“The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school. A navy blue hat sat low on her forehead, scarf around her neck like a big brown snake. ‘What are you waiting for, Kid? It’s cold out.’”
So opens Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, National Book Award Finalist, winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. It’s a story about immigrants, and family, and the position of the outsider—Deming’s mother disappears and he is forced to enter the foster care system, eventually ending up as the adopted son of two white professors, going by the name Daniel Wilkinson.
Deming eventually moves back to New York City to become an aspiring musician, to the great disappointment of his middle-class white parents. After more than ten years as the only Asian-American in his social circle, he returns to one of the most diverse cities in the United States, only to be unexpectedly confronted with the truth behind his mother’s disappearance.
And the truth is horrible. In a country divided on more frontlines than I can count, with a person who calls undocumented immigrants animals in the highest office, the reason Deming’s mother never came home is awful—though it is always possible for her experience to be worse. To read The Leavers today demands a profound awareness that for some, this experience is not fictional.
In fact, the inspiration for The Leavers came from this incredible account in the New York Times: a woman, undocumented and mentally ill, detained indefinitely. And when one reads about Xiu Ping Jiang, it isn’t hard to understand why—the state of Ms. Jiang’s life cries out for a spokesperson, and sometimes it feels like awareness is the only thing one can do. Fortunately for us, Lisa Ko brings truth to the forefront with aplomb. It is not difficult to see why The Leavers is an award winner.