Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Shanthi Sekaran talks about her astonishing novel LUCKY BOY, undocumented mothers who lose their kids, difficult emotions and why we love them, and more
"A deeply compassionate exploration of the emotional toll of infertility, the insidious ways in which class divides us, the weight of social judgment, and the explosive touch-point of todays headlines regarding illegal immigration." Booklist, starred review.
Shanthi Sekaran teaches creative writing at California College of the Arts. Her first novel, The Prayer Room, was published by the innovative MacAdam Cage. I'm so honored to have her here. Thank you so much, Shanthi!
I always say every book starts with a yearning. What was yours?
My earliest emotional impulses around this book centered around curiosity. I’d heard about undocumented mothers having their children adopted away from them and I was intensely curious about what the actors in these situations were thinking. I suppose I yearned to get into the heads of people like Rishi and Kavya and Soli (my characters.) I wanted to get past intention—past the benevolent intentions of the adoptive parents, and understand how they came to believe that they could justifiably adopt the children of living and able mothers. I knew that their actions were driven by love, not hostility or hate, but I didn’t understand that love. I didn’t understand how their love could justify their actions.
What kind of writer are you? And did your usual process differ at all with this book?
I’d call myself an impulsive writer. I don’t wake up at 5 every morning to slog away at my desk. I admire people who can do that. I started off writing only when things came to me. That’s how I wrote my first book, in my mid twenties, before kids. It was written in small doses, based off flights of inspiration.
But eventually, when I had kids, I didn’t have that freedom with my time. So I became a writer who did have to sit down at certain times on certain days and churn out material. That was good for me. It increased my stamina as a writer. And there’s never enough time to write—not for me, anyway. I almost always have to leave my work half-finished, so I’ve gotten used to a certain level of hunger, of desperation to get back to my work. That desperation actually helps. It’s energy that I feed off of to keep plugging through a novel or an essay.
So much of this gorgeous novel is about whom we belong to and why that matters so much—and the longing for connection, to both place and to people. Can you talk about this please?
I do agree that place plays a major role in this novel, a different role for each mother. Soli finds, upon arriving in Berkeley, that her journey took her much further, psychologically speaking, from her little town in Mexico than she’d expected it to. It was an emotional as well as a physical journey. So when she starts her life in Berkeley, she wants nothing more than to feel at home. I’ve been an immigrant—I had to find my way into a new life when I moved to England for six years—and even in my relatively comfortable circumstances, I experienced this intense discomfort, this disorientation that comes with planting yourself in new soil. I wanted nothing more than to just feel at home. Kavya, on the other hand—her immigration happened a generation before her. In many ways, she’s so very Berkeley. She’s in the right place, geographically. Her migration was migration into motherhood. That’s where she had to find her comfort zone: as a mother to Ignacio. And when she did find it, she dove in head first.
The novel also is asking what constitutes a better life? I found that incredibly profound and provocative. What do you think the answer is?
This a question that immigrants have to grapple with—the question of whether what they find in their new home merits what they’ve given up in their old home. Whether material opportunity justifies the isolation, the danger, the uncertainty of the immigrant experience. Some immigrants, of course, don’t have the option of staying back home. For some, it’s a matter of escaping with their lives.
I think this question of the “better life”—this drive for self-improvement—is quintessentially American. It’s why the American Dream, whatever you might think of that construct, speaks so strongly to people from other countries. We take this quest for self-improvement for granted, living in America. And to answer your question, I can’t really say what makes a better life. That answer is subjective. For a child, for Ignacio, a better life is one in which he’s loved. And he’s loved in both his possible lives.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
The direction our country is taking, the swell of activism that is growing, the importance of staying optimistic and driven in the face of nonsensical political maneuvering. What else…. My kids. Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Leonard Cohen. Doing a pull-up.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have.
Why do we read novels that yank our emotions around? I’ve always wondered that.