Everything I Never Told You/Celeste Ng and Citizen: An American Lyric/Claudia Rankine

Sunday, January 25, 2015

There are books that fill you with the clamor of something new—the risk of them, the innovation.

There are books that silence you—how honest and aching and true, how beautifully levered down into the soul.

This morning I am silenced by Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng's impeccable first novel about a daughter whose inexplicable death cracks open the vault of a family's secrets and regrets. A novel about children submitting to their parents' dreams for them, and the woeful consequences. Bill Wolfe had named this his favorite book of the year. Sarah Laurence had put it on her list. So many others, too. Believe anyone who tells you that you must read this book. Believe me. You must.

Ng is a master of the omniscient voice. A brilliant webber of divergent perspectives. A calm creator of sentences. A woman capable of writing with enormous clarity and tenderness about racism, silence, the terrible burdens of doing one's duty, the steep weight of holding that science book in your hand because your mother wants you to, the wretchedness of being the less-loved child. How do you take a heartbreaking story and still leave the reader with hope? You do it by writing through a powerful knowing not just of the past but of the future, too.

I am one of those people who writes in her books—outlining, defining, questioning. I did not write inside Ng's pages, preferring to keep them pristine. I turned back the ear of but one, knowing it would be the page that I shared, the thing that lies most at the heart of this novel. That word "different" and how we use it or abuse it in our lives.

Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn't look like everyone else. In homeroom or at the drugstore or at the supermarket, you listened to morning announcements or dropped off a roll of film or picked out a carton of eggs and felt like just another someone in the crowd. Sometimes you didn't think about it at all. And then sometimes you noticed the girl across the aisle watching, the pharmacist watching, the checkout boy watching, and you saw yourself reflected in their stares: incongruous. Catching the eye like a hook. Every time you saw yourself from the outside, the way other people saw you, you remembered all over again. 

I was reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric the same time that I was reading Ng. I was thinking of how many times I have likely gotten it wrong in my own language—despite all these years now with my own Salvadoran husband, all these years fighting labels in life and on the page. Even those of us who should fully understand the nuances of prejudicial language can, horrifyingly, get it wrong, and will again. I mean to take nothing away from Ng's magnificent novel by including words from Rankine in this post, but they do, I believe, go together. They must—both these books—be read.

You are twelve attending Sts. Philip and James School on White Plains Road and the girl sitting in the seat behind asks you to lean to the right during exams so she can copy what you have written. Sister Evelyn is in the habit of taping the 100s and the failing grades to the coat closet doors. The girl is Catholic with waist-length brown hair. You can't remember her name: Mary? Catherine?

You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person.


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