It’s Here!

The Leavers is out in bookstores!

For many years, every time I went to a bookstore, I would put my finger into the space where my book would go if it existed and was on the shelves (somewhere between Klosterman and Krauss) and imagine it there, advice I once read from Alexander Chee. 

To actually see it on the shelves, in real life? Wow.

If you’re in New York City, my launch party is tonight, May 2, at the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble. I’ll be chatting about The Leavers with Kaitlyn Greenidge, the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman and signing books.

And I’m doing many other events throughout the NYC area and other cities over the next few months. Hope to see you on the road!

The Leavers Mixtape

While I was working on The Leavers, I made a mixtape that I’d listen to on my headphones while I wrote. Songs that my protagonists, Polly and Deming, might listen to. Songs that helped evoke certain scenes in the book.

I want to share it, and the sections from the novel that each song corresponds to, with you. For best results, turn it up.

Cat Power, “Manhattan”
He wandered out to the rooftop, the city spread wide like an offering, though he knew better than to admit he was impressed by the view. Upstate, snow was everywhere, the season in deep coma. Yet in the city there was minimal snow, heat lamps on the roof and bridges in the distance lit up like x-rays, and there was music, wordless and thumping, bulbs of gold and green, and dancing, arms and legs moving in slow, creeping motion, like animals stalking their prey.

TV on the Radio, “You”
I stepped in farther. The cold water made me curl my toes and the waves lapped at my shins in a sharper, faster way than the dark blue of the river in the village, yet here the sea was cleaner, grayer, larger, more angry and thirsty and beautiful all at once, not unlike New York itself. I took another step. The water was up to my waist. My teeth chattered, but the cold felt good.

Penny and the Quarters, “You and Me”
Winter was coming, yet the sunlight heated my scalp, and I sang “Ma-ma-ma” and my voice was as clear and sharp as morning birds. You squirmed against me. Love spun up like feathers.

Frank Ocean, “Sweet Life”
Just look at the man. Who else—besides you—had made me feel wanted, singular, different?

On the boat, Leon whispered so only I could hear. “What if you lived with me, Little Star? You and Deming?” I wanted to remember this moment even as it was happening, to imagine it as already gone.

David Bowie, “Sound and Vision”
Never had there been a time when sound, color, and feeling hadn’t been intertwined, when a dirty, rolling bass line hadn’t induced violets that suffused him with thick contentment, when the shades of certain chords sliding up to one another hadn’t produced dusty pastels that made him feel like he was cupping a tiny, golden bird.

Arthur Russell, “Come to Life”
Yi Ba’s boat was dark green; brown stripes exposed where the paint had peeled, a patched-over, fist-shaped dent at the helm, a punch from a hidden rock. I’d help him untie it and we’d push out into the current. “Lucky, lucky, lucky,” I chanted, watching the waves lap at the wood like hundreds of tiny tongues. Then the shoreline would grow dimmer and the blue would shoot in all directions, filling the frame around me, the sky so big it could swallow me, and I cracked open with happiness.

Jimi Hendrix, “Angel”
Deming unplugged the earbuds and replaced her iPod with his Discman. He forwarded to “Angel” and pressed play. The guitar and cymbals shimmered in their ears, and he sang along. Tomorrow I’m going to be by your side. Then he got afraid that Angel might think he was singing to her, that he liked her. He hit stop. “You like it?”

“It’s all right.”

“He’s only, like, the greatest guitar player ever in the history of the universe.”

She flipped open a container, exposing a yellowing plastic U. “Do you want to see my retainer?”

Grover Washington, Jr. and Bill Withers, “Just The Two of Us”
She promised she’d never leave him again on the day they found their doppelgängers. Back then, six-year-old Deming and his mother were still strangers to each other, but formed a satisfying pair. Short and thick, with the same wide noses and curly smiles, big dark pupils underlined with slivers of white, a bit of lazy in their gaze. Her hand was foreign in his; he was used to his grandfather’s warmer grip and more deliberate walk. His mother was too fast, too loud, like the American city he’d been dumped back into, and Deming missed the village, its muted gradients of grass and water, greens and blues, burgundies and grays. New York City was shiny, sharp, with riots of colors, and everywhere the indecipherable clatter of English. His eyes ached. His mouth filled with noise. The air was so cold it hurt to inhale, and the sky was crammed with buildings.

The Durutti Column, “Otis”
Without it I’d be dreaming of brown blankets and dogs, you waving to me from inside a subway train that leaves the station as soon I get to the platform. But the pill would push me down and swiftly under, to safety, and every morning I woke up dreamless, the hours between getting into bed and hearing the alarm clock—an urgent beeping from the shore as I struggled to swim to the surface—a dense void, eleven at night and six thirty in the morning only seconds apart.

Cavern, “Liquid Liquid”
There was only the city and its long, Lost Weekend: dancing at a party on a barge; a cab ride over the Williamsburg Bridge with Manhattan shining in the distance, five of them crushed into the backseat, a random girl on his lap, Roland in the front gabbing to the driver about intestinal flora or mushroom foraging; watching A Clockwork Orange late at night and stepping out into a Saturday sunrise, ferocious oranges and purples. Nights like these, the past and present and future rolled out in a sugary wave, everyone he’d ever known riding alongside him on a merry-go-round to a soundtrack of whistling calliopes.

Alicia Keys, “If I Ain’t Got You”
On the bridge above the Harlem River, an ice cream truck had tinkled its song, followed by the snort and stop of a bus. A car had rolled down its window, music pouring out, a woman singing, Some people want it all . . .

Suicide, “Cheree”
The music shot through his headphones in silver waves; it was the familiarity of feeling perfectly like himself.

Diane Coffee, “Green”
Unable to decide whether to hate Vivian or be grateful to her, Daniel had only been able to take the envelope and say, “Thank you.”

He dug his heels into the dirt and walked downhill, down the park’s curved side, slow at first, getting faster, a grace note as his legs bounced upwards.

He would go home. He would call Leon. Propelled, he was almost in flight.

The Only Ones, “Another Girl, Another Planet”
Deming did not want to hide. Three Alley and the Bronx had prepped him, and Planet Ridgeborough was the ultimate test. He had been specifically placed on this mission by his superiors to test his strength and patience. When he fulfilled his mission he would be reunited with his real family. Who were his supervisors? He had that figured out, too. They communicated, telepathically, in Fuzhounese, the language he didn’t have to try to hear. This mission made him brave. So he got out on the blacktop at recess, out there in the open, daring anyone to mess with him.

The Final Countdown

It’s been a long winter, and somehow it’s now April, with just under a month to go until The Leavers is out on May 2.

Over the past few months, I’ve been steadily crossing things off my pre-publication to-do list. Essays written, pitched, and sold. Book tour and other events planned – check out the video I made below announcing some of the dates and cities! Newsletters, thank you cards, e-mails, and invitations sent and in the works. Q&As and interviews completed and scheduled. Bookmarks, postcards, and other promotional materials created. Website and social media updated. I’ve even bought a new dress and a pair of shoes.


Of course, these next few weeks are going to coincide with a big freelance editing project, and I’m moving apartments the day before the book launch (note to self: next time, don’t do this), so I’m surrounded by piles of boxes as I alternate between excitement and sheer terror on what feels like an hourly basis. You spend seven years working on a book and think that’s it, the bulk of the work, but then comes publication and the aftermath. A whole other unknown.

So, I’m taking deep breaths and looking forward. See you on my book tour?

Galleys Are Here!

I tore open an envelope with my galleys and jumped up and down waving them in the air and screaming incoherently while alone in a dirt field full of sage and prairie dogs.

an orange book with white text that says The Leavers: a novel by Lisa Ko on a purple and white printed cloth

Reading my novel in actual printed book format (because it’s an actual printed book!) is so different than reading it in a very long Word document. It feels… real.

I dedicated the book to my grandmother, who had a difficult life and a grade-school education. We didn’t share a language in common, so we couldn’t write letters or even speak on the phone.

What she and so many other women, especially women of color, went through and fought and pushed against so I could be here today, writing and publishing a novel, choosing whether or not I want to get married or have kids, has kept me going so many times when I’ve doubted my work. And now I get to trace my finger over her name, in print, at the beginning of my book.

Her name. I put it there.


Why I Wrote The Leavers

I started writing The Leavers back in 2009, seven very long years ago. It began with an article I read in the New York Times about an undocumented immigrant from Fuzhou, China named Xiu Ping Jiang. She had been picked up by immigration police while riding a bus, and had been held in an immigration detention jail for over a year, often in solitary confinement. The thing that struck me the most was the fact that she had tried to bring her eight-year-old son into the US from Canada, and he’d been caught by officials and adopted by a Canadian family.

sign that says today's bus, apex bus, ny-phila, ny-dc, and chinese characters

I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman. What had happened to her, and what had happened to her son? I started to dig further, and I learned about so many other immigrant women whose US born children were being taken away from them – American courts were terminating their parental rights and granting custody of the kids to be adopted by American couples. Meanwhile, the women were being deported or imprisoned in one of the many underground immigration detention prisons around the country. Outsourced to private prison corporations and functioning, in many ways, as above the law, these prisons jailed hundreds of thousands of people, including children, but no one I spoke to seemed to even know about them.

Soon I had a folder stuffed with newspaper clippings about immigrant women and their children. As a child of immigrants, I was fascinated by how these women were represented in mainstream media, as tragic victims or evil invaders. There was Cirila Baltazar Cruz, a Mexican immigrant discharged from a Mississippi hospital after giving birth, but without her baby. The baby had been declared neglected because Cruz had failed to learn English, and a court gave custody to an American couple. There was Encarción Bail Romero, whose rights to her child were terminated when she was jailed following an immigration raid on a Missouri poultry plant. Her son was adopted by an American couple, Romero deported to Guatemala. There were Jack and Casey He, Chinese immigrants who’d signed papers for temporary foster care for their baby daughter Anna Mae after Jack lost his job. But Anna’s foster parents, the Bakers, refused to give her back and wanted to adopt her. A Tennessee judge terminated the Hes’ parental rights, the Bakers’ lawyer arguing that the Hes were unfit parents, and Anna would have a better life in the US: “What kind of quality of life is the child going to have in China?” But no one asked what kind of life the child would have in the US, separated from her family.

Here’s something about me (if you haven’t already guessed): I’m partial to obsessiveness, and obsessiveness, if the timing is right, can be a goldmine for writers. So I decided to work out my obsessions about these news stories in fiction. I started writing about a woman named Polly. She lives in the Bronx with her 11-year-old son, Deming, and one day she goes to her job at a nail salon and never comes home. Her voice, her hustle, her journey – from a small fishing village to the booming city of Fuzhou to paying $50,000 to be smuggled into the US in a box – came to me in a flash.

Yet I kept returning to the children in the news clippings, the ones separated from their mothers and adopted by Americans. Why did these mothers have to be deported while the children had to stay behind? Why were wealthy white American parents deemed “fit” while immigrant parents who wanted to raise their own children deemed “unfit”? And what, exactly, constituted a better life? The adoptive parents in these cases seemed to believe that they — that America — were entitled to these children. Anna Mae He’s foster mother, Louise Baker, said, “If [Anna’s mother] truly loved her daughter, she would leave her with us.”

I realized that I wanted to decenter the narrative of transracial adoption and write from the point of view of the adoptee, rather than the adoptive parents. In order to do this, I had to write about Polly’s son, Deming. After Polly disappears, Deming is adopted by a white couple who move him to a small town upstate and change his name to Daniel Wilkinson.

I knew I was on the right track when Deming’s chapters spilled out with joy and exuberance. I made him a musician based on how music provided me with an identity when he was growing up, and as he struggles with the loss of his mother and the pressures placed upon him by his adoptive parents, music provides a solace, a new language. I decided to intersperse his story with Polly’s story of why she left China, her early years in New York, and what happens after her separation from him. At 21, ten years after his mother’s disappearance, he moves back to New York City and starts looking for Polly. It’s his search for his mother that is the heart of The Leavers.

After being profiled in the Times, Xiu Ping Jiang was released from prison and later received asylum. She was lucky. Nearly a quarter of the 316,000 immigrants deported from the US in 2014 were parents of children who were US citizens, and there are currently more than 15,000 children in foster care whose parents have been deported, or are being imprisoned indefinitely. The Leavers is my effort to go beyond the news articles, using real-life details as a template from which to build from, not adhere to. It’s what I call the story behind the story, and it’s really the story of one mother and her son, what brings them together and takes them apart.

It’s July

woman with head down on table surrounded by piles of paper

Local Woman Defeated by Manuscript

This was me, less than two months ago, three days before my manuscript was due back to the publisher. What’s happened since then?

  • Got the copyedits back a month later and spent an intense week going through them, responding to questions from the editor, and generally reveling in having such a close, obsessive read on my chapters. Then I turned it all in!
  • Wrote my acknowledgements page, which was challenging and fun at the same time. There are so many people who’ve helped me out over the years and I am full of gratitude. And I’m sure I’ve forgotten others.
  • Blurbs: solicited!
  • Accidentally killed this website when I transferred servers and forgot to back up all my content. Note to self: Never again.
  • Resurrected the whole damn thing.
  • Slept poorly, drank too much coffee, downgraded to tea, cut out caffeine for one woozy week, upgraded back to coffee, slept poorly, back to tea, all is well.
  • Planted a garden, wrote an essay, did an interview, read Drunken Boat submissions, threw a party, spent a long weekend in the country gaping at nature and silence and crickets and waterfalls, finally started reading novels again (thank god)
  • Hatching plans

Six Weeks

It’s hard to believe it’s only been six weeks since I found out the novel I feared would never be published was going to be published. In many ways, life is the same as before — scrambling to find time to write in addition to working my full-time day job, a messy apartment, chronic neck pain, too many unanswered emails, insomnia, laundry avoidance, running around the city carrying a giant backpack stuffed with my laptop and workout clothes and orphaned socks and various Tupperware — but in other ways, it’s changed completely.

For one thing, I’m now trying to find time to edit the manuscript for real, with my editor’s edits, in addition to working my full-time day job. And while trying, valiantly, to maintain my hard-won victory over coffee.

So it was great to take a break and attend the PEN Awards ceremony this past Monday night.

a woman in a black dress standing and speaking into a microphone at a podium with a sign that reads PEN America

8 women and 1 man standing and smiling in a room

The best part was getting to share the excitement and joy with my friends and partner and even my parents! Writing can be such a solitary process, but it’s good to remember the many ways it isn’t.

Here I am at the after party with the manuscript itself, which I’d been carrying around (in giant backpack) after meeting my editor earlier that day, and which I’m sitting down to work on right now. In another six weeks, it will be done and delivered to the publisher. Now that’s hard to believe.

a woman in a black dress and beige jacket looking down at a stack of paper on a table while holding a brown folder

Best-Laid Plans, or How It All Went Down in a Month

piles of paper with printed text and post-it notes laid out in three rows on a gray carpetediting chapters, December 2015

I’m a planner, a chronic list-maker. I use a paper planner, a digital calendar, and make weekly/monthly to-do lists on my laptop and daily lists on post-it notes that I stick on top of my paper planner. (I love the satisfaction of crossing things off.)

When it came to the novel I’d been working on since 2009, you better believe I was planning. In fact, I’d had to let go of a lot of planning in order to get to the final draft. Early, wildly optimistic, and possibly delusional plans were to finish it in two years, then three, then maybe five. Around the four-year mark I stopped labeling folders and Word documents with names like “novel-final.doc” and “novel-finalFINAL.doc” and “novel-FORFUCKSSAKEFINAL.doc.” I just put in all a desktop folder and called it “X.”

I let go of a lot of expectations, and thought I had a pretty good idea of how this next year would pan out. After a year of hardcore edits, I was planning on sending the manuscript out to my trusted readers in the spring of 2016. I was planning on spending this summer editing and polishing. I was planning, hopefully, by the fall, to start the process of finding an agent and eventually, a publisher.

On February 29, I accidentally left my cell phone in an AirBNB in the Bahamas, flew back to NYC, and eight hours later, checked my email to find a message from Barbara Kingsolver’s assistant saying they’d been trying to call me all morning, and to please call her office immediately. It was about the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, which I’d submitted a draft of my novel for on a whim back in October and figured I had no chance of winning. I called, using my boyfriend’s phone, and Barbara told me congratulations, the decision was unanimous, they loved my novel. I won the award, and with it, a book contract. What? Whoa.

I was too jet-lagged to feel much for the rest of the day except a dazed shock, but that night I woke up at 5 am and was like, Wait. Holy fucking shit. I mean, I’m 40 years old, I’d been working on this book for nearly seven years, thinking about gradually moving from the writing and editing phase to the business phase in the next year or two. I hadn’t expected it to happen so fast. All of sudden, it was time to build a new website, find an agent, take an author photo, start editing for publication, not to mention get my phone back – as soon as possible. It was time to stop dreaming about the book someday being out in the world, someday being read by others, and planning for the reality of being it out in the world – by next year. I’ll be writing about the journey as it happens.