Lisa Ko hears over and over about the timeliness of her debut novel, “The Leavers,” an often heartrending account of the struggles of undocumented immigrants and their children.
She gets that, she says. Her fictional Polly Guo paid $50,000 to be smuggled from China to the U.S. when she was 18 and pregnant with a son she would name Deming. He’s 11 when Polly suddenly disappears — as it turns out, swept up in a raid by immigration authorities, imprisoned and eventually deported. The book revolves around the boy’s aching, sometimes angry search for her.
Ko concedes the story’s resonance amid our country’s current debate and crackdown on illegal immigrants. But then, “it was timely seven or eight years ago when I first started working on it,” she says.
“I think it says a lot about how immigrants have always been one of the many scapegoats for America whenever there seems to be any kind of social or economic anxiety. Criminalizing immigrants is one way to sort of detract from larger issues,” Ko says. “That’s definitely something that we’re seeing now. But it’s not a new story whatsoever.”
Her inspiration for “The Leavers,” in fact, came in large part from a 2009 story in The New York Times about Xiu Ping Jiang, an undocumented immigrant from Fuzhou in southeastern China’s Fujian province. She was arrested in Florida and held for more than a year in an immigrant detention center, getting no treatment for a mental illness that complicated her plight. Adding to her anguish, an attempt to sneak Jiang’s 8-year-old son into the U.S. through Canada ended with his capture and a decision by officials to place him for adoption.
The piece in The Times haunted Ko. She dug further and came across other cases of undocumented immigrants who’d had U.S.-born children taken away and adopted by Americans deemed more fit to raise them. One, in Missouri, involved a Guatemalan woman who was picked up in a 2007 raid on a poultry plant near Carthage. Her young son was adopted by a local couple, his name changed from Carlos to Jamison, and she was deported.
“The issues of immigration and adoption and detention were kind of a springboard for me, as a writer, to raise questions,” Ko says. “They’re things I try to work out through fiction.”
Her interest comes naturally. Ko, 41, is the only child of middle-class, ethnically Chinese immigrants from the Philippines. Born in New York City and raised in the nearly all-white suburb of Allendale, N.J., she experienced none of the legal uncertainties and hardships she’d come to write about. Through her parents, however, she gained a sense of the ache of relocation, of separation from homeland and extended family half a world away.
Ko, herself, felt the discomfort of “being seen as an ‘other,’ ” a kid whose skin was different from that of most of her classmates, she says.
For all the issues it touches, “The Leavers” is no manifesto. Ko is subtler than that. Her book, at heart, is a poignantly told story of mother and son, abandonment and displacement, the strain of straddling different cultures. Young Deming loses not only his mother but also the life he knew in the teeming city; he is adopted by two white, well-to-do college professors and moved from the Bronx to upstate New York. Polly, who is loosely based on the real-life Xiu Ping Jiang, must navigate a series of difficult to impossible choices.
Ko recently discussed “The Leavers,” which won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction. Excerpts are edited for length.
Q: Is it a fine line, addressing one of today’s hot-button issues — immigrant detention and deportation — without clubbing readers over the head, without sacrificing readability?
A: It’s not so much trying to make a point but (rather) using situations that the characters are in to kind of examine questions of assimilation and family and identity and culture, to look more closely at the nuances and complexities. … I obviously was inspired by real-life news stories. But my ultimate goal is to tell a good story with authentic, three-dimensional characters and an interesting plot, something that will get people reading.
Q: You’d collected a folder full of newspaper clippings about immigrant women and children by the time you started writing “The Leavers.” When and how were you drawn to their plight?
A: I’ve been clipping newspaper stories for as long as I can remember, things that seemed really interesting. These particular stories about undocumented immigrants and detention and adoption, and the intersection of those issues, first started coming to my knowledge around 2009.
I’m a first-generation American. My parents, as you noted, were born and raised in the Philippines, and I think that has made me more empathetic and knowledgeable about immigrant journeys for my entire life. But I’ve also been fascinated by the story behind the story.
There was this whole system of (privately contracted) detention that was motivated by profit and kind of functioned underground. A lot of people really didn’t know about it. It shocked me, and it intrigued me … the U.S.-born children of these immigrant women who were being adopted against their parents’ will by Americans. What was being said in terms of who could provide a better life, what kind of resources were presumed to provide a better life.
Q: Did you wind up talking with Xiu Ping Jiang, your inspiration for Polly?
A: No, I didn’t. The very first draft of the book, I think, hewed more closely to the facts of her story. But as I kept writing, the storyline kept expanding beyond those facts. The current version of Polly, in the published book, is really nothing resembling the news articles because so much of it grew out of my own imagination.
I did end up doing a lot of research, visiting parts of China where Polly was from, and speaking to people who’d had direct experience with immigration and adoption.
Q: You paint a grim picture of the immigrant detention and deportation process: oppressive living conditions, cruel guards, unfeeling judges. How close is that to reality?
A: That was definitely a lot of research. The detention center in the book, called Ardsleyville, is based on what was called the Willacy (County) detention center in Texas. It was known as a tent city; there were literally tents out in the desert that imprisoned thousands of immigrants over the years. The facility shut down after riots broke out because the conditions were so dire.
Many of the descriptions in the book are based on stories I read from people who reported on these facilities or were detained or imprisoned there. I wanted to be sure I got the facts right because I knew it was something a lot of people, including myself before I started writing the book, were just not aware of. It seems unbelievable that these prisons existed under the radar of many Americans for so long.
Q: Your parents were immigrants, but you were born in America. How much personal knowledge of the immigrant experience could you draw from?
A: It was just the experience of being a kid of color in a very white town. I think for many Asian-Americans, even those who are third, fourth, fifth generation, are still often seen as foreigners or people who are not wholly American because there’s this idea that to be an American is to be a white American. …
I think from a young age that there was a sort of quest, a desire, to create my own community and sense of belonging because it wasn’t necessarily a given in my hometown.
Q: You’ve described yourself as a kid as being an “outsider and a weirdo.” Your favorite book in second grade was about … the bubonic plague?
A: Probably most writers can relate to that. Because I grew up feeling and literally being on the outside, there was sort of freedom in being able to read and consume the kind of writing and art that I wanted — whether or not it was about the bubonic plague.
I was an only child, so I spent a lot of time alone, reading and writing, making up stories and imaginary friends and characters to fill my world.
Also, for many people who come from immigrant families or families that have experienced a change in culture or geography or class, that is accompanied by having to study and learn what’s around us in order to survive. … I was looking at things kind of anthropologically, noticing what was around me and how people looked and spoke and acted.
Q: You wrote your first book at age 5?
A: Yeah, I did. It was about a girl named Magenta, named after my favorite Crayola shade. She went away to boarding school, and it involved riding horses. … It might have been 10 or 15 pages. On the back, there was a series of blurbs and titles for subsequent sequels that I never wrote.
Q: So your plan was always to be a writer?
A: It took me quite a while. It wasn’t until college that I was turned on to reading or even knowing about work by writers of color. It’s very difficult, I think, for Asian-Americans — kids of color — to imagine themselves as writers when you don’t see people in books that look like your or your family.
Q: Is that better today? I’m thinking about writers like Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “The Sympathizer.”
A: There’ve always been Asian-American writers writing and telling their stories. The question of whether there’s an uptick in relation to the publishing industry and who has access to being published … the number of Asian-American writers who are being published doesn’t necessarily reflect the quantity of those who are writing.
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
Join the discussion
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of “The Leavers” by Lisa Ko at 2 p.m. Aug. 20 at the Kansas City Public Library’s North-East branch, 6000 Wilson Road. If you would like to attend, email Stover at email@example.com.
From Part 3, Chapter 16 of “The Leavers” by Liso Ko, published by Algonquin Books. Deming (now using his adoptive name, Daniel) and his mother, Polly, talk after a decade’s separation.
She took out a pill and reached for a glass of water. “They help me sleep.”
“Wait,” he said. “Can you not take it yet? Just wait, please?”
She hesitated, then put the pill back in the bottle. “I have to make sure it’s dark.” She switched the light off next to her bed, so the room was lit solely by the lamp next to his. “In Ardsleyville, it was light all the time, dogs waking you up in the middle of the night. You can’t sleep like that.”
“Ardsleyville. That was —”
“The name of the camp, the detention camp.”
A chill ran up his back. He studied a framed picture on the wall, a print of the same lake they’d visited today. “Tell me about it.”
She laughed, nervous. “I can’t.”
“I won’t be mad. I promise.”
“I can’t, Deming. It’s too much, I don’t want you to know.”
“I want to know the truth. How did you get there? What happened to you when you went to work that day? Please, I deserve to know.”
She put her head in her arms. “There was a van. They raided the nail salon.” He leaned forward, holding his breath. “There were no phones there, no way to contact anyone. When I got out, they sent me to Fuzhou. I wasn’t myself anymore.” She stopped. “If I tell you, you wouldn’t get it.”
“Please try.” He touched the wooden headboard behind him. He was in Beijing, China, New York and Ridgeborough and Daniel Wilkinson had fallen away and the world consisted only of him and his mother, their voices in the hotel room.