Lisa Ko is the author of the new novel The Leavers. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Best American Short Stories 2016 and The New York Times. She is a founding coeditor of Hyphen and a fiction editor at Drunken Boat. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Leavers and your character Deming/Daniel?
A: Back in 2009, I was reading The New York Times when I stumbled upon an article about a woman named Xiu Ping Jiang, a woman from China who’d been held in an immigration detention jail for over a year, often in solitary confinement. She’d even tried to bring her 8-year-old son into the U.S. from Canada, but he’d been caught by officials and adopted by a Canadian family.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this story – what would happen to this woman, and what had happened to her son? So I began to dig further, and I learned about all these other immigrant women who’d had their U.S.-born children taken away from them.
American courts would rule them “unfit” and grant custody for the kids to be adopted by American couples. It seemed unbelievable, but it was happening everywhere. Meanwhile, these women were being deported or imprisoned in these for-profit, underground detention facilities all over the country.
I started writing about a woman named Polly. She’s born in a village in Fuzhou Province and pays 50 grand to get smuggled into the U.S. She lives in the Bronx with her 11-year-old son, Deming, and one day she goes to her job at a nail salon and never comes home.
As I kept writing, I realized that the crux of the novel lay in Polly’s son. So I started writing about him. And what happens is that after his mom disappears, he gets adopted by a white family and moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate, his name changed to Daniel Wilkinson. Ten years later, when he’s 21, he starts searching for his mother.
Q: You tell part of the story from Daniel’s perspective and part from the perspective of his birth mother. Why did you decide to use third person with Daniel and first person with Polly?
A: During the seven years it took me to finish The Leavers, it took me many, many drafts to figure out the best way to tell the story. I wrote it with two first-person narrators, two-third person narrators, a single narrator, and so on. But when I started writing Polly in the first person, addressing her son as “you,” something just clicked and her voice came to life.
Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: It’s about leaving and being left, and how these things can either be done voluntarily or be done to you. Leaving can be an act of adventure. It can also be an act of violence and trauma.
Q: The book deals with a variety of themes, including immigration and adoption. Why did you pick those two topics to focus on in the book?
A: I’ve always been drawn to figuring out what the story is behind the story. When I was reading these news articles about undocumented immigrants, I noticed how they were often presented as either villains or victims.
And there seems to be such a lack of context around the economic and political reasons for immigration, detention, and the adoption industry, not to mention the links between them.
Like it’s not just as simple as immigrants coming to America to pursue the American dream or join the so-called melting pot—there are complex histories at play with regards to why people migrate, and the roles that the U.S. has had in destabilizing governments and economies in other countries.
So initially, I was motivated by wanting to write a counter narrative. I also wanted to decenter the narrative of transracial adoption away from that of the adoptive parents.
That was the original motivation. But it quickly grew into just wanting to tell a good story in the best way I could.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A new novel that’s very different from The Leavers.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb