuring Asian-American characters have a place on every shelf. “There’s tremendous value in seeing marginalized characters depicted within their own communities,” writes Celeste in her interview. “When a book is explicitly about how marginalized culture and dominant culture interact, it’s much harder to stay detached and voyeuristic [. . .] You’re asked to think in terms of the larger picture, and you can’t pretend that a marginalized group’s experience is totally separate and other from yours—because, in fact, it isn’t.” Throughout this interview series, expect to hear perspectives from more authors who, like Celeste Ng, bring a new voice to the discussion that is impossible to ignore.

Read Phebe’s interview with Celeste Ng, and look out for more Interview Series conversations in the coming months!