Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, was selected as the Adult Fiction winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature for 2017-2018. This debut novel recounts the saga of Deming Guo, whose mother, a Chinese immigrant, disappears from their life in the Bronx when he is eleven years old. A well-meaning white couple adopts him and changes his name to Daniel Wilkinson.
Motivation to write the book stemmed from the plight of Xiu Ping Jiang, an undocumented immigrant from Fuzhou, China, whose eight-year-old son was adopted by a Canadian family. The Leavers has also won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
An avid reader as a child, Ko recalls how it wasn’t until middle school that she finally found a book with an Asian American protagnonist: Bette Bao Lord’s In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. She states that “I cried at the peculiarity of recognition, yet I was also chilled, like I’d suddenly been implicated, made too visible, and that was dangerous.”
A decade after Lord’s book was published in 1993, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association began presenting awards to honor Asian/Pacific American authors who write about their heritage. This year’s Awards for Literature were announced in February and include both a winner and an honor book in each of five categories.
Winner: The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Deming Guo’s mother disappears when he is eleven years old and the white couple that adopts him rename him Daniel Wilkinson and attempt to make him over into their version of an “all-American boy”.
Honor: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. A collection of eight short stories exploring the Vietnamese American diaspora.
Winner: Asianfail: Narratives of Disenchantment and the Model Minority by Eleanor Ty. Explores the new focus on relationships, personal growth, and cultural success, replacing the preoccupation with professional status and money.
Honor: The Long Afterlife of Nikkei Wartime Incarceration by Karen M. Inouye. Describes the long-term effects of wartime incarceration on the lives of those who were imprisoned and on later generations, as well as the activism that ensued.
Young Adult Literature
Winner: It’s Not Like It’s a Secret by Misa Sugiura. A novel about a 16-year-old Japanese-American girl who suspects that her dad is having an affair, while she has a crush on her best friend.
Honor: Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali. A debut novel in which Janna Yusuf, an Arab Indian-American hijabi teenager who is a book nerd, an aspiring photographer, and graphic novelist who concerned about what a certain boy thinks of her.
Winner: Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh by Uma Krishnaswami. A historical novel set in 1945 Yuba City, CA in which Maria Sing’s desire to play softball is frowned upon by her Mexican Mamá and her Punjabi Papi. Not only is this a time of gender inequality, it is also when Japanese Americans were interned.
Honor: Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan. A humorous novel written as journal entries that focuses on the grandparents of a biracial girl.
Winner: A Different Pond written by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui. A story of a young boy who goes fishing with his father and learns of his father’s past in his homeland of Vietnam.
Honor: The Nian Monster written by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Alina Chau. Xingling uses Chinese New Year traditions to outwit the legendary Nian monster to prevent it from devouring her and the city of Shanghai.