“I’m stubborn as hell,” is Lisa Ko’s pithy self-description in the “About Me” section of her blog. Herself the first U.S.-born child of Chinese immigrants, Ko, forty-two, drew upon a large percentage of bullheadedness reserves in gestating, writing and distributing The Leavers, her much-discussed first novel, published this spring by Algonquin Books after winning the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. In May, Ko discussed her plot, her characters, and her process in pithy conversation with Kaitlyn Greenidge (whose own well-wrought debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, received similarly enthusiastic critical approbation upon its 2016 publication), before responding to questions from the audience that attended the encounter at the Barnes & Noble branch on Manhattan’s East 86th Street. —Miwa Messer, Director, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Talk about the story that inspired the book.
Lisa Ko: I started writing The Leavers eight very long years ago. It was inspired by an article I’d read in the New York Times about an undocumented immigrant who had been in a detention center in Florida for over two years. What struck me most about her story is that she had a young son she had tried to bring into the U.S., and he’d gotten caught by immigration and adopted by a Canadian family. This really shocked me, and I started finding out about all these other undocumented immigrant parents who had their U.S.-born children taken away from them by the U.S. courts, adopted by mainly white American families while they were being deported or detained. It just seemed to bring up a lot about how we look at immigrant bodies, why do the parents have to go and the kids had to stay — what that says about who should be assimilated and who couldn’t.
So I started writing about a character named Holly, who paid fifty grand to get smuggled into the U.S. from China. She has a son named Deming, and one day, when he’s eleven years old, she goes to work in New York City and she never comes home. After that, Deming gets adopted by a white family, moves upstate from the Bronx; his name is changed to Daniel Wilkinson, and ten years later he starts to look for his mom. So the book is really about mother and son and what happens to them before and after their separation, and also it’s his search for belonging and family at home.
KG: I was struck that this woman, whose real-life story was so horrible, gets to have an afterlife in your novel. That’s a wonderful thing that novels can do, different from any other way of writing. Also, as I was reading, I was reminded again and again about how society has decided to classify certain bodies; we seem to think that certain people are allowed the natural benefits of parenthood and other people are not. This book plays with that question a lot.
Can you talk about writing about motherhood in particular, and writing about a mother?
LK: My character, Polly, who is Deming’s mom, is sort of ambivalent. It’s interesting that she’s not a very likable character. I like reading about unlikable women. Why do we have to be likable? We can be human. We can be ambivalent, and full of different complexities. I tried to create as human a character as I could, putting some of my own ambivalence and fear about motherhood, while also thinking about somebody in her position. She’s someone who, as a teenager, had the drive to leave this small town in China and make it all the way to New York. She’s a bit of a badass and a rebel; it makes sense that would be her character.
KG: It’s also about the relationship between a mother and a son, which is tricky to write about — a bond that isn’t explored much in fiction.
LK: The book started off with Polly as the main character. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that she had this son. That became the compelling story, one I wanted to keep going with, imagining what it was like for the kids in these real-life stories to grow up in adoptive families, knowing that their parents wanted to take them but weren’t able to. What was it like for them to grow up in these white communities? What was it like to have that conflicted sense of identity and displacement? So I started writing more about his character, and it grew on me. He’s sort of a lost kid. He’s searching for belonging and searching for his mom as well, which parallels his search for identity.
KG: What is so palpable when he’s young is his fascination with his mother. She’s almost kind of a superstar for him.
LK: Yeah, and she was gone for a while, too. She can’t take care of him as a single mom, so she sends him back to China to live with his grandfather — which happens frequently with a lot of recent Chinese immigrants. So when she comes back, it’s like he’s meeting her for the first time.
KG: When you’re working on a project that long, it’s so helpful to find different communities to work in. What different writing communities did you find when you were working on the book?
LK: I started writing this book in my MFA program at City College. I also wrote it juggling many, many jobs, or during my lunch breaks. I went to residencies and sublet my apartment when I could. I’ve been part of a very important writing community through VONA, Voices of Our Nations Arts, which is a national writing workshop for writers of color. They’ve been a big support; we’ve traded work a lot as well.
KG: How did you start writing?
LK: I started writing stories when I was five years old. I was like a super-weird only child and lived in my head a lot — like I think a lot of writers do. I had a lot of imaginary friends.
KG: When did you first feel that writing was something you could do and wanted to put out into the world?
LK: It took a while to get to that path. It’s not like you grow up in an immigrant family being told, “Yeah, you should really write some fiction.” That’s like, “so your ancestors suffered for you to write a novel and not make any money . . . ” I did it on the sly. I took writing classes in college and published a few stories. But I didn’t see it as a career. It was something that I did and did and did and did, and kept doing.
KG: What’s surprised you most as you’ve gone through this book publishing process, or book-coming-out-into-the-world process?
LK: It’s been super-gratifying and amazing to see people read it and connect with it. That’s been beyond my wildest dreams. You write it in your head, alone in your apartment, and then all of a sudden a real human being is reading the words and quoting it back to you.