In successful debut novel, author Lisa Ko contemplates home, belonging and assimilation


Growing up as the only child of Chinese immigrants, Lisa Ko used her imagination to populate the world around her, writing stories to combat loneliness.

"I was creating and making up stories from a very young age," said Ko, who noted that she wrote her first book, whose main character's name was taken from magenta, her favor color of crayon, when she was 5.

While her path to becoming a published author took many twists and turns, Ko achieved a long-standing goal when her first novel, "The Leavers," was published in 2017 by Algonquin Books.

Ko was the featured author at the Jan. 10 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, which met at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar Resort.

In an interview, Ko said her childhood was spent in a small, conservative, mostly white town in New Jersey, where her family was in the minority, and she felt isolated. Reading allowed her to expand her horizons and roam around the world, and her writing grew out of that.

Among her earliest inspirations, she wrote in a bio on her website, was listening to her parents tell stories about friends and relatives, such as an uncle with a gambling problem, and a cousin who had a bad marriage, followed by a tragic death.

After college, she worked for book publishers, internet publishing companies and as a high school and college writing and literature instructor. She moved from New York to San Francisco for five years, where she worked for a film production company and helped start an Asian-American magazine.

Along the way, she was writing and publishing short stories; but her hardworking family members did not encourage her writing impulses.

"I was always aware that being a fiction writer was not a way to pay my bills," she said.

After moving back to New York, she set to work on "The Leavers," a project that took her seven years to complete. It was adapted from a short story she wrote a decade earlier, which in turn was inspired by a news article she read about an undocumented Chinese immigrant who was forcefully separated from her son.

As a child of immigrants herself, Ko said, she could identify with the plight of the mother and son, and she tried to imagine what they would have gone through to reconnect.

"The Leavers" picks up the thread of that news story, and chronicles the lives of a Chinese immigrant who lives in New York with her son, and one day simply fails to return home after working her shift at a nail salon. The boy is later adopted by a couple, both college professors, who take him to live in upstate New York and give him a new, American name.

"The driving questions of the book are things that have interested me," said Ko, such as home, belonging and what it means to assimilate into a culture.

The protagonist in her book, Deming Guo/Daniel Wilkinson, struggles to find his way in the world after getting kicked out of college. He also deals with drinking and gambling problems as he pursues his goal of playing guitar in a successful rock band. Then Daniel receives a cryptic email from Michael, his childhood friend, who said he had information about Daniel's birth mother. Daniel goes back and forth over whether to respond.

"He shut the laptop screen as if it were on fire. If Michael had information about his mother, it wouldn't change the fact that she had left him. Roland (Daniel's friend) was right. There was no need to stir up bad memories," Ko wrote. Later, though, he gets in touch with his old friend, and his life changes.

Ko said seeing her book in print, after working on it for so long, was both "amazing and terrifying."

But mostly, she said, it felt like a "dream come true. It's everything you could ever wish for as a writer."

Ko, who lives in Brooklyn with her partner, said she is in the early stages of writing a second novel, but declined to talk about it. She's still getting used to having her first book out in the public realm.

"In a way you have to say good-bye to the book. It belongs to everybody who reads it," she said.

The Leavers, which has received numerous recognitions and awards, was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction; winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction; and named a best book of the year by NPR, Entertainment Weekly, BuzzFeed, The Los Angeles Times, Oprah Magazine, and Electric Literature, and others.

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