by Terry Hong
Lisa Ko’s parents often reminded her how lucky she was to grow up in a mostly-white suburb outside NYC. Ko is the daughter of ethnic Chinese parents who were born and raised in the Philippines and then immigrated to the United States. “[B]ut lucky also felt like a warning,” Ko writes in a revelatory essay on her website, “how precarious status could be.”
Ko transmits that unsettled anxiety into Deming Guo, one of two protagonists in her achingly insightful, gorgeously redemptive novel, The Leavers, which debuted in May. The other half belongs to Deming’s mother Polly, inspired, Ko reveals, by the story of Xiu Ping Jiang, an undocumented immigrant profiled in The New York Times. That Jiang’s eight-year-old son was caught by immigration officials while entering the U.S. from Canada and later adopted by a Canadian family resonated sharply with Ko. Further research uncovered comparable stories of children rent from their “unfit” immigrant parents and granted to “fit” American parents, along with heinous conditions at the for-profit detention centers where the undocumented are imprisoned for months, even years. For the better part of a decade, all that research, all that heartbreak, and a growing ferocity, coalesced into The Leavers.
“Everyone had stories they told themselves to get through the days,” Deming muses the evening of his 22nd birthday, summing up a lifetime of leaving—and being left—that has defined his short life thus far. Deming, also known as Daniel Wilkinson, has crisscrossed the globe, following and then searching for his “Mama,” a woman also multi-monikered as Peilan Guo, Polly Guo, and Polly Lin. Ko cleverly indicates changing, adapting, reclaiming identities by how mother and son use their names. In an uncertain world of “what-if’s” and “might/could/should-have-been’s,” the pair will become their own doppelgängers, imagining other lives, searching to live beyond mere survival.
Born in Manhattan, Deming has had many homes, but never felt at home. He arrived Stateside in utero when Polly left her Chinese village, desperate for options beyond the tedium of being a factory girl or the boy-next-door’s wife. Life as an illegal Chinatown immigrant—stifling hours at a sewing machine, sharing a crowded dormitory-style room, constantly calculating how to pay off the $50,000 smuggling fee—doesn’t leave room for motherhood, forcing Polly to reluctantly send one-year-old Deming to China to be raised by her father.
Deming returns to New York five years later, and for the five years that follow, Deming and Polly become a family with Polly’s boyfriend Leon, his sister Vivian, and Vivian’s son Michael. They’re crammed into a one-bedroom Bronx apartment, never have enough money, the adults constantly worry over documentation—but none of that deters the family from planning, bonding, dreaming. Until Polly disappears.
Without answers—or hope—the made-up family scatters: Leon leaves, Vivian and Michael leave, but not before Vivian leaves Deming in care of the foster care system. At 11, he moves to Ridgeborough, a small town in upstate New York, to live with white, affluent college professors Kay and Peter Wilkinson. By age 12, he’s legally their son, his birth certificate rewritten to erase his connection to Polly. He’s the only Asian American at his new school, friendless until he meets Roland, a mixed-race Latino classmate. “As long as he didn’t think about his mother, Deming was not that unhappy in Ridgeborough.”
Ten years later, Deming-now-Daniel returns to Manhattan. He’s left university, in debt, sleeping on Roland’s couch. After a decade apart, his childhood-almost-brother Michael finds him via email, and suddenly, Daniel has links to his past … including his never-forgotten Mama.
In giving Deming’s voice prominence, “I want to decenter the narrative of transracial adoption away from that of the adoptive parents,” Ko explains in an interview with Barbara Kingsolver, who established the PEN/Bellwether Prize to “promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice,” which The Leavers most recently won. “Instead,” Ko continues, “we need to privilege the voices of adoptees, who are often missing from the conversation or dismissed as being bitter if they’re honest or critical about their experiences.” Ko doesn’t shy away, exposing issues of cultural illiteracy between parent and child, even touching on the high rate of suicide among transracial adoptees.
Although Ko began writing The Leavers in 2009, headlines regarding immigrants have hardly changed: roundups, detention, deportation, separated families proliferate. Especially tragic are international adoptees deported as adults to a birth country they left as infants and children. Most recently, the planned cancellation of DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] threatens some 800,000 “Dreamers.” Beyond the desensitizing media coverage, Ko gives faces, (multiple) names, and details to create a riveting story of a remarkable family coming, going, leaving … all in hopes of someday returning to one another.
Terry Hong: Your immediate family has had a rather peripatetic journey. Your parents are ethnic Chinese who were born and raised in the Philippines, and then arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1960s. What was it like for your parents to be multiply dislocated?
Lisa Ko: Though I wouldn’t necessarily define my parents as multiply dislocated—their immigration journey from the Philippines to the U.S. was fairly straightforward—my family has been migrating for generations. I think that my parents’ experiences of growing up as ethnic minorities within their Asian country of origin (even among Chinese in the Philippines, they were a minority as being from Cantonese rather than from Fukinese families) did inform some of my own experiences of growing up in the U.S. There was always the sense that we were the underdog no matter where we were!
TH: You were born in New York, raised in New Jersey in a mostly white neighborhood. I think I read that you didn’t grow up with a particularly culturally Chinese background. How did you identify yourself as a child? Did you ever feel wholly “American” in your surroundings?
LK: I identified as Chinese American, though my family and cultural experiences were different from other Chinese Americans I knew, and had much in common with other Filipino Americans. So my family was ethnically Chinese, but not wholly culturally Chinese. I felt American, but I wasn’t seen by others as “American.”
TH: Let’s talk authorship … you’re a BLOOMer! But you wrote your first book when you were five! So what happened in the decades between?
LK: Ha! Well, I’ve been writing in the decades between. I wish I had some other excuse for how long it’s taken, like raising a family or pursuing an entirely different career, but I’ve mostly just been writing (or procrastinating writing, or trying to write). I’ve worked many, many different day jobs in various teaching/editorial/publishing/web fields while learning how to become a better writer by trying and failing and trying again.
TH: Do you have some of those “failures” hidden away that we might see in the future?
LK: I actually keep all of my “failures,” because I can’t bear to throw things away and it makes it easier for me to delete (aka “kill my darlings”) if I know they’re still accessible somewhere. I have multiple Word documents labeled things like “graveyard” and “cemetery” and things like that where I dump my deleted writing. So, you never know! I end up excavating pieces from time to time, or reincarnating them in different forms.
TH: Since we’re talking death and birth … what’s the genesis of The Leavers? When and how did you decide you were going to write THIS book?
LK: I started writing The Leavers in 2009. I’d been working on a short story collection for many years and it had been stalled for months, and I was ready to try a new project. I’d been reading a lot about real-life cases of undocumented immigrant women who’d had their U.S.-born children taken away from them by U.S. courts while the women were being detained or deported, and it brought up questions for me about some of my favorite obsessions: identity, assimilation, belonging, culture, class, etc. I started writing about a character named Polly, who had immigrated from China to New York City. And I kept writing about her, and then I started writing about her son … and before I knew it, I was working on a novel.
TH: And why transracial adoption? Do you know adoptees? Why did that specific experience resonate with you?
LK: I do know adoptees, but my character Deming’s adoption experience (he’s adopted when he’s 11 and has been living with his mother since then) is quite atypical. The real-life stories that first inspired The Leavers involved the children of these immigrant women adopted into mostly white, middle-class American families—and courts were saying that this was a “better fit” for the children, even if their mothers wanted to keep them. This really angered and intrigued me because of the coded assumptions around what it meant to provide a child with a “better life,” and and I wanted to explore that through Deming’s story.
TH: Identity looms large throughout The Leavers—especially mutable, sometimes adaptable, sometimes discardable identities. How much of your own search for identity/acceptance/belonging inspired your characters? And with which character do you most identify?
LK: Though my own life couldn’t be any more different than Polly and Deming’s, my own journeys to find belonging did inform their characters emotionally in some scenes. I can see parts of myself in both of them, actually—they are both trying, throughout the book, to figure out how to live on their own terms, beyond the expectations that are placed upon them by other people. That was something that felt familiar to me as I learned to value my own writing and work so I could finish the book!
TH: So doppelgängers serve as a leitmotif throughout the story. Where did that idea come from? Do we all have doppelgängers somewhere else, living our other lives? Have you ever glimpsed yours?
LK: I’ve never glimpsed my physical doppelgänger, though I’m super intrigued by the possibility of having one (as an only child, I’d always wondered what it felt like to have someone in my generation who looked like me!). But yeah, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that we could be living other lives, that there are so many different turns that our lives may have taken, based on chance as well as choice. It’s something that Deming dwells on as well in the book—where might he be if this hadn’t happened, or if this other thing had happened instead? To me, it’s both fun and vaguely maddening territory to ponder.
TH: My baby brother has this theory that we are all versions of certain archetypes … that’s what explains these moments of synchronicity where you run into someone you know in, say, Cambridge, and meet them at some total tiny dive bar in Ann Arbor, Michigan on the day after Christmas as you enter at the exact same time … the tiny details of those parallel trajectories give him insight into his own life!
LK: I love that! I have run into younger versions of myself on the streets of NYC … kind of eerie but cool.
TH: Did you ever talk to any of them? Let them know what’s coming up next for them …??!!
LK: Haha, I don’t think I’d ever want to know at that age. I couldn’t even think past 30. I did go home and write about it, though!
TH: Speaking of going “home” … you went to China when you were researching your book. Do you speak any Chinese dialects? What was the experience like when you initially arrived? How different did you feel by the time you left?
LK: I do speak some Cantonese, but not any other dialects. And I’d been to Shanghai and Beijing and Guangzhou on a previous trip, but when researching my book, I went to Fujian, where my character Polly is from. I don’t think I’d expected how difficult it would be for me to navigate Fuzhou without knowing Mandarin or Fuzhounese, since there were far fewer tourists there than in the other Chinese cities I’d been in. The trip was challenging and humbling in many ways. But it did give me a better sense, albeit microscopically, of what it might be like to come to another country where you were not being accommodated easily.
TH: Sorta like refugees/immigrants in Trump country …
LK: Yes, but with the privileges of a U.S. passport and American dollars and English!
TH: Let’s talk Bellwether Prize. And CONGRATULATIONS! What did winning that mean for you? Beyond the publishing contract, what are some of the other benefits it might have provided?
LK: Thank you! It was incredible to win the Bellwether. It’s an award given to a novel in “socially engaged fiction,” a term that interests me because it seems very American to define only some fiction as “socially engaged” (I feel there’s a uniquely American distaste for literature that engages with social/political issues and it says so much about us as Americans …). To me, it was an honor to have my novel be defined as such.
TH: Authors have told me how their personal perception of their own book has changed after hearing how their readers have processed them. You must have met quite a few of your readers since the book pubbed. Have you experienced any mind shifts in your thinking about your characters, their experiences?
LK: That’s been the most amazing part of publication, hearing from readers how they were affected by the book. Actual readers, reading my book! I’ve been especially touched when I hear from Asian American and other readers of color, and how they’ve identified with my characters or their experiences. I feel like those are the readers I’m writing for, and it’s incredibly meaningful for me to be able to connect with them. I’ve also loved when people notice themes in my book that I hadn’t thought of, or are able to sum up what it’s “about” in succinct and beautiful ways.
TH: I can’t let you go without (impatiently) asking the inevitable: what are you writing now?
LK: I have been working on a new novel, but it’s far too new for me to even be able to say what it’s about. Though I will say that it will be quite different from The Leavers.