By Abeer Hoque
“His beauty was that his beauty was behind him, his appeal reflecting what he had already survived.”
Lisa Ko’s debut novel The Leavers is a sprawling multi-generational story of working-class undocumented Chinese immigrants in New York City. The book starts off with Deming, a boy whose mother, a nail salon worker, vanishes suddenly. Deming gets whisked away via child services from a cramped multi-family situation in the Bronx to an academic family in a leafy suburb in upstate New York. The trials of racism, class, and ambition prove heavy burdens for Deming (re-named Daniel by his white parents) as he grows up, no model minority in the making. This last was a refreshing realistic departure from much of the immigrant literature out there. It was however frustrating to watch this character crash and burn. Daniel’s synesthetic affects as per his growing music obsession felt a bit sudden and forced although they were quite lovely to read: “His eyes ached. His mouth filled with noise.”
The most powerful parts of The Leavers for me were about New York, a city I presume to know about. But the novel depicts aspects of the city I am ignorant of, except when reading the occasional investigative report about the plight of undocumented Asian workers. It made me realize, yet again, how important literature’s role is in our education, understanding and compassion when it comes to politics and history. I also loved how the NYC subway system is a geography in itself. It reminded me a little of John Wray’s brilliant characterization of the MTA in his novel Low Boy.
Ko’s language is often beautiful and surprising: “Deming dug his fingernails into his arm, ten sharp half-moons sparking pain.” Her characters are deeply and complexly realized, even when they’re not the main focus of the story. The Leavers is an important addition to the American canon, filling out a perspective we see far too little of, the story of those who don’t or can’t write books to tell us about their lives, their very bodies supporting the ugly and unstable foundation of our capitalist consumerist society.