Born to an immigrant mother in New York, Deming's first six years of life are spent between America, China, to live with a grandfather he's never met, then America again. He adjusts to a childhood with his mother in a colorful New York City only to be torn away again, this time by child protective services after his mother disappears from her job at a nail salon. Without warning, he's dropped into what feels like an alien, all-white suburb upstate and becomes the adoptive child of two professor parents— Deming Guo is now Daniel Wilkinson. This pattern of early upheaval sets Deming definitively on a path that will only ever be his own, one marked by difference and isolated in varying degrees from each of the communities he moves through. As Deming's story continues to unfold, gradually, his mother's testimony also comes to light, filling in holes and ripping others open, until finally, side by side, the disparate journeys of our two protagonists form one complete portrait of the resilience of the spirit. This a heartbreaking, poignant, beautiful, beautiful book that will stay with you for a long time.— Caroline Froh
Daniel Wilkerson is at a crossroads. Struggling with a gambling addiction, he’s dropped out of college and squatting at a friends’ apartment in New York. Should he stay in New York to make music or return to his well-meaning-but-off-note adoptive parents’ home and try to graduate? There’s only one thing hanging over his head, and that’s an email from a childhood friend who may have a connection to his birth mom. You see Daniel Wilkerson is also Deming Guo, the son of Polly (Peilan), a Fuzhounese woman who was working at a nail parlor and disappeared when he was a preteen. Lisa Go’s first novel gracefully jumps from mother to son, from past to present and back again, as it stitches together a timely story of two people searching for connection and meaning. It’s this year’s worthy winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize, an award for a previously unpublished manuscript of socially engaged fiction, founded by Barbara Kingsolver.— Daniel Goldin
"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." --Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth
Lisa Ko's powerful debut, The Leavers, is the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.
One morning, Deming Guo's mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a nail salon--and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.
With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. But far from all he's ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents' desire that he assimilate with his memories of his mother and the community he left behind.
Told from the perspective of both Daniel--as he grows into a directionless young man--and Polly, Ko's novel gives us one of fiction's most singular mothers. Loving and selfish, determined and frightened, Polly is forced to make one heartwrenching choice after another.
Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. It's a moving story of how a boy comes into his own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past.
Lisa Ko's fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, Apogee Journal, Narrative, Copper Nickel, the Asian Pacific American Journal, and elsewhere. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, and Blue Mountain Center, among others. She was born in New York City, where she now lives. Visit her at lisa-ko.com.