By Lisa Ko
Algonquin Books, 2017
352 pages, $25.95
Reviewed by Aditya Desai
Lisa Ko’s The Leavers opens with its central mother-son duo, Peilan and Deming Guo, on a tender rip through the streets and subways through New York. They spy on a Chinese mother and son in the New York streets, and adopt them as their doppelgängers. Days later, Peilan, undocumented and working under the table at a nail salon for scraps, is deported by immigration agents, having left her son confused and without even a goodbye.
It’s an image that haunts both of them throughout the next decade, as Deming is adopted by a white couple and raised as “American” upstate, and Peilan, also called Polly, settles into a comfortable life back in China, both wondering if that lady or that boy across the way could be the other. It’s soon after we catch up with young adult Daniel, a college dropout turning gigging musician in Manhattan, that a chance to reconnect with his mother brings hope for that lost, robbed relationship to return.
I was pleased to spend the tail end of May, Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage month, reading this highly anticipated debut novel from Chinese-American author Lisa Ko, inspired by a series of news clippings she collected about undocumented immigrant mothers, and the choices they made for and at the cost of their children. The novel won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for work that addresses social justice issues. And of these social issues, the book traverses many—immigration, poverty, undocumented workers, deportation, adoption, and globalization.
Ko, herself calling the novel “a tribute to the sweat, heart, and grind” nevertheless avoids being didactic, and plants each foot firmly in her two central protagonists, and infuses each moment with their relationship. She unspools the “story behind the story,” of Deming and Peilan, Daniel and Polly, in a measured, assured pace, rooting the small and internal against the cityscapes of the modern globalized world. Ko achieves this by intercutting Deming’s third person narrative with Peilan’s first person address, speaking retroactively and apologetically from a safe, comfortable life back in China, trying to make sense of a dark passage she’d rather not revisit, and—much like any mother—giving her a sense of ownership of the novel, while keeping her child’s journey the central arc.
Consider one exchange: As Deming acclimates to life as Daniel, he remembers how his mother “used to swat his shoulders…when he spoke too much English and not enough Chinese; his weapon of choice had been the language that made her dependent on him.” Later, Peilan then narrates, “I knew the proper words to respond, but didn’t say them, didn’t want to give you the power of making me switch languages, and only talk to you in these terms.”
The globalized reality of The Leavers is one in constant translation, with Ko vividly setting the stage for a world of multiplicity:
They lived in a small apartment in a big building, and Deming’s mother wanted a house with more rooms. Wanted Quiet. But Deming didn’t mind the noise, liked hearing their neighbors argue in English and Spanish and other languages he didn’t know, liked the thuds of feet and the scraping backs of chairs, salsa and merengue and hip-hop, football games and Wheel of Fortune spilling from the bottoms of doors and through the ceiling cracks, radiator pipes clinging along to running toilets. He heard other mothers yelling at other kids. The building contained an entire town.
Peilan, back in China, lives above a packed-house Pizza Hut, thinks about moving from Chinatown to the Bronx: “I looked at the signs in English and Spanish—not a single Chinese character anywhere, not even at the take-out spot down the block—I felt like I’d been in rehearsal all this time and this was the real thing.” Meanwhile Daniel, who spent high school humming Hendrix lyrics in Mandarin, thinks on his arrival to Fuzhou: “There was not one scrap of English, not anywhere…It was trippy, surreal, the swirl of familiar sounds on such unfamiliar streets.”
At times this central crux does shorthand otherwise compelling moments from the novel’s B-plot hurdles: Daniel’s burgeoning music career with boyhood friend Roland, and the imposed college re-enrollment from his adoptive parents, the sentimental protective Kay and the stern, perpetually disappointed Peter, who come off like detached distractions in the search for Peilan, with circular conversations about record labels and applications. I would have rather seen the tantalizing phantom chapters of those teen years in upstate New York, given as Ko summarizes: “As long as he didn’t think about his mother…Yet there was always this nagging, ice swipe of fear, a reminder he needed to stay alert.”
But it’s this very chess game of emotion where the novel finds its most wrenching power, and acutely understands the ways immigrants lead double lives, always feeling like a fraud no matter which one they are in. In that way, they do become our own doppelgängers. And once those hurdles fall away in the novel’s back half, with Daniel inevitably steering back toward to his literal “motherland,” Ko brilliantly and powerfully offers the resolution that the many mothers of her news clippings did not get, and for that she is a writer to watch.