The immigrant novel is a staple of American literature — after all, the American immigrant story is as old as the country itself. Classics like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and “My Ántonia” by Willa Cather helped define whole eras of our history; first- and second-generation authors, including Sandra Cisneros, Amy Tan, Chang-rae Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz have given voice to newer immigrant communities, ensuring their inclusion in the landscape of American letters, and by extension, the cultural map of America.
The face of immigration is less white than it once was; the fate of immigrants far less secure. As the conversation around immigration has changed, fiction writers have gone to work exploring these dilemmas.
These new novels share the anxieties and struggles of the classics — the longing for old country, the search for belonging, the pursuit of the American dream — but it also involves a heightened sense of danger, with the specter of deportation never far from the foreground. (It is worth noting that for the most part, these novels are not written by authors whose immigration status would put them in jeopardy.) In last summer’s “Behold the Dreamers,” novelist Imbolo Mbue showed a Cameroonian family fighting for a foothold in New York, hoping for a better life despite their status. Earlier this year, Shanthi Sekaran’s “Lucky Boy” followed a young woman as she went from rural Mexico to Berkeley to a detention center, where she was trapped while her infant son was sent to live with strangers.
Like “Lucky Boy,” Lisa Ko’s debut novel “The Leavers” — winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize, a biennial prize established by Barbara Kingsolver for fiction that deals with social justice — is about the fragmentation of a family of vulnerable status. Ko tells the heartbreaking story of a Chinese mother and her American-born son, who is adopted by a white couple after she disappears without warning and fails to return for several months. Deming Guo is 11 years old when he becomes Daniel Wilkinson of Ridgeborough, N.Y., a small town upstate where his new parents, Peter and Kay Wilkinson, teach at a liberal arts college. Polly, née Peilan, Guo has lost her parental rights on the grounds of abandonment.
The Wilkinsons are loving and well intentioned, but Deming is understandably conflicted about his new home. After years spent in a tiny Bronx apartment, speaking Fuzhounese with an ad hoc but close-knit family — his mother and her boyfriend Leon, who acts as his father; Leon’s sister Vivian and her son Michael, a younger brother figure with whom he shares a bed — he has a hard time settling into this other life. “Even the name Daniel Wilkinson seemed like an outfit he would put on for an unspecified period of time, until he returned to his real name and home planet. Where that real home was, however, was no longer certain.”
Ten years later, “Daniel Wilkinson was two and a half feet taller, one hundred-fifty pounds heavier than Deming Guo had once been, with better English” and less Chinese. “Ridgeborough had made Daniel an expert at juggling selves; he used to see Deming and think himself into Daniel, a slideshow perpetually alternative between the same two slides.” He’s a young adult with an unsure grasp on his own identity, someone “malleable, everyone and no one, a collector of moods, a careful observer of the right thing to say … If only he had the right clothes, knew the right references, he would finally become the person he was meant to be … Deserving of love, blameless.”
Though he has the support of his adoptive parents and his best friend and band mate, Roland Fuentes, Daniel is in a bad place. His poker addiction has gotten him expelled from college and threatens to ruin one of his most important relationships — his friendship with Angel, the only other Chinese adoptee he knows, who reluctantly lent him the bulk of her savings. Daniel has a love and talent for music, bolstered by chromesthesia — he hears music in rich colors — but his tendency toward self-sabotage leaves him “unable to do anything but pursue this singular impulse toward ruin.”
When Michael tracks him down via email, marking the first reappearance of Deming’s old life in a decade, Daniel is able to find the mother he believes has abandoned him. As they reestablish contact — slowly, guardedly, with the gap of a lost decade between them — he learns the truth about their parting, and where it fits into the story of his mother’s life.
Polly narrates about a third of “The Leavers,” explaining herself, without groveling or excess sentiment, to the son she left behind. “I could’ve become anyone, living anywhere,” she likes to imagine. “But let’s be real, I was forty years old and most of my choices had already been made. Made for me.” Her history is a hard one — she immigrates to New York from rural China penniless and pregnant, then works her way up to a job at an exploitative nail salon. “Nail polish fumes made me dizzy, made my nostrils burn and the skin on my fingers peel off in bright ribbons,” all before her separation from Deming. But Polly is no fool of fortune — she does everything she can to exert control over her own life, even if she has to hurt others in that process.
One of the neat things about fiction is that it allows us to describe and understand the state of the world through human stories that call upon our natural inclination toward empathy. No matter a reader’s thoughts on immigration, few will be stone-cold immune to stories of individual hardship. Ko is part of an active subgenre shining a light on an ugly truth about our country—that it is possible to come to America and be worse off as a result. Without papers, immigrants leaping for the American dream might fall right into a uniquely American nightmare, and these novels show us just what that might look like.
Cha is the author, most recently, of the novel "Dead Soon Enough." She is on Twitter @stephycha.
Algonquin Books: 352 pp., $25.95