Where Their Stories Started: Novelists Celeste Ng and Shanthi Sekaran


Clear your calendar for the evening of Thursday, September 28. You won’t want to miss this double-header: Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere, and Shanthi Sekaran, author of Lucky Boy, together in conversation, with a special introduction by Ann Patchett.

Both novels, the second book for each writer, have been received with a roar of critical praise and reader raves. They have a few themes in common, too: issues of class and race; adoption and family; and impossible choices. Both Ng and Sekaran write in a conversational, engaging style, offering well-timed comic relief to balance the weight of heavy scenes. But that’s not to say these books are the same; think of them as two unique experiences that make a great read-along pair.

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NPR summarizes Little Fires Everywhere: “Celeste Ng’s new novel is about two families in the heart of America who can’t seem to see into each other’s hearts. The Richardsons are a happy family with four children. ‘The soft smells of detergent and cooking and grass mingle in the entryway’ of their lovely Ohio home, Ng writes. Then, Mia Warren and her teenage daughter, Pearl, pull up with everything they own in their Volkswagen Rabbit, and rent the Richardsons’ guest house. The two families become enmeshed in each other’s lives in all ways.”

Everyone seems to be reading it right now:

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We asked Ng to tell us about story’s origin. She said, “Little Fires Everywhere really began because I wanted to write about my hometown. I’d been living on my own long enough to realize how many things about Shaker Heights were unusual, in both good and head-scratching ways.

The community is very aware of and upfront about race, for example — elementary students participate in a race-relations training session led by the high school student race relations group — and I deeply admire and value that. At the same time, the community is very concerned with appearance and order: for instance, you get fined if you don’t mow your lawn, or if you park your car on the street overnight. There are prescribed times for trick-or-treating. I was fascinated by the tension between that almost hippie-progressiveness and that uptightness about rules, and two families started to form in my mind: one that embodied these ideals, and one that undermined them. The novel came to life when I put those two families together and let them bounce off each other.”

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The New York Times reviews Lucky Boy: “[Sekaran] captures — in harrowing, moment-by-moment detail — the treacherous border crossing of 18-year-old Soli, who makes it from Mexico to California and finds work as a housekeeper and nanny for a wealthy Berkeley family. Her precarious existence is further complicated by the birth of her son, Ignacio, whom she’s raising as a single mother while earning around $200 a week. In catastrophic ways, Soli’s narrative will collide with the story of an affluent Indian-American couple, Kavya and Rishi, whose bedroom comes to signify a ‘theater of failure’ after they are unable to conceive. In pitting two very different kinds of immigrants against each other — one comfortably assimilated, the other helpless in every sense — Sekaran offers a brilliantly agonizing setup.”

Sekaran explains the genesis of her idea: “Lucky Boy started on a rainy evening in 2010, as I was driving home from a teaching gig in San Francisco. I was listening to NPR and heard a story about Encarnacion Bail Romero, a Guatemalan woman. Encarnacion had been arrested in an immigration raid at the poultry processing plant where she worked. She was put in detention. She had a six-month-old son at the time, who lived with relatives, until a series of private arrangements landed him in the home of an American couple. When the NPR report aired, 2-year-old Carlos was being adopted away from his mother, against her wishes. Encarnacion was still detained, working with a lawyer, trying to get her son back.

The radio report was painfully short. It told me the facts, but it didn’t tell me what I really wanted to know: What was going through the minds of the people involved? What was being said, felt, believed? What did the daily drama of this conflict look like? I thought about this story for several months, questioning whether I had the gumption to research it, to create a novel from topics that were so loaded and so foreign to my own experience. I decided to try. In 2011, I began tentatively writing, creating the characters of Soli, Kavya, Rishi and, of course, Ignacio.

I learned that Encarnacion was not the only parent fighting this fight. Undocumented parents everywhere were finding themselves in detention, trying to keep their children. My novel was not just about one undocumented immigrant and one set of adoptive parents. It began to grow into something much larger, echoing the greater story of the American experience. At times, I was overwhelmed by this project, at times blindly determined. Now, I’m deeply grateful to see Lucky Boy out in the world, and deeply humbled by the real-life struggles of people like Soli and Kavya.”

We hope you’ll join us for this FREE event right here in the store. Ann Patchett will introduce the discussion, which will be moderated by Mary Laura Philpott, our Musing editor and co-host of Nashville Public Television’s Emmy-winning A Word on Words. Ng and Sekaran will stick around to meet readers in a signing line after the event for anyone who purchases the books from Parnassus. See you then!