Why I Wrote The Leavers

I started writing my novel The Leavers back in 2009, seven very long years ago. It began with an article I read in the New York Times about an undocumented immigrant from Fuzhou, China named Xiu Ping Jiang. She had been picked up by immigration police while riding a bus, and had been held in an immigration detention jail for over a year, often in solitary confinement. The thing that struck me the most was the fact that she had tried to bring her eight-year-old son into the US from Canada, and he’d been caught by officials and adopted by a Canadian family.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman. What had happened to her, and what had happened to her son? I started to dig further, and I learned about so many other immigrant women whose US born children were being taken away from them — American courts were terminating their parental rights and granting custody of the kids to be adopted by American couples. Meanwhile, the women were being deported or imprisoned in one of the many underground immigration detention prisons around the country. Outsourced to private prison corporations and functioning, in many ways, as above the law, these prisons jailed hundreds of thousands of people, including children, but no one I spoke to seemed to even know about them.

Soon I had a folder stuffed with newspaper clippings about immigrant women and their children. As a child of immigrants, I was fascinated by how these women were represented in mainstream media, as tragic victims or evil invaders. There was Cirila Baltazar Cruz, a Mexican immigrant discharged from a Mississippi hospital after giving birth, but without her baby. The baby had been declared neglected because Cruz had failed to learn English, and a court gave custody to an American couple. There was Encarción Bail Romero, whose rights to her child were terminated when she was jailed following an immigration raid on a Missouri poultry plant. Her son was adopted by an American couple, Romero deported to Guatemala. There were Jack and Casey He, Chinese immigrants who’d signed papers for temporary foster care for their baby daughter Anna Mae after Jack lost his job. But Anna’s foster parents, the Bakers, refused to give her back and wanted to adopt her. A Tennessee judge terminated the Hes’ parental rights, the Bakers’ lawyer arguing that the Hes were unfit parents, and Anna would have a better life in the US: “What kind of quality of life is the child going to have in China?” But no one asked what kind of life the child would have in the US, separated from her family.

Here’s something about me (if you haven’t already guessed): I’m partial to obsessiveness, and obsessiveness, if the timing is right, can be a goldmine for writers. So I decided to work out my obsessions about these news stories in fiction. I started writing about a woman named Polly. She lives in the Bronx with her 11-year-old son, Deming, and one day she goes to her job at a nail salon and never comes home. Her voice, her hustle, her journey — from a small fishing village to the booming city of Fuzhou to paying $50,000 to be smuggled into the US in a box — came to me in a flash.

Yet I kept returning to the children in the news clippings, the ones separated from their mothers and adopted by Americans. Why did these mothers have to be deported while the children had to stay behind? Why were wealthy white American parents deemed “fit” while immigrant parents who wanted to raise their own children deemed “unfit”? And what, exactly, constituted a better life? The adoptive parents in these cases seemed to believe that they — that America — were entitled to these children. Anna Mae He’s foster mother, Louise Baker, said, “If [Anna’s mother] truly loved her daughter, she would leave her with us.”

I realized that I wanted to decenter the narrative of transracial adoption and write from the point of view of the adoptee, rather than the adoptive parents. In order to do this, I had to write about Polly’s son, Deming. After Polly disappears, Deming is adopted by a white couple who move him to a small town upstate and change his name to Daniel Wilkinson.

I knew I was on the right track when Deming’s chapters spilled out with joy and exuberance. I made him a musician based on how music provided me with an identity when he was growing up, and as he struggles with the loss of his mother and the pressures placed upon him by his adoptive parents, music provides a solace, a new language. I decided to intersperse his story with Polly’s story of why she left China, her early years in New York, and what happens after her separation from him. At 21, ten years after his mother’s disappearance, he moves back to New York City and starts looking for Polly. It’s his search for his mother that is the heart of The Leavers.

After being profiled in the Times, Xiu Ping Jiang was released from prison and later received asylum. She was lucky. Nearly a quarter of the 316,000 immigrants deported from the US in 2014 were parents of children who were US citizens, and there are currently more than 15,000 children in foster care whose parents have been deported, or are being imprisoned indefinitely. The Leavers is my effort to go beyond the news articles, using real-life details as a template from which to build from, not adhere to. It’s what I call the story behind the story, and it’s really the story of one mother and her son, what brings them together and takes them apart.