whose debut novel, The Leavers, winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize, was published in May by Algonquin Books.
IHAD the pleasure of watching the seed planted for Lisa Ko’s powerful novel, The Leavers, in the form of a short story she wrote for a creative writing workshop I taught many years ago at the City College of New York. Last year the book won the PEN/ Bellwether Prize, awarded by novelist Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses social justice. The $25,000 prize includes a publishing contract. The main plot of The Leavers follows a lost young man in his search to find his mom, an undocumented Chinese immigrant who disappeared when he was eleven years old, after which he was adopted by a white family.
How did “Mentally Ill and in Immigration Limbo,” an article by journalist Nina Bernstein in the New York Times, inspire your novel?
In 2009 I read that article, about a Chinese immigrant [Xiu Ping Jiang] who’d been imprisoned in a detention center for over a year. She had a son who had been adopted by a Canadian couple. I couldn’t stop thinking about her journey and the series of events that had gotten her to where she was. I read about other cases of undocumented immigrants who’d had their U.S.-born children taken away from them, and I was horrified, as well as intrigued, by the relationships between the adoption, immigration, and detention industries. So I started working my feelings out in fiction.
Who were your influences while writing this book?
Big novels with lots of characters followed over many years, including Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah; the melancholy longing of Wong Kar-wai movies; the smack-talking of my Chinese relatives; bass lines and choruses; and a poem called “Brokeheart: Just like that” by Patrick Rosal.
How did you arrive at its operating structure, and what did the story gain from that structure?
In the beginning it was mainly the mother’s [Polly’s] story. Then I added the son
[Deming] because I was interested in him as a character and I wanted to explore the impact of his mother’s leaving. But their story lines needed to interact to create more tension, so I decided to have Deming’s search for his mother be the main plot of the novel. I wanted to write a book about identity, family, place, and belonging— what it means to create your own versions of these things versus the ones ascribed to you by others—so the structure reflects the characters shifting between different homes and identities.
“Sometimes I think,
‘But I’m just a novelist,’ and then I think, ‘Well, writers engage in the world in this very deliberate and specific way, creating stories and
complicating them and adding humanity to them,’ so our take on these topics and in particular how they’re written and talked about
is not irrelevant.”
With ICE raids and deportations of undocumented immigrants in the news, are you finding that your novel’s subject has made you a political commentator in wider spheres?
Yes, it’s been a little unexpected. I’ve never been one to keep my political opinions to myself, but I am not an authority on immigration and adoption. Sometimes I think, “But I’m just a novelist,” and then I think, “Well, writers engage in the world in this very deliberate and specific way, creating stories and complicating them and adding humanity to them,” so our take on these topics and in particular how they’re written and talked about is not irrelevant.
What has been the biggest delight about winning the PEN/ Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction?
I was thrilled to be published with Algonquin Books, which I’ve long admired, and to be awarded a prize established by Barbara Kingsolver. It also felt meaningful to be recognized for writing socially engaged fiction— though I feel most fiction is socially engaged in some way or another, even if it doesn’t claim to be so.