A prize-winning author last week described her personal journey to explore the challenging and sometimes brutal system faced by immigrants who arrived in U.S. without papers.
Speaking at Livermore’s Bankhead Theater, the author, Shanthi Sekaran, said she was motivated to write about the topic after hearing an NPR radio report about a Guatemalan mother whose baby was adopted by an American couple while she was being deported from the U.S.
As a writer, but also as a mother and the daughter of immigrants herself, Sekaran found herself deeply curious about the feelings and interactions of the story’s key players – of the mother being deported, but also of the American couple adopting her baby.
Her novel, “Lucky Boy,” which received critical praise when published in 2017, is an imaginative and sometimes agonizing recasting of that story.
She described the experience of writing "Lucky Boy" as part of the Rae Dorough Speaker Series.
Pondering the bare outline of the story as reported on NPR, she said she wanted to understand much more.
“I wanted to know what people were saying to each other,” she told the Livermore audience. “I wanted to know what they were thinking. I wanted to know what the adoptive parents were saying to themselves and saying to each other.
“It was very clear that they were adopting another woman’s son, not out of malice, but out of love. So I was interested in that paradox -- how love could cause such pain to another mother.”
The main characters in “Lucky Boy” are a naïve, undocumented and impoverished Mexican immigrant, Soli, who gives birth in the U.S.; and the Indian-American couple, Kavya, the mother, and Rishi, the father, who adopt the child.
Sekaran found some clues to their interactions in her own upbringing, which was typically American at several levels. She had grown up in Sacramento in the 1980s and ’90s, doing the things that many young people did – camping with her family, skiing, listening to American music.
Engaging in typical teen activities did not mean she fit in seamlessly, however. There were snags in the seemingly smooth fabric of her life, and that was part of her message at the Bankhead.
“As American as we were, there was always this undercurrent of not being exactly like the other families in our neighborhood.”
Trying to understand why and how she and her family were different “is part of what made me a writer,” she said. “Having to dig into these differences, living with these differences, thinking about the tension between what one part of me was and what the art of other part of me was.
“It kept me questioning my place within my community.”
There were no easy answers, but she came to recognize factors like the place of her parents’ origin (India), as well as their religion (Hindu). “It had to do with the color of our skin.”
Her sense of separateness has only become stronger in recent years. In an email following her Bankhead talk, she said, “It’s in the current day, post-2016…that I feel the danger of being different.
“White supremacy is becoming an active, violent threat to people like me, and to new immigrants, in a way I’ve never experienced.”
Much of the action of “Lucky Boy” takes place in Berkeley, where Sekaran lives.
Fear, Isolation, Brutality
The Berkeley environment is generally welcoming, but Soli, the Mexican woman whose child is taken from her, experiences fear, isolation and even brutality as she tries to navigate the economic and social systems of a strange new country.
Sekaran wrote that she “wanted to show that you can be anywhere – even someplace as liberal and hospitable as Berkeley – and still feel the deeply unsettling uncertainty of being undocumented, and perhaps even have your life yanked out from under you.”
Sadly, in Sekaran’s view, the brutality experienced by Soli is not a rare exception, but typical of the system in which Soli was enmeshed.
She sees the news media as playing an important role in the trend toward greater polarization.
In an email, she wrote, “I don’t think we will get back to a state of mutual left-right tolerance until our media becomes less polarized.”
While she recognizes the existence of media on the left, with its progressive bias, she is particularly critical of reporting on the far right as qualitatively different -- patronizing and dishonest.
In concluding her Bankhead talk, Sekaran likened the American experience to a story with many participants, including immigrants.
“Immigrants,” she said, “even the ones who don’t go camping, even the ones who don’t speak English, want to be part of the American story.”
Changing perspective as if she herself were one of the immigrants, she said, “We want to be here, we want to be part of the American story. We want to beautify this space. We want to complexify it and complicate it and, yes, we want to take up space because we are here.
“I feel like more and more immigrants are told that, ‘No, we can’t take up space.’ Our voices are being silenced, slowly.”
As a writer, she noted, she has questions rather than answers. In that context, she asked the audience: “If America is a story and you – we – are its authors, how did we get here, to this part of our story? Who will write the new pages? And what will happen?”