Q&A: Lisa Ko

Algonquin, 2017

Algonquin, 2017

The Leavers is your first novel and even before it was published, it won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. What has it been like to go on tour for a book that has already won an award?

Going on book tour as a debut novelist is thrilling, especially since it’s all so new. Meeting readers as the recipient of the PEN/Bellwether made it even more exciting, especially knowing that I was following in the footsteps of authors who’ve been recognized for their contributions to socially engaged fiction. 

In addition to the PEN/Bellwether Prize, The Leavers has been longlisted for the National Book Award—congratulations! This year’s list includes an amazingly diverse selection of titles. As a writer, do you think this list is evidence that literature is becoming more accepting and diverse?

Thank you! It’s such an honor to be included in a group of mostly women of color writers—a good, overdue sign that things may be changing. Writers of color, queer writers, women writers, and other intersecting identities have been writing incredible work for years. Whether or not literary gatekeepers are becoming more inclusive in recognizing us is another question, and one that can only be addressed by changing power dynamics and diversifying the publishing industry on all levels in order to be more representative of who is writing and reading literature.

It was such a treat to meet you at the Decatur Book Festival! We enjoyed hearing you speak on a panel with Thrity Umrigar on “A Shifting View of Home.” Have you had any favorite events or panels on your book tour?

It’s impossible to choose a favorite! Connecting with readers is really my favorite experience, and I’ve been fortunate to do so from NYC to LA to cities I’d previously never been to, like Milwaukee, where the Chinese American community showed up to support.

You’ve mentioned in several other interviews that the inspiration for The Leavers came from a news story you read about a woman who was sent back to China while her child stayed in the States. What made you decide to write the majority of the novel from the Deming’s point of view?

Earlier drafts had the majority written in Polly’s (Deming’s mother) point of view. But I realized when revising that in order to create more of a narrative arc with regards to Deming’s search for his mother, it was necessary to start the novel from his point of view.

Deming struggles with his identity as a first-generation Chinese-American, a boy left by his biological mother and adopted by white parents. Did all of these aspects evolve naturally as you wrote the novel? Did you have a chance to talk with children who had been left in a similar situation?

In the real-life stories that inspired The Leavers, the U.S.-born children who were forcibly separated from their immigrant parents were often adopted by white American families, so I knew going into writing the novel that I would have characters who would experience this. I wondered what it was like for these children to be raised in these mostly white communities, with adoptive parents that sometimes claimed their birth parents were “unfit,” and wanted to explore that in the novel. Some of the research included learning more about the experiences of Asian American adoptees, from their perspectives. 

Family is, understandably, a huge component of The Leavers. Deming’s adoptive parents mean well, but they often seem to miss the mark when it comes to understanding his Chinese American heritage. What inspired you to write about this particular aspect of adoption?

Asian Americans are often seen as perpetual foreigners in the U.S., even if our families have been here for generations. This conflation of “Asian American” with “Asian” was something I’d seen with white adoptive parents of Chinese American children, who would attempt to connect the kids to a static culture that was more about China than the experience of being Chinese American, which has a culture of its own. To me, it said so much about identity, assimilation, and culture in the U.S. — who gets to be American and how and why.

Without giving any spoilers, your book gives us an eye-opening look at what life can be like for someone deported from the U.S. What research did you do for this part of the book? Do you have any additional resources or book recommendations for people who would like read more on the topic?

Interviews, reading, and traveling all were an important part of my research. For anyone who’d like to read more on the topic, I’d recommend learning about the history of detentions and deportations in the U.S., and how it links to xenophobia, the prison industry, labor, and militarism.

Can you tell us a little bit about any projects you have coming up?

I’ve been busy with book tour events, but hope to start working on some new writing soon! 



Lisa Ko is the author of The Leavers, a novel which was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction and won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York Times, Apogee Journal, Narrative, O. Magazine, Copper Nickel, Storychord, One Teen Story, Brooklyn Review, and elsewhere. Lisa has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, the Van Lier Foundation, Hawthornden Castle, the I-Park Foundation, the Anderson Center, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. Born in Queens and raised in Jersey, she lives in Brooklyn.

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