Lisa Ko’s Latest Novel Concerns Us All | LibraryReads Authors

In Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, an acutely rendered tale of parent and child torn apart, 11-year-old Deming’s Chinese immigrant mother, Polly, does not return one day to their Bronx, NY, apartment, and he is doubly abandoned when Vivian, sister of Polly’s boyfriend and mother of Deming’s best friend Michael, surrenders Deming to the authorities.

Adopted by well-meaning but oblivious white professors, he becomes Daniel Wilkinson, a rebel with a guitar lost in suburbia and anguishing over what happened to his mother. It takes a lot of living for Daniel to realize, “God, it was great to be himself again,” a sentiment Polly echoes as she narrates her own jaggedly painful saga in an alternate story line.

Thus Ko’s nuanced narrative communicates not just the burdens of the immigrant experience but the important lesson that one must learn—and sometimes fight—to be oneself. As Ko clarified in a phone interview with LJ, those themes fit together seamlessly.

“I was thinking a lot about the melting-pot fantasy, how we melt into culture and everyone is happy,” she explains. “That version doesn’t give credence to the violent realities of what it means to assimilate into a dominant culture.” Ko wanted her characters to be honest with themselves about how they really want to live, and Polly, raised in a society that severely restricts women, could at least use immigration “to empower herself in terms of reinvention, in ways that benefited her and on her terms.”

Daniel, meanwhile, is trapped in a system dominated by the idea that “economic privilege and social capital are in the best interest of the child and can serve as a stand-in for the biological family,” says Ko of the wealthy, well-educated Wilkinsons. Yet they haven’t a clue or, finally, much concern about Daniel’s real feelings and can never provide the sense of belonging he had with the family he lost, however straitened their circumstances. For Daniel, family means “the place he can feel most at home,” argues Ko, “and in the end he designs his own family with his friends, by choice.”

Ko has an excellent ear for dialog, and Daniel is also attuned to the sounds around him, at one point declaring, “The city had been one long song, vivid, endlessly shading, a massive dance mix of bus beats, train drums, and passing stereos.” That he misses those sounds shows how much he misses the city and its electric vitality, so unlike the presumably healthy hush of his upstate New York home.

This aural sensitivity explains why he finds solace in music, though of course playing rock guitar is also a “natural fit” for a teenager at odds with his environment, notes Ko. It finally leads free-spirited Daniel back to New York City and a lifestyle that blasts away the aspirations of his bookish adoptive parents.

To tell Daniel’s story, Ko drew on the real-life stories of children taken from undocumented immigrant parents, reading memoirs and articles about transracial, transnational adoptees and even traveling to Polly’s hometown in China. Though Ko builds suspense by slowly unfolding what happened to Polly, getting the right flow after shifting around scenes over seven years’ worth of experimentation, it’s no mystery how traumatic her characters’ experiences have been.
“I would love for the book to add a little awareness of how immigration policy, even before Trump, ends up permanently fracturing families,” says Ko. “In the end, this is the very American story of immigration, identity, and self-definition.” And that’s a story that concerns us all.—Barbara Hoffert

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

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