Books

Who should raise the baby? New Sekaran novel explores an undocumented mother’s rights

Shanthi Sekaran
Shanthi Sekaran Daniel Grisales

As the drama plays out, what is the finale when a birth mother and a foster mother both love the same child, but only one of them can possess him? And what if the complicating factors are the issues of immigration and citizenship, privilege vs. struggle, us vs. them?

That wrenching, socially complex dilemma is the heartbeat driving Shanthi Sekaran’s character-centric new novel, “Lucky Boy” (Putnam, $27, 480 pages). In a starred review, BookList calls it “remarkably empathetic and deeply compassionate, delivering penetrating insights into the intangibles of motherhood and, indeed, all humanity.”

“There is no Hollywood ending to this book, because it reflects reality,” Sekaran, 39, said by phone from her Berkeley home. “The ending could have gone either way; it’s not the perfect outcome.”

Sekaran “discovered” the story of “Lucky Boy” when she heard an NPR report about a Guatemalan mother in Missouri who was jailed as an illegal immigrant and ultimately lost her infant son to an adoptive couple. “I was completely stricken by the situation of (undocumented) immigrants in detention whose children are fostered and adopted away from them,” she said. “The story whacked me on the head, and I had to write it.”

“Lucky Boy” is told in two alternating narratives. Solimar is 18 when she flees her impoverished Mexican village, endures a harrowing journey and enters the United States illegally, finding refuge at her cousin Silvia’s Berkeley apartment. On her first day there she discovers she is pregnant. She finds work as a maid and nanny, sending money to her parents back home. Months go by, and she gives birth to a son, Ignacio.

Meanwhile, Kavya is a second-generation Indian American chef married to Rishi, who works at a Silicon Valley tech firm. Though Kavya is content with her lifestyle, she longs for the one thing she cannot have – a baby.

The women’s paths intersect when Soli is detained for being undocumented and sent to a detention camp. Ignacio, now a year old, is placed in foster care with Kavya and Rishi. How can Soli possibly reclaim her child?

‘Very different’

While writing the book, Sekaran “discovered disparities within the immigrant situation and realized my family’s story is very different from someone like Soli’s. My (physician) parents had visas (when they arrived from India in the 1960s), and I was born and grew up in Sacramento.”

Sekaran, a senior adjunct professor of creative writing and literature at the California College of the Arts, graduated from Rio Americano High School and earned bachelor’s degrees in English literature and French, as well as a master’s in South Asian studies, at UC Berkeley. Her MFA in creative writing is from Johns Hopkins University, and her Ph.D. in creative writing is from the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in England.

Despite her serious credentials, yes, and a résumé that includes her first novel, “The Prayer Room,” set in Sacramento (2009), the manuscript of “Lucky Boy” was rejected by several publishing houses before ending up at G.P. Putnam’s Sons, where senior editor Tara Singh Carlson fostered it along, so to speak.

“We went through six rounds of edits over a 10-month period because it was so important to both Shanthi and me to get this story right,” Carlson said. “Before it’s an immigration story, or a story about America or class conflict, it’s a story of two women finding their way in the world. It’s a profound commentary on the dialogue that’s going on right now about immigration issues. It gives a particular human face to the term ‘immigrant.’ 

Given the recent nationwide “discussion” about immigration, Sekaran’s timing could not have been more fortuitous.

“I knew that undocumented immigration was timely when I started writing it in 2010, but I had no idea we’d be where we are now,” she said. “Who could have foreseen this, except maybe George Orwell? Literature speaks to us constantly, which is why it’s so important to maintain our literary education. If we had lost a handle on Orwell’s literature, we would be impoverished in this time.”

Long part of high-school curricula, “1984” – Orwell’s 1949 seminal tale of a dystopian state that “suppresses original thought” – has become a national best-seller since late January when presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” in a televised interview.

Beyond immigration

“Lucky Boy” raises other issues beyond immigration, such as: Should a mother give up her child if she knows the foster or adoptive parents can give her child a better life than she can?

“I wanted to open that question, but I don’t know that I have a definite answer,” Sekaran said. “When you’re considering a birth mother against foster or adoptive parents, every situation has to be considered for its individual properties. When you have an undocumented immigrant – whose only ‘crime’ is being undocumented – that does not justify the immigrant losing her child.”

“Lucky Boy’s” Berkeley becomes something of a character itself. “I wanted to put Soli in a place that was socially and politically liberal, where you can live undocumented and still have a scenario,” Sekaran explained. “Berkeley is like a big city smooshed into a little town, where Soli has a lot of constant interaction with people.”

For research, Sekaran traveled to Mexico. “I stayed at an artists’ residence called Oax-i-fornia, run by a friend,” Sekaran said. “He set me up with a local guide who had made the journey to California without papers, and we talked about that. We also drove around the surrounding towns, talked to the people (and attended a fiesta).”

Were there moments when she looked at her two young sons and imagined herself in Soli’s or Kavya’s circumstances?

“Every parent has a low-lying fear of their children being taken in some way or another,” Sekaran said. “It didn’t really come to the surface for me because I make a real separation between my real life and my writing life. But it made me want to spend more time with my kids and not always be steeped in the little tasks I have on a daily basis.”

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Bee Book Club

Shanthi Sekaran will appear for The Sacramento Bee Book Club at 6 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 23, in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento.

Tickets to the event are $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $30 for general admission. Buy tickets online at www.sacbee.com/beebookclub. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free. Barnes & Noble will be on site, selling “Lucky Boy” for 30 percent off the list price (Putnam, $27, 480 pages).

All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.

“Lucky Boy” also will be offered for a 30 percent discount through Feb. 23 at these bookstores: in the Sacramento area at the five Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at the Tower, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader and UC Davis Bookstore; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.

Visit the author at www.shanthisekaran.com; information: 916-321-1128.

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