On May 12th, at our 8th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating nine of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.
The Leavers is a story about family and identity, spanning nearly twenty years. Eleven year-old Deming Guo lives with his mother Polly in the Bronx. One day, Polly goes to her job at the nail salon and never returns. When Deming is adopted by a suburban white couple in upstate New York, he becomes Daniel Wilkinson, beginning the arduous journey to discover not only his true self but the fate of a mother long lost.
Wynne Kontos: Where were you when you found out The Leavers was going to be published and how did you celebrate?
Lisa Ko: I lost my phone while I was on vacation. I hadn’t been able to get my voicemail or email all week because there was no reception, and when I got back to New York I checked my email and found a message from Barbara Kingsolver saying she had been trying to call me for days and to please call her immediately. It was about the PEN/Bellwether Prize, which Barbara established and funds, and which comes with a book contract with Algonquin Books. I’d submitted my manuscript months ago and promptly forgotten about it. When I called Barbara with my boyfriend’s phone, she told me I’d won. I was too jet-lagged for it to really sink in — I think I celebrated that afternoon by drinking coffee and then passing out— but the next morning I woke up at five in the morning and was like, OH MY GOD!
WK: There seemed to be a parallel between Deming’s biological mother Polly and his adoptive mother Kay when it came to the concept of “motherhood.” Both have very different journeys that lead them to being Deming’s mother. Both women are not without faults, but feel real love for the same child. Can you talk more about your exploration of motherhood and its variety of roles?
LK: Polly and Kay are both imperfect women doing the best they can. They also want the best for Deming, or what they feel is the best for him. On a more thematic level, they are inseparable from larger forces of class, race, language access, and citizenship status, and this impacts their parenting and expectations. Kay and her husband Peter can provide Deming with economic resources, but Polly can provide him with connections to culture, family, and identity. I wanted to explore the differences between the two.
WK: Deming (later Daniel) performs poorly in academics, which causes him to struggle as a child. Being a bad student is an example of how Deming’s life and family defy cultural stereotypes we see about the Asian community. Did you intend to confront these racial stereotypes?
LK: I didn’t set out to strategically write against stereotype—I just wanted to create a fully developed character. Deming’s poor academic performance is tied to the upheavals in his childhood, some uninspiring teachers, and his interests being more in art and music than in the traditional academic areas that his adoptive parents value and pressure him to pursue. I do hope my characters reflect the full diversity of Asian Americans. There are definitely plenty of Asian kids who are terrible students!
WK: Deming/Daniel also struggles with a gambling addiction. The addiction seems to come out of nowhere, though it’s obvious he is incredibly isolated without a lot of support systems. What role did the gambling addiction serve in exploring Deming/Daniel’s character?
LK: There’s a certain obsessiveness about Daniel’s character, as well as a desire for risk-taking. That, and his perfect poker face—a skill honed from having to pretend, to hide his true feelings in his new adopted family and town—make him susceptible to succeeding as a gambler. The theme of gambling is also prevalent throughout The Leavers. Chance, luck, the arbitrariness of immigration policies, and even being in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time affect my characters’ lives in pivotal ways. From a storytelling point of view, Daniel’s gambling addiction is something he needs to face as part of his character’s journey. He treats others poorly because he’s not being honest to himself, and he has to learn to make decisions for himself rather than doing what others want him to do, whether it’s his parents or his friends.
WK: In conversation with Barbara Kingsolver, you mentioned getting inspiration from the New York Times reports about women who were separated from their children and imprisoned in immigration camps. Immigration has been a growing cultural and political issue in recent years, but it has taken on new meaning after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. This just four months before the release of your debut novel about how unethical immigration practices can cause enormous harm for families and individuals. What role do you hope your novel has had and will continue to have in this growing conversation?
LK: By personalizing one fictional family’s story, I’d love for The Leavers to clear some misconceptions about undocumented immigration, as well as raise awareness about the for-profit prison system and its ties to U.S. immigration policies. These policies have been in place for years, and didn’t start with the Trump administration. There are “bed quotas” that mandate that a certain number of immigrants need to be imprisoned at any given time—during the Obama administration it was 34,040 immigrants per day. Trump would like to double it. Private prisons are profiting, big time, off of xenophobia, racism, the criminalization of immigrants, and the separation of families like Polly and Deming’s.
WK: The concept of “identity” is at the forefront of this novel in almost every way. Deming/Daniel and his mother both explore dual Chinese-American personas, the Wilkinsons learn what it means to be an individual versus a parent, even Deming’s best friend Michael uses academics to reach a new phase of adulthood. Each character in the novel is searching for their truest meaning, either because they have yet to find it or they feel it has been lost. Why is identity such an important concept for you as a writer and what does it mean to you?
LK: American culture in general has always been obsessed with identity and the right to define ourselves—self-determination, right? If we’re referring to racial and ethnic identity, I think that Asian Americans are often so invisible in media, and when we are visible, we’re often being defined by others. So to define ourselves and center our stories is to assert our own humanity in a way, and that can be critical. Polly and Deming deal with this, too: their own search for belonging is also a desire to be fully seen, understood, and to be able to define themselves on their own terms, rather than to be forced to fit the more limiting definitions that are placed upon them.
WK: What are you most looking forward to at the Debutante Ball?
LK: Having my story “Proper Girls” published in One Teen Story was a big turning point for me during a time when it felt like nothing was going well with my writing. I’m so excited to celebrate with One Story and the other authors!