Rui Zhong reviews The Leavers by Lisa Ko
There are two types of ethnic Chinese in America: those who do not have to worry about deportation, and those whose lives can be upended by it.
These two groups often pass by each other without realizing their differences. They may find themselves standing across from one another at the checkout line. A scientist born in the United States might share notes with a lab-mate overstaying his student visa. A woman comfortably vacationing with her visa-stamped passport can speak Mandarin with a manicurist who is one annoyed colleague’s phone call away from ICE custody. Every deportation leaves behind friends, colleagues and lovers irreversibly damaged by the removal.
In Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers, readers only get a glimpse of the manicurist, Polly Guo, the day before she is deported. Ko fires off a series of anecdotes that show Polly fluctuating between ferocity and tenderness in the time it takes to apply a coat of polish. Polly comes home with “red and scraped” hands, “skin angry and peeling,” and a cackle which, to her son, Deming, is “as loud as her shouting.” She slaps her knees at jokes her son doesn’t understand. Then she vanishes.
In the weeks following his mother’s disappearance, Deming loses himself in snacks and DVDs. Then dread suddenly settles in. Eventually, the remaining members of Polly’s household shuffle Deming off to a clinical bureaucrat, who sends him to a temporary foster home of locked doors and silences, and finally to the home of two white liberal college professors, Peter and Kay Wilkerson.
Memories of Polly thrash against everything Deming Guo – renamed Daniel Wilkerson – is pressured to become. His ability to speak Mandarin fades, then flickers whenever he passes Chinese-language signs or has to deal with the Wilkersons’ reluctant acknowledgments of his heritage. His adoptive mother, Kay, retreats into tactical fragility and hurt when her son rebuts her patched-together descriptions of Chinese culture. Peter Wilkerson plies Daniel with laptops and music-editing software. His adoptive parents and long-suffering classmates and friends in upstate New York are colorless and inadequate in contrast to Polly and Leon, Deming’s former stepfather.
Languages – English, Fujianese, written Chinese – are the barometers of Polly and Deming’s world. Before his mother disappeared, Deming delighted in reading signs on the streets of Chinatown and building on the literacy he earned while staying with his grandfather in China. In Polly’s absence, these skills atrophy, amplifying the hurt of separation. On the first night with his adoptive parents, Deming feels the “crumbs of dialect on his tongue, smudges and smears of dissolving syllables” and “nouns and verbs washed out to sea.” The satisfaction of struggling through words or phrases in Chinese and getting the right translation is captured by Ko with accuracy rarely depicted in books on Chinese diasporic characters.
For the characters in Ko’s novel, change is a function of forgetfulness and forgetting. After ICE detains and deports Polly, she buys a calling card and desperately tries to remember the phone number of her one link to Deming, her then-boyfriend, Leon. In tears, she dials “all the possible combinations that could possibly be [his],” lamenting that she never memorized phone numbers. As the combinations lead nowhere, Polly’s hopes of finding Deming dim. She takes this as a sign that she must struggle to survive, just as she was once given a sign to migrate to America.
Ko’s decision to vary the attention to detail within the two halves of her book highlight fundamental differences in how Polly and Daniel make key decisions. In the middle of the book, we are carried back in time to when Polly decided against aborting her baby in three quick sentences: “I had run out of choices; I was fucked. I had to have the baby. Or rather, Polly would have to have the baby.” This internal dialogue is almost an action in itself, and the reader isn’t given much of a chance to fully digest the weight of Polly’s decision.
By contrast, in chapters where Deming is going through the all-too-American youth’s tradition of finding himself, we learn exactly how many dollars he is in debt, the specific reasons why he hates his day job at a taco shop, and the details of every excuse he makes to the Wilkersons to avoid going back to college. Ko’s decision here communicates a contrast between her two main characters: Polly decides quickly and sticks fast with her decisions, while Deming, who remains shaken by her disappearance for the entire novel, never finds a place to rest his wandering thoughts and motivations.
The Fujianese village that Polly grew up in is a place that families like the Wilkersons – or socially privileged Chinese-American families like my own – only glimpse as they pass by on high-speed trains. In the age of Chinese megacities, urban Chinese would also overlook the village of Minjiang. In 2015, the New York Times interviewed a woman named Sister Feng on the conditions of her fellow immigrant manicurists in New York. Feng claimed that Fujianese manicurists like Polly were the most unpleasant because they were so obsessed with money. Sister Feng acknowledged that these women owed large fees to immigration fixers, and that the lives of Fujianese manicurists were an afterthought for many people in the city. The Leavers offers anyone who will take the time to read it an explanation of what those anonymous women are struggling towards, and reveals sides of China and Chineseness that are too often overlooked. ∎