I picked up a copy of this book to read for the book club at my local branch library. I had a hard time getting into it. I didn’t like the premise, for starters -- a selfish mom who seemingly abandons her son? And as I began to turn the pages I liked the characters even less. I didn’t identify with them at all. I didn’t agree with their decisions. And then, at a certain point embarrassingly deep into the novel, I realized I had gotten the story entirely wrong.
Spoiler alert: If you think you might pick up this book, stop here. Read the book first. If you don’t have plans to pick it up, please read on.
Lisa Ko’s The Leavers won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2017. The social issue that Ko presents is one that I would expect from sometime last century perhaps but not from our government today. Let me illustrate: Do you remember being scandalized (as I was) to learn about the Japanese Internment Camps in this country during WWII? The shock of all knowledge softens with time, or perhaps we just learn to cope with it, telling ourselves to read history in the context of its day and to appreciate how far we’ve come as a society.
I have read a surprising number of books in which the mother abandons her children. I have heard some readers defend these mothers, but, for me, it never make sense. In The Language of Flowers, a teenage mom gives up her baby when she feels overwhelmed and without resources. In Homecoming, a mother of four has a mental breakdown from the stresses of single parenting. (Okay, I don’t have experience with single-parenting, but I empathize with the stress of having four children. In the end though, I wanted her to get treatment and get back to her family.)
Now there’s Polly Guo in Lisa Ko’s The Leavers. Polly is a Chinese country girl who becomes pregnant after fleeing to the city to work towards a better life. Realizing she would be locked into a life she doesn’t want if she bears her child, she seeks an abortion -- a procedure she is denied because she isn’t officially a city resident. She flees to America in search of the freedom to pursue a life she wants. When she seeks abortion again in New York City she is told no doctor will abort a fetus seven months along. She goes on to bear a son, totes him to work with her and when he is about a year old, sends him back to China to live with her father until he is old enough to begin school in America.
I did not identify with this woman at all. I judged her for being irresponsible and getting herself pregnant, observed her confess that after she twice tried to abort her child, she once tried to abandon him as a baby, leaving him beneath a park bench for several minutes before changing her mind and running back to retrieve him. Eleven years later when she says she wants to move to Florida, she is met with resistance by her son and her then boyfriend. The next day when she disappears, I assume she finally made the decision to abandon them both.
Ko’s tale jumps between Polly’s perspective and that of her son -- another character who I also struggle to muster up any sympathy for. On the one hand, the reader can sort of understand that being abandoned as a child can really impact your life. On the other hand, the son makes a series of really awful decisions on his own. Still, it’s probably human nature that leads the reader to lean toward blame -- and in this case, it’s pretty easy to blame the absent mother.
The chapters jump around in time as the son eventually finds his mother and continues to seek answers. Enter my embarrassment at not understanding the issues sooner and my disgust at realities brought to my attention.
While reading Ko’s book, I didn’t understand until the end that the mother, Polly, was an illegal immigrant, that the debt she refers to frequently is the one she acquired from being smuggled into New York from China in a box. For some reason, I chose to believe that her entry was above board. But when I found out it wasn’t, I sympathized with her. She had no options in China, no room to grow. I watched her make one impossible decision after another - to bear her son, to send him back to China to live with her father until he was old enough to go to school, to bring him back to New York, to provide for him.
Shame on me for figuring that when she disappears it’s because she abandoned her child and life in New York. Of course, she had been deported. I was outraged when I learned that before being deported she was held in a detention camp for fourteen months where she lived under despicable conditions and was provided no social support or way to contact her family.
Less than a year after Polly disappears, her son is adopted by a white couple in a New York suburb. Ko’s story isn’t told chronologically, and as I tried to piece together who knew what when, I couldn’t understand why an adoption agency wouldn’t try to contact a mother before giving her son away.
Ko’s fictional tale was inspired by a 2009 New York Times article about an illegal immigrant from China named Xiu Ping Jiang who was arrested in Florida and then held in a detention center for over a year before being granted asylum. Xiu Ping Jiang bore two children in China before undergoing forced sterilization for violating the one-child policy. She was smuggled into the US in search of political asylum. Ms. Jiang’s eight-year-old son was adopted in Canada after trying to enter the US. Unfortunately, in her research Ko found other stories like this which influenced her work.
From Lisa Ko’s website:
"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."
The separation of families in attempt to solve the problem of illegal immigration is one that too recently made our stomachs turn over. I had neighbors attending protests and sending money last year when hundreds of kids from migrant families were separated from their parents under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
But I didn’t know that detention centers existed otherwise. In The Leavers, Polly’s detainment at Ardsleyville is based on the actual Willacy County Correctional Center at the edge of Raymondville City, Texas. The conditions were said to be as bad as those portrayed in Ko’s fictional story. I had no idea that on the day my youngest children were born in 2015, the center was destroyed after a riot and fire. I had no idea that as I was learning how to nurse twins, 2,800 inmates were relocated to other facilities.
What do we do with the knowledge that these things are happening around us today?
I do not gravitate towards politics, and I have no understanding of immigration law. For now, I will simply continue Ko’s mission: to bring this issue to light and to help educate. So many people around the world live in darkness, with daily challenges that threaten their lives and livelihoods. I want my country to be a beacon of hope and opportunity where they can thrive. But if they aren’t allowed here, then is there is something we can do to reunite them with their children instead of adopting those children away and assuming we can give them a better life?
Pray with me...for wisdom...and humility.
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