Yesterday I finished reading Celeste Ng’s (pronounced “ing”) Our Missing Hearts. If you haven’t read this book yet, it is an excellent study in how to create a story around a politically charged topic without dating it.
The protagonist of this story is twelve-year-old Bird Gardner, the son of a librarian who was once a linguist and a Chinese-American poet. After one of this mother’s poems appeared on a sign held be a protestor killed by police, she flees although he doesn’t understand why. I’m not going to tell you why in case you choose to read the book. Anti-Asian and anti-BIPOC violence feature in a story that will quickly bring to mind the COVID pandemic.
But Ng avoids dating her story in several ways. First of all, she doesn’t include a pandemic. There are drug shortages and health care crises but no pandemic.
Second, she strips away all political names and proper nouns. Political parties and politicians are not named. Instead, society is governed by how every day actions show in the light of PACT (Preserving American Culture and Traditions), an act that can have the police knocking at someone’s door and removing their children.
Ng has created a story world that clearly resembles our own. There are protests, laptop computers, and cell phones. Those with wealth are protected even when they aid someone the government condemns. All it takes is a suitably large donation and white skin. Those who live in poverty are often invisible but when they are not it usually means trouble especially if they’ve attracted police attention.
Books are banned. People are cancelled. But for those who are not immediately impacted, life goes on.
If Ng had included the pandemic or named specific politicians, her story would have been dated in just a few years. By avoiding this, she has created a story that is in many ways timeless, like the stories the boys mother told to him, but also alarmingly contemporary.