Binaries lie at the heart of any adoption: two families, two cultures, two sets of fantasies of what might have been, or of what may still be. In her debut novel, “The Leavers,” winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction, Lisa Ko examines the tensions and complexities of these binaries with scintillating depth, sensitivity and skill.
When Deming Guo is 11, his mother, Polly Guo, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, leaves for her job at the nail salon in the Bronx and doesn’t come home. Polly’s boyfriend, Leon, and Leon’s sister Vivian attempt to track Polly down, but their efforts prove fruitless.
A few months later, well-meaning white college professors Kay and Peter Wilkinson adopt Deming, whisk him away to their small town in upstate New York and rename him Daniel. Their failure to acknowledge the catastrophic event that brought them their son, coupled with Deming’s forced assimilation into an ethnically monochromatic community and his loss of fluency in Fuzhounese, compounds his trauma.
“Deming awoke with the crumbs of dialect on his tongue, smudges and smears of dissolving syllables, nouns and verbs washed out to sea.” To cope, he joins a rock band, drinks, gambles and barely graduates from high school. When his cousin makes contact with him, Deming considers searching for his mother.
Ko paints a rich portrait of the indomitable young Polly, “the girl who’d defy odds, the girl who could do anything.” She begins with Polly’s childhood in her poor village of Minjiang, when she went by the name Peilan, to her young adulthood as a factory worker in Fuzhou, to her unplanned pregnancy and immigration to New York City, where she assumes the name Polly.
But Polly’s passage to the States saddles her with a debt “so astronomical it was unreal,” and forces her to make a decision that haunts her years later, one she worries her son will never forgive her for.
“If you knew more about me, Deming, maybe you wouldn’t blame me for so much, maybe you would understand me more. I can only be as honest as I know how to be, even if it might not be what you want to hear,” she thinks.
Ko’s depictions of the nuances of child-parent love in birth and adoptive families, as well as the long-term emotional costs of a family’s rupture, are authentic. She avoids the clichéd happy reunions of adoption narratives in favor of an astute study of the agony of separation and how grief, regret and dreams shape one another.
“I was supposed to travel the world,” Polly tells Deming the day before she disappears, “But then I had you. Then I met Leon. You’re my home now.”
Anjali Enjeti is an award-winning essayist and board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in Georgia.
By: Lisa Ko.
Publisher: Algonquin Books, 338 pages, $25.95.
Event: Talk of the Stacks, 7 p.m. June 13, Central Library, Mpls.