The Leavers


Lisa Ko

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The Leavers Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Lisa Ko's The Leavers. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko was born in the mid-1970s to parents of Chinese descent who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines. Raised in suburban New Jersey, she frequently went to New York City as a child to buy Chinese groceries with her parents. As one of the only children of color in her school district, she rarely found books featuring Asian-American protagonists, though she read voraciously. When she finally did come across such a novel in middle school, she was profoundly moved. Upon graduating high school, she attended Wesleyan University, where she majored in English and began reading more books by authors of color, all while writing herself. When she finished college, she moved to New York City and worked in publishing before going to California and working in film production. After her thirtieth birthday, she returned to New York and focused on finishing her debut novel, The Leavers, a draft of which won the 2016 PEN/Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The novel was later named a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award.
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Historical Context of The Leavers

For centuries, China has used a household registration system known as “hukou,” in which citizens are given specific kinds of residency based on whether they live in urban or rural areas. Because the system tends to grant urban citizens more benefits than rural citizens, it has become a contentious structure that is rife with inequality. In the context of The Leavers, it’s important to note that someone with rural hukou can’t become a permanent resident in a city, which is why Polly is so excited to live in Fuzhou when she learns that she can move there with a temporary permit if she works in a factory. This demonstrates the extent to which hukou affects peoples’ lives, as does the fact that Polly is unable to get an abortion in Fuzhou because she doesn’t have permanent urban residency. On another note, it’s worth pointing out that The Leavers is an artistic exploration of the ongoing debate surrounding American immigration policy, and Polly’s separation from her son at the hands of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) resembles the separation that many families have experienced after crossing the country’s southern border.

Other Books Related to The Leavers

Because of its implicit critique of harsh immigration policies, The Leavers is similar to Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West, which examines the downsides of strict border control. Furthermore, The Leavers also recalls works of fiction like Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees, both of which explore the immigrant experience and the trials and tribulations of migration. Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star is also set in New York City and follows its teenaged protagonists, both immigrants, as they grapple with their cultural identities.
Key Facts about The Leavers
  • Full Title: The Leavers
  • When Published: May 2, 2017
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Contemporary Fiction
  • Setting: New York City; the (fictional) town of Ridgeborough, New York; and Fuzhou, China.
  • Climax: After Peter and Kay catch Daniel playing online poker, they fight for the whole night, and Daniel decides to leave the country, buying a ticket to Fuzhou and planning to track down his birth mother.
  • Antagonist: People who are biased against others based on skin color, culture, or nationality.
  • Point of View: First and third person

Extra Credit for The Leavers

True Story. Lisa Ko was inspired to write The Leavers after reading about Xiu Ping Jiang, a mentally ill Chinese immigrant who was arrested in 2008 for living in the United States without a visa. Ko even repurposed the transcript of Jiang’s court hearing, recreating the conversation she had with the judge.

Hyphen. In the early 2000s, Ko helped launch Hyphen, a magazine that engages with the Asian-American experience. She was the publication’s first books editor.