Dialogue Books’ incredible launch title The Leavers by the equally incredible Lisa Ko hits shelves tomorrow and I am absolutely delighted to have been sent a copy by the lovely folks at Little, Brown and to have been invited to be a part of tour today.
One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Polly, goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.
With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson.
But far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents’ desire that he assimilate with his memories of his mother and the community he left behind.
In New York it was morning. Did you still look like me? How tall were you? We used to play peek-a-boo in the boardinghouse on Rutgers Street and you’d hide as I walked around, asking my roommates ‘Did you see Deming? Where is he?’ until you giggled and I’d go, ‘I think I hear something!’ Then you – chubby, accusing, mine – would emerge from your hiding space and point at me and shout: ‘You lost me!’
The Leavers is an outstanding debut by Lisa Ko packed with so much history and personality. The mother-daughter bond is something that has been much explored, so it was a breath of fresh air to read about a mother-son relationship for once.
Part one is led by Deming, focusing on his new life with his adoptive middle-class American parents in upstate New York after his mother disappearance. Some of it definitely hit home for me. As a mixed race kid with an English father and Filipino mother, the feeling of a being an outsider was all too familiar. As was the racist bigotry that Deming endures from his peers. In fact, the struggle Deming goes through with juggling this American version of himself and his Chinese heritage reminded me of my own awkward years growing up where I was very much an outcast for being half-Asian and having slightly tanned skin, but also having a cut-glass, RP English accent. A combination that doesn’t go great when you’re growing up around a population of mostly white kids in South Wales with thick Welsh accents who constantly want you to speak in your ‘native’ tongue. I was, and still am, constantly torn between how anglicised I am due to being brought up in Britain my whole life, not knowing much else, and that niggling worry in the back of my mind that I am neglecting my Filipino roots. Seeing Deming battle with the juxtaposition of American and Chinese cultures and customs reflected in The Leavers offered me some relief in knowing that I wasn’t alone in feeling like that even if the context of our situations were entirely different.
When Polly’s parallel narration kicked in during part two, addressing her son in second-person, I completely fell head over in heels in love with The Leavers. Following her early years in China before arriving to the US, it’s not hard to sympathise with Polly’s plight too. Ko’s prose invokes such a poignancy as she sheds light on the economic enslavement and inhumane immigration experiences. In the current political and social climate, it’s very easy for people to dehumanise immigrants. We see it everyday with politicians and other people reducing them to a statistic and slating them as though they are nothing but filth. Polly’s unwavering resilience, her courage and her desire for a better life for herself and her son is a palpable reality that many share. From the overcrowded apartments to the nail parlours and factories, Polly’s story is one that happens around us everyday.
Parenthood is obviously a topic that The Leavers examines in depth. From Polly’s reflection on her relationship with her son to Deming’s adoptive parents, Peter and Kay Wilkinson, Ko delves into the endless rollercoaster of emotions that I can only imagine comes with being a parent. Of course, there’s the abandonment Deming feels and the frustration at the radio silence he experienced from his birth mother for years and then there’s Polly’s confrontation with the events that unfolded, her little son being at the forefront of her mind always. Peter and Kay perhaps aren’t the villains that they can come across to be. It is undoubtedly very difficult and they mean well, yet Ko is critical of their attempts to force Deming to adjust to their middle-class life and to succeed at all costs. You can ultimately see why Deming feels so conflicted and struggles to find a place for himself in society where he feels wholly comfortable.
The Leavers is a moving tale about finding a sense of belonging whilst simultaneously shining a light on the plight of immigrants around the world. I found it hard to believe it was Ko’s debut novel as it was written so expertly and beautifully with such confidence that I was awestruck upon finishing. It’s not hard to see why The Leavers has garnered such praise over in the States, it truly is sensational and I cannot wait to see what Lisa Ko pens next!
The Leavers hit shelves on the 26th April.