An undocumented immigrant’s struggle to regain parental rights over her American-born son fostered a novel idea for Shanthi Sekaran.
“It was one particular story of a Guatemalan woman who was having her child adopted away from her and was trying to get him back,” says Sekaran, who heard the news on NPR. “With a news report, you get a three-minute, four-minute synopsis at most, and I wanted to understand what was going on—why both parties, on either side of the equation, were doing what they were doing.”
“As a fiction writer, my strength lies in finding truths through invention,” she says, “so my impulse was to create a story that fell along similar lines.”
Sekaran is the author of The Prayer Room (2008), a professor of creative writing at California College of the Arts, and a first-generation Indian American from Berkeley, California. Her hometown serves as setting for the sophomore novel, Lucky Boy, the story of Ignacio El Viento Castro Valdez, a two-year-old American citizen caught between two families who adore him.
Solimar Castro Valdez, 18, fled the small town of Santa Clara Popocalco, Mexico on account of big American dreams. However, crossing the border came at great peril and exacted innumerable costs. When Soli finally reunites with her cousin, Silvia, it’s not the triumph she envisioned.
“Now that she had arrived, her happiness had time to establish its landscape,” Sekaran writes. “And it was not pure. Her happiness was terrain pitted with melancholy. The end of her journey brought with it the realization that Santa Clara Popocalco was behind her, perhaps forever, and that she would never again be the Soli she’d once known so intimately.”
Silvia lands her a plum housekeeping job for a seemingly kind family, but Soli soon learns she’s pregnant—possibly by Checo, a love she met and lost on the northward journey. When her son is born, she becomes a full-time nanny to the Cassidy’s daughter, Saoirse, and is able to keep the baby, who she nicknames “Nacho,” at her side. But a mishap with the girl leads to a run-in with police, landing Soli in an immigration detention center and Nacho in the foster care system.
As Soli struggles, Kavya and Rishi Reddy lead a very different sort of Berkeley life: Kavya is an independent, charismatic professional chef; Rishi is a handsome and successful engineer at Weebies, a Google-ish corporation run by Silicon Valley wunderkind Vikram Sen. The sole blemish on their “Indian-offspring-model-minority life” is childlessness.
“[L]ooking at children drove a jagged blade through [Kavya], left her riven and weak,” Sekaran writes. “She’d stopped speaking with friends who were pregnant, had stopped attending showers. She vaguely and irrationally worried that the infant supply would be tapped out by other lucky women—that in the great heavenly handout, no babies would be left for her.”
They try sex, fertility drugs—everything—before settling on adoption. On their first visit to a foster home, Kavya makes an instant connection with Ignacio, even though it’s not the child they’ve been called to consider. The next day, the Reddys set in motion plans to bring Ignacio into their family.
“I chose the title ‘Lucky Boy,’ because I was thinking about Ignacio as a lucky boy, both sincerely and somewhat ironically,” Sekaran says. “Very sincerely, in that he has these two groups of people who love him and want him—he is lucky for that—but also somewhat ironically. Lucky boy, but look what was blowing up around him without his knowledge.”
Soli and the Reddys are soon embroiled in a legal battle over the boy, facing media scrutiny, protestors, lawyers, and family strife. The emotional toll is wrenchingly wrought.
“Why did people love children who were born to other people?,” Sekaran writes. “For the same reason they lived in Berkeley, knowing the Big One was coming: because it was a beautiful place to be, and because there was no way to fathom the length or quality of life left to anyone, and because there was no point running from earthquakes into tornadoes, blizzards, terrorist attacks. Because destruction waited around every corner, and turning one corner would only lead to another .... [Kavya had] built her love on a fault line, and the first tremors had begun.”
Sekaran hopes that Lucky Boy will engage a wide readership—especially those unfamiliar with the challenges today’s American immigrants face.
“It’s is an important issue for me,” she continues, “because my parents were immigrants who were given a workable way to live legally in the United States. My life has changed because of that and their lives changed because of that. It bothers me that there are people who can’t have that simply because they come from a certain country [and] their skill set or national origin doesn’t fit with the boxes that we’ve set up.”
“I want people to see that there isn’t actually much of a difference between a documented immigrant and an undocumented immigrant,” she says. “They want the same things for their children, they have the same hopes and fears. It’s a matter of paperwork.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.