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Immigration & Identitiy: The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko's award-winning debut novel forces readers to reckon with the immigrant experience and consider the effect a broken system can have on individual identities.

Picture taken at Chùa Bà Thiên Hậu Buddhist Temple

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At age eleven Deming Guo returns to his Bronx apartment after school and waits for his mom, Polly, to return home. But, unlike every other day, Polly never comes home. Deming fears she may have left him to pursue a new life in Florida - something she mentioned to him the day before, something he made absolutely clear he didn't want to do: move to a newer, bigger house in an unfamiliar place. He liked the Bronx and all its sights and sounds, but when his mom doesn't return home after a few weeks, he fears she really did leave him behind and now he's being punished by her absence. Leon, Polly's boyfriend, soon leaves their apartment and Vivian, Leon's sister, is forced to make a difficult decision. She can't support both her own son, Michael, and Deming, so she must help find Deming a new home.

Deming Guo soon becomes Daniel and finds a new home in Ridgeborough, a New York suburb, with Kay and Peter Wilkinson. The life he'd known in the Bronx and in China as a young child seems like a distant dream. His new suburban home is a foreign land and everywhere he looks he's surrounded by white people. But, where is his mom? Maybe this is a test. Maybe every derogatory remark directed at him or slowly-spoken sentence someone greets him with (every one assuming he doesn't understand English despite his being born in the United States) is a challenge he must clear in order to be reunited with his mother.

Picture taken at Chùa Bà Thiên Hậu Buddhist Temple

Questions arise along Daniel's journey as he is recontacted by Michael: How did his mom just disappear? Why did she never come back for him? How can he know where he's supposed to be when there's so much he doesn't know? Deming and Peilan's story is not only one of immigration and the failure of a system to maintain familial bonds - but also a story of what happens to those left behind. Deming becomes Daniel and is forced to take on a new identity in Ridgeborough when he is adopted by his white, upper middle class parents, while also erasing the one he'd grown into as a child of China and of the Bronx. Peilan's journey is nothing small in comparison. Peilan assumes and suppresses multiple identities to achieve her dream of a free life on her terms, despite being forced to give in to cultural and gender norms along the way.

The devastation and loss make Deming and Peilan's story an important one to read, know, and learn from. It's a story that is not bound to one demographic or country. It's a story that spans centuries and that persists in continuing to destroy families and alter identities. It's a story that must be shared.

This is my Review of the Month for the review collection on

Have you read The Leavers by Lisa Ko?

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