Lisa Ko’s first novel, The Leavers, has already won the PEN/Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, an honor it surely deserves for its depiction of the tribulations of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Beyond that, and perhaps even more admirable, it is an exceptionally well written, fully realized work of art portraying the circumstances and inner worlds — the motives and emotional weather — of its two central characters. They are Peilan Guo, a woman who has paid to be smuggled into the U.S. from Fujian Province, China, and her American-born son, Deming.
Restless, ambitious, and bold — and pregnant by a boy from her village — Peilan leaves China, unable to bear the prospect of living out her days in a rural backwater, married to a man with whom she has little in common. She is one of the first women from her village to take this drastic and dangerous step, not the least of its perils being the $47,000 debt she has to repay to loan sharks who fund these ventures. She ends up in New York with no language, no skills, a child on the way, and the pressure of twice-monthly payments to people who do not mess around. Ceaseless effort and determination get Peilan, now called Polly, through her first couple of years, during which she lives in worse-than-dormitory conditions, works in a sweatshop for long hours, and, in time, juggles the baby with all that. Eventually, it becomes impossible to hold a job and keep her child, so she, like many other Chinese women, she sends her son, now a year old, back to China to be raised, in her case, by her widowed father. When, five years later, the old man dies, Peilan arranges for six-year-old Deming to be sent back to the U.S.
The novel, which moves back and forth through time, filling in the lives of mother and son, begins with this ominous sentence: “The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school.” Deming is eleven, and he and Polly have been living in a cramped, decaying apartment in the Bronx with Polly’s lover, Leon, his sister, Vivian, and her son, Michael, who is about Deming’s age. The adults labor at jobs legal workers disdain: Polly absorbing the abuse and toxic fumes of a nail salon, her hands eaten by corrosive solvents; Leon, wearing out his body working in a slaughterhouse, lugging around and processing meat carcasses; and Vivian, cleaning apartments and sewing piecework for a pittance.
Today, Deming is hoping his mother won’t discover that he has been given detention. All he wants is to be back at the apartment “in front of the television, where, in the safety of a laugh track, he didn’t have to worry about letting anyone down.” On the way home they argue about Polly’s plans to move both of them to Florida — which is to say, away from New York, where he now feels at home. When his mother fails to return from work the next day, he believes it’s his fault, that he has, indeed, let her down. Just what happened to Polly is revealed only much later, to both her son and the reader. I will say only that her story, which occupies a good portion of the novel, is one of many shadings and much complexity of character.
After a few months living with Leon, Vivian, and Michael, Deming is uprooted again, adopted by a childless, middle-aged white couple, Peter and Kay Wilkinson, who live in Upstate New York. They both teach at a university and are worthy and well meaning, but perhaps not entirely aware of who Deming is — as neither, increasingly, is he. His confusion is only aggravated by his new parents telling him his name is now Daniel Wilkinson, the change meant to help him fit into a community in which he is the sole Asian.
Throughout the novel, Ko builds on Deming/Daniel’s perplexity about his identity, his sense of abandonment, and his futile, self-immolating attempts to appease people. He grows into a young man who knows he is disappointing his adoptive parents through his lack of interest in or aptitude for academic learning: his sporadic attempts to placate them only leave both him and them frustrated. The only thing he is really good at and truly interested in, is music: playing the guitar. But here too – undermined by the anxieties set in train by his early abandonment — he manages to let down another friend.
He becomes addicted to online poker and racks up horrendous debt. Gambling and the mystery of luck and contingency have a special attraction for Deming, for he has, from a young age, been fascinated almost to obsession with the idea of the other lives he might have led had fate dealt a different card at any juncture. A sense of randomness underlies his feeling of uncertain, ungrounded identity: “He could be living in Sunset Park, or in the Bronx, or Florida or some place he’d never heard of. He had imagined his doppelgangers living the lives he hadn’t, in different apartments and houses and cities and towns, with different sets of parents, different languages.”
All this begins to sound depressing as hell, but Ko is so psychologically penetrating, so acute in her passing observations and deft in the quick views she affords of her characters’ inner lives and surroundings, that her skill and empathy give real joy. For one thing, she shows aspects of the world that those who were born to security and material comfort will not even notice. Here, as just one example, is a character who has been used to the crudest form of immigrant life but who has finally settled in affluence: “There was very little sound in our apartment, only the refrigerator hum and other vague whirrings that powered the constant pleasantry of the place, keeping our life steady and moderate.”
I don’t think it’s going to far to reveal that matters improve for Deming — and for his mother — in a believable and satisfying way. There is an element, however, that will leave the reader’s blood boiling, and that is Ko’s depiction of a detention camp for illegal immigrants in Texas, a place she calls Ardsleyville. This hell-on-earth — of crowded Kevlar tents, foul food, inadequate plumbing, arbitrary, cruel punishments, and almost nonexistent access to medical or legal assistance — is clearly based on Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Texas, a privately run “tent city” in which almost 3,000 undocumented immigrants were detained behind chain-link fences topped with razor wire. It was closed down in 2015 after a protest by inmates erupted into a riot that destroyed much of the facility. Still, the times being what they are, this place of horror seems most likely to be rebuilt and opened again. Reminding us to be alert to such renewed outrages is just one of the achievements of this fine novel.