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.

Wow.

Imposter Syndrome

frontcover

The Best American Short Stories 2016 came out last week. One of those best American short stories is mine.

When I first got out of college, I used to buy the annual BASS anthology every fall. I’d read every story closely, as if they contained the secret to greatness, and if I learned that secret, I could be a great writer, too. I took notes. I marked those books up. After I read each story, I’d immediately read the author’s bio and the accompanying short essay in the back, about the story’s inspiration and process. Some stories took years to write. Years? I’d think. I don’t have years to spend on a story!

Fast forward two decades. My story in BASS, like my novel, ended up taking years to write. Years, years, years, years, years, years. Although I wrote the first draft of the story in less than a week in 2010, I revised it, on and off, for four years after that. What I didn’t mention in my short essay was that the story had been rejected more than 25 times before it was finally published in the literary journal which made it eligible for consideration in BASS. I didn’t mention that I was that close to throwing the story out forever. Or how I had workshopped it in my MFA program and my professor said it was all wrong, and the story should be written completely over, told from the point of view of a character who was not even in there. I didn’t agree. Yet every time I revised and resubmitted, I’d always remember his words and I would doubt myself. Huge, enormous gobs of doubt.

How can you trust your own mind? that doubt said. What makes you think you know what you’re doing?

*

I’ve reached a point in my life that I never actually believed would happen. I’m 40 years old. I’m a bonafide adult grown-up. I have a story in the same anthology I once considered a template on how to write. I never thought that I would have this writing career, this surprise success, my community and my relationships. For so long, having any one those things seemed impossible.

But despite this—or because of this—there’s a part of me that is still afraid.

That I have no right to be writing or publishing.

That I am a fraud.

That I won’t be able to write and finish and publish another novel—not only was this my lucky break, it was my only break.

That people will realize I don’t belong here: in this anthology, on those bookshelves.

These voices are so old, telling me I’m not enough. I know their origins and their reasons and why they linger. I even know what to do with them and how to fight them, or listen to them.

In a way, rejection is easy for me—25 rejections for one story? Why not 26?—because I’ve been so accustomed to it. But what about acceptance?

*

My copy of Best American Short Stories arrived at my artist’s residency in New Mexico yesterday, more than a week after the book’s publication date, forwarded from my apartment in New York.

I tore the envelope open and the first thing I felt was trepidation. Fear of embarrassment. (What if the story sucks? Maybe I had forgotten.)

There was my name on the back cover as one of the contributors.

backcover

Yet I couldn’t bring myself to open the book. Instead I put it down, put on my shoes, and went out for a walk. (You wouldn’t believe how gorgeous the skies are here in New Mexico, and the mountains…)

I came back, made a cup of tea, washed the dishes, checked my email, sent out a text, wiped down the kitchen counters. I sat down again.

story

I opened the book. And I saw my name there—in the table of contents, my short essay, my story. My name, my story. I closed my eyes and opened them again, and there it was. Still there. Really there. Then, I started to read.

A Tale of Two Desks

Two weeks ago, I left the cubicle I’d been working in for the past three years.

a cubicle with a monitor

Now I’m in Taos, New Mexico for a three-month residency at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation.

I have a little house, a casita. The floors are heated, though when I’m inside I’m usually wearing socks, and my writing uniform: a sweatshirt, leggings, and depending on the temperature and time of day, a Snuggie.

Things are different here. Crickets chirp loudly, even in the daytime. I hike to hot springs and pick sage and lavender and wildflowers. The light is blinding, the skies (and cars) enormous, and the temperature drops about 40 degrees every night. There are no streetlights, no sidewalks. There are two colors of flowers: purple and yellow. Prairie dogs dart in and out of holes in the ground.

I don’t miss New York at all, though all the books I read have New York in them.

a dirt road with a blue sky and mountains in the background

Mountains are everywhere. Riding my bike down a dirt road, I shout out loud at the view in front of me: “What the fuck is this. Get the fuck out of here. Seriously, fuck me.

I’ve waited over a year to get here, for these three months. I put everything on hold, my apartment, my work, my life. I try not to think if I’ve made a terrible mistake.

I fall for silence. Life is good when you don’t have to ride the L train.

desk with purple cloth on it, a cup full of flowers, facing a window and trees

I’m plotting out my next novel, slowly.

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.

Oh, Canada

a little girl in a red jacket on a metal jungle gym in a park

Every April we went to Canada, peeling north like lost birds. Suburban Toronto, nine hours away. My mother peeled oranges as my father steered our Chevy Caprice wood wagon along the bumpy New York Thruway. I got carsick and tried not to puke.

Every spring I counted down the days before Canada, where the speed limit wasn’t 55, but 80. Milk came in a bag. Words like center and kilometer were spelled centre and kilometre but pronounced exactly the same. Things were, inexplicably, in French. In my grandparents’ kitchen I’d read the undersides of Kleenex boxes and the backsides of cereal, decoding the French translations for nostril and riboflavin. There were no other kids to play with but it was a relief not to have to play with other kids, not to hear the older kids playing on my block and not be invited to join. This was before my cousins were born, when I was still Poh Poh and Kong Kong’s only grandchild.

They’d ended up there because of my mom, by accident. She had gone to New York first, her parents and younger siblings still back in Manila. She lived in Queens for a few years and worked in Chinatown and overstayed her student visa until someone ratted her out to INS. A Canadian visa came through at the right moment so she went north, then sponsored the rest of her family. At a party she reconnected with a friend of my father’s — they’d been friends in NYC — and a year later she was married and back in the States, the rest of her family on their way to Canadian citizenship.

In Toronto, Mom went out to to the hair salon, where she and my aunties got matching perms, then stocked up on groceries with Poh Poh at the Chinese supermarket. I hung with Kong Kong. We’d walk to the little video store in the Loblaw’s strip mall, afternoons lost in the delirious Betamax glow of Superman II and Time Bandits.

I balanced on top of the chocolate brown couch, its upholstery as slippery and thick as a bear pelt, and pretended I was sliding down Niagara Falls, as Kong Kong snoozed in his beige La-Z-Boy, seat cranked back, footrest up. After lunch he taught me how to play rounds of Solitaire with glossy TWA playing cards, their edges worn down smooth, sanded by years of shuffling.

“Make a wish before you start each game,” he said, “and if you win, the wish will come true.”

I cut the deck and wish for my imaginary friends to come to life (my alter ego was named Christa Mackintosh,) but only so I could sit and watch them like they were in a movie. I wished for turquoise roller skates with Velcro fasteners and fat white tongues, for my own personal dragon. I wished that I could move to Canada and never have to go to school in New Jersey again.

“You need to make the right decisions for your future,” Kong Kong said. “It’s very important. Life is short, and you only have one life, so remember your future. How old are you? Seven? Nine?”

“Eight,” I said.

“You’re young right now, but you won’t be young for so long.”

A windy day in early April. I had tolerated Maypo oatmeal every morning for an entire winter in order to collect enough labels to send away for a free kite, a red plastic triangle the shade of the oatmeal logo with a frame as sturdy as drinking straws and an undersized plastic spool with yellow thread.

Kong Kong and I stood in a small slope on the other side of the cul-de-sac’s park, beyond the jungle gym and gum-dotted benches. He wore his gray Members Only knockoff and a teamless baseball cap with a generic white front, unrolled the string and placed the spool in my hands. When he went to work two afternoons a week, translating Cantonese into English and English back into Cantonese at the local courthouse, driving his powder blue Chevy Nova with a fishball compass mounted on the dashboard, he wore a baggy charcoal suit with pinstripes, the fabric pouching around his ankles. On his shiny scalp, over the sparse white hairs wafting above his ears in bristly fringe, would sit a matching gray felt hat with a miniature red feather.

“Toss the kite. Use force.” His voice was deep, froggy. A voice of hugs, electric blankets, forgiveness. Nothing would ever be more comforting.

His Canto-laced English lilted up at the end, as if each word punctuated with an individual exclamation point. The dots on the exclamation points were chubby hearts. Girls at school sometimes wrote this way, dotting their I’s and exclamations with bubbles, but it was only when Kong Kong spoke that I could feel hearts softly pulsing, dotting themselves in the air.

I hurled the plastic triangle towards the clouds, but the wind took it down quickly and the kite tumbled to the grass.

Kong Kong retrieved it, gently straightened its dented nose. I tossed the kite again, throwing it so hard my shoulders and arms pitched forward, and as I stumbled as the kite kicked up into the breeze, soaring, and hopeful.

I tugged on the spool, the string quivering as the kite batted against the wind. The yellow thread was so inconsequential. Could I really sew the sky?

Then I leaned back. The string snapped and the kite tumbled behind the trees, what seemed like miles — kilometres? — away.

*

The clock in Poh Poh and Kong Kong’s bedroom emitted a papery breath, the numbers flipping from one to the next. I paused in the doorway, watching time. Nine was my enemy, the most evil and threatening of numbers. At 3:58 I dared myself to stand by the clock, trembling, then ran screaming out of the room as the flip began to make its horrifying turn to 3:59.

The clock downstairs in the living room gave a stern, autocratic crunch with each passing minute, but had Roman numerals so I could ignore the looming Nine.

Ceramic sculptures of bald men and peaches. Eight-track tapes of the Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love” and Neil Diamond’s “Turn on Your Heartlight” and Olivia Newton John’s “Have You Ever Been Mellow?” An oversized wall tapestry depicting three roly-poly kittens romping in a basket of colorful yarn. Kong Kong had a not-so-secret addiction to the Home Shopping Network, his desk drawers full of plastic cases from the Franklin Mint and gift boxes of semi-precious stone earrings, just in case there was an emergency birthday.

(Six years later, several weeks before he died, Kong Kong would send me a cubic zirconia pendant necklace, redolent with plastic, from this Home Shopping Network stash, and I would wear it to a school dance with a boy whose name I forgot.)

In Toronto I made frequent pilgrimages to the basement, packed with folding tables with missing legs and broken clocks awaiting new batteries. I took greedy gulps of air, inhaling the odors of must and mold, the tiles cool and damp beneath my flip-flops. Breathing and breathing until I was stoned on hits of staleness. Cellar smell; succulent.

Outside the houses were all the same: brown brick inverted rectangles, skinny, narrow, and tall. Garage tucked beneath the kitchen, tall steps upwards to the front door. Kitchen and bathroom and living room and two small bedrooms upstairs and a basement in the back. One after another, soothing in their sameness.

The stairs were coated in thick corrugated plastic sheeting over mustard shag carpet. Busted folding chairs outside on a tiny concrete porch.

This house, which I haven’t seen in nearly 30 years, still pops up in my dreams.

Inside were glass bottles of Coca-Cola and envelopes of After Eight mints, the refrigerator endlessly stocked with leftovers. It smelled of Listerine (Original Flavor), Vitalis, and enormous Chinese mushrooms stewing away in a sweaty crockpot. The transistor radio on the kitchen counter, its volume knob sticky with caked cooking grease, heavy rotary phones, Poh Poh’s jet-black hair dye and Kong Kong’s false teeth, tins of Wellman’s Peroxide of lurid pink paste. Inside the fish tank on the kitchen counter was one lone black fish among the orange goldfish, one of its bug eyes missing.

I’d stare at this fish’s lopsided paddle, fascinated by how the skin had healed over the former eye site. “It got into a fight with another fish,” Kong Kong said, “and the other fish bit the eye off.” He made a snapping motion with his fingers, folding his hand in half like a closed jaw.

We ate fish eyes at Chinese restaurants, gelatinous marble pupils of steamed bass and trout. The eye, offered up on a serving spoon, was slippery and hot as it slithered down your throat.

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

On Having Space

a window with 2 plants overlooking several high rise buildings

I’ve had the great fortune of having a chunk of prime Manhattan all to myself for the past nine months, thanks to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace residency program. A studio with a door and two giant windows overlooking some of the world’s priciest real estate. The fact that it would only be available to me for nine months lit a fire under my ass from the first day, got me there on weekend afternoons and occasional evenings and early mornings, on rare days off from work. Why waste time when there was a studio waiting, and in that studio, there was writing and editing to be done?

Before this residency I wrote at home, in a room crammed with my desk and books and my boyfriend’s desk and his “closet” (our typical NYC apartment has no real closet; my “closet” is in our bedroom), or in cafés. Sometimes I wrote on my bed or couch, though that usually resulted in a sore neck and shoulder. But in my studio, I had a proper chair; I could stay as long as I wanted, sometimes past midnight. There were no café patrons making Skype calls or coffees I had to buy.

For the past nine months, I’ve been able to live out an unexpected life on Wall Street. I’d sit here on the nineteenth floor and look out the window at the sixty-floor buildings dressed up in construction scaffolding, the Federal Reserve and its employee gym, and imagine what it would be like to live here. A far cry from the view from my desk at home, in my second-floor apartment, of Mister Softee trucks and drunk hipsters, busses and loud music everywhere, the guys working at the 24-hour gas station across the street.

As a kid, I got through many long days by imagining myself elsewhere, as someone else – living in a Toronto suburb, a Florida motel, a Queens apartment. What would my name be, who would I live with, what would I do? These days, my fantasies of new spaces feel a bit more loaded, perhaps because they are theoretically possible. I could pack up and leave the city and move to a small town upstate (I won’t). I could go back to California (probably not). And then there are the fantasies that are local, yet impossible. Real estate fantasies. Living in a high-rise in Manhattan, in a neighborhood far richer than I am.

But my time here is up, and the nine months will soon be over. I’ll adapt, or re-adapt. Find a new work space, and with that, a new neighborhood to dream of. For now, I’ll be writing from my couch or desk, return to my local café, keeping it on the ground

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.