Celeste Ng makes the case for art as a weapon against oppression in her new novel
Celeste Ng's Our Missing Hearts is not exactly dystopian or alternate history, as many events described in her latest novel have in fact happened, or are thinly disguised versions of real-life tragedies.
"The Crisis," for example, is a worldwide economic breakdown allegedly caused by China's market manipulation, and is clearly a fictional stand-in for the pandemic. Existential threats to certain individuals or groups — a common trope in dystopian novels — are already a part of U.S. history, such as slavery, discrimination against Asians, and forced assimilation of Indigenous children. Other problems mentioned in the novel are ongoing: police brutality, racial violence and economic inequality.
Our Missing Hearts is saddled by grief. But it is also propelled by hope, less a grim prognosis of the future than an impassioned call for a full reckoning with the past.
In this sense, Ng's narrative does borrow one important element from dystopian fiction — the idea of memory erasure, imposed by a repressive regime and borne by individuals cut off from their cultural legacy.
The book begins in media res, from 12-year-old Bird Gardner's point-of-view. As befitting his name, the boy embodies Emily Dickinson's vision of hope as "the thing with feathers - / That perches in the soul - / And sings the tune without the words." Bird carries, literally and figuratively, the novel's "seedling" — its narrative arc and moral weight.
As in a fairy tale, Bird must first embark on a harrowing quest to find out the truth about his mother, Margaret Miu, an Asian American poet who has apparently abandoned her family.
Bird's best friend Sadie thinks Margaret is the leader of an underground resistance movement, which manifests itself in frequent, startling acts: intersections painted blood-red; giant red hearts, made by yarns and entwined with ghostly dolls, which sway from trees in parks.
Bird's father, Ethan, forbids his son to mention Margaret's name to anyone. Subject to state surveillance, Ethan and Bird must conform to the safe code of conduct as prescribed by PACT (The Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act).
Thanks to its seamless structure, Our Missing Hearts resembles a box of myths transmuting into fresh, symbiotic insights when converged. Bird's quest, a bus trip from Cambridge, Mass., to New York City, evokes the Greek myth of Orpheus, in which the hero must travel to the underworld to find his beloved. It also echoes "The Boy Who Drew Cats," a Japanese folktale about a boy who, by drawing cats on the wall of a monster's lair and "keeping to the small," succeeds in killing the monster, a giant rat.
Ng's clever juxtaposition of the Orpheus myth (a beloved's eternal absence transformed into art) with the Japanese cat myth (an artist's triumph over evil) sums up the tragedy/hope duality at the heart of Our Missing Hearts. As well, her mesmerizing storytelling "keeps to the small," by conjuring finely drawn Asian Americans characters and dismantling their stereotypical portrayal as conformists or lacking in emotional complexity.
The Chinese character for Margaret's surname, Miu, contains the ideographic roots for "beast" and "domesticated cat." The more Bird learns about his mother, the more he realizes that Margaret is neither ideologically driven nor traditionally homebound — but someone awakened to systemic injustice by testifying to her own, and others' sufferings.
The novel affirms Ng's conviction that aesthetic means can be employed effectively to resist oppression. For example, the author describes how the poet Anna Akhmatova memorized her poetry and transmitted it orally to trusted friends to evade Stalin's censorship.
Similarly, Margaret meticulously records stories told by parents whose children have been taken from them under PACT. Performance art, as a form of nonviolent protest, is another example of "keeping to the small." While this type of protest takes place in public, passersby are affected privately, "forcing them to take note, [unsettling] them days and weeks later, knotting a tangle in their chest."
Ng suggests that these peaceful but thought-provoking measures in the long run may be more far-reaching and cost-effective than mass rallies that disrupt daily activities and compromise public safety.
Finally, while Ng's novel represents a critique of late capitalist, culturally white America, its inspirations seem to be drawn from Václav Havel's celebrated 1978 essay, "The Power of the Powerless," on the ways that an individual can undermine the machinery of a repressive state:
... [I]n its most original and broadest sense, living within the truth covers a vast territory whose outer limits are vague and difficult to map, a territory full of modest expressions of human volition .... Most of these expressions remain elementary revolts against manipulation: you simply straighten your backbone and live in greater dignity as an individual.
"A territory full of modest expressions of human volition" is also the profound, elegant message of Our Missing Hearts. Celeste Ng's latest work depicts life-like Asian Americans who hope to make peace with the past and change the future by taking small, self-assured steps.
Thúy Đinh is a freelance critic and literary translator. Her work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. She tweets @ThuyTBDinh.
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