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'The Leavers,' inspired by a real story, confronts transracial adoption

Lisa Ko's debut novel is an achingly beautiful read about immigration, adoption, and the drive to belong.

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The Leavers
By Lisa Ko
Algonquin
352 pp.

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“Everyone had stories they told themselves to get through the days,” Deming Guo 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, provides half of the dual narrative of Lisa Ko’s achingly insightful, gorgeously redemptive debut novel, The Leavers; the other half belongs to Deming’s “Mama” – the only person Deming will ever gift that name – 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.

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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 her 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.

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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 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, Daniel returns to Manhattan. He’s left university, in debt, sleeping on Roland’s couch. After a decade apart, Michael finds Daniel via email, and suddenly, Deming has links to his past … including his never-forgotten Mama.

In a revelatory essay on her website, Ko reveals how Polly was inspired by the story of Xiu Ping Jiang, an undocumented immigrant profiled in The New York Times. That Jiang’s 8-year-old son was caught by immigration officials while entering the US from Canada and later adopted by a Canadian family resonated sharply. Further research revealed comparable stories of children cleaved from their “unfit” immigrant parents and granted to “fit” American parents. Ko channeled further fury at the heinous conditions of the for-profit detention centers where the undocumented are imprisoned for months, even years.

As the New York-born child of ethnic Chinese parents who were born and raised in the Philippines and then immigrated to the US from there, Ko grew up “legal” in a mostly-white suburb outside NYC. Her parents often reminded her how “lucky” she was, “but lucky also felt like a warning – how precarious status could be.” Ko channels that unsettled anxiety into Deming: a boy who feels "visible and invisible at the same time,” he observes, his bewilderment magnified with each of his displacements.

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 ”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 “Leavers” in 2009, headlines regarding immigrants have hardly changed: round-ups, detention, deportation, separated families – especially tragic are recent international adoptees deported as adults because of legal loopholes to a birth country they left as children . 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.  

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Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.