Shanthi Sekaran got the idea for her latest novel, Lucky Boy (Putnam, Jan. 2017), while driving home one night listening to a story on NPR about a Guatemalan woman named Encarnación Bail Romero who was jailed after an immigration raid at a poultry processing plant in Missouri; her six-month-old son was taken into custody and was subsequently adopted by a couple in the state.
The story gripped Sekaran. “I was just stuck in my car in the driveway unable to get out,” she says. “I wanted to know more and, of course, the episode ended after two minutes. Sekaran wanted to understand these people. “I guess as a fiction writer you understand people by writing them as characters,” she says. “You get inside them that way. That’s what I decided to do.”
Lucky Boy is a sweeping novel featuring two alternating stories. The first centers on Solimar Castro Valdez, or Soli as she’s called, a young woman who makes the journey across the border into the U.S.—where she arrives pregnant—and then lands a job working for a couple as a house cleaner in Berkeley, Calif. An immigration raid results in her being placed in immigration detention, which separates her from her newborn son. The child is eventually adopted by Kavya and Rishi Reddy, an Indian couple in their mid-30s who are the characters at the heart of the novel’s second narrative. The two stories work together to reveal the very complicated stakes for all involved as the characters collide around the adoption process of Soli’s biological son.
One of the novel’s great strengths is that Sekaran never takes a position. There is no judgement as to which situation is better for the infant—both mothers have a fierce love for the boy. “I knew I was going to be telling two sides of a story,” Sekaran says. “I had to personally relate to all of them, in order to realistically write them.”
Of the adoptive parents in the book, Sekaran says, “They believe in themselves as good people and believe that they are doing good.” But, she adds, “It’s important to see the limitations of people’s intentions.”
Sekaran started writing the novel by researching and by speaking with immigration lawyers. She spent two weeks in Oaxaca, where she was able to absorb the setting and interview people there who had crossed the U.S.-Mexican border. Her intention with Lucky Boy is to portray the “complexity of America’s racial makeup,” she says. “This isn’t a black-meets-white book. This is about brown meeting brown, and privilege meeting struggle. I’ve put in years of writing about that complexity, and years of writing about undocumented immigrants.”
Sekaran was born in Sacramento, Calif. Her parents, both physicians, came over to America from India in the 1960s, a time when the U.S. was recruiting medical professionals. “Medicare was started in 1965 and racial quotas were eliminated,” she says. “Those two things combined to bring a lot of foreign physicians over.”
Sekaran didn’t study creative writing in college, but inklings of her current profession can be traced back to her childhood. “I tried to write a novel when I was about seven,” she says. “Looking back at that novel, it has a lot of the themes that came out later in life.” That childhood novel was called “California Gypsy,” about a gypsy who ends up in California and the girl who befriends her. Sekaran notes that themes of immigration and identity were in her work even back then.
Sekaran got a master’s degree in South Asian studies and thought she would become a literature professor. Instead she Googled “creative writing programs” and applied to three. For her application, she wrote “this atrocious thing called ‘Curry Fever,’ which is the worst, most embarrassing title,” she says. “I don’t know what they saw in it.” But she was accepted to Johns Hopkins, which marked the beginning for her of learning to look at her work with a critical eye. She wrote a novel in the program that she calls a “training novel”.
Sekaran got engaged, moved to Germany for a year, got married and spent six years in England, where she taught academic writing at a local college. She entered a Ph.D. program at Newcastle and began writing what would become her first published novel, The Prayer Room. She wrote that book, she says, because she was feeling nostalgic for the “suburban, leafy, quiet, pretty neighborhood” she had grown up in. “I had just gotten married, moved to another country, and my parents had sold my childhood home. There was all this change and I needed to recapture what wasn’t there anymore for me.”
A week before giving birth to her first child, Sekaran found an agent and got a book deal. The Prayer Room came out in 2009 with MacAdam Cage. “It was good to have that under my belt before having the baby, which didn’t happen with my second book,” she says.
With Lucky Boy, Sekaran hoped that she would finish the book before giving birth to her second child, but the manuscript wasn’t ready in time. With her new son only two weeks old, she was back at her laptop working on Lucky Boy. “I felt a sense of urgency,” she says. “I ended up writing stuff at three in the morning. The baby would wake me up and that’s when I’d get the writing done.”
Sekaran says motherhood has “deepened my understanding of what it is to be human, and [what it is] to be able to give stuff up.” She adds: “It used to fascinate me that my mom would give me her food. In terms of being a writer, I think when you really have your soul and your heart at stake the way you do when you have a child, you’re completely vulnerable. When you have that sort of vulnerability you have a heightened experience of the world. You have so much more invested in it.”
Lucky Boy went through several rounds of rejections. Sekaran joked with her agent that maybe if she made all the Indian characters white, it would sell. But the agent very quickly brought Sekaran down to earth, she says. “She told me that this is a novel about how different types of immigrants interact with each other, and the different things that happen to them. I’d never thought about it in that way.”
In the book, when Soli finds out that the couple who have adopted her son are Indian, she refers to the adoptive mother as a “so-called American.” When Sekaran was a child and her parents referred to Americans, “that was shorthand for white Americans,” she says. “Even though I was born in the U.S., I was Indian, even though I was American.”
Sekaran made the adoptive mother in the book Indian because that’s her default mode. “I feel like I may as well write Indian-Americans, because that’s how I identify,” she says. “I don’t really see the point of making someone Anglo-American, unless there’s a real reason for them to be white. If that’s the case, then I’d make them white.”
Sekaran also explores the vast differences in how immigrant populations are treated, and the depictions of detention centers reveal the isolation and abuse faced by many undocumented immigrants. Since the novel was inspired by a true story, “I had to research that story and tell the story the way it really was, not to be sensationalist, but to be true to Soli’s experience and true to the experience of many detainees,” Sekaran says.
Both of Sekaran’s novels deal with family. “In the immigrant space family becomes extra-important because your family is your safety net, emotionally, often financially,” she says. “Family is the lifeblood of an immigrant, whether the family is there with you, or whether it is 10,000 miles away. Family is why an immigrant comes to the U.S.; it’s what they wish they hadn’t left behind. It’s the touch point on either end of the experience.”
Sekaran says that her book “does what every other novel does: attempts to tell a story and reveal something about a fellow human.” But, she adds, “Our president-elect and his staff would prefer that we not think of undocumented immigrants as humans. As soon as you start seeing them as people with individual histories and families and talents, you stop believing that Mexicans are ‘rapists and murderers,’ as Trump called them. You stop thinking that canceling the Deferred Action plan is okay. You stop scapegoating them. In this moment, portraying an undocumented immigrant as a human becomes an act of defiance.”