Polly, the protagonist of the novel The Leavers by Lisa Ko, is a character unlike the majority seen (or read) in modern mainstream literature. She is an immigrant woman who is ambitious, who has sexual desires, who trudges through the monotony of daily life in the working-class, who sacrifices for her child, who also makes incredibly selfish decisions for herself, who lies and deceives and loves and who is a full, complete person. That last bit is honestly the key to it all. Polly is complete; She is not a synecdoche, but a whole. Characters, even central characters, of modern novels have become increasingly flat, particularly when the novel has a “message,” or an agenda, as this one ostensibly does. To see a character, a woman and mother nonetheless, who is allowed to be flawed and yet whole is exhilarating as a reader.
The Leavers centers on the story of Polly, who grew up in China and went to work in a one of China’s villainized factories prior to emigrating to the United States—pregnant. The story is equally that of Deming, Polly’s son whose life is upended when Polly goes to work one day, as a manicurist in New York, and never returns. Though The Leavers spends more time with the point of view of Deming, who was adopted by a white couple from upstate New York and renamed Daniel, I still view Polly as the protagonist. Her actions drive the entire novel, from her pregnancy to her move to America, to her new life after leaving America and her child.
Daniel, née Deming, grows in ways that are unsurprising for a tree that has been uprooted and placed abruptly in foreign soil. He has the will to survive and the desire to flourish, but the soil will always be foreign and it doesn’t have the particular nutrients necessary to nurture the particular type of tree the Deming turns out to be, even after renaming. There were so many dialogue points in this novel that were painful to read as a person of color who recognizes both the ignorance and yet the reality lurking in these literary conversations. At one point, the white couple that has adopted Deming vocalizes that “love is all that matters” when it comes to raising a child who has previously been ingrained in his own Chinese-American family. This colorblind approach to parenting is a readily apparent folly to those, like myself, who had the benefit of developing in a family and community that nurtured and cherished the history and culture of my own minority group. But maybe white readers will miss how even the subtle and well-intentioned erasures of Deming’s identity lead to his later feelings of rootlessness and the consequences of those feelings. One thing that I found striking was that even though Deming was adopted by highly educated (college professor) and obviously liberal white parents, they failed not only to connect him with any aspect of his own culture and community, but also with therapy or counseling to address the abrupt and traumatic departure of his mother from his life. Then again, Ko is really saying a thing here, because knowing what I know about the capacity of white liberals to fail to catch some critical elements of POC experiences and issues, this should not surprise mt all.
The plot of this novel is particularly relevant today, when talks of border walls reflect the current (and historical) sentiments in our society towards immigrants. Certain ones, anyway. But the novel is not just relevant for its topic. The breadth of the novel is what really makes it a must read. Ko develops her characters even moreso than she develops the plot, which allows the reader to understand that those blanketly termed “aliens” truly are dynamic people with hopes and failings and successes and love and identities, even when written onto a page. Ko grapples with some of the themes that emerged in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, but here, we get to truly see the mother for the human that she is in an up close and personal way. If nothing else, Ko’s novel enriches the soil in order to allow future authors and characters with these sorts of stories to tell to flourish. But, primarily, The Leavers plants seeds that may populate our national dialogue with discussions of humans rather than aliens.