I first heard Lisa Ko speak about immigration on a hot summer night in 2016 at Greenlight, my then-neighborhood bookstore in Brooklyn. The author was reading an early excerpt from her first novel, “The Leavers,” which had just won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and was slated to be published the following year.
Three years later, I was thrilled to hear the author speak again on a chilly spring night here in my hometown. Ko, currently in residence at Ucross, addressed a packed room at Whitney Center for the Arts on Thursday. She read again from “The Leavers,” which has picked up more awards and accolades, then discussed the story with Sheridan College’s Sarah Jo Heuck Sinclair.
The novel follows a Chinese-American boy, who is adopted by a well-meaning white couple in upstate New York after his immigrant mother disappears from their home in New York City. Beautifully written, “The Leavers” is full of painful moments that reveal how Americans treat immigrants (or perceived immigrants), whether with fear and hate or with good intentions laced with, as Ko terms it, “liberal racism.”
When announcing the PEN/Bellwether Prize, the inimitable author Barbara Kingsolver described the novel as “perfectly of this moment.” Indeed, with immigration at its heart, both readings I attended felt very timely.
In August 2016, the presidential election was still three months away, and “build the wall” was being chanted across the campaign trail, inciting ferocious support or ferocious contempt.
In May 2019, the day before Ko’s Sheridan College reading, the Cheyenne-based advocacy group Juntos took to the streets of the capital to protest increased Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity in Wyoming.
The Sheridan Press shared the Wyoming Tribune Eagles’ article about the event, “Activists march to put ICE ‘on trial’ at May Day rally,” on Facebook. Comments on our post were negative, if not particularly insightful: “Foreign invaders putting America ‘on trial’…..,” “Don’t worry about it IF your [sic] here legally,” “These ‘people’ are not native to Wyoming,” and so on.
While the issue has been heated over the past few years, the debate is not new. As Ko pointed out Thursday, the perception and treatment of “foreigners” — especially children — has been fraught in the United States since the beginning, from African children sold away from their parents into slavery to Japanese American families placed in internment camps to migrant children detained in federal facilities near the Mexican border today.
In her conversation with Sinclair after the reading, Ko said she spent seven years researching and writing “The Leavers” but almost 40 years living with first-person experience.
Ko was born in New York to a Chinese couple who had immigrated from the Philippines. She was struck after reading a New York Times story about an undocumented Chinese immigrant who was detained for over a year, while her son was placed in the foster care system. Ko started reading more about parents being forced to leave their U.S.-born children; “The Leavers” grew from her exploration.
As is common for Sheridan, the audience on Thursday was notably lacking in diversity. Still, Ko’s words resonated: Throughout the room as she spoke, attendees shook their heads, let out small gasps and then clapped thunderously.
The next day, I touched base with Sinclair for her take.
“Ko does an excellent job of, as she says, ‘amplifying’ the experience of the working immigrant in America,” she told me. “Her work doesn’t attempt to speak for a particular group or a particular point of view; instead, she tells the story of one family. That version of immigration feels familiar to all of us.
“It’s a story that feels real, and complicated, and imperfect — just like we all experience family,” continued Sinclair. “So, even if we feel polarized by politics or geography, through Ko’s work, we can identify with the reality of immigration. Her perspective offers us people, not issues.”
Don’t worry: I’m not going to try to solve the issue of immigration in these pages today. But I do recommend picking up a copy of “The Leavers.” The more perspectives we can get on any issue, the better positioned we are to understand it.
I also recommend attending future events of this ilk, which are relatively frequent in Sheridan County. We are lucky to have opportunities to delve into the complex layers of issues that are so often reduced to one-liners streaming across our screens.
Shoutout to Sheridan College and the Ucross Foundation for co-hosting Thursday’s event, which was free and part of the statewide “Explore Hemingway” series, sponsored by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant.
I can’t wait for the next chapter.