I remember the distinct moment I had become aware that I had taken the cultural turn. I was a teaching assistant in an Asian-American studies class in which the students were required to read a particular immigrant narrative. The monograph worked in a kind of social history mode, illuminating the corners of society left out of the traditional archive. But at the same time, it was an exceptional narrative that grated my budding post-structural sensibilities. Several times in that semester, I stewed in my juices as students encountered tales from below, ones that humanized the “forever foreign” while reifying certain narratives of progress, success, and agency.[ref]The professor was fantastic and I don’t mean to suggest her pedagogical approach was illegitimate. I just realized at that time that I had very different questions to ask.[/ref]
Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, on the other hand, is my favorite kind of immigrant narrative. It succeeds in balancing the voices of its characters with demonstrations of all the ways in which they can’t speak.
It’s a simple story that begins in 1970s Ohio, where a family discovers that its teenage daughter, Lydia, is missing. You quickly learn that Lydia is dead, and that she appears to have been deceiving her parents about the extent to which her life was “normal.” Her parents, a Chinese-American father and white mother, had no idea how their expectations, and in particular Lydia’s mothers unfulfilled dreams, had weighed on Lydia’s shoulders. The novel progresses to answer the question of how Lydia died. But it also explores the weights that bear down on all of the characters, in particular: Lydia, the mother whose aspirations didn’t fit with fifties America’s expectations of women, and James, her husband, a successful professor who nevertheless feels the sting of racism and his own dreams deferred.
It may spoil the book to say that there are no outright villains, only the cruelty of circumstances beyond one’s control. “You never got what you wanted; you just learned to get by without it,” thinks James as he struggles to deal with his daughter’s death (196). James, we learn, studies the culture of American cowboys. But he’s a long way from today’s American Studies scholars; he appears to be wholly seduced by the narrative. He longs for the escape and the mobility that, as we know, is all but a myth.
All this makes Celeste Ng’s novel sound pretty grim, and it sort of is. But if it offers a lesson beyond James aforementioned one, it lies in the title; the problems of the characters are as much the result of breakdowns in communication as they are the result of the oppressiveness of being ones that don’t belong. The Lee family might have stuck together, and formed a kind of collective against their hostile surroundings, but instead they each retreat into shells, the parents making clear to their children their expectations while keeping their empathy opaque.
Next month’s Indie Bookstore Paperback Read:
I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic literary fiction — think Zone One by Colson Whitehead, or Margaret Atwood’s Madaddam trilogy — so when I saw this was out in paperback, it was a no-brainer. It’s Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, and it’s received some very good reviews. In the meantime, I’m reading an early book by one of my favorite authors: The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat. So far it’s great, and I highly recommend her latest, Claire of the Sea Light.