Growing up in a largely white community, National Book Award finalist Lisa Ko listened eagerly to her parents’ family stories, but couldn’t find Asian or Asian-American protagonists in the books she devoured. “It’s that younger me,” she says, “hungry and breathless to see herself on the page, that I write for today.”
As the first-generation daughter of Chinese immigrants from the Philippines, Ko was, in her own words, “a good observer and a better spy.” That capacity for discerning details and illuminating subtleties is on full display in her debut novel, The Leavers, a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction and winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. In a timely, compelling, complex novel crackling with narrative tension, Ko offers “a fresh and moving look at the immigrant experience in America” (Publishers Weekly).
“There was a time I would have called Lisa Ko’s novel beautifully written, ambitious and moving, and all of that is true, but it’s more than that now: if you want to understand a forgotten and essential part of the world we live in, The Leavers is required reading.”
Ko was inspired to write The Leavers after reading news stories about immigrant parents who were forcibly separated from their young children and, in some cases, saw their parental rights terminated—cases that remain relevant and timely as family separation and immigrant detention continue to dominate news headlines. The Leavers is the story of eleven-year-old Deming Guo, whose mother, Polly, goes to work at a Bronx nail salon and never comes home. With no one left to care for him, Deming is adopted by white parents who whisk him upstate and rename him Daniel Wilkinson—an “all-American” name. But Daniel can’t forget his mother’s disappearance or the community he left behind, and changing who he is proves much harder than changing his name.
With “meticulous specificity” (Kirkus), Ko leads us into the lives of Daniel and his mother Polly, whom The New York Times called “the greatest strength of the book…[a] provocative depiction of a modern Chinese woman uninterested in traditional roles of any kind.” Ko evokes her characters with deft, economical prose, while her eye for “exquisite, heartrending details” (People) is apparent from the first page.
“Imperative reading: a vivid fictional exploration of what it means to belong and what it feels like when you don’t… Ko gives us an unsparing portrait of the resilience and grit it takes to risk everything to break free of tradition and start over in a foreign land.”
—O, The Oprah Magazine
Boldly foregrounding issues of family, belonging and identity, The Leavers has been called an “exceptionally well written, fully realized work of art portraying the circumstances and inner worlds—the motives and emotional weather—of its two central characters” (Barnes and Noble Review). Laila Lalami, author of The Other Americans, called Ko’s debut “a rich and sensitive portrait of lives lived across borders, cultures, and languages… One of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read this year.” In the context of widespread outrage over the forcible separation of immigrant parents and children, The Leavers feels both urgent and prescient.
The Leavers was named one of the best books of 2017 by NPR, Entertainment Weekly, BuzzFeed, The Los Angeles Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, and many others. Ko’s writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, O, The Oprah Magazine, and elsewhere.
“Beautifully written and deeply affecting, combining the emotional insight of a great novel with the integrity of long-form journalism, The Leavers is a timely meditation on immigration, adoption, and the meaning of family.”
—The Village Voice
In her revealing and wickedly perceptive nonfiction, Ko has explored the double standards imposed on immigrants, the personal costs of cultural assimilation and constant code-switching, music and other cultural touchstones, childhood experience, Asian-American political history and activism, and the profound weight of parental and social expectations. She explores similar issues in her talks, along with the craft of writing, and the importance of searching for the “story behind the story” in the news we consume and the histories we are taught. A former librarian, Ko has spoken at Penn State, the University of Vermont, the Black Mountain Institute, and the Savannah Book Festival, among other places.
Ko has been awarded fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and the MacDowell Colony, among others. Born in Queens and raised in New Jersey, she now lives in Brooklyn.here.