Like some in their early 20s, Daniel Wilkinson is unsure where his life should be. Like some immigrants - he is Chinese-American - he struggles to find his identity in America.

Life with his white adoptive parents in New York City has been comfortable, but he is unsettled, wanting to find out why his mother Polly disappeared when he was 11, back when he lived in China and was known as Deming Guo.

"The book is really a mother and son story, but also full of music and humor and a lot of heart," she said.

Lisa Ko's first published novel is a tale of what many adopted immigrants go through today. Her research included a lot of reading and interviewing adopted immigrants.

Inspired by life

"The book is inspired by real-life news stories," Ko said during an interview about "The Leavers," between many other interviews and public talks in her full schedule.

"I read about undocumented immigrant parents forcibly separated from their children by the U.S government, detained or deported. If they wanted to take their kids with them, the U.S. courts gave custody to American couples. It's still going on now.

"It really affected me deeply," she said. "I started writing about this mother and son who do get separated. I realized as I delved into their journey, it was really for the characters to find a way to live on their own terms and build their own families when their [biological] families have been taken away from them."

She did talk to people with lives similar to Daniel's, she said. "I talked to a lot of people, did a lot of reading. I always feel like it is good to have a lot of healthy anxiety when writing about people with experiences different from your own. It's a great responsibility of the writer."

Early start

In telling her own story on her website,, the author is revealing of herself when she writes: "A lonely only child, I wrote the community I craved into existence, filling our house up with fictional families, writing their letters, sketching their pictures, and scribbling their lives. I wrote my first book, 'Magenta Goes to College,' when I was 5 years old, naming the title character after my favorite crayon."

She has since earned praise and awards for her writing. "The Leavers" is the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize and a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. The Bellwether Prize was created to promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.

Her fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016 and numerous other publications. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

It can take time for writers to produce the finished product, she said, because their lives are busy and there are a lot of things going on at the same time they are writing.

"Part of the reason why it takes writers a long time is they work many jobs, take care of family, a lot of reasons why we might not publish sooner than later," she said. "A lot of time, part of the writing process is to figure out what the story is ⦠the best way to tell the story. So much of the process is the editing and revision and writing to find out what you are writing about.

"Even though I knew I wanted to write about this mother and son division, it took me a while to find out when to start the story and figuring out what worked and what didn't."

The message

Fiction has a power over other forms of writing, she said. A writer can go deep into a character and the psychology, which can affect readers and their empathy to the story. "I do hope reading the book puts a personal and human story on harmful policies, that when we read, we might not realize affect people on such a personal level."

She will give the keynote address Feb. 16 at Trustees Theater during the Savannah Book Festival. Immigration, her characters and the process of writing the book will probably be on her agenda, she said. "I'll talk a little bit about the book. Some of the themes and relevance's of the book and the real stories it was based on."


What: Savannah Book Festival keynote address by Lisa Ko

When: 6 p.m. Feb. 16

Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.

Tickets: $20 at