In “The Leavers” we come to see that to be Chinese American is to hold tight to what separates these two cultures, these two realities.
by Lisa Ko
Algonquin, $25.95, 338 pp.
In Lisa Ko’s heartfelt and timely immigration-themed novel “The Leavers,” the coming-of-age tales of a boy named Deming and a boy named Daniel sometimes feel like the stories of two parallel lives, but in reality they are one and the same.
“The Leavers” traces the troubled, convoluted upbringing of an American-born young man in New York City named Deming Guo, whose undocumented Chinese-immigrant mother Polly suddenly disappears. Deming is taken in by Polly’s boyfriend Leon, his sister Vivian and Vivian’s son Michael, Deming’s best buddy.
What is doubly traumatizing about Polly’s vanishing act is that after Deming was born, she sent him back home to the Fujian province of China to live with his grandfather.
The author of “The Leavers” will speak at 7 p.m. June 7 at Elliott Bay Book Co.; elliottbaybook.com or 206-624-6600.
But Polly, tough as brass, impulsive and missing her son, has Deming brought back to America to live with her in New York after the grandfather dies.
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So by the time she fails to come home one day from her nail-salon job, she has given up Deming twice.
The two had grown close up until then in New York, a single Chinese mom without papers who speaks limited English and a preteen American son who loves “everything bagels” who also speaks a Chinese dialect.
During the period when they are reunited, mother and son communicate in that dialect, Fuzhounese, but they also communicate through life lessons and dreams as Polly instills wisdom and warnings to steer Deming clear of the temptations and obstacles that might keep him from living the life she never can have in America.
Nothing can prepare a child for the shock of realizing that your parent is never coming back, though.
In time, Deming is turned over to foster care and is later adopted by a white family in upstate New York. They give him the Anglo first name Daniel and their surname, Wilkinson.
We see Daniel assimilating and trying to become his own man, playing guitar in a band and attending college. But his identity is split between his old life and his new life, between the Old World and the New World, between memories of his Chinese family and his adoptive American family’s vision for his future.
As we learn the reasons why Polly came to America in the first place, why she left Deming and what hardships she faced as an undocumented resident after that, the story explores what it means at the most personal level to live in a nation of immigrants.
In “The Leavers” we come to see that the Chinese-American identity is to hold tight to the hyphen that separates these two cultures, these two realities.
We constantly feel the tug as Daniel and Polly shuttle between those poles, and between grief and hope.
Daniel ostensibly has moved on to a more stable family situation, without her. During a phone call with his estranged mom when he’s 21, he senses that Polly has moved on to better things too, without him. But their sense of loss binds them.
Ko won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction for “The Leavers” and while it is a quiet story, it comes at a time when a little breathing room, time to reflect on ourselves as a country, seems urgently necessary.
America is a restless nation built around the dream of mobility — from other countries to this one but also from lesser circumstances to better circumstances.
We are always moving. Yet like Daniel and Polly, we are also, always, searching for home.