Carolynne Dear talks to Shanthi Sekaran, author of Expat Parent’s Book of the Month, Lucky Boy.
What’s the book about?
This is a book about privilege and ambition and parental love, and about the changing parameters of the American dream. It’s also an examination of what America means to different types of immigrants, and how this country treats its different categories of immigrants.
Why Lucky Boy?
The title was maybe the fourth or fifth that I came up with. The Lucky Boy here is Ignacio, Soli’s infant/toddler son. The label is both sincere and ironic. He is sincerely lucky in that he is truly loved and wanted by two sets of parents. His luck is ironic, though, because this parental love upends his world in ways he can’t control.
What inspired you to write it and how much of it has sprung from personal experience?
I was first inspired by the story of Encarnacion Bail, a Guatemalan mother whose infant son was adopted away from her after she was put in detention. I was struck by this news story and wanted to understand the people involved. I wanted to know their emotional impulses, what they were thinking, how they would move forward. In my case, the best way to know the actors in a story is to create them myself, so I created my own character, Soli—her circumstances were very different from Encarnacion’s, but this situation was occurring for so many families, more than I could have imagined. Soli grew from my research and from some good old-fashioned character development.
I don’t have personal experience of being undocumented or in detention, but I am a mother, and I have been an immigrant. That was the main way I plugged into Soli’s world.
I understand you visited a detention centre as part of your research for the book. Did this real life experience affect or change the storyline in any way? What were your emotions when you came away from the visit?
The detention center I visited was actually one of the reformed facilities. That is, it gave detainees a relatively decent amount of autonomy. But just going to a facility that is dedicated to imprisoning people was quite a shocking experience. It’s something most of us don’t come across in our daily lives, the physical imprisonment of other human beings. My day at the detention center involved information sessions provided by the staff, and it was interesting reconciling the official story with the many, many personal narratives I’d read of detainees, which didn’t match what I was hearing. What I came away with that day was the knowledge that I’d have to handle Soli’s story carefully. I’d have to do justice to what immigrants actually go through in those centers, both when abuses occur and when they don’t. Even if a detainee has a relatively okay experience in a detention center, the mere act of being locked up every night, of being treated as a criminal, when in your heart you’re not one, is a traumatic experience that I knew I couldn’t treat lightly.
The recent US election has whipped up a frenzy of headlines regarding immigration Do you think attitudes to immigrants have improved or are becoming more negative?
As an American daughter of immigrants, I think the country is moving in two directions at once. We’ve seen policy changes that have given immigrants – especially undocumented immigrants – a certain amount of justice. I’m talking about things like DACA. But the brutalities of the detention and deportation system remain, and the disparities in available immigration paths remain.
On a personal level, I think America’s always been a country that welcomes immigrants. You can take a Trump voter, someone who accepts Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, and I guarantee you that that person will be kind and decent to an immigrant he or she gets to know personally. Human decency continues to prevail in this country, but bigoted rhetoric flourishes because there are large segments of our population who’ve never got to know an immigrant, documented or undocumented, who have never got to know anyone whose skin color and histories do not resemble their own. It’s in that disconnected space that anti-immigrant sentiment grows.
How much of your own experience is invested in the character of Kavya?
We’re both Indian American, we both transitioned to adulthood in Berkeley and now live here, we both diverged from the expected career path of South Asians of our generation. I’ve always been in love with Berkeley. It’s one of those corners of America that feel almost magical. I think Kavya and I share that love.
I’ve never personally struggled with fertility issues, so that element of her story took some research. To get to the emotional core of her character, I had to think about what it meant to desire something terribly, and to know that no matter how hard you worked, the end result was out of your hands.
How long did it take to write and research Lucky Boy?
The first draft took about 2.5 years, with research going on as I wrote. I then changed the ending once or twice, took away characters, invented characters, reshaped the book and did a lot of rewriting. This book went through a few rounds of rejection, which I think, in the end, made it a stronger piece of work.
Which authors have inspired you over the years?
Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Junot Diaz, Zadie Smith,, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Emily Bronte.
What have been the most memorable or influential books you have read?
Beloved by Toni Morrison helped me figure out the shape of this novel. As a writer, I learn something new from that book every time I read it. Also, Love in the Time of Cholera by Marquez, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, On Beauty by Zadie Smith.
If you could “unread” a book and enjoy it all over again, which would it be?
The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer. That book swept me away and left me crying in the bath. It’s a supernatural story, but it says so much about the universality of love and beauty and the monster inside each of us.
Do you have plans for another novel?
Yes, I have an idea I’m working on, but I’m giving myself some time to recoup from Lucky Boy. I’m working on shorter essays and stories, re-stocking my creative arsenal.
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran is available from Bookazine stores, bookazine.com.hk.