(Algonquin Books, 2017)
A May 3, 2009, New York Times headline reads, “Mentally Ill and in Immigration Limbo,” and chronicles the story of Xiu Ping Jiang, a woman lost in an immigration detention camp in Florida. Xiu Ping was suicidal and often in solitary confinement. Her son had been adopted away into a Canadian foster family—somehow a side-note in the disappearance of this undocumented, unwell woman. The disintegration of her family and her sanity was reported in the Times only after it was too late; after Xiu Ping Jiang had been invisible too long, and lost everything.
In Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers, Xiu Ping’s pain, and the pain of the innumerable others caught in America’s shadowy immigration system, can be seen in the novel’s central crisis: the disappearance of Peilin Guo from her home in the Bronx, and from her U.S.-born son, Deming. Peilin (sometimes Polly) is from Fuzhou, China; she is undocumented and working long hours for short money to pay off her passage to the States, and the recent return of her child. Soon after her sudden disappearance, Deming is sent to live with the Wilkinson’s: a white foster family in upstate New York who insist on calling him Daniel.
The Leavers follows Deming’s transformation into Daniel. This journey to find himself (and his mother) brings him in and out of languages and lives, from New York to Fuzhou and back again. The Leavers is a debut of quiet force; Ko’s mastery is evident in her effortless sentences, capable of unspooling your heart before you even realized it was wound up. The novel won the PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Literature, and Ko’s work has been lauded by the likes of Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, and Junot Diaz.
Nicole Treska (Rail): Making a home in The Leavers often comes down to characters doing the best with what they’ve got. What do you think about home? Is it really “where the heart is,” or is it just where you end up?
Lisa Ko: Maybe it’s coming to a sense of acceptance, whatever that means to you. For Deming and Polly, their journal through the novel is to find a home that works for them—not only in their physical and geographical surroundings, but within themselves.
Rail: There isn’t an easily reconcilable identity for Deming; he’s searching for the right name, language, sound. … How does he ultimately find comfort within himself?
Ko: I feel like the defensiveness has to do with security, in that throughout the book Deming is learning how to navigate other people’s expectations of him, whether it’s his family, or his friends, or the people around him. He’s kind of getting to the place where he’s able to make his own choices for himself, and be honest with himself and others. So, his comfort is found through that honesty—whether it’s making choices, or having those difficult conversations, or making the music he wants to make in the way that feels honest. And also finding his own feelings.
Rail: He seems to have a keen awareness of coolness as cultural currency, a way to both distinguish himself and mask his vulnerability. Can you talk a little about this?
Ko: I love that you got that, because I feel like that’s a big part of the character. It ties into another question of how he learns to be himself, which is kind of the main character plot. He goes from this place where he is with family—his family that looks like him and understands him—to a place where he is defined by his difference, in his family and his school, and his small town. So, all of a sudden he has to find a new way to be, because he doesn’t have those other kinds of defining factors. The idea of music and coolness become a way to define himself, and also to use his difference as a way of empowerment, rather than disempowerment. I think the idea of protection against vulnerability is a really big thing. People develop cool patterns because of their fear of x, y, or z: abandonment, commitment… all the hurts. So, that kind of becomes another outgrowth of his character.
Rail: Deming’s foster parents, Kay and Peter Wilkinson, are sometimes sympathetic, but often they’re not. Toward the end of the novel, Deming recalls, “how she and Peter had insisted on English, his new name, the right education. How better and more hinged on their ideas of success, their plans. Mama, Chinese, the Bronx, Deming: they had never been enough.” Are the Wilkinson’s just elitist and tone-deaf, or are they guilty of something uglier?
Ko: Well, they’re products of their social class and the privileges that go along with that. But
they haven’t done much work to fully examine what that means, or to listen closely enough to Deming. I’ll leave their actions up to the reader to judge.
Rail: Music comes up often in your writing. It feels kind of like a universal language to characters caught between languages. How does what you’re listening to play into your process?
Ko: I think it ties into the idea of defining yourself, being another way of speaking. There’s a way that music is universal, and also super specific. Your music taste says so much about where you’re from, and where you grew up, and who you hang out with. I think a lot about growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, and the mixtapes that I obsessively made and exchanged with friends.
Rail:I saw on social media that you just got rid of all of your mixtapes.
Ko: No, those were the CDs; I still have all the tapes. I have all the tapes. I have no way to play them; they’re all just rotting in a box. I can’t get rid of them [Laughter]. But I feel like they were really early short stories. It was similar to how, as writers, we arrange scenes in a story or a novel to evoke this emotional response from the reader. And to me, with a playlist, you’re doing the same thing with the songs-—you’re trying to evoke the emotional experience of the listener.
Rail:What are some of the emotional experiences you wanted to evoke in your readers with The Leavers?
Ko: I thought a lot about the order of the scenes and chapters. I wanted to give the readers both ups and downs, to feel what the characters were feeling. Loss, joy, despair, suspense.
Rail: Can you talk a little bit about the decision to write Deming’s sections in the third person and Peilin’s sections in the first person?
Ko: I tried a lot of different variations of point of view when I was working on The Leavers. In one previous draft, both characters were in first-person. In another, they were both in third. I tried writing Polly in first person, addressing her son as “you” on a whim, and it ended up being the right choice.
Rail: Peilin is caught in the realized nightmare of an undocumented immigrant, and she is both willful and trapped. What stories or research informed her character?
Ko: The article that sort of sparked it was this piece in the Times in the spring of 2009, about a woman named Xiu Ping Jiang. She was an immigrant, an undocumented immigrant, from Fuzhou who had been found just by coincidence by a Times reporter in a detention center in Florida. She’d been there for like two years, often in solitary confinement. She had a son she tried to bring into the U.S. through Canada, and he was caught and adopted by a Canadian family. So, I got super obsessed with this story and started reading about all these other stories that happened, with all these other women from Mexico, Central America, Asia… There were so many cases. So, that was the springboard where her character grew from, but mostly she just sort of became her own character.
Rail: There is constant talk of increasing beds in immigration detention centers, and deportation squads, and women being taken from their children. How did writing this book change the way you look at this moment in American history?
Ko: I started The Leavers in 2009, and it’s based on real life stories. So, the stories of ICE and the U.S. government fracturing immigrant parents from their U.S.-born children has been going on for years and years. It’s definitely been ramped up with Trump and getting more visibility. I don’t know, I mean, thinking about more beds—I heard a stat recently that under Obama there were bed quotas for ICE detention centers, and it was like 40,000. So the idea was that 40,000 beds had to be filled any given day with immigrants in these detention centers. You have to create a need for that sort thing. And that affects everything. Trump has apparently mandated 80,000. A lot of it is driven by prison profit and private prisons that are making money of it.
Rail: The Leavers tells the story of American immigrants. Do you think publishing is doing enough right now to increase the representation of different kinds of American voices and stories?
Ko: Oh hell no. I mean, I don’t have the answers. My general way to think about, or answer, this type of question is to think about how do we decolonize rather than diversify?
Rail: The novel is already garnering big praise from big literary names, and institutions. Why do you think the novel is resonating so strongly?
Ko: I’d like to say because it’s a good story. Ultimately I just want it to be a good story, so when people respond to that I’m really excited. Part of it could be the relevance to a lot of immigration issues that are becoming front and center in a big way.
Rail: And what about you, what are you reading these days?
Ko: I’m hoping to revisit some favorites this summer, after my book tour ends and I have free time again. You know, like The Handmaid’s Tale.