I met Shanthi Sekaran by chance in March at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference (AWP). When she told me she had a novel coming out in January 2017, I asked her what it was about, and as she told me I felt the strange sensation of having my two worlds converge.
Sekaran’s novel, Lucky Boy, revolves around not just one but two complex and fraught issues—immigration and infertility—explored through the interwoven lives of its main characters. The inner lives and deepest desires of a professional South Asian American couple unable to have a biological child unfold alongside those of a vivacious and courageous undocumented young woman from Mexico, whose perilous crossing into the United States marks the beginning of her life in America, and of her life as a mother-to-be to her baby, Ignacio.
A central conflict in Lucky Boy—the loss of parental rights by immigrants held in US detention centers—was at the heart of “Shattered Families,” a 2011 report I helped push out into the world when I worked at Race Forward, a racial justice organization. The report revealed how American families were fostering and adopting children of undocumented immigrant parents who were unaware that their parental rights had been terminated and unable to defend these rights because they were being held in the nebulous immigrant detention system—a heart wrenching situation that made apparent the systemic issues and inhumanity of our immigration system and its profound impact on parents and their children.
As someone who worked in social change for a decade and a half, I am uplifted to see Sekaran highlight these crucial issues in Lucky Boy, and edified to know that “Shattered Families” featured prominently in her research. And as a writer, I am impressed by how Sekaran creates a world beautiful yet cruel, and populates it with people who hold courageously to hope, even in the face of hopelessness, illuminating both the immense and intimate toll these circumstances exact.
The Rumpus: At the heart of your novel Lucky Boy is the intersecting conflict between families in crisis because of our problematic immigration policies and practices—especially those who are undocumented—and couples looking to adopt domestically, sometimes due to heartbreaking infertility issues. When and how did you first hear about these intersecting issues?
Shanthi Sekaran: My first encounter with these issues happened in my car, driving home, listening to NPR. I think that was in 2010. I heard a story on the radio about a detained Guatemalan mother who was fighting for custody of her child. Of course, the radio spot was just a few minutes long, and there was so much left unsaid, that I went on thinking about this woman for days after. I finally started to research her story and realized that there are many parents in the same situation, more than I could have guessed. My initial interest was in the undocumented parents in these stories, but on the other side of every custody battle are foster or adoptive parents who also love the child in question, who also have a history and a future at stake.
Rumpus: How did you go about researching the immense complexity of our immigration system and its policies, enforcement, and infrastructure, including its murky detention system? What resources and sources were particularly helpful?
Sekaran: I don’t think I could have taken on a project like this if I hadn’t already done my PhD. People wonder what a PhD. in creative writing is good for. It’s good for things like this. My PhD steeled me for the amount of research that I was facing for Lucky Boy. And this is just me, but I’m pretty sure if I’d tried this a few years earlier, I might have been scared away by the research.
With the actual research, I started with the simplest approach: reading. One book I found early on was Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, part of the Voices of Witness series. I also watched documentaries like The Other Side of Immigration, which explores the economic conditions that have led to high rates of undocumented immigration. The “Shattered Families” report from Race Forward came out just when I needed it; it’s a great resource for learning about how and why parents in detention can’t keep custody of their children. I also relied on the generosity of many, many people who shared their expertise with me, from immigration lawyers to psychologists to adoptive parents. I found that when people learned about what I was trying to write, they were very willing to share what they knew.
Rumpus: One of the main characters, Solimar Castro-Valdez, undertakes a harrowing journey from Mexico in search of a brighter future in the United States. You depict the perils she and her fellow travelers face on their journeys in vivid detail. How did you go about trying to understand the grave personal toll of these journeys? Did you get to talk directly to people who had undertaken similar ones?
Sekaran: I did speak to a few people who’d crossed the border without papers, though none of them had ridden the freight trains. I started with a documentary called Which Way Home, which follows a group of adolescents riding the freight trains north through Mexico. There are written accounts and some really powerful photojournalism. A photograph can tell you so much about the dangers and the physical realities of the border. But when it came to depicting Soli’s personal experience of the journey, I had to become a fiction writer. I had to become her. You can read and interview people and watch documentaries, but as a writer, at some point, you need to become your character. You need to put yourself on top of a speeding train.
Rumpus: On the other side of this story, Kavya and Rishi are a South Asian American couple, who have found some professional success and are seeking to start a family, but grow increasingly desperate and demoralized due to infertility issues. They turn to domestic adoption, viewing it as a way to finally start a family while providing a stable home to a child in need in this country. To what resources and experiences did you turn to help you to better understand the personal experiences of those who endure painful infertility treatments, or pursue adoption, in their quest to have a child?
Sekaran: I turned to friends and relatives who’d gone through this. I also interviewed some adoptive parents. Basically I sent an email out to the Berkeley Parents Network describing what I was working on, and a number of adoptive parents got back to me. They were really so generous with their time. It’s a lot to talk about and rehash. Infertility and adoption—even when the story ends happily—can rustle up a lot of trauma, even years later.
And again, after I gathered other people’s data, I had to look inward. I never had to deal with fertility issues myself, so I had to think of a time when I’d worked and worked for something, only to get denial and rejection. For a writer, the obvious place to go was the publishing industry. This book went through a few rounds of rejections, and it was heartbreaking at the time. Of course there’s no way to equate a novel’s rejection with infertility or losing a pregnancy, but the experiences can be analogous. I could use my experience as a writer to get to the larger experience of infertility.
Rumpus: Often in fictional narratives, immigrant experiences and immigrants themselves are presented in stark relief to white Americans and their experiences. However, in Lucky Boy, all the central characters on both sides of this thorny conflict have an immigrant experience, illustrating the diversity and contrast which exists within the immigrant experience in America, and the added complexity of factors like class and education. Why was this important to you? What do you hope readers take away?
Sekaran: I have to admit that there was a moment, when the rejections were rolling in, that I thought about turning my Indian characters white—just to be more palatable, more digestible for the publishing industry. I’m glad I didn’t, of course, because this is a story of the meeting of immigrant groups—even when they don’t meet in person. It’s a story of how this country, and the world, by extension, have different sets of rules for different types of immigrants. And in a larger sense, it made sense to get away from the brown meets white or black meets white story, because that story is fading. We’re onto a new story now, of brown meets brown. The story of American ethnicity has always been more complex than we’ve given it credit for. I think that literature and film and art are catching on to that complexity.
Rumpus: As a South Asian American, I especially appreciated that the key South Asian characters in Lucky Boy defied stereotypes—there were no doctors! In fact, these characters seemed to be struggling to find their own path against cultural expectations within their communities and cultural stereotypes from American society. How did you go about developing the characters of Kavya, a professional chef and Rishi, a “ventilation engineer,” and their relationship to their South Asian community in ways that were informed by culture but not by stereotypes?
Sekaran: Ha! No doctors—though Preeti Patel is technically a doctor. She sort of has to be, though, given the framework of her character. I see a lot of myself in Kavya, even though our circumstances and our families are very different. Growing up, I definitely felt like the Goofus to so many Gallants. I did all right at school, but I wasn’t a superstar. I was raucous and crazy with my brothers, but quiet with everyone else. I brought books to parties. I wasn’t checked out, but I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I was a daydreamer. On the other end of that, the South Asian community I grew up with was warm, they were always glad to have me around, they didn’t judge me for my weirdnesses. I guess that goes against the stereotype, doesn’t it? Kavya has a community that loves her even though she isn’t a Preeti Patel. I remember, at my own wedding, going into introvert mode, just wanting to cross the room without having to talk to anyone. That’s impossible at your own wedding, of course. That’s impossible at any Indian wedding.
Rumpus: Meanwhile, your depiction of Solimar and her cousin Silvia lays bare the everyday struggles faced by undocumented individuals to earn a living, often supporting the lives of Americans, while risking exploitation, detention, and deportation, but you also note the joys and pride they take in their lives in their homeland and in their adopted country. What did you hope to convey about the lives of those who are undocumented, who often go unseen or unheard in the United States because of their status?
Sekaran: So many people in Berkeley have such good intentions for equality and social justice, that sometimes those intentions blind us to our own privilege, to our own prejudice.
On the surface, like if you’re just walking down the street, Berkeley seems like an ethnically and socially diverse place. That’s if you don’t think about who owns property, who lives here and who just works here. We have daily contact with undocumented immigrants, whether we know it or not, so they’re not exactly unseen, but maybe the truth of their experience is. They may have had to leave their own children behind, for example, so they can earn a living watching ours. They may live in fear, daily, of encountering the police. They may be avoiding some of the social programs that could really help them because they’re afraid to go above the radar. It was important to me to tell the story of Soli’s life in Oaxaca, to show that she was leaving behind real love, a real family.
When I wrote “The Privileged Immigrant” for the New York Times, a reader wrote to me and said something like, We on the right believe there’s a difference between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants. I guess I want this book to question that assumption: What, really, is the difference between the documented and undocumented? Do they hope and fear differently? Do they love their children differently? Or does the difference lie in opportunity?
Rumpus: The idea of “a better life” seems like a key concept in Lucky Boy. It motivates Solimar to undertake her dangerous journey to the United States, and to work hard towards this goal after she reaches America. In parallel, Kavya and Rishi believe they can offer “a better life” to Solimar’s baby Ignacio, especially in comparison to Solimar, who is dealing with the repercussions of her undocumented status. And then there is the rich backdrop of Berkeley and its denizens’ constant pursuit of better lives—more enlightened lives, more technologically innovative lives, more organic lives. I’m curious about your thoughts about this theme and how it interconnects the lives of the novel’s characters.
Sekaran: I guess a lot of assumptions are made around these ideas of who wants a better life, who needs a better life, and who has the right to a better life. The denizens of Berkeley, for example. So many of us seem to be pursuing this sublime state of maximized potential. We want our lives to be a continuous journey of pleasure and education and physical perfection and social justice. How many people in the world have the luxury of thinking about that?
And when I think of someone like Solimar—her life isn’t in danger when she leaves Mexico. She isn’t seeking asylum here. She wants a better future. She wants to propel herself forward. And isn’t that justified? Doesn’t that earn her a decent chance at getting a visa?
I feel, increasingly, like immigrants have to be running for their lives to qualify for legal status in the States. Like it’s not enough anymore to be a smart, hardworking person who wants to make their life better. You either have to be a highly qualified engineer or hiding from a militia. What about the people in the middle?
Rumpus: Another theme explored through the novel is how we like to believe that all individuals in this country are blessed with certain inalienable rights; however, there is a clear hierarchy, and the contrast between the rights of citizens and non-citizens, documented and undocumented immigrants, rich and poor, is stark. Even the right of a mother to her child and likewise a child to their mother has hierarchies and complexities. How have your own views on human rights and especially the rights of undocumented families torn apart by United States immigration policies evolved through the researching and writing of Lucky Boy? And what about your thoughts on the rights of adoptive parents?
Sekaran: One thing I’ve learned is how isolating it is to be undocumented. Those of us who are documented take for granted how free we are to talk about the very basic facts of our lives: where we live, where we’ve come from, what our parents do. When you’re undocumented, you hold the world at arm’s length to protect yourself. And that goes against our impulses as humans, it goes against our inherent need to connect. So, that isolation reaches into the very core of an immigrant’s humanity.
And then, in cases when being undocumented actually means that you’re incarcerated, that you’re taken away from your family—or when your undocumented father doesn’t come home from work one day, and you don’t know where or how to search for him—or when you’re losing custody of your child and the detention system doesn’t let you do anything to stop it—these are nightmare situations. We have productive, good people in this country who are living constantly on the edge of a nightmare.
Adoptive parents are vulnerable in their own way. Emotionally, they are incredibly vulnerable. They’re at the mercy of a system that’s supposed to work, that should reliably offer them a child who is in a good position to be adopted, whose parents are not able, for whatever reason, to care for him or her. When the system offers them the chance to care for and maybe adopt a child who already has loving, capable parents, that’s a set-up for disaster. The foster care system is so valuable, but the children of undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be in the foster system. They should be with their parents. And not in a cell in a family detention center somewhere, but in their home, living their lives.
Rumpus: Given that Lucky Boy deeply engages with complex issues like immigration, fertility, and their intersection, what role do you think fiction can play in illuminating the complex and fraught issues of our time? And what advice do you have for writers who seek to engage complicated social issues in their work?
Sekaran: If you want people to pay attention to a situation, storytelling is the way to do it. It’s how we’ve done it for so long. A thousand years ago we didn’t have news anchors traveling the countrysides, we had storytellers and poets who integrated performance with real news. And fiction works to engage these issues because people have an immense capacity—and an immense desire—to empathize. We want to feel what other people are feeling. It’s how we’ve survived as a species. Now, as connected as we are through technology, we’re also at risk of getting caught in our bubbles, or hearing what we want to hear, and letting the rest fade into the background. If a novel can pull a reader into a struggle, into the emotions around that struggle, then you have a reader who’s willing to think about and care about an issue that is not his or her own.
My advice for writers: just get started, do your research, and accept that your work will be imperfect. There will be so much you can’t know, even after research, but there will be a few things that you do know. Go there, to those points of connectivity. That’s where you’ll want to write from.
Author photograph © Laura Ming Wong.