Celeste Ng, MFA‘06, always loved stories, recalling it was the way she “made sense of the world.” As a child, she told stories and wrote plays, enlisting her cousins to perform them. But the acclaimed author didn’t consider being a writer until a teaching fellow suggested she pursue what she loved.
“I didn’t know that [writing] was a job you could have,” she recalls. “I thought I would work in publishing or get a Ph.D. and teach.”
While studying English at Harvard University, Ng began looking into creative writing programs. She found statements on the U-M website from professors expressing their philosophies of teaching. Professor emeritus Eileen Pollack’s entry resonated with Ng, solidifying U-M as the school for her.
“Celeste is memorable for having been such a hard worker, such a generous and thoughtful reader of her classmates’ work, such a kind and responsible citizen of the program as a whole,” Pollack remembers.
Now a friend to Ng, Peter Ho Davies, professor of English language and literature at U-M, had Ng as a student and now teaches her first book. He remembers her in the program “for her energy and intellectual curiosity” and appreciates that “she’s generously zoomed in for Q&As with my classes. It’s been a real pleasure to see her grow from student to cherished colleague.”
“It was a fun experience to be at a school that’s so big and vibrant,” she recalls of her time at U-M.
Ng loved meeting people of different backgrounds and says the more she looks back on her U-M years, the more she realizes what a formative experience it was, part of which came from her “close-knit cohort of twelve fiction writers” in what’s now known as the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, one of the most competitive MFA writing programs in the country.
“It was being in the program that gave me the permission to try to become a writer. Like many writers, I felt like writing was something that wasn’t meant for me and being accepted by U-M felt like someone saying ‘No, you are allowed to do this,’” she says.
Though it’s her novels that have garnered international attention, Ng worked only on short stories at U-M, finding it easier to explore short fiction in workshops. She won a Hopwood for her story collection, “What Passes Over.”
Her award-winning and internationally best-selling first novel, “Everything I Never Told You,” began as short fiction that she recalls “wouldn’t settle into a short story,” adding that the earliest chapters “bear about as much resemblance [to the novel] as a dinosaur does to a bird, but the characters were there.”
To this day, when approaching a new story, Ng begins by exploring characters she doesn’t understand. Ng recognizes that she has to work particularly hard to develop a plot because it isn’t her natural strength. She credits Pollack with the plot-developing skills she cultivated at U-M.
“Eileen [Pollack] would look at my stories and say, ‘you have great characters, but you need a plot.’ She is the voice in my head asking, ‘What caused that to happen?’ and ‘What will it make happen next?’” Ng says.
This admission will surprise anyone who has read Ng’s riveting work. Her novels have been named the “Best Book of the Year” by NPR, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and more; won an Ohioana Book Award, a Medici Book Prize, and an American Library Association’s Alex Award, amongst others; and are New York Times, national, and international bestsellers.
“Celeste’s place at the top of so many bestseller lists is a testament to the reality that working hard, reading widely, devoting oneself to one’s craft, and helping your fellow writers develop their potential are also key ingredients to success,” Pollack says.
In her latest novel, set in a future America, children are wrenched from their families when their parents displease an authoritarian regime, especially if a parent is Asian American. “Our Missing Hearts,” released Oct. 4, tells the story of Bird, a young boy who lives with his frightened father, believing his mother abandoned them. The story of forced separation, wrestled from headlines still being written, explores the impact of a society that fears poetry, and where storytelling is a potent social force.
Ng taught undergraduates in her second year at U-M. And a former student recently shared news of his first book. “I can’t claim any responsibility, but it was such a lovely thing to hear,” she says.
Today, she teaches through stories, getting “people to think about people that maybe they hadn’t thought about.” Separations at the border, mass shootings — the victims are abstractions, and she will have none of that.
“We so often remove the humanity,” she says. “Everyone has a story.”
Davi Napolean, ’66, MA’68, is a freelance writer and theater historian.