Q&A with Novelist Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko’s novel, The Leavers, won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. A vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging, The Leavers is the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he’s loved has been taken away—and how one woman learns to live with the mistakes of her past. Join us on June 13 for an evening with Ko at Talk of the Stacks, a series that we’re honored to present in partnership with Friends of the Hennepin County Library.

Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko

The Minneapolis Foundation: You’ve said that The Leavers was inspired by true stories of undocumented immigrant women whose U.S-born children were taken away from them and adopted by American families. What was it about these stories that grabbed your attention with such force that you realized you needed to write a book?

Lisa: As the daughter of immigrants and as a human being, I was horrified that this was happening. I felt that it said a lot about us as Americans—how we treat certain immigrants and how our prison system is forcibly separating families, as well as who is expected to assimilate in America and how. The stories also brought up questions of belonging, home, family, and identity.

Foundation: What was the hardest part about writing a work of fiction that deals with such complicated highly charged issues as immigration and adoption?

Lisa: I’m not an authority on these issues, but I do hope I’ve written my characters with as much complexity and humanity as I could.

Foundation: What do you hope that readers will take away from The Leavers?

Lisa: Maybe readers will see themselves and their own experiences reflected in my characters—I’d love that. I write fiction to raise questions, and I hope my novel does that as well.

Foundation: One of your writing teachers once said, “In order to write the book you want to write, you have to become the person you need to be in order to write that book.” You’ve said that, for you, that meant learning to value yourself and believe in the importance of your work. What helped you on that path?

Lisa: I realized I was more miserable not writing than writing! You only live once, so if you’re lucky to have found something that you want to do, you should try to do it. And if you’re not going to write the book you want to read, who will?