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.

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.

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.