Who is allowed to make art? In theory, being creative is available to anyone who feels compelled to commit thoughts to paper, whether that be in the form of words, or images, or musical notations. But the reality of who emerges as the wunderkind, producing their first published novel at an early age or having a show at a gallery, is dictated by economics and cultural expectations.
The issue of who gets to make art sets into motion the battles over motherhood and child adoption that devastate readers in Celeste Ng’s new novel, Little Fires Everywhere. Much of the book examines questions of who deserves to be a mother: the birth mother trapped in poverty or the adoptive mother who is capable of providing for every material need? And if that infant is from another culture, what obligations are the adoptive parents under to raise that child with a full knowledge of her ethnic origins? Ng treats the reader like the Bible’s King Solomon, asked to make a determination of what counts as the most important aspects of motherhood.
None of these questions would come up, however, if it were not for Mia Warren’s backstory before she arrives in Shaker Heights. In many ways, Mia’s family has followed the script for how families rise through the class ranks in America. Because Americans tend to believe that the lower classes are a temporary state while enough capital and education are accumulated so that each generation is expected to do better than the previous, what many families do not recognize is that they carry certain values specific to their current class, which causes them to distrust or demean the values of those who occupy other classes.
When I was growing up in the working-class immigrant household of my parents, it was made plain to me that my interest in writing was a great hobby, but the idea that I would want to be a “creative writer” wasn’t even recognized as a possibility. My father demanded that I go to college to become a professional – law or medicine – so when Mia encounters her parents’ resistance to her talent, I recognized the phenomenon.
To her parents, the photos – and Mia’s work in general – were less enchanting. They did not even call what she did “work,” or “art,” which in their minds would have been just as bad. They were middle-class people, had lived all their married lives in a butter-colored middle-class ranch house in a stolid, middle-class town. To them, work was fixing something or making something useful; if it didn’t have a use, they couldn’t quite make out why you’d do it. “Art” was something that people with too much time and money on their hands did.
Despite the fact that Mia has been accepted into a prestigious art school, her parents renege on their agreement to pay for her college education. And because Mia has no money and no support from her family, she leaves home and becomes the nomad who enters into the Richardson household in Shaker Heights.
Elena Richardson is also a familiar character. She grew up in a comfortably wealthy home. But when she gets to college and takes her writing courses, what interferes in her success is not that she doesn’t have the money to support herself while she is establishing a career. She has plenty of support from her parents. Instead, Elena is one of those people who believes that if she can control her surroundings by providing a beautiful home for her husband and children, and if she keeps that space organized and immaculate, meets her family’s desires, and presents a united front to the neighbors, she can keep bad things from happening to her family.
Just as many people believe that poverty could never happen to them because poverty is something that happens to people who do not behave in proper ways, Elena carries with her the idea that tragedy and trouble only comes to those families who leave themselves open to it. Therefore, if Elena runs her family like a controlled unit, she can protect everyone within that house.
The problem for Elena as a writer is that you cannot make art from inside a fortress. Elena’s fear of anything that might upset her routine means that she keeps herself closed to inspiration, moments of chance and experiences that might infuse her writing with compassion and passion. Instead, Elena’s writing remains routine and dry.
When Elena and Mia come into each other’s orbit, the questions about what one is willing to risk in order to make art or to feel passion will emerge. They will play out in several ways. What will break readers’ hearts is how they play out over the body of an infant found in a firehouse on a cold night. We’ll leave it at that and just recommend you pick up a copy of Little Fires Everywhere now.