I always enjoy the little surprises that books can provide. Recently, I finished a fantastic book while on vacation. It followed a young man haunted by the disappearance of his mother, grappling with adulthood, identity, and a tumultuous, changing world. It was the kind of book that stays with you, suppressing any desire to begin something new. I needed a book for the rest of my trip but had no idea what I wanted. Luckily I was visiting two friends with strong opinions and great taste. They clued me in to another incredible novel, this one about a young man haunted by the disappearance of his mother, grappling with adulthood, identity, and….you guessed it, a tumultuous, changing world.
Despite this coincidence, these books both feature rich, nuanced characters in very different circumstances. It was a pleasure to stumble into their lives one-after-the-other, and to have the opportunity to discover the links between them as their stories unfolded.
In Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Deming Guo is introduced as a boy living with his mother and her boyfriend in the Bronx. Deming’s life is far from perfect- his family has little money, he struggles in school, and he argues with his mother. But they love each other fiercely and seem to have an unbreakable bond. This makes it all the harder when Deming’s mother suddenly disappears without explanation, leaving him shattered and alone. Eventually Deming is put in foster care then adopted by a well-meaning but aloof white couple who take him to live upstate and, hoping to help him fit in, change his name to Daniel.
The narrative follows Deming both as a child, coming to terms with his mother’s disappearance and his strange new life, and as Daniel, a recent college dropout desperate to make a name for himself among the ultra-cool of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. As Daniel’s life begins to unravel, the narrative also expands to include the story of his mother, how she came to America, and the real reason she disappeared from Daniel’s life.
The Leavers is a painful but redemptive story of family, immigration, assimilation, and identity. Ko methodically reveals Daniel’s and his mother’s stories, bringing careful attention to their struggles, their triumphs, and their flaws. Daniel repeatedly finds himself on the outside looking in. In upstate New York he feels too Chinese; among New York City’s hipsters, he feels like an impostor from upstate. When he finally visits China, he feels conspicuously and inescapably American. Ko’s narrative may be at its strongest when Daniel is puzzling through his questions about identity, but through Daniel’s birth mother’s story, Ko also deftly brings attention to the cruelty and inhumanity of America’s militarized immigration enforcement system.
On its face, Guapa, by Saleem Haddad, is a very different kind of story. Guapa follows a young man named Rasa who lives in an unnamed Arab country during and after the Arab Spring. Like Daniel, Rasa struggles to escape his memories of his mother, who disappeared when he was a child. Rasa is also facing a crisis point. His grandmother just discovered him in bed with his boyfriend, who is also about to get married. To a woman. Rasa struggles to salvage this romance while keeping his identity under wraps in a society where knowledge of his sexuality is a legitimate danger to his life.
As Rasa struggles through a truly terrible day, his story shifts through time revealing details of his childhood and the circumstances that led his mother to abandon him, his years as a college student in New York where he struggled to explore his sexuality and not be pigeonholed because of his ethnicity, and his traumatic days protesting during a period of revolutionary unrest in his homeland. Haddad also explores generational conflict in the Arab world. Rasa is one of many young people determined to change their country, but frustrated at every turn by a mix of oppression, extremism, and bureaucracy. On a personal level, Rasa struggles to understand his grandmother’s adherence to traditional values, particularly the idea of shame.
As Rasa’s day lurches towards decisive confrontations with the two largest figures in his life, his grandmother and his boyfriend, he contends with his own past, his country’s future, and the nagging fear that he may not have a place in the world around him. Rasa is a compelling character who seems caught in impossible circumstances, with the oppressive constraints of identity, expectations, and cultural norms bearing down on him with heart-wrenching weight.
I wish that Rasa’s New York could bleed into Daniel’s and the two could meet. While they come from very different circumstances, and want different things from their lives, they are both linked by the vacuum left behind when their mothers disappeared. Daniel might understand Rasa’s despair as he navigates his queerness and Arabness in a hostile homeland. And Rasa might understand the way that Daniel feels stretched as he tries to shed his Chinese heritage to please his adoptive parents while remaining desperate to reconnect with his mother and her roots. I, for one, felt lucky to discover these two young men and get lost in the murky, tumultuous years of their youths.