Political Activism, Chinese Americans and Family Struggles in Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng – Discussion Questions Included!

Our Missing Hearts

Why I Am Excited About This One!

I am a big fan of Celeste Ng’s previous novels, Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere and how she writes about Chinese Americans, family drama and relationships. In Our Missing Hearts, the story takes place when the United States is under the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act (PACT). There are hints of disturbing similarities to today’s environment with book censorship and an anti Asian movement that makes it feel very relevant.

Miu, an Asian American poet and outspoken political activist left her biracial young son, Bird with his father, a white, struggling, ex college professor who is currently a university librarian. She has chosen to disappear to protect her loved ones, leaving them to live a safer life out of the spotlight and without her. Miu’s poetry books have been removed from circulation but some of the stories she used to tell resurface when Bird, who desperately misses his mother, tries to learn of her wherabouts following clues from a vague note he found in his secret hiding place. Knowing he should stay close to home and remain inconspicuous, Bird makes the decision to embark on a journey to search for his missing mother; author Celeste Ng creates a bit of mystery and the feeling of impending danger that kept me turning the pages. I recommend Our Missing Hearts, and think it would make a great movie!

Discussion Questions

1. The novel takes place in a world that “isn’t exactly our world, but it isn’t not ours, either,” writes Ng in the Author’s Note (327). What elements of the novel’s setting align with your understanding and experience of the events of the twenty-first century thus far? How close do you think we are to a society like that described in the novel?

2. There are two epigraphs that open the book—one (real) poem by Anna Akhmatova, and one (fictional) excerpt from PACT literature. How does their juxtaposition set up the invitation to compare reality and imagina-tion, and see our present moment through a historical lens as well as the one devised by Ng for the novel?

3. The connection between literature and protest is powerful in the novel—from the proliferation and censorship of Margaret’s poetry to the net-work of librarians caring for the relocated children. Why do you think this form of communication is so resilient against forces and events as big as the Crisis and PACT? How does it inspire individuals and groups in the novel to act?

4. Ethan is originally hired at the university as a linguistics professor, and his obsession with words seeps into his daily habits, such as reading from the dictionary: “His father’s oldest habit: taking words apart like old clocks to show the gears still ticking inside” (18). How does sharing this love of language help Bird in his quest, and ultimately reconnect their family, albeit indirectly, by the end of the novel?

5. Both Bird and Sadie struggle with missing parents, yet their approach to seeking a deeper understanding of their past is vastly different. What about their personalities guide their respective strategies, and why do you think their friendship is so strong?

6. Margaret and Domi’s parting during the Crisis is devastating to them both. Why are they able to restore their friendship once Margaret re-turns seeking help? What do each of them gain by working together on Margaret’s plan, even beyond the emotional healing of their split?

7. Discuss Margaret’s transformation when she becomes a mother. How is she able to adapt to so many different circumstances—from her rebel-lious and resourceful youth to the comfort of her life with Ethan to the purpose driving her life and survival when she goes into hiding? What about Bird’s existence makes her willing to sacrifice it all for the children she tries to honor in her final act?

8. Bird’s trip to and through New York City to reveals all the ways, big and small, the city had been reshaped by the current, post-Crisis, PACT-enforcing government. Have you ever been to a familiar place that changed radically over time, or after you yourself had changed radical-ly? What was your experience in encountering its newness, or through new eyes?

9. Although Bird dislikes the name his father gives him, Noah, how does it relate to his mother and father’s names, which have etymological roots in plants and the natural world? What does it mean for him to reclaim the name his mother called him?

10.What is the special allure of the stacks in the university library for Bird and for Ethan? Do all libraries carry the same quality of discovery and comfort, and have you been to a library that held that “mix of dust and leather and melted vanilla ice cream. Warm, like the scent of someone’s skin” (68)?

11.Discuss the chain of events—political, economic, and social—that ac-cumulate in the Crisis and lead to the eventual formation of PACT. What events, from history close and farther in the past, resemble this trajec-tory, in the United States and abroad? What is common among those chains of events, real and fictional, that reveal tendencies of the human psychology, the need for power and blame, and the fear of the unknown or unfamiliar?

12.We see several events in the novel—such as the moment when Margaret leaves the family home—from two perspectives, Bird’s and his mother’s. How do these two perspectives shape your understanding of the family dynamic, as well as each of their motives to find each other?

13.Which form of storytelling resonated with you most in the novel, or in life in general: written or oral? How are they each used in ways to preserve the truth of lived experience when history or other dominant powers tried to erase them—such as the missing children, and Margaret herself?

Celeste Ng

About Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You (2014), was a New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, and named a best book of the year by over a dozen publications. Everything I Never Told You was also the winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and the ALA’s Alex Award. It has been translated into over thirty languages and is being adapted for the screen.

Her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere (2017) was a #1 New York Times bestseller, a #1 Indie Next bestseller, and Amazon’s Best Fiction Book of 2017. It was named a best book of the year by over 25 publications, the winner of the Ohioana Award and the Goodreads Readers Choice Award 2017 in Fiction, and has spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. Little Fires Everywhere has been published abroad in more than 30 languages and has been adapted as a limited series on Hulu, starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.

Her third novel, Our Missing Hearts, was published in October in the US, Canada, and the UK, and was an instant New York Times bestseller.

Celeste grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio. She graduated from Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan).  Her fiction and essays have appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, and many other publications, and she is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other honors.

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  1. So, this is speculative fiction? Taking place in an imagined future? Just checking. I haven’t heard of PACT…

    • Yes, it is speculative fiction but feels like it could be real. In the book, racism and freedom of expression are banned under PACT and the government has the ability to take children away form parents to exercise power and control. In our world, racism against Asians has been on the rise so this story seems possible.

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