This Tuesday, the Binghamton University Center for Writers hosted its third event of the semester — a reading and Q&A session with National Book Award for Fiction finalist Lisa Ko. Ko is a New York City-based writer of fiction and essays whose 2017 novel “The Leavers” was met with critical and commercial success.
In addition to being a National Book Award Finalist, “The Leavers” was a finalist for the 2018 PEN/Hemingway Award and won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Ko spent Tuesday’s event reading excerpts from her novel, promoting its sequel and talking about the publication process as a debut author.
Ko’s reading was introduced and facilitated by BU English department faculty members Tina Chang, director of creative writing, and Lisa Yun, associate professor of Asian and Asian American studies.
“It’s truly a great honor to be here with these two great writers and extraordinary women,” Yun said. “[The Leavers] is a bestselling novel … [which] is able to bring us into the emotional spaces and contexts of extraordinary immigrant lives.”
Yun then passed the microphone to Ko, who preceded her reading by reflecting on her own connection to the Binghamton creative writing community.
“[Chang] and I have known each other for almost 30 years,” said Ko. “We worked at the Asian-American Writing Workshop together back in the ’90s in [New York state]. It’s been an honor getting to see how our work has continued to impact lives in the decades since.”
Ko then read two lengthy excerpts from her novel, one from the perspective of each of her main characters — the mother and son duo of Peilan and Deming Guo. “The Leavers” follows these two characters’ journeys over decades and across borders, dealing not only with themes of immigration and assimilation but also with the political and social realities of subjects like deportation and adoption in the United States. In the Q&A session that followed her reading, Ko talked at length about the responsibility she feels as a novelist to handle the political and the personal at once.
“I was inspired by stories I was seeing in the news about immigrant families being forcibly separated and deported,” Ko said. “Something about reading these stories was bringing something up for me as the child of immigrants, making me ask myself questions about the hypocrisy of stories of the American dream.”
Ko was also quick to point out that while her novel may have been inspired by real-life events, the characters are all of her own creation. She feels a responsibility as a writer to share stories that matter but is hesitant to co-opt other people’s narratives.
“There are only so many facts you can get from a newspaper article,” Ko said. “But with a novel, there’s much more you need to be asking … the more I built out the character of [Peilan] the more she moved away from the life of this real person.”
Several other questions from the audience were focused more on the realities of researching, writing and eventually publishing a book — all of which Ko was happy to answer while acknowledging that her own story might not have been the most traditional.
“It was a very unusual journey for a debut novelist,” Ko said. “I was trying to submit as many things as I could to residencies and awards and trying to get as many literary rejections [as possible] … I was informed of the PEN/Bellwether [by a friend], which actually guarantees publication of a manuscript. I was completely flabbergasted six months later to find out that I had not only been a finalist for the award but eventually, that I won.”
“The Leavers,” as Ko’s manuscript came to be titled, ended up finally being released by Algonquin Books in 2017 — eight years after she originally got the idea for the novel and started writing. Ko joked to the audience that taking almost a decade to write a novel might be a little depressing to any aspiring authors in the audience, but encouraged them to keep writing. She finished the session by announcing that her second novel would be coming out later this year from Riverhead Books.