Lisa Ko

Poets and Writers - - First Fiction 2017 -

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.

IN­TRO­DUCED BY Emily Raboteau au­thor of two books, in­clud­ing Search­ing for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Di­as­pora, pub­lished by At­lantic Monthly Press in 2013.

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