I finished reading Lisa Ko’s The Leavers at the end of September and I found myself racing to the end and then feeling a pit in my stomach when I did reach the end. I would tell my aunt-in-law that I haven’t had that feeling since reading Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation. Although the novel was published in 2017, it won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. And then in November, after I had finished it, it was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award. Not a bad showing at all for a debut novel!
At first, I didn’t really know what I was committed to reading. All I knew was the protagonist is male and his mother disappears. I read some blurb that praised the novel for how it handled social justice issues – oh, gosh, is it going to be a yawn! – and how timely it is now during the current Trump administration and the uncertainty surrounding immigration laws.
From the very beginning, I was impressed that it wasn’t a glossy story that goes along the lines of “I had troubles and more troubles, then I got through it.” Right away, it didn’t read like the usual trope of an overachieving Asian American who does what his parent wants but his heart isn’t into it and he success anyways, with a martyr single mom or sacrificing parents. (Darn, is Girl in Translation a trope? I think how it’s written also matters.)
In the initial chapters, we see Polly and Deming’s life from Deming’s perspective. Deming is 10 or 11, in middle school, and we see that Polly – a single, immigrant mother – is able get down with him. She can be uncouth and connect with him and we would learn later that the age difference between them is only 19 years. Now that I have a toddler boy, I can appreciate the connection between mother and son, how she helps him explore his world. From Deming’s perspective, you don’t see the layers of how responsible she is. Neither of them are model citizens and that is refreshing.
Polly and Deming live with her boyfriend, Leon, his sister Vivian, and Vivian’s son Michael. It sounds like a typical hyper-practical move to save money and live together even if it is in tight quarters. Michael is near Deming’s age and they get along really well although they have opposite personalities and will follow very different paths.
After the set-up of Deming’s New York life is complete, one day, Polly doesn’t return home from work. She was getting restless in New York and opportunities elsewhere sounded attractive. Did the gang that enforces for her loan shark get her? Did she really run away to chase that opportunity alone because Leon did not want to go? Did she get attacked at some point? Was she deported? After several months of uncertainty, Vivian drops Deming off at an orphanage. They, afterall, aren’t truly family and we also make conclusions about Leon, how good a boyfriend he really is.
At the age of 11, Deming is an old adoptee but that is what the intellectual couple, Peter and Kay Wilkinson, want after they find they cannot have a child naturally. They don’t feel that a baby or young child is the right fit and by bringing home an older child, they are assisting the overburdened social system and giving an otherwise unadoptable child a home. The Wilkinsons rationalize that immediate adoption and giving him the name of Daniel Wilkinson will make him feel a part of his new family and give him certainty about having a permanent home. They live in the fictional town of Ridgeborough in upstate New York which is not multicultural. The Wilkinsons do their research and attempt to keep Deming connected to his culture by learning Mandarin themselves and periodically visiting their friends in the city with a Chinese adoptee, Angel.
Daniel doesn’t understand their intentions and copes by thinking he is on a mission, that his mother will eventually find him. He does realize that the Wilkinsons are “crumbs” and different from other class parents in that they are older in age but new to parenting and see things differently as academics. Daniel correspondingly experiences being on the outside because he doesn’t match his new name and being Chinese in Ridgeborough. Further, the reader concludes Daniel has synaesthesia given the images he sees when he hears music – that provides him with a unique view on the sounds around him and further makes it difficult to connect to others.
I was really rooting for the Wilkinsons to have a breakthrough with Daniel. Peter and Daniel have a common interest in music and that connects them tentatively. On the other hand, Kay seeks Daniel’s approval that she’s doing a good job and he doesn’t know to give it. He doesn’t know to show the gratitude he doesn’t yet feel. He is withdrawn due to his difficult past and she would not know for a decade how he ended up in foster care.
Daniel starts at a college in Ithaca but drops out and moves back to New York City. His best friend in high school, Roland, is a professional musician who lets Daniel sleep on his couch and they are playing music together again. Daniel is at a crossroads – he’s not thinking overly hard about his life beyond survival and he doesn’t know what he wants. The Wilkinsons have secured for him a spot at their college and want him to finish his degree and pursue a life in academia like they did. Roland wants to impress talent scouts and adjusts the band’s style which grates on Daniel and he implodes during an important performance which he chose to do over completing his college application. On top of that, he is doing very badly by Angel to the point of lying and borrowing a large sum of money and losing it (gambling addiction). It’s a sequence of face palm self-sabotaging moments where you want to shake Daniel and force him to be engaged for once.
An email from Michael is the catalyst for life to go in a different direction. For boys who spent several years together like brothers, Daniel is reluctant to see Michael who is now a medical student. When they finally do meet up, you can breath a little easier because Daniel feels a piece of his home, his real home again and he finally learns about what happened when he was 11. Vivian actually paid off his mother’s debt but they honestly did not know where she went. Leon returned to China and Daniel has a decision to make about finding his mother.
For a short while, Daniel attends college. He is relatively successful but the lies to Angel catch up to him and he basically flees to China and search for his mother in earnest. First, he finds Leon and we start to realize he’s a good guy who really loved Polly and tough circumstances forced his hand. Together, Leon and Deming go on what seems like a search through a haystack, looking for Polly based on little more than her name.
We revisit Polly in the present day and she’s leading a posh life in China. Not only are more Chinese more affluent in China than in America, they are not downcast in a place where everyone looks like them, in the motherland. To drive home that Polly isn’t that fictional archetype who is a prude, she enjoys sex with her successful businessman husband, Yong.
Meanwhile, Polly’s story is starting to unfold starting back to her teenage years when she was restless and could leave her village and earn money working in a factory. Industrious and intelligent, she was successful until pregnancy by her village boyfriend derails her life. Her family will not have her back so she gets passage to the U.S. with the assistance of a loan shark and starts her undocumented life in New York City. While pregnant, she can still work really hard but the new infant throws a wrench in at the most inopportune times even though Didi, her best friend at the factory, can often watch Deming during work hours. Polly falls behind on loan payments and increases her loan and finally makes the difficult decision to send Deming to China to live with her father.
Alone in the U.S., Polly flourishes as much as someone who is supposed to be invisible to authorities can, and she meets Leon shortly before she learns her father has passed away and Deming needs to come to the U.S. Polly’s maternal instincts kick in and she parents in her own unique style. Her relationship with Leon grows (they have great sex) and they are an immigrant story of making it work. She leaves the factory and working in a nail salon is far more rewarding. We learn that there was as raid at the nail salon by immigration officials and that is why she did not return home.
The interim time is skipped because Polly dodges telling Daniel and more details of Polly’s comfortable life are revealed. Yong treats her well and after she confesses to him she has a grown son, Daniel lives with them while he finds his way. He starts teaching at Polly’s school and in typical novel fashion, he starts finding himself and flourishing. He left China when he was six and returning as a adult from the U.S., he is very popular. He displays so much potential, has so much initial success that Polly wishes he would stay and ascend the ranks to become director of the ESL school.
Finally, Polly opens up about the time immediately after the raid. She was taken to the fictional Ardsleyville Detention Center where she was interned for 400 days in an unheated room with hundreds of other women, with bright lights on overhead at all times of the day, fed inedible food, allowed time outdoors only minimally and was often shackled. She was allowed to make contact at times with someone outside but she never memorized her family’s phone numbers and so never reached them before they moved. Her hope faded as weeks become months and then she had been there a year. After 400 days, she was deported.
Initially, she worked at a nail salon but her time in the U.S. made her qualified to teach English and at the school, she met Yong. Polly pursues her new opportunities and creates what appears to be an enviable life but she is broken inside. As a result of the sleeping conditions in Ardsleyville, she needs to sleep with an eye mask is is afraid of walls. It takes a lot for her to revisit that time in the detention center. By the time she and Leon meet up in China, he has his own family and they are just going to be two former lovers living their lives in the same city.
In the end, Daniel leaves China. He has reconnected with his mother and starts to see what he can do with his life. Back in New York City, he works shifts at a Mexican restaurant, performs as a solo artist and teaches at the Chinese Cultural Center. He might be patching up his friendship with Angel. Both he and Polly are “leavers” and I don’t know if Ko had much deeper meaning than that they are wanderers. Polly and probably never return to the U.S. ever again and she feels the urge to explore and leaves Yong and takes a job in Hong Kong. Polly and Daniel are apart but together in spirit. It’s not really neat and tidy but it was so right for all that had transpired.
Without loudly announcing it, Ko adeptly changed voices as Daniel grew up and when she switched between Polly and Daniel. I also noticed that for a novel about two people who would largely have spoken in Chinese together, there were barely any romanized Chinese words. Notably, the only one as Yi Ba, which seems to me to be a regional way to call your father.
Social justice link https://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/reviews/lisa-kos-leavers-devastation-deportation-machine/