Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Debut Novel Focuses on Racial Isolation

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Debut Novel Focuses on Racial Isolation

Article excerpt

Celeste Ng (pronounced "ing") spent the first nine years of her life in the Pittsburgh suburb of South Park and recalls frequent visits to Century III Mall where her parents, who were academics, shopped enthusiastically at B. Dalton's and Waldenbooks.

"Our house was just crammed full of books," said the writer, whose debut novel, "Everything I Never Told You," made The New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2014 and was Amazon's 2014 book of year. Ms. Ng, 34, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., speaks Monday at 7 p.m. at Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland.

Her novel, set in 1977, focuses on the Lee family. There's Marilyn, an American woman who ignored her mother's advice and married James, who is Chinese; the couple's two daughters, Lydia and Hannah; and a son, Nath. Members of the mixed-race family try hard to blend into the vanilla atmosphere of a college town in Ohio. But the Lees remain outsiders, and their sense of isolation is palpable.

As the story opens, Lydia Lee drowns in a lake and so does her mother's fervent hope that her daughter will become a doctor. Among surviving family members, the death of this promising high school student dredges up intense resentment, bitter truths and harsh anger. Who knew the word kowtow was so loaded?

As a child, Ms. Ng often visited the gargantuan dinosaurs at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland, where she nurtured a dream of becoming a paleontologist. She compared the job of structuring her novel, which went through four drafts before it sold, to one of the major tasks that paleontologists confront.

"There is a story and it has a shape. You dig it up and expose all the pieces and all the bones that are there and assemble them into a shape that makes sense. I had the pieces of the story. I had to figure out the right way to wire them all together," she said during a telephone interview.

The challenge, Ms. Ng said, was showing readers how the Lee family's past and present were intertwined.

"The present was calling back into the past. That took a lot of experimenting," Ms. Ng said, adding that at one point, she used color-coded index cards with strings. …

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