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 It’s this year’s worthy winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize, an award for a previously unpublished manuscript of socially engaged fiction, founded by Barbara Kingsolver.— Daniel Goldin
May 2017 Indie Next List
“Deming Guo's first six years of life were spent with his immigrant mother in New York, then China with a grandfather he's never met, and America again. After his mother disappears from her job at a nail salon, Deming is adopted by two professors and dropped into what feels like an alien, all-white suburb upstate. This pattern of early upheaval sets Deming - now Daniel Wilkinson - on a path marked by difference and isolation. As Deming's story unfolds, his mother's side of the story gradually comes to light, filling in holes and ripping others open, until finally, side by side, their disparate journeys form one complete portrait of the resilience of the spirit. This is a heartbreaking, poignant, beautiful book that will stay with you for a long time.”
— Caroline Froh, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, WI
Summer 2018 Reading Group Indie Next List
“In a time when immigration is a political issue, this novel puts a human face on a very complex situation. It tells the story of a woman who came to New York from China, created a family, was deported, and what happened after her sudden disappearance. This is an ambitious and compelling novel, told in sections alternating between Polly’s brash, bold, determined, loving, and frightened voice and son Deming’s confused, lonely, troubled one as he grows up under the adopted name of Daniel. Chosen by Barbara Kingsolver for the Bellwether Prize for the best novel to address issues of social justice, The Leavers will open your eyes and your heart.”
— Yvette Olson, Magnolia's Bookstore, Seattle, WA
FINALIST FOR THE 2017 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION
Named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed, Bustle, and Electric Literature
“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.
About the Author
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.
“Here is imperative reading: a vivid fictional exploration of what it means to belong and what it feels like when you don't . . . Ko gives us an unsparing portrait of the resilience and grit it takes to risk everything to break free of tradition and start over in a foreign land.”
—O, The Oprah Magazine (Favorite Books of 2017)
"[A] dazzling debut . . . Filled with exquisite, heartrending details, Ko’s exploration of the often-brutal immigrant experience in America is a moving tale of family and belonging.”
—People (Book of the Week)
“When Deming Guo was 11, his Chinese immigrant mother, Polly, left for work at a nail salon and never returned. In alternating perspectives, this heart-wrenching literary debut tells both of their stories. Grade: A”
“Ambitious . . . Lisa Ko has taken the headlines and has reminded us that beyond them lie messy, brave, extraordinary, ordinary lives.”
—New York Times Book Review
“Ko’s wrenching debut novel about an immigrant Chinese mother and her son has profound resonances that reach far beyond its setting. ...quietly sensational... its underlying themes of displacement and deportation carry deep and desperately urgent resonances far beyond America, and fiction.”
“This wrenching and all-too-topical debut novel picks up the life of an 11-year-old American-born boy on the day his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, disappears . . . Ko uses the voices of both the boy and his birth mother to tell a story that unfolds in graceful, realistic fashion and defies expectations.”
—Janet Maslin, New York Times
“Lisa Ko's The Leavers is the year's powerful debut you won't want to miss. The Leavers expertly weaves a tale of the conflicts between love and loyalty, personal identity and familial obligation, and the growing divide between freedom and social justice. An affecting novel that details the the gut-wrenching realities facing illegal immigrants and their families in modern America, Lisa Ko's debut is the 2017 fiction release you can't afford to miss.”
“An exceptionally well written, fully realized work of art portraying the circumstances and inner worlds — the motives and emotional weather — of its two central characters. Ko is so psychologically penetrating, so acute in her passing observations and deft in the quick views she affords of her characters’ inner lives and surroundings, that her skill and empathy give real joy.”
—Barnes & Noble Review
"The Leavers describes the devastation caused by forced, abrupt and secret detentions that occur daily under our current Immigration Act. The novel weaves from past to present, from immediate abandonment to chronic loss, showing how the unfathomable disappearance of a mother eats into her son's effort to "move forward.” . . . The story soars when Ko writes of immigration detention— a civil detention for violation of a civil law that is as callous and brutal as the worst sort of criminal incarceration . . . [The Leavers] lets us feel the knife twist of sweeping government authority wielded without conscience or control. [Ko’s] work gives poignant voice to the fact the U.S. can, and must, write a better immigration system.”
“Consider this book a must-read: They may be fictional, but these characters have a lot to teach us about the difficulties of belonging and the plight of illegal immigrants.”
“Poignant and timely, this novel is ripe for discussion.”
“One of 2017's most anticipated fiction debuts… The winner of last year's PEN/Bellwether Prize, which recognizes fiction that explores issues of social justice, The Leavers feels as relevant as ever as the future of immigrants in America hangs in the balance.”
“Ko’s debut is a sweeping examination of family through the eyes of a single mother, a Chinese immigrant, and her U.S.-born son, whose separation haunts and defines their lives. Ko’s stunning tale of love and loyalty – to family, to country --- is a fresh and moving look at the immigrant experience in America, and is as timely as ever.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Touching upon themes such as identity, determination, addiction, and loyalty, the author clearly shows readers that she is an emerging writer to watch. Ko’s writing is strong, and her characters, whether major or minor, are skillfully developed. Readers who enjoy thoughtfully told relationship tales by authors such as Lisa See, Jamie Ford, and Nadia Hashimi will appreciate.”
—Library Journal, starred review
“Vividly written and moving, The Leavers is an engrossing story of one young boy struggling to adjust to his new life without his mother and community.”
“…a timely touching story…excellent: compelling, well-realized, gritty and complicated.”
—Kansas City Star
“…The Leavers is a masterful debut novel that examines borders and belonging, and the universal desire for love.”
“This excellent book has already won the PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction (selected by Barbara Kingsolver). One morning, eleven-year-old Deming Gao's mother is unexpectedly deported to China. Deming is then adopted by a white family and renamed Daniel Wilkerson. But as he grows up, he struggles to reconcile his new life with his former one.”
“Ko’s debut novel has already won the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize created and selected by Barbara Kingsolver. The contest awards a novel “that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships,” and Ko’s book certainly fits that laudable description.”
“An inspiring debut, which focuses on issues of assimilation and the true meaning of home. Ko’s unforgettable narrative voice is a credit to the moving stories of immigration, loss, recovery, and acceptance that feel particularly suited to our times.”
“Lisa Ko's The Leavers, which won the PEN/Bellwether Prize, may be a work of fiction, but the plot twists mirror America’s own urgent and timely political landscape.”
“…gorgeously redemptive… Lisa Ko's debut novel is an achingly beautiful read about immigration, adoption, and the drive to belong. Beyond the desensitizing media coverage, Ko gives faces, (multiple) names, and details to create a riveting story of a remarkable family coming, going, leaving … all in hopes of someday returning to one another.”
—Christian Science Monitor
“If you come away from reading The Leavers with a sense of disconnect, that’s no surprise—disconnectedness is its central theme, its structural and stylistic touchpoint, and the emotional engine driving its main characters . . . The Leavers stands firmly as Lisa Ko’s act of arrival.”
“A searing novel about a mother and son who are separated by forces beyond their control in New York, a book that promises to challenge our perceptions of immigration, adoption, family and American values.”
“This timely novel depicts the heart- and spirit-breaking difficulties faced by illegal immigrants with meticulous specificity.”
“…skillfully written…those who are interested in closely observed, character-driven fiction will want to leave room for The Leavers on their shelves.”
“What Ko seeks to do with The Leavers is illuminate the consequence of [deportation] facilities, and of the deportation machine as a whole, on individual lives. Ko’s book arrives at a time when it is most needed; its success will be measured in its ability to move its readership along the continuum between complacency and advocacy.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
“…The Leavers…using effective literary techniques and beautiful language – powerfully illustrates the impact that social policies and injustice have on the lives of individuals and families.”
An “assured debut novel…a timely story of immigrant families in America…a thoughtful work about undocumented immigrants and the threats they endure.”
"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.”
"Courageous, sensitive, and perfectly of this moment: The Leavers is everything I could hope for in a winner of the Bellwether Prize."
“In The Leavers, Lisa Ko has created one of the most courageous mother character's in recent memory. Polly is brash, brave and heartbreaking and her ferocity is marvelous to behold. The Leavers is about the bonds between parents and children and the many pulls of home. It was a book I did not want to end.”
—Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman
"A rich and sensitive portrait of lives lived across borders, cultures, and languages. . . one of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read this year."
—Laila Lalami, author of The Moor’s Account
"A moving mother/son story and welcome contribution to immigrant literature. In writing about Polly and her son Deming, Ko captures one family's unique experience of becoming American while also exposing the loss of status, economic desperation, physical endangerment, and psychological grit of the undocumented worker as well as the alienation, double consciousness, mobility, and comparative access of the first generation."
—Emily Raboteau, author of Searching for Zion
“The story’s most heartbreaking disclosures are powerful in their indictment of the unrealistic expectations placed upon struggling families.”