The Leavers by Lisa Ko is an #OwnVoices Chinese fiction literature narrative that is in its entirety an inquisition of how abandonment, no matter its form, plays a humongous part in the cultural identity crisis for Chinese-American boy, Deming Guo. This is only further inflamed by his white adoptive parents, when they move him into the suburbs and force him to assimilate into white culture laced with racist white privilege. It is an exceptionally important book that takes us through a very raw and intimate journey of diaspora in America today.
While I was reading, I had so many intricate thoughts about what I was feeling and engaging with and how it was evolving my understanding of something that was very close to home for me. I wanted to rush to pen and paper and immediately write down every quote, all of the ways that I could relate to the crises that Deming is undergoing, and how provocatively it touched parts of me that’s been long buried in darkness. All of the times that I’ve been mistaken for something I’m not just because I’m not white or because I have perfect English. Every memory of being poked fun at with offensive mock “Bollywood” dancing or being called “dirty faced” for having brown skin. The days I would cry in my room out of sheer frustration of trying to please everyone while not knowing what would please my own self, or just make everyone stop treating me like I’m some sort of fucking outsider or alien on another planet.
These are just tiny shards of all of the emotions and feelings evoked while reading this book, as a diaspora in a country where “culture” is solely based (i.e.: automatically assumed & stereotyped) on how you look and how good your English is. But the prejudice also came from my own people who made obnoxious assumptions that I wasn’t “Indian enough” because I spoke fantastic English therefore I may not know Hindi or my roots; just another misplaced “whitewashed desi brat.”
But after a few days to process it all, I have to come realise that nothing that I can say to you–even though I’ve said quite a bit–would be proper or appropriate enough to convey the abstruse motifs and descriptions that create this masterful 334-page book. All of those thoughts and feelings that I had are things that can only be conveyed in its truest form by experiencing it–reading it, tasting the words and truly becoming submerged in the cacophony of the messages being told–first hand, and that makes The Leavers an absolutely brilliant literary work of art.
Aside from dealing with being lost and the mind-numbing loneliness that comes with being treated as a pariah, the novel explores what it means to be a mother and all of the pain that’s associated with feeling like a failure in that regard. It talks about learning to grow up and figure your shit out, whether your 21 or 51. But most importantly it illustrates that home is very relative to your individual heart and desires, and more often than not it’s not a place or a building but instead a feeling or a memory, which we all have to leave or outgrow at one point or another.
I only had one misgiving about the novel and that is how intricately technical the musical aspect is. Deming is a musician, a passionate one who uses his music to survive his way through life. I loved that and the imagery it painted in my mind. But I’m not savvy with the technicalities of musical instruments or genres, mainly because I don’t listen to American music much at all, so those portions made me feel a bit unfocused and lost. However, anyone who shares the passion and knowledge of music that Deming has will no-doubt experience a whole new dimension of depth that I more than likely didn’t.
The Leavers is a must-read book, especially for any diaspora or individual who’s been made to feel like a complete stranger or outlander in their own skin with their own tongues, particularly where white privilege and racism is involved. It’s a well-paced, sophisticatedly honest story that’s revealing and vital in society today.
4.25 chords outta 5!