Lisa Ko, author of The Leavers, a National Book Award finalist in 2017, has released a new book called Memory Piece, which follows three unlikely friends from the time they were in sixth grade.

Though the three develop different interests and values, leading them to forge completely different paths, their lives converge during pivotal moments that allow them to continuously influence each other’s personal and professional lives. Ko’s book hints at an ominous future, but at its heart lies a story about enduring friendships and the strength and value old friends bring even though they are not a constant presence in a person’s life.

The book is divided into three parts, each devoted to the narrative of one member of the group.

Giselle Chin is the artist in the group. Her focus is on performance art which helps her escape the limitations she feels imposed by circumstances she has no control over. Jackie Ong is the tech nerd in the group. Interested in the great possibilities of the Internet, she codes for a living. Ellen Ng is the social activist and its moral center. She devotes her life to fighting against housing injustices and starts renovating a rundown house she and her friends had squatted in that they eventually name Sola. 

“Giselle, Jackie, and Ellen face difficult choices in order to be free to do the things they love, coming up against the expectations placed on them in their work and relationships. Like all long-term friendships, theirs evolves over time, but ultimately, it’s also what sustains them,” Ko writes. “Writing the stories of these three women has reminded me that collaboration is not only vital, but an act of creativity and defiance at a time when the world seeks to keep us apart.”

The Lost Notebooks of Giselle Chin

Though Giselle and her brother are somewhat of a disappointment to their parents, Giselle never let her parents’ expectations get in the way of her desire to be an artist and the type of person she was interested in becoming. From a young age, she had been interested in the process of creation rather than the creation itself.

Being an obvious beauty from an early age, Giselle never wanted to be a male artist’s muse and was intent on being in charge and the sole creditor of her work. Feeling responsible for her mother’s well-being and happiness despite her mother’s unsatisfactory marriage, Giselle compensated inadequacies she felt through her performances.

Though she had her core (white) friends in school, they were artificial at best; her sporadic communication with Jackie and Ellen were more sincere. Out of the two, Giselle is closer to Jackie who becomes her accomplice and assistant to her early performance art pieces, in particular Mall Piece, where Giselle squatted in a forgotten empty section of a mall for a year.

Giselle becomes more respected and well-known with Memory Piece, where she continuously wrote down her memories seven hours straight every day until the end of the performance in which she burned everything she wrote. At the height of her popularity, she does her last work, Disappearance Piece, and withdraws from society.

Jackie Ong at the End of the World

Jackie was the cool and indifferent one, interested in computers and technology from an early age thanks to her father. Her immigrant parents managed to do well financially, and as an only child, she had more physical comforts and privileges than her Chinese American peers.

Her father made her a computer when she was 10, and the first program she wrote was on Basic which she named Arlene after her third grade teacher whom she had a crush on.

As an adult, Jackie works for a company named Wonder, an online delivery service that used bike messengers (Wondernauts) to make deliveries in the Lower Manhattan area. Unenthralled by the tech scene, Jackie took the job because she could work on her passion project Lene, which is a script she had created that helps people publish diary or journal entries on the Internet. The CEO had promised there would soon be more money for her to pursue this project full time, so she patiently waits, all while having to withstand not being taken seriously by her male peers. In the meantime, she works on Lene on her off hours at home, preventing her from having much of a social life.

She has lost touch with Giselle but reconnects with Ellen. Ellen often pressures or influences Jackie to do what’s right instead of what is convenient. Jackie also searches for love while faced with a moral decision upon finding out her company may be deceiving its users.

Always Something There to Remind Me

It is 2040, and it is a strange dystopian future reminiscent of Cold War era East Berlin. There are police checkpoints on the borders of each New York City neighborhood, and because of heightened surveillance, some people have taken to wearing masks whenever they go outside. Censoring and cancel culture seem to have reached a pinnacle with schools being limited to what they can teach and people being forbidden to discuss or post about certain events.

Aggressive gentrification is also happening, which makes Ellen and her housemates’ existence in Sola precarious. They have even witnessed some of their neighbors disappearing. Some of them have fled on their own, but others have been forced out with no sign of where they have gone to.

Finding signs of tampering on locks and odd things disappearing around the house, her housemates decide to escape to a friend who lives in the Bronx. Reluctant at first, Ellen decides to join them after several days of living alone when she notices her neighbors have disappeared.

Reunited with her friends, Ellen still feels uneasy and yearns to return to Sola, but her friends like living in the Bronx. Since things were relatively easier there, Ellen fears they will forget what is going on in other neighborhoods and wants to keep fighting while her friends just want to survive at this point in their lives. Ellen struggles with the meaning of her life’s work and whether it had made any difference.

Lisa Ko will be at the Third Place Books in Ravenna on Mar. 22 at 7 p.m. to discuss Memory Piece with author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore.    

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