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Immigration And Infertility Bring Two Mothers Together Over One 'Lucky Boy'

Jan 10, 2017
Originally published on January 10, 2017 4:23 pm

The novel Lucky Boy focuses on two women and two very different pictures of immigration. In one story, 18-year-old Soli enters the U.S. from Mexico without papers. In the other, an Indian-American woman named Kavya is struggling to have a baby with her husband, who works in Silicon Valley. Their stories converge around a baby, the "lucky boy" of the book's title.

Author Shanthi Sekaran has a lot in common with Kavya: Both are Indian-American and both live in Berkeley, Calif. But Sekaran tells NPR's Ari Shapiro that her upbringing made her curious about a different kind of immigration story.

"Growing up, my mother was a pediatrician and the majority of her patients were immigrants," she says. "And I knew from sort of hanging around her office and doing her filing and stuff that there were immigrants whose lives were different from mine. You know, I'd see kids come in who I didn't see at school, who I didn't see in my soccer games. So I knew always that there were different immigrant stories out there, and what I wanted to do with this novel was to recognize that disparity and look at the stories behind it and look at the ramifications of the differences."


Interview Highlights

On how she prepared to write the character of Soli

I began just with reading testimonials, ... learning the numbers, learning what the general situation — the logistical situation — of undocumented immigration was like. And then I went a little deeper with things. I interviewed adoptive parents. I spent a couple weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico. While I was there, I got to interview some undocumented — well, they were no longer immigrants, they were back in Mexico, but they had been undocumented and they had crossed the border clandestinely. ...

I began to gain some inkling of an understanding of what it's like to live without papers and to just have this nagging fear — it's sort of an undercurrent that informs your life. And I learned that from talking to people, from talking actually to a psychologist who works with undocumented immigrants, and from reading a lot. And then the rest is me as a fiction writer trying to imagine and trying to plug this information into my character.

On the real detention/adoption story that inspired the book

When I was first compelled to start exploring this story, it was because I had heard about an undocumented Guatemalan woman whose son was adopted away from her. And I was horrified on behalf of the Guatemalan woman, but I also wanted to know what was going through the minds of these people who had adopted her son away from her. I mean, I assumed that they thought of themselves as good people, so I knew there had to be some complexity in there, something that allowed them to think that taking another woman's son was OK. And it had something to do with love, and it had something to do with a real need to be a parent.

On the definition of motherhood

I think what qualifies as motherhood is getting up with a kid in the middle of the night and changing his diapers and feeding him when he doesn't want to be fed. You know, it's the grunt work that qualifies a mother as a mother, which is why I think it's not so easy to say that Kavya is right and Soli is wrong, or Soli is right and Kavya is wrong. Motherhood happens in the moments when we're taking care of our children, not because we have something on a certificate, not because we've biologically given birth to a child.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A new novel called "Lucky Boy" centers around two women and two different pictures of immigration. In one story, an 18-year-old named Soli enters the U.S. from Mexico without papers. In the other, an Indian-American woman named Kavya tries to have a child with her husband in Silicon Valley. These stories converge around a baby, the lucky boy of the book's title. Our colleague Ari Shapiro spoke with the novelist, Shanthi Sekaran.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: You're a first-generation, Indian-American immigrant.

SHANTHI SEKARAN: Yes.

SHAPIRO: And so there are clear parallels with one of your main characters, Kavya. Why did you decide to dig into this other sort of immigration story, Soli, who comes from Mexico?

SEKARAN: Growing up, my mother was a pediatrician. And the majority of her patients were immigrants. And I knew from sort of hanging around her office and doing her filing and stuff that there were immigrants whose lives were different from mine. You know, I'd see kids come in who I didn't see at school, who I didn't see in my soccer games. So I knew always that there are different immigrant stories out there. And what I wanted to do with this novel was to recognize that disparity and look at the stories behind it and look at the ramifications of the differences.

SHAPIRO: There are so many little details. And I wonder whether they are things that came up in your research or that just came out of your writerly mind. When Soli first arrives in California, she is afraid of the tiniest things bringing out the police. And so there's this moment where you describe her standing at the crosswalk, sort of paralyzed, waiting for the walk signal, certain that if she steps off the curb, the police car will come screaming around the corner, lights and sirens blaring.

SEKARAN: Yeah. I began to gain some inkling of an understanding of what it's like to live without papers and to just have this nagging fear. It's sort of an undercurrent that informs your life. And I learned that from talking to people, from talking, actually, to a psychologist who works with undocumented immigrants and from reading a lot. And then the rest is me, as a fiction writer, trying to imagine and trying to plug this information into my character.

SHAPIRO: Even somebody who is in the country legally, like your other main character, Kavya, has a bit of something lurking over her shoulder. There's a moment in the book where she drives past a farm with the name Harjeet Bhupinder (ph) Orchards. Will you read from this section of the book?

SEKARAN: Sure.

(Reading) Not much surprised Kavya after 20 years in Berkeley. But the name on that sign caught her eye - not that Indians didn't own land. Indians had a hand in most industries, farming included. It's just that they rarely announced it on a sign. Immigrants were supposed to own things quietly. Proclaiming themselves invited the wrong kind of attention, from the evil eye to more immediate retribution. The surest sign of an immigrant business was an American flag on the door. But perhaps this Harjeet Bhupinder felt secure enough not to worry about that. Maybe with this announced identity came the belief - the very American belief - that success and happiness weren't always temptations of fate.

SHAPIRO: So here you have a well-established immigrant whose husband works in Silicon Valley. And she has documentation. And yet, even for her, there's this fear of attracting the evil eye or worse.

SEKARAN: Yeah. I think that the state of immigration is inherently an unstable one. And I think that children of immigrants born in the United States inherit some of that uncertainty even if we live comfortable lives, even if we have a safety net. There's still this idea that something could go wrong. Something could be taken away from us.

SHAPIRO: Ultimately, the book boils down to a conflict between two women with a claim on the same child. And what struck me and everyone I talked to who had read this book was how sympathetic both of those arguments are and how difficult it is to side with one or the other.

SEKARAN: Yeah. When I was first compelled to start exploring this story, it was because I had heard about an undocumented Guatemalan woman whose son was adopted away from her. And I was horrified on behalf of the Guatemalan woman. But I also wanted to know what was going through the minds of these people who had adopted her son away from her. I mean, I assumed that they thought of themselves as good people. So I knew there had to be some complexity in there, something that allowed them to think that taking another woman's son was OK. And it had something to do with love. And it had something to do with a real need to be a parent.

SHAPIRO: Did you ever get in touch with the parents who adopted that Guatemalan boy?

SEKARAN: No Encarnacion Bail, the Guatemalan woman - I actually did speak with her lawyer. That was great. That was a real boon to my research.

SHAPIRO: Did you know, when you started writing this book, how it would end?

SEKARAN: No. In fact, the ending has changed a couple times.

SHAPIRO: Really? Really?

SEKARAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And how do you feel, now that it's set in stone?

SEKARAN: I feel content with it. You know, I don't want to give anything away about the ending. But it's not anti-climactic. And so much of real life is anticlimactic that I really had to access my adventurous side.

SHAPIRO: There really is almost a genre shift at the end.

SEKARAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: It kind of becomes a heart pounder.

SEKARAN: I hope so. A lot has been happening with the heart, from what people are saying with this book. It's being wrenched and pounded and - but I think there's also some humor and renewal and not just things done to the heart.

SHAPIRO: Shanthi Sekaran, thank you so much for talking with us about your new book.

SEKARAN: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: That's our co-host Ari Shapiro, speaking with Shanthi Sekaran sacred about her novel "Lucky Boy." It's out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.