Lisa Ko headshot

Lisa Ko

Winner of the PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, author of The Leavers

What does it mean to belong? Lisa Ko’s uncompromising, timely debut novel, The Leavers, is the latest winner of the PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, established by Barbara Kingsolver. Ko’s penetrating and emotionally rich work courageously tackles rarely-talked-about subtleties behind larger issues of immigration and transnational adoption. People Magazine calls it a “dazzling debut….Filled with exquisite, heartrending details, Ko’s exploration of the often-brutal immigration experience in America is a moving tale of family and belonging.”

When eleven-year-old Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, never comes home from work one day, he is left completely on his own. Eventually adopted by two white college professors, he moves from the Bronx to upstate New York, where his name is changed to Daniel Wilkinson and his well-intentioned new parents try to give him an all-American life. But the boy, haunted by his mother’s disappearance and memories of all he has been forced to leave behind, struggles to embrace this new reality. Told from Daniel’s and Polly’s perspectives, the narrative also unravels the mystery of Polly’s disappearance and the choices she was forced to make. Publishers Weekly’s starred review offered this praise: “Ko’s stunning tale of love and loyalty is a fresh and moving look at the immigrant experience in America.”

The Leavers was inspired by recent, real-life stories of undocumented immigrant women whose U.S.-born children were taken away from them and adopted by American families, while the women themselves were jailed or deported,” Ko says in an interview with Barbara Kingsolver. “It was this missionary-type attitude: We need to save these kids from their own culture and families. The kids are assimilable; the mothers are not. . . .With The Leavers, I want to decenter the narrative of transracial adoption away from that of the adoptive parents. We need to hear the voices of adoptees, who are often missing from the conversation or dismissed as being bitter if they’re honest or critical about their experiences.”

Lisa Ko’s fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, Narrative, Copper Nickel, the Asian Pacific American Journal, and elsewhere. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, and Blue Mountain Center, among others. A founding coeditor of Hyphen and a fiction editor at Drunken Boat, she has a BA from Wesleyan University, an MSLIS from San Jose State University, and an MFA from City College of New York. The only child of Chinese immigrants from the Philippines, Ko was born in Queens and lives in Brooklyn.

Speaking Topics

  • The Leavers: The Cultural and Emotional Challenges of Immigration and Assimilation—in Literature and in Life
  • When Literature Gets Political: How The Leavers Brings to Light the Connections between Racism, Classism, and American Immigration Policies
  • On Being Visible: Reading, Representation, and Diversity in Asian American Literature
  • The Story Behind the Story: The Real-life Details of the American Detention and Deportation Industry That Became the Inspiration for an Award-winning Novel


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