The im­mi­grant novel of a fraught mo­ment

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Steph Cha Cha is the au­thor, most re­cently, of the novel “Dead Soon Enough.”

The Leavers

Lisa Ko

Al­go­nquin Books: 352 pp., $25.95

The im­mi­grant novel is a sta­ple of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture — af­ter all, the Amer­i­can im­mi­grant story is as old as the coun­try it­self. Clas­sics like Up­ton Sin­clair’s “The Jun­gle” and “My Án­to­nia” by Willa Cather helped de­fine whole eras of our his­tory; first- and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion au­thors, in­clud­ing San­dra Cis­neros, Amy Tan, Chang-rae Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz have given voice to newer im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties, en­sur­ing their in­clu­sion in the land­scape of Amer­i­can let­ters, and by ex­ten­sion, the cul­tural map of Amer­ica.

The face of im­mi­gra­tion is less white than it once was; the fate of im­mi­grants far less se­cure. As the con­ver­sa­tion around im­mi­gra­tion has changed, fic­tion writers have gone to work ex­plor­ing th­ese dilem­mas.

The new nov­els share the anx­i­eties and strug­gles of the clas­sics — the long­ing for old coun­try, the search for be­long­ing, the pur­suit of the Amer­i­can dream — but also in­volve a height­ened sense of dan­ger, with the specter of de­por­ta­tion never far from the fore­ground. (For the most part, th­ese nov­els are not writ­ten by au­thors whose im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus would put them in jeop­ardy.) In last sum­mer’s “Be­hold the Dream­ers,” nov­el­ist Im­bolo Mbue showed a Cameroo­nian fam­ily fight­ing for a foothold in New York, hop­ing for a bet­ter life de­spite their sta­tus. Ear­lier this year, Shan­thi Sekaran’s “Lucky Boy” fol­lowed a woman from ru­ral Mex­ico to Berke­ley to a de­ten­tion cen­ter while her in­fant son was sent to live with strangers.

Like “Lucky Boy,” Lisa Ko’s de­but novel “The Leavers” is about the frag­men­ta­tion of a fam­ily of vul­ner­a­ble sta­tus. Ko tells the heart­break­ing story of a Chi­nese mother and her Amer­i­can-born son, who is adopted by a white cou­ple af­ter she dis­ap­pears with­out warn­ing and fails to re­turn for months. Dem­ing Guo is 11 years old when he be­comes Daniel Wilkin­son of Ridge­bor­ough, N.Y., a small town up­state where his new par­ents, Peter and Kay Wilkin­son, teach at a lib­eral arts col­lege. Polly Guo has lost her parental rights on the grounds of aban­don­ment.

The Wilkin­sons are lov­ing and well in­ten­tioned, but Dem­ing is un­der­stand­ably con­flicted about his new home. Af­ter years spent in a tiny Bronx apart­ment, speak­ing Fuzhounese with an ad hoc but close-knit fam­ily — his mother and her boyfriend Leon, who acts as his fa­ther; Leon’s sis­ter Vi­vian and her son Michael, a younger brother fig­ure with whom he shares a bed — he has a hard time set­tling into this other life. “Even the name Daniel Wilkin­son seemed like an out­fit he would put on for an un­spec­i­fied pe­riod of time, un­til he re­turned to his real name and home planet. Where that real home was, how­ever, was no longer cer­tain.”

Ten years later, “Daniel Wilkin­son was two and a half feet taller, one hun­dred-fifty pounds heav­ier than Dem­ing Guo had once been, with bet­ter English” and less Chi­nese. “Ridge­bor­ough had made Daniel an ex­pert at jug­gling selves; he used to see Dem­ing and think him­self into Daniel, a slideshow per­pet­u­ally al­ter­na­tive be­tween the same two slides.” He’s a young adult with an un­sure grasp on his own iden­tity, some­one “mal­leable, ev­ery­one and no one, a col­lec­tor of moods, a care­ful ob­server of the right thing to say .... If only he had the right clothes, knew the right ref­er­ences, he would fi­nally be­come the per­son he was meant to be .... De­serv­ing of love, blame­less.”

Though he has the sup­port of his adop­tive par­ents and his best friend Roland Fuentes, Daniel is in a bad place. His poker ad­dic­tion has got­ten him ex­pelled from col­lege and threat­ens to ruin his friend­ship with An­gel, the only other Chi­nese adoptee he knows, who re­luc­tantly lent him the bulk of her sav­ings. Daniel has a love and tal­ent for mu­sic, bol­stered by chromes­the­sia — he hears mu­sic in rich col­ors — but his ten­dency to­ward self-sab­o­tage leaves him “un­able to do any­thing but pur­sue this sin­gu­lar im­pulse to­ward ruin.”

When Michael tracks him down, mark­ing the first reap­pear­ance of Dem­ing’s old life in a decade, Daniel is able to find the mother he be­lieves has aban­doned him. As they slowly reestab­lish con­tact he learns the truth about their part­ing, and where it fits into his mother’s life.

Polly, née Peilan, nar­rates about a third of “The Leavers,” explaining her­self to the son she left be­hind. “I could’ve be­come any­one, liv­ing any­where,” she likes to imag­ine. “But let’s be real, I was forty years old and most of my choices had al­ready been made. Made for me.” Her his­tory is a hard one — she im­mi­grates to New York from ru­ral China pen­ni­less and preg­nant, then works her way up to a job at an ex­ploita­tive nail sa­lon. “Nail pol­ish fumes made me dizzy, made my nos­trils burn and the skin on my fin­gers peel off in bright rib­bons,” all be­fore her sepa­ra­tion from Dem­ing. But Polly is no fool of for­tune — she does ev­ery­thing she can to ex­ert con­trol over her own life, even if she has to hurt oth­ers in that process.

Fic­tion al­lows us to de­scribe and un­der­stand the state of the world through hu­man sto­ries that call upon our nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion to­ward em­pa­thy. No mat­ter a reader’s thoughts on im­mi­gra­tion, few will be stone-cold im­mune to sto­ries of in­di­vid­ual hard­ship. Ko is part of an ac­tive sub­genre shin­ing a light on an ugly truth about our coun­try — that it is pos­si­ble to come to Amer­ica and be worse off as a re­sult. With­out pa­pers, im­mi­grants leap­ing for the Amer­i­can dream might fall right into a uniquely Amer­i­can night­mare, and th­ese nov­els show us just what that might look like.

Bar­tosz Po­tocki

LISA KO’S “The Leavers” is a PEN/Bell­wether Prize win­ner.

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