By Iylia Marsya Iskandar
“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles.”Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
Little Fires Everywhere is a novel written by Celeste Ng while she walked down memory lane. The novel is set in the late 1990s in Shaker Heights, where Ng lived as a child. In many ways the community of Shaker Heights depicts the idea of conformity. The community conformed to rules to shape their own vision of utopia with the motto “Most communities just happened, the best are planned.”
In this idealised town, there are regulations for mandatory lawn mowing and annual house inspection to ensure that the community is living up to standards.
As quoted in the novel, “On garbage day, you cannot put your trash up front as it is unsightly.” This is a clear indication that the community’s appearance is policed by regulations worse than the fashion police. The community conformed to this idea because they believed that planning is progressive.
The protagonist, Elena Richardson who is a rule conformist finds joy in planning her children’s lives as she was born and raised in Shaker Heights. Despite the tittle Little Fires Everywhere, the term “Fires” that was explored in the novel is nothing fiery at all. It is a symbol of disappointment from Izzy towards all her family members, it symbolises renewal as you scorch everything out to the ground and it symbolises passion and how it is simultaneous to a fire burning.
A fire burning will leave its burn marks but doing something with passion will leave a person’s imprints on other people’s lives, “Like after a prairie fire. … It seems like the end of the world. The earth is all scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow.”
The novel has multiple underlying themes and issues to be amplified. Therefore, the novel is a response towards the reshaping of moral values specifically on the value of motherhood, classism and cultural appropriation.
Firstly, the novel is a response towards the reshaping of moral values on the value of motherhood. To define motherhood, Cambridge Dictionary puts it as a state or time of being a mother. However, in the novel, Ng has pointed out that motherhood that is defined by today’s society is of primal instinct. It is the feeling of protectiveness from a mother towards her children. Often times, motherhood is only associated to women who choose to get pregnant and choose to be a mother.
But in the United States, there were 18, 078 cases of infant adoption in 2017 alone. Thus, motherhood cannot be constricted solely to the mother that gave birth to the children but motherhood has to be attributed to women who raised children regardless of whether they bear the children or not. The novel outlines three possible scenarios of pregnancy, wanted, unwanted and surrogate and it pointed out the golden question; “It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”
Society has moulded a mother to be the epitome of domestic perfection. In the novel, all four mothers, Elena, Mia, Bebe and Mrs. McCulough do not represent that image, they portray the realistic ways of what a mother is. What all four of them have in common are of two things. Firstly, the effects that they have on their daughters. Elena wanted to protect her daughter, Izzy by giving her rules but Izzy only sees that as a cage for her to rebel against. Mia gives Pearl the freedom for her to be the artist of her life but she did not provide Pearl the stability of having a home.
Mrs. McCulough can give her adopted child, May Ling all the wealth in the world but she is separating her from her birth culture, and lastly Bebe can connect May Ling to her birth culture but she is opening a door for May Ling to poverty. However, the second thing that all of them have in common is love towards their children. All of them represent the ways of how a mother can be flawed but their love do not falter. Mia conceived Pearl through surrogacy but still loved Pearl unconditionally. Mia had said, “She smelled of home…as if home had never been a place, but had always been this little person whom she’d carried alongside her.”
All of these proved that motherhood is indeed flawed and blinded by love but all a mother wanted is to give what is best for the children regardless of how they bear their children or not and how they conceive it. The value of motherhood lies not only in biological but in love as well. Therefore, this novel is a response towards the reshaping of moral values on the value of motherhood.
Next, the novel is also a response towards the reshaping on moral values of classism. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, classism is the prejudice or discrimination based on class. Classism ranks people according to their economic status, family lineage and other divisions. The dominant party which is seen as more privileged, defines what is acceptable in the class hierarchy.
A common example of classism is when an upper class person has personal contact with an employer or immediate admission to tertiary education. This novel explores two different classes of people which are the white people which is associated with white privilege and the Asian minority.
White privilege is a state where a white person is able to turn on the television and see white people are globally represented. White privilege is also being able to find makeup in the shade that is suitable for one’s skin tone everywhere and it is being able to live a life without being racially stereotyped, for example, a person is labelled “Asian” because they remove their shoes before going into their houses.
Having white privilege and acknowledging that one has it is not considered racism, however, the origins of white privilege is a classic case of racial bias. Elena Richardson, who is amongst the white upper class people had said, “I recognise that I grew up with privilege and I want my children to feel the privilege that they are born with.”
The novel critiques the white upper class privileged by combining both Asian minority and the middle class which is considered as the minority in this novel.
In a world that is fueled by capitalism and white privilege, this novel is a perfect embodiment of giving the minority a voice. Towards the ending, both Mia who is a struggling middle class artist and Bebe, an oppressed Asian won in their bittersweet ways. They left Shaker Heights with defiance towards the conformism of Shaker Heights’ idealistic ways. When Elena chased Mia away from Shaker Heights, Elena was under the impression that she had won but little did she know that Mia’s leaving carries so much weight underneath it. When Mia left, she did not only lose a tenant but she lose a daughter that was so attached to Mia as well.
When Bebe lost custody of her baby, May Ling to the McCuloughs, a part of her died. She was adamant to take her baby back and she did, in the middle of the night before she left. May Ling’s familiarity towards Bebe results in her not making any sound at all when Bebe picked her up and leave Shaker Heights to China, for good.
All in all, both of these incidents signalled that both of them won and the upper class Shaker Heights community, though living in a dreamlike state, lost. When they left Shaker Heights, they also left their imprints which are unacceptable to the upper class as they are not the model for a “normal” and stable family. In reality, it is people of privilege that had always won but Ng surprised us with a different narrative. Therefore, it is evident that this novel is also a response towards the reshaping on moral values of classism.
Lastly, the novel is a response towards the reshaping of moral values on cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is “the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture, including knowledge, practices, and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.”
Cultural appropriation is closely related to colonialism and it is controversial in the way that it continues the oppression towards the subordinate cultures. When the dominant group takes a part of the subordinate culture, it posed the disadvantage to that culture in the sense that their culture is undervalued. For example, these days we often see women securing their hair bun using chopsticks or other things such as a fork and it is associated with the Asian culture. However, in the Asian culture, hair accessory such as the hair stick, is a way to celebrate the Asian culture and to use chopsticks and forks and associating it with Asian is culturally inappropriate and is considered as stereotyping.
In the novel, there was a classic case of interracial adoption between the McCuloughs and May Ling. Everything was smooth sailing until May Ling’s birth mother wants her daughter back and filed a court case. In court, Mrs. McCulough testified that they have good intentions in letting May Ling also known as Mirabelle by The McCuloughs, to connect May Ling to her birth culture by bringing her to Chinese restaurants and finding oriental dolls for her to play with. They even further elaborated that “Pearl of The Orient” which is a Chinese restaurant is their favourite place to dine-in.
The lawyer, Ed Lim who also has a daughter told the court that Mattel, the company that produces Barbie does not produce Asian Barbies. All Barbies during the time setting of the novel are all white, blonde Barbies. This is a clear sign of cultural appropriation as The McCuloughs, a white couple sees the Asian culture associated only with Asian food and toys. This is also a sign of ignorance as Asian is the most diverse culture in the world with many festivals such as Chinese New Year and Eid.
The generations of Asians have gone through several civilisations that they adopt all of the traditions and practices. They only associated Asian culture with food because they often dine-in to Chinese restaurants and undermines all the other part of the Asian culture. All in all, it is clear that the novel is a response towards the reshaping of moral values on cultural appropriation.
All things considered, it was proven that Celeste Ng uses her novel to critique and response towards the reshaping of moral values. Amongst the values that were discussed is the value of perfection in motherhood that is caused by society’s expectations, the social hierarchy that puts the dominant class as superior and forces the inferior classes to conform to the superior class and colonialism in cultures.
In a personal view, the novel talks about class and privilege that is stigmatised to be seen negatively but in reality, these two significant themes have their own significance as well. There are both negative and positive privileges. The current stigma has blinded the society by only exposing the negative effects of class and privilege when in reality, the good almost always outweighs the bad.
The author critiques these values to signalise that change is needed. A mother can be flawed but love their children regardless. The minority might lose when it comes to privileges but their voice also plays a role in today’s world and they should not conform to the upper class and their expectations and cultural appropriation is undermining another culture’s uniqueness.
Therefore, this novel symbolises rebirth. A fire is needed to burn everything down and start anew, simultaneously this novel should burn all the stigmas and plan for a better future, as what Elena had said, “Change doesn’t just happen,” echoing the Shaker motto, “It has to be planned.” ***