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Bestselling author Fae Myenne Ng delves into storytelling at latest book reading

Fae Myenne Ng is pictured speaking to her audience. Ng presented her latest memoir, “Orphan Bachelors,” at the Hammer Museum. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

By Gavin Meichelbock

May 31, 2024 10:02 p.m.

Fae Myenne Ng hit the literary nail on the head with her profound words at the Hammer Museum.

Ng is a bestselling author and PEN/Faulkner Fiction finalist for her novel, “Bone.” Her other book, “Steer Toward Rock,” won her the American Book Award in 2008. Now, after working on it for 15 years, her latest tale, “Orphan Bachelors: A Memoir,” was released on May 21. The book tells the story of her parents facing the Chinese Exclusion Act and her complex relationship with her family. This Thursday, students and avid readers alike came together to attend “Some Favorite Writers: Fae Myenne Ng” at the Hammer Museum in Westwood for a reading of the author’s latest novel.

The event started at 7:39 p.m. with a few words from Ng’s friends and UCLA professor, Mona Simpson. The English professor, who has known Fae since 1972, discussed her feeling of admiration for Fae’s works before welcoming the acclaimed author to the small stage. After thanking the UCLA English Department and the Hammer Museum for hosting her, Ng began her reading. She opened by describing a lesson she learned from her mother.

“She taught me that a story is fact,” Ng said. “Telling a story is unconditional. You get nothing back. It’s like the passage of time. She also taught me that a secret is a manipulation of story. I learned growing up, getting an education, that a lie is a wonderful and possibly terrible thing, but its that all writers play with.”

Fae Myenne Ng is spotlighted in front of a blush pink background. The bestselling author revealed her approaches to writing at the event. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)
Fae Myenne Ng is spotlighted in front of a blush pink background. The bestselling author revealed her approaches to writing at the event. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

[Related: Joan Silber’s character-driven, revolutionary fiction unveiled at Hammer Museum]

Ng then went on to retell the story of her father. She said that when her father was 16 years old, he had to memorize a book of lies in order to enter the United States. In 1956, the Chinese Confession Program was enacted and forced immigrants like her father to give up their American passports or face deportation – though those who did confess still dealt with the threat of being expelled from the country, Ng said. She then read a section from her new book “Orphan Bachelors” that described her father’s life. Ng said her father believed he was borrowing time to stay in America with his family and her retelling of his story exists as he once did, as an “alien resident.” Ng also made a comment about how the concluding term was changed in her publication to “resident alien,” now meaning something entirely different – the crowd chuckled at her remark.

Moving on from the novel’s opening section, Ng shifted to discuss the inspiration that fueled the project. Ng said her writings were influenced by the ancestral tablets often found in Chinese homes, specifically pointing to her grandfather’s, which displayed his name printed on a piece of rice paper. In writing the stories of her parents, Ng said she wrote them by focusing on the narrative that made their lives distinctive. When writing her father’s tablet, she wrote about the first time her dad saw her mother, Ng said. For her mother, Ng said she wrote about a secret her mother once told her that strengthened their bond. Ng then read a letter she wrote to guide the creation of her own tablet – she wrote about her mother’s death.

During the third and final section, Ng talked about the implied focus on the writing and educational aspects of her story. Ng said her father’s tales from his book of lies have become part of her history, realizing this is how he invited possibility into their family’s lives. By leaving the real events untouched, Ng said it allowed her to write them out of their lives. Holding these details back and keeping them for herself, Ng said, empowered her to translate this song of everlasting hope.

After the reading portion of the night concluded, Professor Simpson returned to the stage and led a Q&A segment with the author. Her first question to Ng asked about the writing process for the book. Ng opened by saying she started the deeper process after the death of her father. She said she began to understand the story and the values of moving through fiction and nonfiction in a different way. Highlighting what her mother told her about secrets and their existence as a form of manipulation, Ng said the Exclusion Act and the Confession Program created a story where she had to hold back while also being transparent. Simpson then asked about the use of Cantonese in the story, to which Ng responded that its use is a distinctive one in storytelling.

“Cantonese in here (the book) is really unique because I use several very ancient Chinese Cantonese words,” Ng said. “Cantonese is sexy and romantic. I tried to work with the cadence so the English creates the Cantonese in cadence and in wisdom and in diction. That’s why it took 15 years.”

[Related: Monica Youn examines US history of Asian erasure in Hammer Museum Poetry Series]

As the Q&A continued, the microphone eventually passed around to Ng’s former students. One of them asked her what she hopes people take away from her classes. In response, Ng turned the question right back on the student. Now, answering his own question, the student said Ng taught him to be transparent while also being confident in his writings. As another student took the microphone, he recalled a moment from Ng’s class where they had to read the first line of a story they wrote while pounding on their desks. The student said the experience was an unforgettable one and spotlighted how stories have to emerge through noise. A third former student said the roots of her own writing and teaching were formed because of the lessons she learned in Ng’s class about treating instruction settings like a cocktail party.

After an evening of exploration that drove home the importance of storytelling, Ng’s students highlighted the message behind her teachings – confidence is the key to unlock storytelling.

“I don’t think the book would have worked if I kept something back,” Ng said. “That was part of revealing the complexities of hiding your identity and confessing. … That wasn’t easy to write, but it needed to be written.”

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Gavin Meichelbock
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