By Jacqui BanaszynskiAs I read Celeste Ng’s most recent novel, I couldn’t help but think of George Orwell’s “1984” or Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale.” Nor could I avoid echoes to discordant times in real life in recent years.
“Our Missing Hearts” is dystopian tale set in the near-contemporary United States. (Don’t let the “dystopian” scare you. The writing is transcendent.) The economy has collapse. People have lost jobs, homes, hope. The Globalization is blamed, and most notably China. In a move to regain stability, an opportunistic government passes PACT, the Protection of American Culture and Traditions, a broad-sweeping set of laws that creates a society of snitches — colleague on colleague, neighbor on neighbor, children on parents. Minorities overall are looked at with suspicion, and mostly notable, Asians.
It is in this climate that a Chinese-American poet flees her non-Chinese professor husband and their son, for fear the son will be taken from them, as many children are under government claims of dangerous parental influence. As the boy sets out to find his mother, she sets out to find the many parents who have been removed and, in a grand act of defiance, to give their testimonies. She sets up an elaborate network of speakers around New York City and for several hours tells their stories, in their words but without their names. She has despaired of doing anything to make a difference against an oppressive regime until, as police close in on her place of hiding, this happens on the streets:
At first people stop, baffled. Where is this voice coming from? They glance over their shoulders, searching for the source. Someone behind them? Behind that tree? But no, there is no one. They are alone. And then they begin to listen; they can’t help it. One story, then another. Then another. They pause and soon they are not alone any longer, there are clusters of them, then dozens, so many people standing silently together, listening. These steely New Yorkers—people who could ignore a troupe of breakdancers spinning around subway poles, who could swerve around a swarm of camera-toting tourists or a man dressed as a giant hot dog without losing speed or focus, without even a sideways glance—they paused, listening, and the teeming rivers of the city’s streets thickened and clogged. The voice comes from all around them, as if from the air itself, and though later a few of them would say it sounded godlike, from the sky, most who heard it would insist on the exact opposite; it felt like a voice inside them, speaking somehow both to them and from them, and though it was speaking the stories of strangers, people they had never met, children who were not their own, pain they had not experienced, it was somehow speaking not just to them but with them, of them, that the stories it told, one after another in a seemingly endless stream, were not someone else’s but one larger story of which they, too, were a part.
She wants people to remember more than their names. More than their faces. More than what happened to them, more than the simple last face that they were taken. Each of them needs to be remembered as a person unlike any other, not a name on a list but as someone, someone unlike anyone else.
I doubt if I’m the only journalist who has questioned whether this work we do — bearing witness with words and images and sending them out into an often silent world — makes any difference. I trust I’m not the only one who has been reminded in unexpected ways that it does.