Eye on the Indies

Eye on the Indies

A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Reviews Editor

Lanie Tankard

Book: The Leavers

Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, May 2, 2017 (352 pp., $25.95 hardcover), ISBN 9781616206888; also available as e-book.

Author: Lisa Ko

Born in Queens, Ko now lives in Brooklyn. She grew up in New Jersey in a small town, the only child of Chinese immigrants from the Philippines. She has a BA in English from Wesleyan University (Middletown, Connecticut), an MS in Library and Information Science and Archives from San Jose State University (California), and an MFA in Creative Writing and Fiction from the City College of New York (where she has been an adjunct lecturer).

She’s worked as a freelance writer, editor, and content manager for clients such as Independent Television Service, PBS, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Junot Díaz selected Ko’s short story “Pat + Sam” from Copper Nickel for Best American Short Stories 2016, which he edited. Ko’s fiction has also appeared in a number of literary magazines such as Narrative, Storychord, and Brooklyn Review. Her many fellowships and residencies include the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, and Hawthornden Castle.

Ko is a founding co-editor of Hyphen magazine, which began in 2003. She is also a fiction editor at Anomaly, an international journal of literature and the arts previously known as Drunken Boat, and former editor-in-chief of Ten Magazine at the Asian American Writers Workshop.

The Leavers, Ko’s first novel, won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction established by Barbara Kingsolver. In a conversation between the two writers, Ko told Kingsolver she had been inspired by recent true stories of “undocumented immigrant women whose U.S.-born children were taken away from them and adopted by American families, while the women themselves were jailed or deported.” The Algonquin Reader (Vol. 6, 1) carries an essay by Ko titled “A Better Life” discussing that idea.

Publisher: Algonquin Books

Algonquin Books began in a Chapel Hill, North Carolina, woodshed thirty-four years ago when Louis D. Rubin Jr. co-founded the publishing house with former student Shannon Ravenel.

Rubin, who died in 2013, worked for newspapers in Hackensack, New Jersey, and Staunton, Virginia—as well as for the Associated Press in Richmond, where he later was an editorial writer for the Richmond News Leader. He earned his PhD at Johns Hopkins in Aesthetics and Literary Theory, taught at the University of Pennsylvania, and chaired the English Department at Hollins College (now University) in Roanoke, Virginia. He also held a Distinguished Professorship in English at the University of North Carolina­ at Chapel Hill (UNC). He co-founded Southern Literary Journal (now called south) with C. Hugh Holman, a UNC professor. The author of more than thirty books in a wide variety of genres, Rubin was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 1997. The National Book Critics Circle presented Rubin with the 2004 Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for making significant contributions to book culture.

Ravenel, now retired in Chapel Hill, was Algonquin’s editorial director, later focusing on her own Algonquin imprint: Shannon Ravenel Books. After graduating from Hollins with a BA in English Literature, she spent a decade in the trade editorial department at Houghton Mifflin and thirteen years as series editor of the yearly Best American Short Stories, in addition to editing twenty volumes of New Stories from the South, an annual series she began in 1986.

Algonquin brings out only twenty new titles each year. The original founding statement Rubin and Ravenel drew up continues to hold true: “to publish quality fiction and nonfiction by undiscovered young writers, and to keep our books in print, reaching new fans for years to come.” In 1989, Workman Publishing in Greenwich Village bought Algonquin. The independently owned publishing company also includes Algonquin Young Readers, Artisan, Storey Publishing, and Timber Press, and partners with The Experiment. Peter Workman, who died in 2013, founded Workman Publishing in 1967.

Senior Editor Kathy Pories edited Ko’s manuscript at Algonquin. Pories holds a BA and PhD in English Literature from UNC, where she taught in the English Department (as well as at Elon University). She joined Algonquin in 1995. Elena Giavaldi, a book cover designer and illustrator based in Brooklyn, created the cover of The Leavers.

Algonquin is not currently accepting unsolicited manuscripts. PEN America, however, will be accepting submissions to the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction until October 26. The award is given “biennially to the author of a previously unpublished novel of high literary caliber that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.”


Love cannot save you from your own fate.”
Jim MorrisonThe American Night, Vol. 2

Who am I?

And how do I know that?

Such questions beat at the heart of Lisa Ko’s debut novel The Leavers, a well-timed tale set in both the United States and China. The structure is a mother-son story—two mothers, two families, two cultures.

Polly (formerly Peilan) Guo has an eleven-year-old son named Deming, conceived in China and born in America. An undocumented immigrant in New York City from a small Chinese fishing village, she works first at a jeans factory and then a nail salon. When Deming was a baby, she sent him to live with her father because she could neither take him to work nor afford childcare. Deming thus spent some of his formative years with his grandfather in Minjiang (“a poor village in a poor province”)—apparently a fictional place near the Min River in the southeastern China province of Fujian, of which the city of Fuzhou is the capital.

With a few years under his belt, Deming returns to his mother in the Bronx, where they live with her boyfriend Leon, as well as Leon’s sister and nephew (Deming’s pal Michael). The family they’ve forged together lives austerely but provides a cushion for the slings and arrows of a different culture, such as a clerk smirking at Polly’s “lousy English.”

One morning, however, Deming’s known world suddenly spins out of control when his mother doesn’t come home from work and no one seems to know what happened to her. He ends up in the social welfare system and is eventually adopted by a childless couple—white academics from Ridgeborough, a fictional small town in upstate New York near Syracuse, where Deming is the only Asian. His new parents (Kay and Peter Wilkinson) erase his Chinese name. No longer Deming Guo, he must become Daniel Wilkinson. The lone vestige of his former life is his mother’s button stuffed deep in his pocket.

For the remainder of the novel, readers move backward and forward—past, present, and future—following Deming/Daniel as he searches for Peilan/Polly to understand why his mother left him. Along the way, Ko unflinchingly confronts a number of flinchworthy situations through a powerful lens. The book has four sections: “Another Boy, Another Planet,” “Jackpot,” “TILT,” and “The Leavers.”

Much recent world fiction concerns refugees assimilating into new cultural identities. Ko delves deeply into that struggle here. Language is one aspect. Because Deming and Polly speak Fuzhounese—which Ko underscores is not the same as speaking Mandarin at all—they face yet another language barrier apart from English, not only in America but also in China. In the Big Apple, Deming hears “everywhere the indecipherable clatter of English.” In Ridgeborough, he finds “the crumbs of dialect…washed out to sea…” because “New York City had provided him with an arsenal of new words.” When he goes back to China, to Fuzhou, he notices “not one scrap of English, not anywhere.” Instead, “Fuzhounese and Mandarin banged out around him.”

Some researchers study the relationship between language and thought, such as variations in time conception between Mandarin and English speakers. The recent movie Arrival was based on the novella “Story of Your Life,” penned by an American science fiction writer whose parents emigrated from China. Other researchers look at the relationship between culture and identity formation, establishing dissimilarities between East and West. One project found variations even within China itself, based on agriculture.

How does research relate to The Leavers? It offers a framework by which Ko presents concrete examples of how findings play out in two countries on opposite sides of the globe, cities of differing sizes, various age groups, and professions all along the skill range. The Leavers probes not only language, but also cultural relativism and ethnocentrism.

Ko illustrates individualist (independent) and collectivist (interdependent) behaviors with astute observations, suggesting how one culture views another—and, of equal importance, how each perceives being viewed by the other. Consider, for example, dwelling sizes and anonymity. In the Bronx: “They lived in a small apartment in a big building, and Deming’s mother wanted a house with more rooms.” He, however, enjoys the potpourri of cultures: “This building contained an entire town.” In Ridgeborough, the Wilkinson house is “five times” the size of that apartment, and “seven times the size of the house” where he’d lived with his grandfather in Minjiang. He finds himself “too visible and invisible at the same time,” realizing he “had never known how exhausting it was to be conspicuous.”

Yet he’s “not that unhappy” with the Wilkinsons—if he can forget about his mother. That’s not possible though. “Like muscle memory, a body could recall things on a hidden, cellular level,” Ko writes, much as Homer portrayed Odysseus in The Odyssey: “His native home deep imag’d in his soul.” Odysseus’s mother, Anticlea, actually died of a broken heart she missed him so much: “…my longing to know what you were doing and the force of my affection for you—this it was that was the death of me” she tells her son when he visits her in the Underworld. Another recent movie, Lion, was based on the book A Long Way Home, about a son’s twenty-five-year search for his mother back in India after being adopted by a couple in Australia.

Deming/Daniel loves music, and wants to play in a band. He desperately wants Polly there to tell him who he should be, since he’s not sure Kay and Peter Wilkinson’s idea of success is the same as his. Whose definition of achievement counts? Would his mother even understand him as an adult if he found her? She had known him only as a child when she left.

To adapt is to alter, rework what’s there. In the act of becoming part of something, one must modify to suit the environment. Can changing a name suddenly transform the person? Are Polly and Peilan two people inhabiting the same body? As Deming tries to become Daniel, he morphs into “a name that was supposed to be his.” So, is Deming Chinese and Daniel American then? Who gets to define someone? The hazy image of Deming/Daniel on the book’s cover emphasizes his identity crisis. A person might look the same but what’s inside is radically different, not the same at all. To feel at home is to belong. You blend in when you’re in one society—yet in another, you’re no longer anonymous.

What is home? James Baldwin, in Giovanni’s Room, speculated: “He made me think of home—perhaps home is not a place but rather an irrevocable condition.” Baldwin’s notion of home might be what Ko is suggesting in The Leavers. She forces the reader to consider what it’s like to have always spoken one language, kept your original name, and known where your mother is—and then try to appreciate the opposite. She runs “they don’t belong here” up the flagpole to watch it flap in the wind. She asks what being a mother means. She pores over the definition of a leaver—someone who departs, but in so doing causes something to remain. Ko pluralizes the title of her novel, using “Leavers” instead of “Leaver,” because Polly is not the only leaver in this story. Many characters leave a considerable number of times over the course of the novel, and many are left behind in countless ways.

Ko is a master at interlacing current political and social issues throughout her storyline, which is specific to her protagonists but also broader in its universal subjects: immigration, deportation, incarceration, for-profit detention centers, adoption, adaptation, mothering, gentrification, garment factories in New York, manufacturing in China, nail salons, slaughterhouses, gambling addiction, diversity, academia, ethnic studies, women’s roles and rights, assertiveness, marriages of convenience—to name but a few. She stages this underlying set of ideas in both countries and across the entire lives of her protagonists as if she were using a 360-degree virtual reality camera that could span the globe as well as time travel.

Ko echoes and modernizes some of Pearl S. Buck’s impressions about East and West, such as this image from Buck’s long-lost novel The Eternal Wonder: “Crowds moved wherever he went, across the bridge to Manhattan, in New York, wherever he went, life flowed and eddied, but he was not part of it.” Or this thought from East Wind: West Wind—The Saga of a Chinese Family: “He will have his own world to make. Being of neither East nor West purely, he will be rejected of each, for none will understand him. But I think if he has the strength of both his parents, he will understand both worlds, and so overcome.”

For an epigram to jumpstart The Leavers, Ko selected an inspired verse from a poem by Li-Young Lee that mentions orphaning, aliases, journeys, and expulsions—a relevant entry to the prevailing power of memories she presents within. The novel is well worth reading for the story by itself, but even more so for the combustible discussion it’s bound to spark. Lisa Ko herself becomes a leaver here, depositing at book’s end a trail of potent thoughts challenging readers—nay, shaking them by the shoulders—to consider the issues she raised. For this reason alone, The Leavers is de rigueur in the current Zeitgeist.

Copyright 2017 Woven Tale Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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