Aspen Words will confer the inaugural $35,000 Aspen Words Literary Prize this year, recognizing a work of fiction with social impact. Twenty nominees are still in the running, and the diverse list includes 12 novels and eight short story collections covering a variety of critical issues and published by an array of presses. While the jury works on narrowing this list down to five finalists and a winner, Aspen Words chatted with the nominees about their work, the importance of fiction in understanding contemporary issues, and the books that have influenced them most.
Lisa Ko’s debut novel The Leavers is told from the perspective of Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, and Deming, the American-born son she leaves behind. The story explores the heart-wrenching choices families must make and the political challenges facing them when they risk everything to start over in America. The Leavers is the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction awarded to a novel that addresses issues of social justice.
Why did you write The Leavers?
I was initially inspired to write The Leavers because I wanted to bring more attention to the forced separation of immigrant families by the US government and the link between our immigration policies and prison system. I was motivated by real-life stories, but the more I got to know my characters, I realized I was actually writing a book about belonging, language, assimilation, music, and the desire to build a sense of home and live on your own terms — themes that have always resonated with me.
What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?
Figuring out what the story was and how to tell it. While I knew the external circumstances of my characters’ lives — the sociopolitical forces that lead to a mother being separated from her son — it wasn’t until I figured out what their internal journeys were that the story became clear.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I’m an only child, as well as an only grandchild on my father’s side; the first in my family to be born in America; the first native English speaker. From a young age, I was aware that my family’s history ended with me. I had a responsibility to document, to remember, and the ability to write your story was a powerful gift.