‘Everything I Never Told You’ by Celeste Ng: Unspoken Thoughts About Being Mixed-Race

‘Everything I Never Told You’ by Celeste Ng: Unspoken Thoughts About Being Mixed-Race

Hapa Mama: Asian Fusion Family and Food

Grace Hwang Lynch

Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You: A Novel has been at the top of many best books of 2014 lists — and for good reason. It’s a quick read, without feeling cheap. It’s a mystery, without falling into genre. It’s a critique of race in the United States, without sounding shrill or academic.

The small Ohio college town in 1977 in which the Lee family lives will feel familiar to any Asian child who grew up in the Midwest. The story opens with the stark sentence “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” Starting from a description of a very ordinary family breakfast, Ng gives us glimpses into the world created by the marriage of Marilyn and James Lee.

The couple meets at Harvard, where Chinese American James is a Ph.D. student and Marilyn, who is white, is his student. Their whirlwind romance leads to a shotgun wedding in 1958, in a sly nod to Loving v. Virginia. When Marilyn’s mother, a Southern white single-mother, meets James on the wedding day, she pulls her daughter aside.

It would have been easier if her mother had used a slur. It would have been easier if she had insulted James outright, if she had said he was too short or too poor or not accomplished enough. But all her mother said, over and over, was, “It’s not right, Marilyn. It’s not right.” Leaving it unnamed, hanging in the air between them.

These doubts about the suitability of an interracial marriage and the inability of society to grasp mixed-race identity pop up over and over throughout the novel. In the 1970s Midwestern town Ng conjures up, there are only white and not white. There are so many aspects of this novel I can’t stop thinking about, from the threads of Betty Crocker homemaker versus 1970s feminism to the deft way Ng has crafted the details to unfold in sort of a spiral fashion. But I am most interested in the undercurrent of interracial marriage, assimilation and mixed-race identity…

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