The Leavers by Lisa Ko: A Journey of Emotional Providence Amid the Intimacies of Diasporic Othering – Book Review

The Leavers by Lisa Ko is Chinese-American fiction literature book that centres on the lifelong consequences and ramifications of abandonment, and how it contributes heavily to cultural identity crises of multicultural children adopted into white families. We follow Deming Guo, a Chinese-American adoptee that lives in the suburbs with his white parents amid forced assimilation into a world of racist white privilege. The journey that ensues is one of great raw emotional providence amid an intimacy of diasporic othering.

The Leavers left me feeling extremely thoughtful with a sub-analysis of an experience that’s quite personal for me. The various crises that Deming undergoes was a shout and scream from the pages of my own childhood and youth. From being made fun for having a strange accent to being labelled as “dirty skinned” for being brown to being mocked with racist Bollywood dance imitations. The sheer frustration of having to cope through these harsh abuses while also trying to formulate a cultural connection to my Indian and Fijian heritages was excruciatingly challenging. Seeing Deming having similar conflicts of his own helped me to form an instant connection to him and that became the driving force of my interest through this book. That and the curiosity of what happened to his biological mother.

The Leavers makes a close observation of what it means to  be a parent, especially a mother, and all of the emotional and psychological turmoil that stems from feeling like a total and complete failure as one. Having to grow up and figure out your own shit while being 21 or 51, and still trying to piece together some semblance of home that’s relative to what we desire versus our reality is poignantly multi-dimensional, especially when there’s another individual that we’re responsible for. Between having to outgrow certain feelings and memories, or specific relationships and ties, it’s never an easy decision and packs quite a hefty load of complications that no outsider can ever begin to truly comprehend.

When we eventually do learn about Deming’s biological mother, the dualities between her life and his are as heart-breakingly different as they are eerily similar. The feelings of inadequacy and being Othered that they undergo works as a great foundation to show how some things are just wired into our blood and DNA, while others are a result of our environment and the forces of nature that surround us.

If there’s any part that I couldn’t jive with, I’d have to say it’s the sections that went into the technicalities of music and musical instruments. Deming is a passionate musician and it’s the only thing that makes sense to him in his life, the thing that helps him keep going forward and a way to deal with stress. While I do play instruments, I don’t know anything beyond that ability. I just pick it up and play, don’t ask me how or the inner-workings because I really don’t know any of that stuff. For me, it’s all intuition and instinct. I loved the various sorts of imagery that his music and references to lyrics and sound painted within my mind, but since I’m not savvy in the genre of American music specifically, it also created a small pocket of disconnect for me personally. Even so, anyone who shares Deming’s love of music on the same level may get a much more rewarding experience with respect to the emotions and thoughts they depict allegorically.

All in all, The Leavers is a must-read book, especially for any diasporic individual who’s been made to feel like a complete stranger or outlander in their own skin with their own tongues, mainly where white privilege, racism, and the uncomfortable pressure to assimilate is involved. It’s a well-paced, sophisticatedly honest story that’s illuminating and essential in our developing diverse societies today. I can’t help but HIGHLY RECOMMEND this to readers of Asian literature, contemporary tales on identity and social commentaries, and fans of character-driven stories.

Publication Date: May 2017
Publisher: Algonquin Books (978-1616206888)
Genre: Chinese-American Literature
Page Count: 352
Content Warnings: Child abandonment. Child abuse. Strong instances of racism and sexism including bullying and gaslighting. Some classism. Some sexual content. Some strong language. Some descriptions of wartime atrocities. Alcohol consumption. Smoking. Prep and consumption of food.
Availability: In-print; Hardback, paperback, eBook, and audiobook formats available.

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