Our missing stories

Published November 27, 2022
The writer is currently researching newsroom culture in Pakistan.
The writer is currently researching newsroom culture in Pakistan.

CELESTE Ng’s new novel Our Missing Hearts feels eerily prescient. It is set in the future in an authoritarian America where there are no personal freedoms and patriotism trumps everything. This means banning books, art, poetry, half the internet, anything that can undermine the nameless leader who uses the Preserving American Culture and Traditions bill to protect people from ‘threats’ like, for example, China. Another threat is people of Asian origin, who are responsible for the crises that led to this authoritarian regime so they are viewed with much suspicion. This PACT law allows children to be taken by the state if their parents are deemed unfit and/or dissenters.

This doesn’t sound like a faraway future because even now, I can think of several countries who frame their policies around nationalism, with a particular focus on branding its critics anti-state. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction in Pakistan, for example, where ‘anti-state’ signals a shutdown of conversation and endangers lives. There are many other countries ruled by populist leaders with horrific policies, which is why I didn’t see this novel as dystopian as much as I did a mirror to nations with anti-immigrant, anti-poor policies.

In Ng’s futuristic authoritative America, we meet the young biracial 12-year-old Bird (real name Noah) who lives with his librarian father Ethan. Bird’s mother Margaret, Asian, and poet, left the family when he was eight. She is seen as a traitor by the regime and both father and son have to occasionally ‘prove’ their disconnect to her especially since Ethan does not want to run the risk of Bird being taken away from him.

There’s a need for a collective resistance to bans.

Bird is a sensitive child who longs to understand why his mother abandoned him but cannot talk about it. He can’t question anything; no one can as that will attract trouble so all he has is fragmented memories of his mother reading him stories. Those stories can’t be repeated now. One day, Bird happens across a letter which will lead him to many answers about why his mother left, and about the oppressive regime and its despicable actions like removing children from their families. There is nothing dystopian about separating families as evidenced by countries in the Global North taking children from indigenous/black communities and often rehoming them with white families. This is why I say the novel is an indictment of racist, heartless policies towards non-white families.

It is a reminder of the racism that South Asians and Arabs experienced after 9/11 and more recently, Asians experienced following the pandemic. That hostility was amplified when Donald Trump called it the Chinese virus. Trump’s departure has not ‘fixed’ any of the schisms. At the time of writing this, speculation remains rife that Trump may run for president in 2024. Also, at the time of writing this, Kanye West tweeted that he asked Trump to be his presidential running mate. I digress but sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between satire and reality.

I hope I’m not giving too much away when I say that against Ng’s depressing premise emerges the phrase “our missing hearts” from a poem by Margaret wrote. It refers to the children forcibly removed from their homes and becomes a rallying cry, a symbol of resistance, a demand cropping up in unsuspecting places, making the regime scramble to shut something they can’t control. It is hopeful.

Ultimately, the novel is an urgent reminder about the need for a collective resistance to bans on books, art, ideas, things that don’t agree with X’s definition of culture.

I understand that Joyland may have offended some sensibilities but a few can’t be allowed to make decisions for the many who were in attendance at the cinema the night I watched this utterly beautiful film. What struck me was the varied crowd at the cinema — families who came with their elderly parents, girlfriends, boyfriends, best friends. It was the crowd’s diversity that gave me hope, listening to their comments about the film as we exited the cinema. This is what art does: provoke and evoke. Let there be no hindrance to festivals and marches like the literary ones, the public art exhibits in the form of biennales, Aurat March, Moorat March and student gatherings.

Leaders in governance and corporate sectors that sponsor art and culture events should ask whose voices are being heard and whose stories are being told. The forcible disappearances of the marginalised Baloch, Pakhtuns, Mohajirs, students, dissidents, journalists trying to get their stories out, rips families and hopes for a pluralistic society. Nothing good has come from unipolarity, in governance or policy and no matter how hard you try to package

something as ‘in the national interest’ or ‘peoples safekeeping’, nothing good will come of bans.

The writer is currently researching newsroom culture in Pakistan.
Twitter: @LedeingLady

Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2022

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