Lisa Ko

Author of
  • The Leavers
    Algonquin, May 2017

Lisa Ko is the author of The Leavers, a novel which won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and will be published by Algonquin Books in 2017. Her fiction has appeared in Apogee Journal, Narrative, Copper Nickel, Storychord, One Teen Story, Brooklyn Review, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming inBest American Short Stories 2016. A founding co-editor of Hyphen and a fiction editor at Drunken Boat, Lisa has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, the Van Lier Foundation, Hawthornden Castle, the I-Park Foundation, the Anderson Center, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. Born in Queens and raised in Jersey, she lives in Brooklyn.

Books by Lisa

The Leavers

One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a nail salon. But she doesn’t come home. No one can find any trace of her.

With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified – and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. But far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life and the challenges of meeting his adoptive parents’ academic demands with his mother’s disappearance and the memories of the community he had to leave behind.

Told from the perspective of both Daniel – as he grows into a troubled young man – and Polly, Ko’s novel also reveals the unnerving story of Polly’s disappearance, and through her we encounter one of fiction’s most singular mothers. Loving and selfish, determined and frightened, Polly is forced to make one difficult choice after another.

Set in New York and China, THE LEAVERS, is a vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging. It’s the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he knows and loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past.

This powerful debut is the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.

Praise for The Leavers

A rich and sensitive portrait of lives lived across borders, cultures, and languages. . . one of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read this year.

Laila Lalami, author of The Moor’s Account

One of 2017's most anticipated fiction debuts, Lisa Ko's The Leavers tells the story of an 11-year-old boy whose mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to work one morning and never comes home. Adopted by a pair of white academics who transport him to an upstate college town, the boy straddles the fully American future his new parents envision for him and the past that's rapidly receding from view. The winner of last year's PEN/Bellwether Prize, which recognizes fiction that explores issues of social justice, The Leavers feels as relevant as ever as the future of immigrants in America hangs in the balance.

Ko’s debut novel has already won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize created and selected by Barbara Kingsolver. The contest awards a novel “that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships,” and Ko’s book certainly fits that laudable description.

The Millions

An inspiring debut, which focuses on issues of assimilation and the true meaning of home. Ko’s unforgettable narrative voice is a credit to the moving stories of immigration, loss, recovery, and acceptance that feel particularly suited to our times.

This timely novel depicts the heart- and spirit-breaking difficulties faced by illegal immigrants with meticulous specificity.

Kirkus Reviews

There was a time I would have called Lisa Ko’s novel beautifully written, ambitious and moving, and all of that is true, but it’s more than that now: if you want to understand a forgotten and essential part of the world we live in, The Leavers is required reading.

Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth

In focusing on a bewildered young victim, The Leavers follows a convention of the protest novel genre; Ko dramatizes the personal—a family torn apart—in order to draw attention to a structural social problem. And Deming’s utter ignorance of that social problem looks like an inspired way around the sentimentality and thudding moralism that haunt the genre. Deming’s side of the story could easily have been dominated by a heavy-handed sense of despair about the immigration system’s injustices. Instead, in his mind, he’s a child who has lost a parent. Politics aside, Ko implies, that’s all that should matter.

The Atlantic

Courageous, sensitive, and perfectly of this moment: The Leavers is everything I could hope for in a winner of the Bellwether Prize.

Barbara Kingsolver

In The Leavers, Lisa Ko has created one of the most courageous mother character's in recent memory. Polly is brash, brave and heartbreaking and her ferocity is marvelous to behold. The Leavers is about the bonds between parents and children and the many pulls of home. It was a book I did not want to end.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman

[The Leavers] uses the voices of both [a] boy and his birth mother to tell a story that unfolds in graceful, realistic fashion and defies expectations. Though it won last year’s PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, Ko’s book is more far-reaching than that.


Touching upon themes such as identity, determination, addiction, and loyalty, the author clearly shows readers that she is an emerging writer to watch. Ko’s writing is strong, and her characters, whether major or minor, are skillfully developed.

LIBRARY JOURNAL, starred review

Ko’s debut is a sweeping examination of family through the eyes of a single mother, a Chinese immigrant, and her U.S.-born son, whose separation haunts and defines their lives. Ko’s stunning tale of love and loyalty – to family, to country --- is a fresh and moving look at the immigrant experience in America, and is as timely as ever.

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, starred review

What Ko seeks to do with The Leavers is illuminate the consequence of [deportation] facilities, and of the deportation machine as a whole, on individual lives. Ko’s book arrives at a time when it is most needed; its success will be measured in its ability to move its readership along the continuum between complacency and advocacy.

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