Reviewing Lisa Ko’s The Leavers + a mini interview with Lisa herself

When I was asked to be part of the blog tour for Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, I typed a ‘yes’ email back as quickly as possible. I had been hearing incredible things about this book for a while, especially from the US where the book has already been out for a while. On this side of the pond the book is out on Thursday the 26th of April, and in the run up to the release below is my review and mini interview with Lisa!

One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a 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 well-meaning 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.

Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. It’s a moving story of how a boy comes into his own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past.

“The Leavers was inspired by real-life stories of undocumented immigrant parents who were forcibly separated from their U.S.-born children by the U.S government. Courts were granting full custody of the children to white, middle-class American families, while deporting or detaining their parents.”

Deming Guo’s mother is strong willed and fiercely determined. When she realises she’s pregnant and has no desire to marry her baby’s father she heads to America only to discover there that you can’t abort a 7-month-old-foetus. She also realises that she wants her baby, however when your hours are obscenely long, the work difficult and exhausting, looking after and supporting a new born is difficult.

So Peilan Gou – now Polly – sends her son back to China to live with his grandfather until she can support him. Fast forward a few years and Deming heads back to America where he is reunited with his mother and lives with his mother’s boyfriend Leon, Leon’s sister and her son Michael. Both Polly and Leon work brutal hours. But this family is happy and they are surviving.

That is until Polly disappears. Did she go to Florida for the better job she wanted leaving them all behind? Deming doesn’t really understand how she could just abandon him and both blames himself and Polly for going. Shortly after Polly disappears, so does Leon.

Deming is eventually fostered then adopted by a well-meaning, middle-class suburban white couple. His name is changed to Daniel Wilkinson, homework becomes very, very important, and his love for music has to take a back seat. Every now and again he is reminded of how lucky he is, of how grateful he should be, how much his new parents are doing for him.

“As the child of immigrants myself, I was deeply affected by these stories. I felt like they were saying so much about assimilation and identity, and the links between the prison industrial complex, the criminalization of immigrants, and the adoption industry. What did it mean that U.S. courts were saying that children were better off being raised by adoptive families just because they had more economic and financial resources?”

This is a story I knew nothing about. There is the assumption that children of migrants will be better off with white families. Lisa Ko challenges and explores this as the now-named Daniel is assimilated into his new life. As Deming / Daniel grows older you can’t help but root for someone who is so fundamentally unmoored. He spends his life trying to make everyone else happy and proud of him so they don’t leave him, yet he’s also afraid to wholly love them because they will leave him.

As Daniel starts his new school he is racially bullied: “In the city he had been just another kid. He had never known how exhausting it was to be conspicuous.” This line stuck with me and I think will always stick with me. It made me think of my University experience where I was so aware of how brown I was in this new, very white environment (one I wasn’t used to at all) there were days I couldn’t think of anything else. London, like New York is a haven.

As The Leavers progresses we start to get sections from Polly’s point of view. What happened to her, why did she leave? When Michael contacts Deming out of the blue, he heads to China to find her and some answers. But in reality he wants more than that: “If he could just talk to his mother in person, maybe he could figure out who he should be.” Is he Daniel or is he Deming?

The Leavers is the story of a little boy searching, most fundamentally, for the mother who loved him. It’s also the story of a Chinese women who has no interest in tradition roles at all, and fiercely loves her son. Lisa Ko took the headlines and news story we see all the time and gave them a human face. She reminded us that behind all the stories are people trying to do the right thing, trying to survive.

If I had to summarise my thoughts into two words they would be: READ IT.

“When writing the novel, I did want to center the point of view of the adoptee, rather than the adoptive parents. I also wanted to write with an awareness of the social and political contexts that Deming’s adoption takes place in, and an awareness of power, racism, and classism.”

The Leavers by Lisa Ko is published by Dialogue Books (£8.99) and will be on sale at all good and evil retailers on the 26th of April.

Thank you so much Lisa for taking the time to talk to me and Grace for arranging it all!

Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

All photos copyright Kaye Ford

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