(Algonquin Books, 2017)
On March 4, 2017, a Reuters headline announces, “Exclusive: Trump Administration Considering Separating Women, Children at Mexico Border.” This is not the only headline. The early months of 2017 announced similar stories at a manic clip. The Trump administration’s approach to undocumented immigrants has drawn the attention and ire of a wary media and a frightened public, both placing immigration high on their list of talking-points proof that 45 is indecent in a new and terrifying way. The crackdown has intensified fear among immigrants and the communities where immigrants live. Sanctuary cities are facing federal defunding. The safe havens aren’t safe anymore. 2017 is a fearful time to be an undocumented immigrant in America, to be sure, but it would be a mistake to think that this is some new terror. America’s immigration laws have been narrow, murky, and unevenly applied since the Mayflower. More recently, massive numbers of people were detained and deported under the Obama administration—an annual high of 400,000 in 2012. These stories of dissolving decency and families and realities…they’re not new. They’re not even going unreported. It’s just that, suddenly, more people
A May 3, 2009, New York Times headline reads, “Mentally Ill and in Immigration Limbo,” and chronicles the story of Xiu Ping Jiang, a woman lost in an immigration detention camp in Florida. Xiu Ping was suicidal and often in solitary confinement. Her son had been adopted away into a Canadian foster family—a somehow side-note in the disappearance of this undocumented, unwell woman. The disintegration of her family and her sanity was reported in the Times only after it was too late; after Xiu Ping Jiang had been invisible too long.
In Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers, Xiu Ping’s pain, and the pain of the innumerable others caught in America’s shadowy immigration system, can be seen in the novel’s central crisis: the disappearance of Peilin Guo from her home in the Bronx, and from her U.S.-born son, Deming. Peilin (sometimes Polly) is from Fuzhou, China; she is undocumented and working long hours for short money to pay off her passage to the States and the recent return of her child. She refuses the roles assigned to her and pursues her heart and her ambition; when she laughs, she laughs hard and slaps her thighs in appreciation. “Her voice was a trumpet,” Deming remembers. She was this big presence, and then suddenly she was gone. Soon after, Deming is sent to live with the Wilkinson’s: a white foster family upstate who insist on calling him Daniel.
The Leavers follows Deming’s transformation into Daniel. His journey to find his mother brings him in and out of languages and lives, from New York to Fuzhou and back again. Nowhere really feels like home to him and none of the answers he finds are easy, but he emerges with a stronger sense of himself, and of his own agency. Across the world in China, Peilin is telling her story, too. She wants Deming to know that she never meant to leave. Her voice weaves in and out of the novel, refusing removal.
The Leavers is a debut of quiet force; Ko’s mastery is evident in her effortless sentences, capable of unspooling your heart before you even realized it was wound up. When Peilin tells Deming about the day she was arrested, she recounts the horror almost like a lullaby,
“Now, as I felt my arms pulled back in a decisive motion, like trussing a hog, I thought of you. It was you that I thought of. Always, it’s been you.”
The violent image and its implications paired with the tender repetition of a mother’s love is devastating; it communicates Peilin’s pain and carries the entire spirit of the novel within it. It is not an easy story to read, nor is it an easy story to leave behind, but no real love story is easy. The Leavers won the PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Literature, and Ko’s work has been lauded by the likes of Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, and Junot Diaz.
The novel opens in the Bronx, where Deming lives with Peilin and her boyfriend Leon. They also live with Leon’s sister, Vivian, and her son Michael—around the same age as Deming. It’s a home full of familiar life: Peilin and Vivian cook together and speak Fuzhounese, while Deming watches cartoons on the couch and swears in English with Michael. Leon works long hours at the slaughter house. He takes Deming and Peilin to the park on their rare days off, and it almost feels like they are a real American family. It almost feels like they can relax. Deming has started to call Leon Yi Ba, Fuzhounese for father. But Peilin still worries, “Don’t you want to get out of here, go somewhere warm?” she asks Deming, thinking about leaving New York. She wants to move to Florida and live a life less crowded. Deming won’t leave his friends, he insists. Michael is like his brother. Peilin agrees to stay.
But when she doesn’t come home from the salon one day, their delicate family falls apart, swiftly and with no consideration for all their hard work. Deming thinks Peilin went to Florida, leaving him behind. Then Leon leaves for China in the middle of the night. And finally, one terrible afternoon, Vivian leaves Deming in foster care. Eventually, Deming finds himself alone in Ridgeborough, New York, the somehow-foster child of Kay and Peter Wilkinson.
Kay and Peter seem harmless enough—professors who wear corduroy and go on scavenger hunts—but when it comes to Deming, scared and alone in a strange place, they possess a blindness that is not so harmless. Deming hears them wondering through the walls if they shouldn’t have found a younger child. They insist that Deming change his name to Daniel, to make his transition easier. Deming doesn’t know what to call them, so for months he calls them nothing at all, addressing them without eye contact. They feed him milk and meatloaf and tell him to stop speaking Fuzhounese. They buy him a laptop. They pretend his family didn’t leave him. Time passes and, for better or worse, Deming becomes more and more like Daniel Wilkinson: “two and a half feet taller, one hundred-fifty pounds heavier than Deming Guo had once been, with better English and shittier Chinese.”
He only speaks Fuzhounese alone in his room at night, to Peilin, even then she is not there to respond. His pronunciation gets rusty, but he doesn’t give up. Peilin’s phone number just rings and rings, but he calls it anyway; the novel is punctuated with the droning loneliness of unanswered phones and disconnected lines. But while Daniel is losing one language, he is discovering his identity and fluency in another: Music.
When Daniel discovers Peter’s old records, he plays Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? and hears color spinning off the turntables and into his headphones. Daniel has synesthesia—when he hears music he sees color and shapes.
“Platinum flowers morphed into oscillating lines and dancing triangles, electric blue snare drums punctuated a chocolate bass line topped with sticky orange guitar, turquoise vocals whipped into a thick, buttery frosting.”
It’s as if he is able to see underneath the notes, beyond the surface of the melody to see the music all the way around. His new obsession also informs him, a kid keenly aware of his constant otherness, what it means to be cool. He discovers that music and coolness can grant access, as well as deny it. He learns that both music and coolness, like big headphones, can “buffer the world.” It is how he experiences comfort and freedom simultaneously. Music is a home to Daniel, and a familiar theme in Ko’s work. In “Pat + Sam” she uses music to express individuality and freedom. The story, originally published in Copper Nickel, was anthologized in 2016’s Best American Short Stories, edited by Junot Diaz.
The rare moments of relief in the novel occur when the characters are comfortable. When there is no need to act, or adapt: Daniel listening to music on his headphones, or Peilin outlining the face of her baby son. But eventually the song ends, and there is only the silence of Ridgeborough; eventually the baby wakes up and wails. Ko presents the subtle fear in the lives of undocumented immigrants and their families, even in the nice moments: Why are things so good? What is coming next? Don’t let your guard down.
In bed with Leon, entwined in sunshine, Peilin thinks, “The more Leon comforted me, the less comforted I was. His solidarity was so different from Haifeng’s fawning, but it felt dangerous, it could be a trick, and I had to be careful.”
Peilin’s fears are not unfounded. On a day like any other day she is swept up in an ICE raid. She is sent to a detention camp and then deported, denied phone calls or representation. She is lost for four months. In a frustrated attempt to be seen, she stages a protest with other inmates in the hopes of shutting the camp down. Instead she receives solitary confinement, where she finds the edges of her sanity. Ko does not spend much time here, but she doesn’t have to, the grimness of the place is communicated in a brief but brutal chapter,
“Day 203. Sunlight blazed onto the tent roof. I sat on my bunk, reached under my shirtsleeves, applied nails to skin, and scratched. I knew my arms were already inflamed and split red, but scratching produced the sweetest pain, the most exquisite fire. When I scratched I could dig my fingernails into all the unspoken words of the past months.”
It’s a wise choice not to linger there too long; by refusing to reduce Peilin’s story to that of a detained and undocumented immigrant, someone easily flattened by labels, Ko is spends the majority of the book depicting her whole: round and full as a woman, as a mother, a lover, a dreamer. Besides, inside the camp she is not herself—neither Polly nor Peilin, “Back in my room the walls dissolved and I stepped outside. I was becoming someone else again.”
Ko began work on The Leavers in 2009, and over the years emerged a novel that deeply loves its characters, flawed and bent though they are. They want to do right by the people they love, but they let those people down enormously. Sometimes on purpose.
The characters in The Leavers are flawed in spite of their best hearts; redeemable in spite of their worst actions. You understand them because they’ve left and been left, because they’re The Leavers. And no matter what you think of Peilin and Deming’s choices or actions, there is no doubt that you saw them, and that you won’t forget them anytime soon.
An April 8, 2017 headline in The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch sounds like a rerun: “Immigrants Fearing Deportation Prepare for Separation from Their Children.” It will not be the last headline. 2017 stretches long in front of us. It would be easy to say that The Leavers is simply a really good book about immigration in America—a parable for our modern and troubled times—but that would overlook Ko’s honesty, the elegance of her prose, and the dignity of her characters. While the novel lands at a time when the governing party threatens deportations, bans and walls and attempts to challenge what defines an American—the story Ko tells, and the fractured and determined lives she creates, are as American as American gets.