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Mixed Race Experience in Celeste Ng's EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU

Not many characters in literature look like me. Half Chinese and half white, I'm used to reading about people who could occupy one half of my family tree, but rarely about the person who emerges where their branches join. I'm speaking about the mixed race experience: complex, elusive, and with a racial identity wholly separate from either person who birthed and raised you.

 

So I felt grateful and enriched to read Celeste Ng's masterfully constructed Everything I Never Told You. Many have praised the novel's confident drive, deft omniscience, and intricate storytelling, but I want to discuss its exploration of race around-- and inside-- of one mixed American family.

 

The novel concerns the Lees-- a family of five struggling to make sense of the mysterious drowning death of Lydia, their middle child. James Lee, a Chinese-American, has married Marilyn, who is white, at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in much of the United States. From the beginning many see their coupledom as problematic, especially Marilyn's mother. "Where will you live?" she says. "You won't fit in anywhere. Think about the children. It's not right, Marilyn. It's not right."

 

Ng could have stopped there, centering her book around this "us versus them" opposition. But she's after something far richer and murkier: the way that race informs James and Marilyn's own perceptions of each other. In fact, race informs the very reasons for their attraction. James, the son of a poor immigrant "paper son," longs to finally be indistinguishable from his fellow white Americans. He chooses Marilyn precisely because she blends in so effortlessly with the white culture around them. Little does he know that Marilyn wants just the opposite for herself-- to stand out as a rare woman in science. She wants to be a doctor, while James privately vows never to let her "hands harden" from work. Marilyn thinks he understands her in "what it's like to be different," but that sensation is exactly what James wants to shed for good.

 

Think about the children. Think, in other words, about someone like me. What does a child inherit from such parents? From such a world?

 

The Lee children are caught in a war that their parents don't know they're waging. James' and Marilyn's incorrect beliefs about one another result in conflicted guidance for their kids: Stand out. Blend in. Be defiant. Be liked. What's amazing-- the novel seems to say-- is how false beliefs about our own family members can flow as naturally through us as water. They do not impede our ability to love a person. But they can cause very real moments of distance and pain, felt most acutely here by Lydia, with tense and ultimately devastating consequences.

 

The Lee children suffer some of the explicit other-izing that James and Marilyn do. But their experiences are more slippery, and more complexly transfigured. "Chinese?" a stranger says to them in a grocery store, tugging the corners of his eyes. I hear questions like this one just about every month. My biracial identity has taught me that appearances matter; people like me can be treated as walking games of Guess That Race. I've been called a "hybrid," a "Scandinasian," and "the best/worst of both worlds" by perfect strangers. And people do this from all across the political spectrum. Some conservatives say we're "not right," and some progressives claim we're poster children for supposed racial harmony. And we are praised for evidence of our whiteness-- for Lydia, her improbable blue eyes; for me, my curly "white woman's" hair.

 

Ng's novel takes place in 1971, but its ideas are no less urgent today. Data culled from dating websites show that many people feel strongly about what race of person they would like to date and not. The trends are appallingly clear. Attraction-- and how we choose our lifelong partners-- may be one of the last remaining societal realms in which people openly and regularly express racial preference.

 

And so racial assumptions are with us, from the very beginning of love. And as love deepens we might carry forth these ideas-- through years of marriage, getting older, and having children with perspectives of their own. Ng's novel explores how racial misconceptions can leave a family trapped, but also how such a family can exquisitely transcend them. It's a harrowing depiction of rampant social forces at work in even our most intimate relationships.

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About the Author

Sonya Larson (she/her) joined GrubStreet in 2005, and helped to grow the organization from offering 80 classes a year to over 600. Now, as the Director of the Muse and the Marketplace conference, Sonya oversees the staff, organization, sponsorship, and execution of GrubStreet's annual gathering of 1000+ writers, guest authors, literary agents, editors, and publishing innovators. While at GrubStreet she has also managed events and gatherings of the Boston Writers of Color Group, neighborhood classes for historically marginalized writers, directed Grub's annual offerings of all classes and events, and much more.

Sonya's short fiction and essays have appeared in Best American Short Stories, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Chronicle, and more. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and more. 

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