Berkeley author Shanthi Sekaran has set her new novel in her hometown. Photo: Daniel Grisales

By Marthine Satris

Lucky Boy, the affecting and resonant new novel from Shanthi Sekaran, tells the story of an immigrant from Mexico, Soli, whose infant son is taken in by an American family when Soli’s undocumented status targets her for deportation. It is the second novel for Sekaran, who has lived in Berkeley for over a decade, and the author will be reading from the book at Mrs. Dalloway’s on Wednesday, Jan. 11 at 7:30 p.m.

Lucky Boy is set in Berkeley, and told with warmth and empathy, but with a keen eye for the sometimes well-meaning delusions of the privileged. Kavya and Rishi want nothing more than to care for a child, but their loving embrace of baby Ignacio is inherently based on Soli losing her son. At points, the novel was such a punch in the gut that this reader had to periodically check on her own infant son as she read it. Sekaran does not simplify the people or the circumstances her characters find themselves in, and the complex questions raised by the novel linger long after the book ends.

Berkeleyside met with Shanthi in a café in Berkeley, and we talked about the stories of deported parents that spurred her writing, the research it took to develop Soli as a character, and the multifaceted nature of “the immigrant experience.” 

I wanted to start by discussing the setting of your new novel, Lucky Boy. Did you always know that this story would be set in Berkeley?

I started this in Berkeley from the very beginning of writing the novel. I’ve always had a lot to say about Berkeley. It’s just one of those places that’s very fertile for a writer. Often, in the past, I’ve had to get away from a place to write about it. For my first novel, The Prayer Room, I had to leave Sacramento to be able to think about it and write about it. But with Berkeley, there’s always something going on that you can write about.

This story really works in Berkeley; I didn’t want to set the story somewhere an undocumented immigrant might face widespread prejudice, or misunderstanding, or ignorance. I wanted a place that was socially and culturally diverse, that was liberal — a place that could be hospitable to an immigrant and, specifically, to an undocumented immigrant.

You tell this story both from a local point of view and that of a newcomer. Kavya attended UC Berkeley, and is very much of this place – it’s very normal to her to eat pizza on the median outside of The Cheese Board — whereas Soli provides us the outsider perspective.

I had to be very aware of what Kavya would notice about Berkeley, and what she wouldn’t, and what would strike Soli first, what she would care about or appreciate.

What are some of the elements of the city that you wanted to capture in this story?

I wanted to capture the mix of the place, the mix of Berkeley. We’re all on top of each other here. This isn’t a suburb where you see your neighbor once every three days, when you’re both pulling your SUVs out of your garages. This is a place where you have to deal with people on a moment to moment basis if you’re going to go outside your door. So that puts Soli in a very dynamic and interactive place. I wanted her to have an intense experience with the world around her. I didn’t want to have an immigrant story where my character stays in the house and is lonely. I wanted to populate her world.

I also think that Berkeley is a very particular place in that it’s filled with people with excellent intentions. People want the best for everyone: for immigrants, for nonimmigrants, for undocumented immigrants. But it’s also a place of great privilege, and sometimes those two elements don’t mix; sometimes people’s good intentions blind them to their own insensitivities, and in the novel, Mrs. Cassidy [who hires Soli as a maid and nanny] is the personification of that.

California, and Berkeley in particular, seem easy for writers to satirize, especially when approaching these places and their cultures with a critical eye. Was parody or simplification an approach you had to be careful not to fall into?

I’ve lived here for so long that a simplification would be hard for me, because I know it for its complexity. I did want this novel to be somewhat of an homage to Berkeley. I love writing about the details of this town — but I didn’t want it to be a Woody Allen-style homage, making the setting of each of his movies the most beautiful, evocative image of that city that he can. I didn’t want to stay on the surface. At the end of the day, I was telling the story of a woman’s struggle in Berkeley, and the town had to come into that struggle as well.

Like you, Kavya is an Indian-American woman living in Berkeley, which makes her experiences seem closer to home, on the surface. Did you face different challenges in writing such a familiar character and then also writing cross-culturally, from Soli’s point of view?

Soli is Mexican, and, at a certain point in writing her story, I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I have never lived in Mexico, and although I have known, and been friends with, Mexican people and people of Mexican descent in California, that’s not the same. So a few months into writing the book, I hit a wall. I had made up this town for Soli, but I didn’t know in my head what region it was in: I had no regional identifiers, I had no feel for where she was. I realized I had to get myself to Mexico and soak in some element of the reality of that country. I had the opportunity to stay at an artist’s residency called Oax-i-fornia in a village just outside of Oaxaca, which was a huge gift to this story. That allowed me to give Soli a cultural identity, and a real home. Soli’s hometown, Popocalco, is loosely based on my observations of this little town.

Kavya’s Berkeley is very much my Berkeley. That came more naturally: the challenge there was more internal, to figure out her psychology. How I was going to get her from being a socially conscious, liberal woman to being a woman who could feel justified in taking someone else’s child.

Did learning about these contemporary struggles experienced by immigrants affect how you thought about the experience of your parents’ generation coming to the United States, as represented by Kavya’s mother Uma in the novel?

In terms of this particular novel, it was important to me to illustrate the difference in privilege between someone like Kavya, whose parents could stay through an academic, or job-related visa, and someone like Soli.

Going back a few years before this publication, I was getting lots of rejections – I went through a year or two of rounds of rejections, and at a certain point, I was just like, “You know what, I’m just going to make all my Indian characters white, and then the book will sell” — a very cynical move. I half-jokingly told this to my agent, and she said, “You can’t do that.” She pointed out something to me, which I hadn’t fully realized, which is that this is a book about how different types of immigrants interact and have experience with immigration in different ways. I continued to develop the story from that angle, so you have Kavya and Rishi, and you have [the Silicon Valley titan and Rishi’s boss] Vikram Sen, and you have Soli. That thread of thinking about privilege began to really inform the story.

Has the raging anger and debate in last year’s presidential race over the very idea of Mexican migrants living in the United States made you think differently about the stories that you’re telling? This novel seems like an important story for this time, since it gives a voice, a face, a story, and a story to someone who otherwise would remain hidden.

I wrote this story because it’s a story that deeply interested and intrigued me. I couldn’t have just written it because it was a hot issue; I couldn’t have spent four or five years of my life working on that. It was primarily something that spoke to my heart and my mind, and that’s why I started it. But as I researched the situation of undocumented immigrants, the issue grew bigger and bigger for me, and I realized what I had on my hands. And I also realized that it’s a real privilege for me to be able to tell this story, because so many undocumented immigrants, especially people like Soli, in her circumstances, don’t have the opportunity to sit down and write a novel. So this story was in my hands, and I had to be careful with it, treat it well, and do justice to it, make it full and real. As I was writing, the issue of undocumented immigrants grew and grew, and I wondered if at some point in my writing it would all get solved and I’d be writing a historical novel. But no — it’s still current, unfortunately.

You said this was really a story that spoke to your heart and your mind, and emotions are really at the heart of this novel – that’s where I was really blown away. What were the emotions you hoped to capture?

The initial emotion that grabbed me was an intense curiosity. I’d heard about this Guatemalan woman [Encarnacion Bail Romero] whose child was being adopted away from her when she was being deported, and that was the first inkling I had of stories like Soli’s. I couldn’t stop thinking about this story. I wanted to know what was happening in the minds of the people involved, the mother and the adoptive parents, and I was very intrigued by the idea of a sort of love that could justify taking a child away from its willing and able mother. So, it was an exploration of love, and blindness, self-delusion – loving delusion is a big part of this novel.

Were there questions about what parenting means that you wanted to clarify through writing this novel, or did those questions come up as these two stories intersect? It seems like definitions of motherhood are very much at stake..

They became clearer as I wrote, although I didn’t set out to investigate the definitions of motherhood. The underlying message of the two parallel stories — and I don’t know if I crafted this intentionally — is that both of these women are mothers, and that calls into question the validity of taking one woman’s child away to give it to another. I set up that parallel in order to raise a question, not really to answer a question.

Shanthi Sekaran will give a reading and sign books at Mrs Dalloway’s, 2904 College Ave., Berkeley, CA 94705, on Wed. Jan. 11, 7:30 p.m. For details, visit Mrs Dalloway’s online.

Marthine Satris is a writer and editor who lives in Oakland. 

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