When author Barbara Kingsolver announced that Lisa Ko had earned the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, she called Ko’s then un-published novel, The Leavers, “perfectly of this moment.”
Kingsolver made the announcement during a presidential campaign in which the eventual winner prided himself on bigoted, xenophobic behavior and promises of mass deportations. The Leavers examines the toll that a harsh approach to immigration policy exacts on families, revealing how destructive it can be when white Americans pressure immigrants to assimilate.
These issues are not new for immigrants, however, and Ko did not merely stumble upon the topic. The American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants from the Philippines, Ko started writing the The Leavers in 2009 and says the story felt just as germane back then.
“Immigration is always of this moment, because it’s the United States,” she says in an interview with Paste. “So anytime there’s some political or economic anxiety, immigrants become a scapegoat.” She adds that the nation’s current policies were in place during the last two presidencies, even if those administrations were not as overtly hostile to newcomers and minorities. “It happened more under the radar, but [deportation] was happening to tens of thousands of people every year. This has been timely for a very long time.”
In fact, The Leavers was inspired by an immigration story Ko read in the New York Times during the first year of President Barack Obama’s administration. The article profiled an undocumented Chinese immigrant who was arrested while traveling from New York to Florida for a restaurant job; the woman was detained for over a year, often in solitary confinement, so her son was placed in the foster care system. Ko began reading about the U.S. deporting parents while American-born children were kept behind, and she was stirred to write about a country that seemed to care so little about the well-being of these families.
Ko wrote a short story about an illegal immigrant named Polly who was arrested, but even after it was published in Narrative, she couldn’t let it go. “I got obsessed with idea of the son and what happened to him,” she says. “I was looking for a novel to write, but a lot of it was trying to figure out how the hell to write a novel. I didn’t plot it out; I just knew I had these two characters, the mom and the son, and that they would be separated.”
Ko churned out hundreds of pages trying to figure out the story. “It was inefficient, and I ended up writing many versions of the novel before cutting it down and finding the characters’ journeys,” she says. Ko also wanted to avoid writing an overtly polemical novel. “It’s political, but I want people to read it as a story. Then they can think about the issues of identity and assimilation and how those intersect with the larger issues and policies.”
The Leaver’s action is catalyzed by a backstory that reflects reality for many immigrants, both legal and illegal. Peilan (Polly) Guo comes to America as an illegal immigrant seeking a more prosperous life than the one offered to women in her rural Chinese village. As a single mother, she is unable to manage her seamstress job and care for her baby, Deming, so she sends him back to China. But Polly’s father dies when Deming is six, and the child returns to New York.
When the novel opens, Polly, who has been thinking of leaving New York for Florida, goes to work one day and never comes home. She and Deming, now 11, have been living with her boyfriend and his sister. But they can’t and won’t take responsibility for Deming, so they put him up for adoption.
Then Peter and Kay, a couple with the best intentions and the worst possible instincts, adopt Deming. They raise the boy in their largely white community upstate, where they rename him Daniel and impose their values in a forced assimilation.
“They are contrasting worlds,” Ko, who grew up in a largely white New Jersey suburb, explains. “It is not autobiographical in the facts, but it is in emotion. That search for identity and belonging, which is so central to all characters, that feeling of alienation and pushing back against expectations, is something I’ve experienced.”
Ko tackled various drafts to find the right balance for her characters. Polly was “too much of a victim” in an earlier incarnation, and Peter and Kay’s misguided decisions needed to come from an honest desire to do right. “In earlier drafts, Daniel endured a little too much suffering,” Ko says. “I had to give him a little more joy, so I gave him musical talent and friends and built a whole world for him.”
Much of this was accomplished during “binge writing” sessions at writing residencies, which gave Ko a break from her various jobs as a freelance editor, an adjunct creative writing professor and a digital marketing consultant. “I’d take a month of vacation days for each residency and work my ass off,” she says with a laugh.
When Ko finally finished the novel, she entered it in PEN/Bellwether competition without any expectation of winning. But it did, and now she’s enjoying her celebrity, even if it is taking her away from her next novel.
“It’s kind of nice, but I think I’ll be sick of myself in about two days,” Ko says. “And part of me just wants to go back to being myself, working on the book, angrily posting comments about Trump online and calling Congress.”