Growing up in idyllic Shaker Heights, a small town in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, made Celeste Ng (Pittsburgh, 39) an idealist. The writer remembers that when she was little, when she played with her dolls, she imagined them coming from different families who had been forced to iron out their rough edges to live in the dollhouse that she inherited from her sister. “As they were all different, I imagined that they were adopted. They did not like each other at all, but they had to be very polite to each other because that way everything would be better, “says the writer, who was inadvertently imitating what she saw around her. And what he saw around him is what he explores Little Fires Everywhere (Alba), the novel on which the miniseries, available on Amazon Prime Video, starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, in the role of the opposites Elena and Mia. That is, two women from two different lives (and races) in a purported order established in a militantly correct American suburb and doomed to explode at any moment because does following the rules keep you safe?
“That is what Elena believes, and I wish it were true, but following the rules is not going to save us,” says the writer. He is having coffee in a green-walled room at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has been locked up there for two months with her husband and son. What takes worse are video calls from school. “Elena embodies the very idea of Shaker Heights that I remember. Her life is just as she planned it as a child. Nothing has gone wrong because you have followed the rules. He thinks he is behaving well at all times and is unaware of the damage he does. He has good intentions, but there are things he does not see. Mia is, in that sense, its opposite. Mia was born to break the rules. Being an artist has a lot to do with it. It represents chaos. The only thing capable of showing you what you don’t want to see, ”he says. As Mia herself says to Elena when she asks her to photograph the family: “The bad thing about portraits is that you have to show people how they want to be seen; I prefer to show it as I see it ”.
Ng was never comfortable with that idea of an exceptionally respectful wealthy suburb – since the 1950s, the town has made an effort to integrate families from all over, with a special intention of demonstrating that the black and white races can coexist without problems. , and that there may be mansions next to small middle class houses. “It is something that I admire in the nineties, that an issue like race was so present in public discussion, and that in places like Shaker Heights such efforts were made, but I, as an American Chinese, felt equally out of place . We also didn’t have a mansion, or four cars. If I started writing the novel it was to try to explain to myself what exactly it was that I had lived. Because it seemed a kind of strange dream, “he says. “All the problems that the United States has today were still there, but I was in that bubble and, at the same time, in the bubble of adolescence, and I didn’t find out anything,” he adds.
He believes that if the story – which begins with the burning of the Richardson house, a fire made of small fires, hence the title, and delves into the near past of the community in search of the culprit – has parallels with the world of Today is precisely for that reason, because “the problems are always the same – the imposition of the one who exercises power, the class struggle, racism – they do not even change shape, they only adapt to their time.” When the novel was published in 2016, critics wanted to see it as a reaction to Donald Trump’s election, “and it couldn’t be, he had spent six years writing it!” The same will happen with the television adaptation, he believes. In this regard, to what extent have you been involved? “Oh, I’ve been asked for advice on everything. I have been reading the scripts, I visited the set one day, they asked me about the characters, the city. I have been a consultant, but I have not written anything. I wanted it to be something different ”, he says.
Something different? “I wanted to see what another creator was doing with my novel, and I like the result. I have come to not know what could happen in the next chapter! ”, He answers. The choice of actresses couldn’t be better, she says. Especially in the case of Whiterspoon. “I remember watching Big Little Lies with my husband in 2017 and telling him that the Reese character had a lot in common with Elena. “Can you imagine that my novel ends up being read and you want to adapt it?” I said. We look at each other and laugh. But six months later I received a call from one of his agents saying that Reese was going to buy the rights. I couldn’t believe it, ”he says.
Fan of Arundhati Roy – “I reread The God of small things once a year,” he says – and his way of approaching the family, admits that he writes to see himself, from another time, from outside. “I guess it is one of my obsessions. How others see you, or how they saw you, and what you really were, ”he says, and he is also talking about Elena and Mia, about what the truth hides.
Mothers and daughters, the explosive relationship
The more complicated a relationship, says Celeste Ng, the more interested a novelist is. Hence, one of the axes Small fires everywhere is the mother and daughter relationship. “The feeling is that nobody is going to understand you better than your mother and it is never like that, because she cannot see you clearly. It is too close, “says the writer. Mia, in fact, is so close to her daughter Pearl – with whom she travels, alone, around the country – “that she forgets that she is a different person”. That is why Pearl falls in love with the treatment and space that Elena gives her, an opposite type of mother, who, however, fits perfectly with the Richardsons’ little daughter, the rebellious Izzy. “Elena and Izzy are so different that they can’t understand each other, they don’t really want to have to,” says Ng. “I like to think that you can find the mother you need somewhere else,” he adds. But, of course, doing so would cause a small earthquake. “Yes, both feel betrayed by their daughters, and that motivates both Elena’s investigation and Mia’s actions, which are poisoning the situation,” she says. Insist on how difficult it is to see something when you have it in front of you. “It happens often. You can better judge your friends’ marriage problems than your own. In the same way, it is impossible for Mia and Elena to know exactly what they are doing wrong. They need distance, but they cannot have it ”, he adds.