Little Fires Everywhere is a book that makes deep and difficult inquiries into what, exactly, makes up a person’s identity. Throughout the novel, Ng again and again makes the argument that identity is not easily sought or discovered. Her characters struggle to identify themselves internally from one another through the places they were born and raised, the people who raised them and loved them from afar, the families they were given or chose, and the things they were taught as children in opposition to the hard lessons they learned as adults. The characters suffer as they attempt to make—or discard—their identities, and through their sufferings Ng argues that identity is not something so easily pinned down, and that the search for an authentic or permanent identity often leads to frustration and pain.
For Mia Warren, the search for identity is bound up in the transience of her life. Though the narrative does not immediately make the reason for her transient nature clear, it presents her and Pearl’s way of living as alternately fun and bohemian, or lonely and rootless. Mia is estranged from her family, and it is truly her and Pearl against the world. Pearl learns to find refuge in her mother and in their unique, special relationship as they move from place to place, though deep down she truly longs for friends her own age and for a place she can feel at home in and a part of. She also yearns to know her true heritage, but any time she asks Mia about her parentage, her past, or the reason for their nomadic lifestyle, Mia dodges her questions. Mia wants to erase her identity, and has built her life—and her daughter’s life—around escaping her past, who she was, and the people she once knew who made her into who she is. Though strong in her personal identity as an artist, Mia has adopted an artist’s transient lifestyle largely in part because she hopes to lose herself within the vast landscape of America, and to hide from anyone who might still be pursuing her on behalf of the Ryans, the family whose baby she carried and ultimately refused to surrender. Mia’s identity has been built on so much secrecy that her search for privacy and her constant, repetitive erasure of her past has, in a way, become her identity itself.
Pearl, unable to get any answers regarding the roots of her mother’s identity or her family’s identity—and thus, by proxy, her own identity—observes and longs for the Richardsons’ comfort in their identities as she grows closer to them, both as individuals and as a family. They have deep roots in Shaker Heights, and the familial identity their ancestors built has influenced the present identities of their whole clan. Pearl, a shy teenager often uncertain of herself, wants that kind of built-in identity as well, and her mother’s inability—or unwillingness—to give it to her pushes her toward attempting to assimilate herself into the Richardson family, dreaming of the day they accept her as one of their own.
The questions of assimilation raised subtly through Pearl’s desire to join the Richardson clan are brought more forcefully to the forefront of the narrative as Bebe Chow’s case against the state for custody of her daughter, May Ling, begins to intensify. Ed Lim, Bebe’s lawyer, intensely questions Mrs. McCullough as to her ability to keep May Ling—or Mirabelle—“connected” to her Chinese identity. When Mrs. McCullough states that she takes Mirabelle out to eat at Chinese restaurants and bought her a panda rather than a brown bear for her first birthday, her statements come across as completely tone-deaf and rather offensive, if well-intentioned. Though Mrs. McCullough loves Mirabelle—“[no one] has any doubts about that,” Ed Lim says—she is woefully unprepared to sensitively or meaningfully raise her adoptive daughter within Chinese culture. Though Ed Lim’s arguments are valid, and reveal to both Ng’s audience and characters the nuance and difficulty of transracial adoption and the potential of assimilation to completely erase cultural identity, the McCulloughs are awarded custody of May Ling. They proceed with the adoption—and with the change of May Ling’s name to Mirabelle—until Bebe Chow, inspired by Mia’s comforting but confusing advice to “always” remember that she is May Ling’s true mother, steals the child right out of her crib and books a flight back to China, where she herself will raise her child in her own country and her own culture. All of the fighting over May Ling’s identity throws the child’s emotional well-being into the background of the case. One of the most complicated and hotly debated issues throughout the novel, Ng’s tug-of-war between Bebe Chow and the McCulloughs seems to suggest that though assimilation should not be the “cost” of a child’s being raised in capable, loving hands, the attempt to predict, litigate, or pin down identity itself is not the right course of action, either.
Ng’s characters struggle to create identities for themselves without ever realizing that identity is inextricably linked not just to heritage alone, transience alone, or assimilation alone, but an ever-changing combination of the three. The search for identity plagues many of the novel’s main characters, and it’s only when they relax into the identities that their life experiences have formed for them that they can begin to find peace with their own identities, and the identities of those around them.
Identity: Heritage, Assimilation, and Transience ThemeTracker
Identity: Heritage, Assimilation, and Transience Quotes in Little Fires Everywhere
This was how Moody made a decision he would question for the rest of his life. Until now he had said nothing about Pearl or her mother to his family, guarding their friendship like a dragon guards treasure: silently, greedily. Deep down he had the feeling that somehow it would change everything. If he had kept her to himself, perhaps the future might have been quite different. All he had to offer her, he felt, was what his family had to offer, his family itself, and it was this that led him to say, one afternoon in July, “Come over. You can meet my family.”
“Mom,” [Pearl] began, then found she could not repeat Lexie’s blunt words. Instead she asked the question that ran below all the other questions like a deep underground river. “Was I wanted?”
…Mia said nothing for such a long time that Pearl wasn’t sure if she’d heard. After a long pause, Mia turned around, and to Pearl’s amazement, her mother’s eyes were wet.
“Were you wanted?” Mia said. “Oh, yes. You were wanted. Very, very much.” She walked rapidly out of the room without looking at her daughter again.
“Listen to this dumbass question,” [Lexie] groaned, fishing the application from her bag. “Rewrite a famous story from a different perspective. For example, retell The Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch.”
“How about a fairy tale,” Moody suggested. “‘Cinderella’ from the point of view of the stepsisters.”
“‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as told by the wolf,” Pearl suggested.
“Or ‘Rumplestiltskin,’” Lexie mused. “That miller’s daughter cheated him. He did all that spinning for her and she said she’d give him her baby and then she reneged. Maybe she’s the villain here. She shouldn’t have agreed to give up her baby in the first place, if she didn’t want to.”
“Well,” Mia put in suddenly. “Maybe she didn’t know what she was giving up. Maybe once she saw the baby she changed her mind. Don’t be too quick to judge.”
Mia thought suddenly of those moments at the restaurant, after the dinner rush had ended and things were quiet, when Bebe sometimes rested her elbows on the counter and drifted away. Mia understood exactly where she drifted to. To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.
“I believe in knowing where your roots lie. That kind of thing shapes your identity so much.”
It was so easy, she thought with some disdain, to find out about people. It was all out there, everything about them. You just had to look. You could figure out anything about a person if you just tried hard enough.
It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?
Since the visit to the clinic, Pearl had felt a strange sense of reversal: as if, while she and Lexie slept under the same roof, Lexie had somehow taken her place and she’d taken Lexie’s and they had not quite disentangled.
The police would find Izzy, she told herself. They would find her and she would be able to make amends. She wasn’t sure how, but she was certain she would. And if the police couldn’t find her? Then she would look for Izzy herself. For as long as it took, for forever if need be. Years might pass and they might change, both of them, but she was sure she would still know her own child, just as she would know herself, no matter how long it had been. She was certain of this.