One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Polly, goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.
With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left with no one to care for him. He is eventually adopted by two white college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate. They rename him Daniel Wilkinson in their efforts to make him over into their version of an “all-American boy.” But far away from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life with his mother’s disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind. (goodreads)
The Leavers is Lisa Ko’s debut novel, a tale about belonging, transracial adoption and the Asian-American diaspora. Told from several points-of-view and in unchronological arrangement, the novel presents its themes of disconnection and fractured identity and relationships in form as well. The Leavers lends itself to an immersive reading in few sittings, but it is not overly complicated to follow the story despite the structure.
At eleven years-old, Chinese-American Deming Guo is left behind when his mother Peilan/ Polly doesn’t come home from work one day. Adopted by a white couple, Deming is ripped from his home in New York and everything he knows, and moved to privileged, white suburbia. Taking even his name from Deming, the Wilkinsons call him Daniel instead, trying to make him their all-American boy, completely cut-off from his Chinese identity. The Wilkinsons stand in for so many educated, middle-class white people, utterly clueless in the way they enact racial trauma upon children of color. Deming struggles to live up to their expectations but also knows it isn’t where he belongs. In this white liberal culture between color blindness and exoticization, he’s subjected to a constant Othering.
Struggling to belong, Deming is shown as somewhat floating through life, struggling but in college and with a gambling addiction, unable to connect and form roots anywhere. It is only surrounded by music that he is present and connected. Composing his own melodies, he creates a language of his own, in which he feels at home and that is able to express exactly what he feels. Of course, the rest of the world doesn’t understand.
It is only near the end of the story that we as readers find out what happened to Peilan. I suppose this might be called a spoiler but let me assure you that it is issues of capitalism, the nation-state and citizenship which come between mother and son.
I found The Leavers to be a beautifully written, sweeping tale of a Chinese immigrant experience in contemporary America and absolutely recommend it. Ko’s novel has rightly been awarded the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest opinion.