Exploring home and identity in Lisa Ko’s ‘The Leavers’

Title: The Leavers
Author: Lisa Ko 
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Length: 352 pages
Available: 2 May 2017
Source: eARC via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
Available Now

leaverscoverMany people use websites like Ancestry.com to help them understand where they came from, to figure out where their roots lie, and what cultures help make them who they are. But these people also do this from the luxury of their computers, of the places they call home, they feel safe–where they don’t feel completely different from everyone around them. But what if we couldn’t do this? What if we were put somewhere we know we didn’t belong with no connection to who we were or where we came from? These are the questions we’re forced to grapple with when reading Lisa Ko’s PEN/Bellweather winning novel, The Leavers.

Deming Guo was born in New York City but spent the first few years of his life in a small, rural Chinese village with his grandfather until she can make enough money to take care of him. Now eleven and back in New York, Deming lives with his mother, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s sister and her son. The apartment is cramped, but Deming is happy. Until his mother doesn’t come home from work and his life is turned upside down. When the woman he’s living with puts him into foster care, a white couple from the suburbs adopts him. They make it their mission to turn him into their perfect American boy. No one knows, or will tell him, what happened to his mother.

Now college aged, Deming is known by Daniel–the name his adoptive parents gave him and is completely unsure of what he wants to do with his life. His parents want him to go to college. He wants to live in New York City and play music.

Or does he?

In his search for the answers for what happened to his mother, Deming/Daniel is also searching for his true identity as he comes of age. Is he the Chinese boy named Deming, who, even though was born in America, belongs back in China? Or, is he Daniel, the college class going, perfect son for his adoptive parents who live in a town where no one else looks like him? Or is he neither, and someone else who belongs somewhere else altogether?

Told from the perspectives of Deming/Daniel and his mother, Polly, Ko weaves together one part mystery, one part coming of age tale infused important views on the treatment of immigrants, the false narratives often pushed by social justice activists, and a look at what it feels like to be in a world where no one else looks or sounds like you. It is hard to walk away from this book without calling your own prejudices and actions into question.

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