The Story of How Celeste Ng’s Writing Career Took Off and Why She Wants Others to Join Her

The summer Celeste Ng turned ten, she moved with her family to Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Shaker, as locals call it, began in 1911. Soon, the Cleveland suburb, like many places across the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century, established racial covenants that kept out non-white residents.

Kerri Washington, Celeste Ng, and Reese Witherspoon on the set of "Little Fires Everywhere."
Kerri Washington, Celeste Ng, and Reese Witherspoon on the set of “Little Fires Everywhere.” | Photo by: Erin Simkin/Hulu

But things started changing in the 1950s after the Supreme Court outlawed discriminatory housing laws. Black families moved into places where they were previously barred. In many locations, the arrival of people of color caused white residents to leave or worse.

In Shaker, a firebomb exploded at the under-construction home of a Black attorney and his wife, John and Dorothy Pegg. The blast didn’t injure anyone. And, instead of scaring the Peggs, it caused other Shaker residents to take action.

Shaker’s white residents united with their new Black neighbors to form a community association. The organization combatted white people leaving areas where people of color moved in, a phenomenon called White Flight. And a Shaker elementary school became one of the first in the country to integrate.

A writer grows from Shaker

Shaker wasn’t a perfect place, but most of its residents recognized and worked against systemic racism. 

By the time Celeste Ng’s (pronounced -ing) family arrived in 1990, Shaker Heights was more diverse than many American suburbs. 

“My parents chose Shaker because it was relatively racially integrated, and it had an excellent public school system—two things that were extremely important to them,” Ng said.

While there weren’t many Asian families in Shaker, Ng said she felt welcomed. And Ng prospered. She started writing stories, plays, and poems in high school and edited her school’s literary magazine.  

When she went off to Harvard, Ng thought she might work as a journalist or an English professor, writing creatively on the side. But after college, she had a disappointing experience working for a textbook publisher, so Ng took a fiction writing class that illuminated her passion. She decided to be a writer.

Celeste Ng Goes from wanna-be to published

Any writer can tell you that just because you want to write doesn’t mean you’ll get published. For six years, Ng wrote and kept what she called her “Spreadsheet of Shame” for all the pieces she submitted that publishers rejected. Finally, in 2012, Ng sold her first novel.

Everything I Never Told You (Amazon | Bookshop) came out on June 26, 2014. 

It’s the story of an Asian-American family in Ohio whose middle daughter drowns in a lake. The novel catapulted Ng to fame, becoming a New York Times bestseller. Amazon picked it as the company’s Best Book of 2014.

Annapurna Television is developing Everything I Never Told You into a limited TV series. It’s not the first Ng book to get the Hollywood treatment. 

That honor belongs to Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon | Bookshop), published in 2017. Actress Reese Witherspoon’s company, Hello Sunshine, released a limited series based on Little Fires Everywhere in March 2020 on Hulu.

In writing Little Fires Everywhere, Ng looked to a place she knew well. 

Set in Shaker Heights, the novel features two families. The Richardsons are a conventional husband-wife household with four children, and the Warrens feature a single mom and her teenage daughter. Conflict develops between both family’s mothers, Elena and Mia.

Little Fires Everywhere was another hit for Ng. It reached the top spot on the New York Times bestsellers list, and it remained on the hardcover fiction list for 48 weeks. The book’s now available in more than 30 languages.

Extending a hand to other BIPOC writers

While Shaker Heights was a welcoming place for Ng to grow up, she discovered that wasn’t the case elsewhere. “I didn’t realize until after I left what an unusual place [Shaker] is: how progressive the community is, how many opportunities we had at school,” Ng said.

That’s why Ng uses her fame to support and champion other writers, particularly Asian Americans. She often blurbs other authors’ books and uses her massive Twitter presence (more than 185,000 followers) to raise awareness of diversity among published writers. 

“I definitely don’t want to be the single story of the young, Asian-American woman writer,” Ng said.

“I definitely don’t want to be the single story of the young, Asian-American woman writer.”

Celeste NG

And Ng resists the idea that the world can’t have more than one famous Asian, Black, etc., writer. 

“One of my longstanding irritations with the way that we view the world is like, who’s going to be the next Jhumpa Lahiri? Who’s going to be the next Amy Tan?” Ng said. “Like there can only be one, and you can only get there by dethroning the person who’s at the top.”

To Ng, publishing is a big tent that needs more movers and shakers.

Books by Celeste Ng

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