Minority Woes in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere

Asian American novels usually feature an Asian American hero or heroine coming to terms with identity, diaspora and community. Take The Sympathiser or China Dolls, for example.

At worst, these books pander to Oriental stereotypes—the hardworking, acquiescent Asian recognised by his or her olive skin, mysterious aura and residence in Chinatown (or similar location). At best, the author points out the Asian American’s struggle for a voice, cultural identity and perhaps anger at the inequality and racism they have to deal with. In such novels, race and sociopolitical status is up front and center, pointing to how they are intertwined and how the former often (unfairly) defines the latter. They intend to subvert Orientalist stereotypes and give this overlooked minority a voice in the literary world and therefore collective consciousness.

Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere seeks to do just that. Yet, its endeavour to do so is problematic in that in many ways, it panders to and emphasises the very minority stereotypes it seeks to subvert. In particular, it does two things. Firstly, the novel conflates the Asian American minority group with the frustratingly overused starving artist archetype (ironic, considering that Ng is an Asian American author herself). Secondly, the main Asian American character at stake, May-Ling or Mirabelle, is a baby, and cannot speak for herself.

Little Fires Everywhere is written in a wistful, palatable way. It’s prose flows easily through the novel, describing the different characters, families and events. Reminiscent of Ng’s other novel, Everything I’ve Never Told You, Little Fires Everywhere begins with a tragedy, then traces the story backwards to explain how the narrative arrives at that crucial moment.

The novel features two main families living in Shaker Heights in Cleveland Ohio: the Richardsons, and Mia and Pearl Warren, a mother-and-daughter duo. Mr. and Mrs. Richardson have well-respected jobs in law and journalism respectively. Their four children, Trip, Lexie, Moody and Izzy are well-cared for and have everything they want. The only thorn in the Richardson’s flesh is Izzy—she colours outside the lines of their perfectly ordered lives and way of seeing and doing things, driving Mrs. Richardson, especially, to anger most of the time. Her whole life, Mrs. Richardson has followed the rules, a practice she believes will improve things overtime. In stark contrast to the Richardsons, Mia is an artist who doesn’t believe in a full-time job and her daughter Pearl, who, due to her upbringing, doesn’t see the need to be a typical girl. The two families first encounter each other when Mia and Pearl move into a duplex rental owned by the Richardsons.

The two families intertwine when Moody and Pearl become best friends, and when Mrs. Richardson, in an act of perceived charity, offers Mia a job as the Richardsons’ housekeeper. The story gets heated when the Richardsons’ friends, the McCulloughs, adopt a Chinese American baby (Mirabelle) that was abandoned at a fire station one night. Her birth mother Bebe, Mia’s colleague and friend, abandons the her out of desperation. Struggling to make ends meet, hungry and cold, she leaves the baby there one night. Just as Bebe opens up to Mia about her regret and horror at leaving her child and then not being able to find her again, Mia hears from the Richardson children that the McCulloughs have adopted her. As someone who had been paid by a rich couple in the past to carry their baby (Pearl) for them and later chose to keep the baby, Mia is fuelled by Bebe’s pain to help her gain Mirabelle, or May-Ling, back. Mrs. Richardson exacts revenge on Mia by digging up Mia’s hidden past and chasing Mia and Pearl out of Shaker Heights.

Little Fires Everywhere‘s narrative climaxes with the custody battle over Mirabelle. This happens simultaneously with Mrs. Richardson’s unearthing of Mia’s past and revenge. This is where the novel’s awkward, problematic conflations come into play.

The custody battle marks the novel out as distinctly Asian American. The lawyer fighting on Bebe’s behalf is a Chinese American man, Ed Lim. He fights for Bebe’s custody on the basis that although Bebe may not be as well-equipped as the McCulloughs to provide materially for Mirabelle, she can provide the one crucial factor that the McCulloughs will never be able to: an authentic understanding and exposure to her Chinese culture. In response to Lim’s question, “What have you done, in the time she’s been with you, to connect her to her Chinese culture?”, Mrs. McCullough replies that she brings the family to their favourite Chinese restaurant, Pearl of the Orient and bought her a Panda toy.

Ed Lim retorts, “You and your husband don’t speak Chinese or know much about Chinese culture or history. You haven’t, by your own testimony, even thought about the entire aspect of May Ling’s identity. Isn’t it fair to say that if May Ling stays with you and Mr. McCullough, she will effectively be divorced by her birth culture?” (Ng 265)

Eventually, the McCulloughs win the case and legal custody of Mirabelle. The narrative makes it clear that this is due to their material wealth: no matter how you look at it, Mirabelle’s life will be much better with them instead of Bebe, Chinese culture or not.

In response, Bebe breaks into their house in the night and runs back to China with Mirabelle. Despite Mrs. Richardson’s triumph in using Mia’s past to destroy her present, she loses her own daughter, Izzy, who runs away to find the Warrens. For all the McCulloughs’ wealth, Mirabelle makes no noise when Bebe lifts her from the crib; a bond between mother and daughter will never be broken or forgotten, the novel romantically suggests. For all the Richardson’s perfection, Izzy chooses the Warrens, who will never break nor suppress her passion, her true self. “All her life, she’d felt hard and angry; her mother always criticising her, Lexie and Trip always mocking her. Mia hadn’t been like that. With Mia she’d been different, in a way she hadn’t known she could be” (321).

Little Fires Everywhere makes the point that it isn’t about money, or who has followed the rules. In the end, it’s about authenticity, love and passion. Dramatised in a present Mia creates for Mrs. Richardson, the novel drives home the point that you cannot cage a bird. “[Mrs. Richardson] thought, as she would for many years, of the photograph from that day, the one with the golden feather inside it: Was it a portrait of her, or her daughter? Was she the bird trying to batter its way free, or was she the cage?”

The novel is clearly one that tries to give the minority a voice. Ng conflates the Asian minority type with the “starving artist” minority type. In the end, in their own sad ways, both Mia and Bebe win. They end the novel with defiance, leaving a mess behind them as they break out of Shaker Height’s restrictive boxes. Mia is silently defiant, making her unobtrusive but sure way into the Richardson’s household and back into her daughter’s life. But Mirabelle’s case is a strange one. She is not only voiceless—as a baby she literally cannot speak—her presence only ends up acting as a foil to the (White, middle-upper class) community around her.

“Orientalism [is] a Wastern style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient… as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is a veritable discourse about the Orient… a system of knowledge about the Orient, an accepted grid for filtering the Orient into Western Consciousness.”— Edward Said, Introduction to Orientalism.

Mia is a controversy within the Richardsons’ household. But within the larger Shaker community, Mirabelle is at the center of the rift pulling the town apart. Mr. Richardson starts to sympathise with Bebe, despite the fact that Mrs. McCullough is his wife’s dear friend. Lexie’s boyfriend’s parents cannot agree who should get custody. Ironically, as the main character that Ng uses to criticise racial intolerance, unequal representation and ignorance, Mirabelle cannot speak for herself. Her position—being raised by a family that buys into typical Western ignorance about the Orient—reflects Said’s criticism on Western Oriental discourse: that Westerners knowledge about the Orient is but what they construct, inaccurately so, about it. Yet, as a helpless baby, she simultaneously does exactly the crux of Said’s essay—she is but a reflective surface which highlights, and even structures, the Western world around her. It is through the silenced Orient, the other, that Western identity is constructed, Said argues. It is because of Mirabelle, the voiceless Chinese baby that the town is divided and redefined. Ng’s narrative seems ironically to reflect the very dysfunction she criticises.

Beyond that is the problematic conflation of the artist and the Asian. Mia is the very embodiment of the typical starving artist—she doesn’t believe in holding down a full-time job, earning just enough money to pursue her art. It is all that matters to her. She and Pearl almost never live comfortably, moving from place to place, at times even sleeping in the car. Ng groups her together with Bebe and Mirabelle; the parallel narratives as well as her fighting on their behalf make that clear. Little Fires Everywhere fights for the minority figures. Yet, there is the question: does the pairing of the Asian and the artist deny them both a personal, separate individuality? Are all minorities—in comparison to the White, the middle-class—essentially the same? The (mindless?) grouping simultaneously reduces and generalises both groups.

It is not clear if Ng deliberately panders to Orientalist stereotypes and conflates the two minority groups. It is both confusing and interesting. Confusing (and perhaps even disappointing), because they threaten to override and negate the powerful criticisms the novel makes on these issues. Interesting, because it makes us ponder: A person cannot make truly objective, educated commentary without first being immersed in the issues themselves. However, by then, is he/she so inundated in these issues themselves that their judgement cannot truly be objective? Will the author always bring not only themselves into their criticism, but the very thing they criticise? Is there ever truly objective criticism and commentary then?

This novel is a contradiction of sorts, and asks more questions than it answers, in what I see as a grandiose attempt at the romantic.

Popular novels are so for a reason: they do indeed make for a good read. But it is also crucial at the same time to read critically. Fiction is but a reflection of reality after all, albeit a romanticised, skewed one.

 

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