Watch: Celeste Ng on setting her new novel in Cambridge and the importance of holding onto hope

“How do you give hope to your children and encourage them to think that they can make a difference, when it feels like everything is going badly?”

Globe Staff/Aram Boghosian

Cambridge author Celeste Ng sat down with Seth Meyers Tuesday night to talk about her newly released novel, “Our Missing Hearts,” and why she focused on optimism in the story, which is set in a dystopian future.

Ng’s new book, which was released Tuesday, has already garnered praise and excitement. 

It has been selected as the October pick for Reese Witherspoon’s book club. (It’s not the first time Witherspoon has singled out the Cambridge author’s work; the actress teamed up with Kerry Washington to adapt and produce Ng’s previous novel, “Little Fires Everywhere,” into a limited series, which they both starred in. )


Ng told Meyers that she was honored to have her book selected for Reese’s Book Club. 

“She does such great work in trying to lift up stories that get people talking and having conversations, so I really admire that about her,” she said. 

“Our Missing Hearts” imagines a world where, following years of economic instability and violence, a repressive system of government has emerged in which laws are written to preserve “American culture.” Libraries are forced to remove books with unpatriotic content, and authorities relocate the children of any who speak out, particularly those of Asian heritage. 

The story, which is set partially around Harvard Square in Cambridge, follows 12-year-old Bird, a boy who lives with his father, an intellectual who now shelves books in a library. His mother, a Chinese American poet, disappeared years earlier and is among the writers whose work is being removed by the government. But when Bird gets a mysterious letter, he embarks on a quest to find his mother.

Ng told Meyers that tackling the very real rise in anti-Asian hate crimes that has been seen in the United States through the lens of her book was partly an effort to inform, educate, and to process. 


“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put that into the book because it’s a dark thing to think about,” she said. “It’s something that I’ve been aware of growing up as a Chinese American woman, that violence could be part of my life at any point in time. But when we started seeing all these things that were getting caught on tape, people who were just being beaten, it felt really important to look that right in the face in the book and say, ‘OK, if you didn’t know it was happening, now you know. And what are you going to do about it?’”

But despite its dystopian setting, the novel isn’t without optimism, Meyers pointed out. 

“A lot of this book was me figuring out, how do you hold onto hope when it feels like the world is falling apart?” Ng said. “How do you give hope to your children and encourage them to think that they can make a difference, when it feels like everything is going badly?” 

Ng said she chose to set the book in Cambridge partially because it’s her home, but also to challenge the perceptions that those living in the liberal community — or similar northeast locations — might have. 


We think about places like that in the Northeast as being in a liberal bubble and we have this idea, ‘Oh, that stuff can’t happen here,’” she said. “But the truth is that it happens everywhere. And it felt like a way of sort of asking people, again, to think, ‘Hey, it happens, what are you going to do about it?’”

Watch the full interview below:


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