Ko-AWLP Longlist


2018 Longlist

The Leavers-web
“The Leavers”

Algonquin Books | Workman Publishing
ISBN: 9781616206888

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.

Q & A with Lisa

Why did you write The Leavers?
I was initially inspired to write The Leavers because I wanted to bring more attention to the forced separation of immigrant families by the US government and the link between our immigration policies and prison system. I was motivated by real-life stories, but the more I got to know my characters, I realized I was actually writing a book about belonging, language, assimilation, music, and the desire to build a sense of home and live on your own terms — themes that have always resonated with me.

What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?
Figuring out what the story was and how to tell it. While I knew the external circumstances of my characters’ lives — the sociopolitical forces that lead to a mother being separated from her son — it wasn’t until I figured out what their internal journeys were that the story became clear.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I’m an only child, as well as an only grandchild on my father’s side; the first in my family to be born in America; the first native English speaker. From a young age, I was aware that my family’s history ended with me. I had a responsibility to document, to remember, and the ability to write your story was a powerful gift.