The Leavers, Lisa Ko’s quietly sensational debut novel about migration, deportation and contested citizenship, is the story of a boy abandoned in the US by his Chinese mother, and the dark, devastating truth behind it.
The novel is told in four parts, the first from the viewpoint of 11-year-old Deming, who is given up for adoption after his mother, Polly, goes to work at a nail bar in the Bronx and never comes back. Deming both blames himself for his mother’s disappearance and builds a case against her in his mind through his teen years, until, at the age of 21, he sets off to look for her. She always wanted a better life elsewhere, he remembers.
The reader is led by Deming’s judgments and it is only when Polly’s parallel narration comes into play in part two – addressing her son in a second-person narrative – that the facts of her disappearance begin to unspool. Here was a young woman at the bottom rungs of society, both in China and the US, trapped first in economic enslavement, then by inhumane immigration laws. Through her story, Ko contemplates the figure of the Asian self-sacrificing mother, asking similar questions of this archetype as those in the bestselling Korean novel Please Look After Mother by Kyung-sook Shin, about an elderly mother who disappears at a railway station in Seoul. As in that book, we see an Asian woman struggling for agency within her self-abnegating life.
Polly, born in the rural backwater of Minjiang, makes her first migration – a well-worn Chinese route from country to city – to embrace factory life and the hope of a bigger future for herself. But after falling pregnant, she makes a second, more traumatic, journey, to America to give birth to Deming.
Despite her limited options, she wants more for herself. On seeing an old friend in a cafe who looks free and single, she thinks wistfully: “Once I might have become this woman … free to move across the country because she heard a city was beautiful.” Polly never gains the freedom she craves; her story is a bleak one of false starts.
After she leaves, Deming is fostered and adopted by a middle-class white American couple. Kay and Peter Wilkinson take him out of the Bronx into a small town in upstate New York. His outsider status in this Wasp suburb is brilliantly – and painfully – depicted: the only Chinese boy in his school, he becomes the victim of racist bigotry. “In the city he had been just another kid. He had never known how exhausting it was to be conspicuous.”
The emotional chaos wreaked by Deming’s cultural displacement is vividly drawn. “I am Daniel Wilkinson,” he tells himself, though he clutches internally to Deming, and returns to the memory of his mother as a path back to his former, whole self: “If he could just talk to his mother in person, maybe he could figure out who he should be.”
The Wilkinsons’ liberal do-good impulses are not openly mocked, but they are critiqued by Ko. Their hope – well meaning but condescending – is to rehabilitate “Daniel” into middle-class life. “They wanted him to succeed in the ways that were important to them because it would mean they had succeeded, too.”
The Leavers has won praise in the US, and its underlying themes of displacement and deportation carry deep and desperately urgent resonances far beyond America, and fiction. Ko movingly captures Polly and Deming’s liminal presence in the immigrant community, on the margins of society in overcrowded apartments, in nail parlours and factories, who are always there yet invisible to the rest of us.
• The Leavers by Lisa Ko is published by Dialogue Books (£8.99). To order a copy for £7.64 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian