Little Fires Everywhere + Marginalized Identities Book Donation Call

Tuesday, December 12, 2017 Shaker Heights, OH, USA

Make no mistake about it, Celeste Ng’s latest book, Little Fires Everywhere, is a book worth reading, and is complex in its exploration of race, motherhood, identity and secrets. It’s been featured on multiple lists, including New York Times and Amazon’s Book of the Month. Yet, for me, it’s impact was far more than that. The book is intensely personal for me, as I’ve spent the past four years in Cleveland and many of the places in the book are deeply familiar.

There’s a weird sense of intensity that only comes with a familiar setting. It’s intimate and strange at the same time. Although Little Fires Everywhere is set in the Shaker Heights of the 90’s, many of the locations mentioned still exist and the feelings that Ng writes so eloquently about are still the same.

While Little Fires Everywhere seems like an ordinary book about an ordinary place, at the same time it isn’t. Ng zones in so clearly and perceptively on the character’s intentions and needs, sometimes to an intensity where we start to question ourselves. What do we know about ourselves? Are we anything like these characters? She explores privilege and race inside of a community that sees itself as progressive and liberal, and are blind to their own biases.

Shaker Heights, Ohio is real planned community. I remember a conversation that I had with a coworker about Shaker Heights a couple years ago and she had told me how it wasn’t just any community and the rules for living there, which lasted until quite recently. There are rules for how houses look, both inside and out, and who owns those houses. I had smiled and filed it away, with some disbelief. Cleveland was an interesting place, after all, with its former booming industry in the early 1900s (it was the place to be, before New York became New York) with Millionaire’s Row on Euclid Avenue and some of its former glory can be seen in nearby Lake View Cemetery, where some of the Rockefeller family are buried and President Garfield is laid to rest in his mausoleum. Yet it’s also the same place that was the subject of a viral satire video on YouTube several years back. (Now though, Cleveland is on the up and up, with revitalization occurring throughout the city.)

I think that’s why Shaker Heights is the perfect setting for Little Fires Everywhere. It’s an idyllic place to be, with its orderly houses and wide streets, but at what cost are these maintained? Ng deftly explores the secrets that family members have, between each other, and the cost of following rules. The lives of Richardson family, a typical family with four kids, are shaken up when a single mother, Mia Warren, and her teenage daughter, Pearl, move into their rental house. The Richardson’s youngest daughter, Izzy, is drawn to the Warren’s and the unconventional life that they lead. Mia’s an artist who picks up part-time jobs to make rent and her life is the antithesis of the lives that everyone else in Shaker Heights lead.
One had followed the rules, and one had not. But the problem with rules... was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time they were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure what side of the line you stood on.- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Against the backdrop of this, is the adoption of a Chinese-American baby that’s found at the local fire station by a long time family friend of the Richardsons, the McCulloughs, and the resulting lawsuit when the baby’s biological mother, Bebe, re-enters the picture. Bebe, it turns out wants her baby back since she was suffering from poverty and postpartum depression when she dropped the baby off at the fire station. What does motherhood mean and what makes motherhood, motherhood? Is motherhood biological or can it be developed? What does interracial adoption really mean for the family and the adopted child? Does “wanting what’s best for the baby” really exist? Ng can explore the ramifications and intentions behind adoption thoroughly, including the dark sides.

The birth mother takes her case to the media and one of the news channels “sent a reporter to Asia Plaza, Cleveland’s Chinese shopping center in search of the Asian perspective.” The producer of the segment asks the McColloughs,who profess to not mind the baby’s race (“The only requirement is that we love [her]”) , about what they’ll do to connect the baby to her birth culture and Mrs. McCullough responds, “We’re trying to be very sensitive to that… You’ll notice that we’re adding more and more Asian art to our walls. We’re committed, as she gets older, to teaching her about her birth culture. And of course she already loves the rice. Actually it was her first solid food.” Later in the book, when asked by Bebe’s lawyer the same question but about what they’re doing in the time that they’ve had the baby, they respond after a long pause, “Pearl of the Orient is one of our very favorite restaurants. We try to take here there one a month.” Both Pearl of the Orient and Asia Plaza are real places that exist, even now, and both are symbols for Chinese culture in Shaker Heights and Cleveland, respectively, in the community but how authentic/representative are they? Not very. I remember having a conversation where I said something about liking Asian food and the other person had said, “Yeah, I went to Asia Plaza once and I hated it,” to which I did not know how to respond.

There are some criticisms of Little Fires Everywhere for not focusing enough on race. While I can understand the reasoning behind them, especially since Celeste Ng is a writer of color, I also don’t think the story could’ve been told any differently. Shaker Heights as a setting was incredibly integral in telling the story. Ng’s exploration of adoptions and even what it’s like to be Asian-American in a community that’s incredibly homogenous was spot on. I think writers of color have an intense expectation to have the right amount of race discussion in their novels, too little it’s not enough and too much, it’s suddenly off putting. What is “enough”? What “requirements” are there to be an advocate for POC? I’ve read arguments saying that Celeste Ng can’t speak out for the POC community because she has a white husband but does that make her experiences and her advocacy any less valid? 

(For my brief review of her debut novel, Everything You Never Told Me, you can check out my review on Mochi.)

Donation Call for Literature Featuring Marginalized Identities (POC, LGBTQ+, etc) 
I think it’s so especially important to have diverse books for students, staff and faculty to know that their story has representation in media and that there are books that explore what it’s like to be a marginalized person. I have a collection of Asian American literature and through a conversation I had with my professor who’s now the director of the Women’s Center, I decided to give my collection and other books to my alma mater's Women’s Center and the Multicultural Office so they can make a resource library for people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ community. It’s especially important since not enough attention (or budget for that matter) is given to such things. I encourage other people to do the same, whether it's your local library, school or college (speak to someone first to ensure that donations actually enter circulation).In particular, there is a need of books centered around marginalized/diverse identities and experiences (ie. LGBT, POC etc).

If you want to join me in my efforts in donating to the Women’s Center/Multicultural Affairs Office, mail your books to:

Flora Stone Mather Center for Women, Attn: Lisa Nielson
Tinkham Veale University Center, Suite 248
10900 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44106-7175.

USPS's Media Mail option (comes with tracking) would be the cheapest option since they offer a discounted mailing rate for books (ie. $11.81 for 20 pounds of books). The Media Mail rate chart can be found here.

The donation should be tax-deductible as the university is a non-profit organization and information on tax deduction on book donations can be found here. Email me at if you have any questions or comment below and I'll try to respond ASAP. 

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