A Conversation with Shanthi Sekaran, Immigration, Villification, and The Story behind the News Story
What inspired you to write Lucky Boy, and what is the significance of its title?
I’d heard about immigrant parents stuck in detention centres as their children were being adopted away from them, and I was struck first by the very fact that this was happening – that this could happen. I then immediately wanted to know the story behind the news story. I wanted to understand the people involved in these adoptions. So I started researching the novel that would become Lucky Boy. The title refers to Ignacio, the little boy who is born to Soli, but fostered by Kavya when Soli is detained. The word lucky is mostly sincere. Ignacio is absolutely fortunate to be loved and wanted by two sets of parents. But it’s also ironic, because this love destabilises his future.
The time that was taken to craft a factually and emotionally accurate story is incredible. Can you talk us through your planning and research for this book?
I knew from the outset that I was taking on a big project with Lucky Boy, and punching above my weight in terms of what I knew. So [researching is] where I started – reading personal testimonies and watching documentaries about immigration and La Bestia. I emailed people and interviewed every immigration lawyer or policy expert or adoptive/foster parent willing to talk to me.
In terms of Trump’s recent immigration decisions, why do you think your book is so important?
But in the atmosphere of the Trump presidency, storytelling itself – and the recognition of an immigrant as a human individual – is an act of rebellion.
Trump’s immigration policy – the plan to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, the general vilification of immigrants, the portrayal of undocumented immigrants as criminals and nothing else – relies on the idea that undocumented immigrants don’t have individual stories. What my book does is simply to tell the story of one fictional undocumented young woman – from her first steps away from her hometown to her journey across the border to her establishing a life as a mother and worker. But in the atmosphere of the Trump presidency, storytelling itself – and the recognition of an immigrant as a human individual – is an act of rebellion.
What do you hope your book can help achieve, especially in terms of the immigration situation today?
I hope someone reads it who thinks they have immigration all figured out, because my primary goal here is not to answer questions, but to ask them. Immigrants themselves – as we see with Soli and Kavya – are as varied in experience and privilege as their histories are.
There is now a stronger sense of fear felt among immigrants worldwide, and particularly in the US. How do you think your book would differ if you were writing it during President Trump’s administration?
I’m glad I wrote this during the relatively calm Obama years. I was able to take my time layering and building this story – it took me about five years in total. If I were to begin this novel now, I think I’d very much feel the burden of Trump’s immigration policy. I’d feel the panic of what’s happening to undocumented immigrants now, in America.
What encouraged you to tackle such a deep, and now incredibly topical, issue as a fiction book?
It’s my strength. I understand the world through story. I process what I don’t understand through dialogue, by playing out scenes in my head. I think a lot of us do. When I started hearing about real-life immigrants fighting for custody of their children, my first impulse was to wonder about what they were feeling, what the parents adopting their children were thinking and feeling.
What is the most important role that fiction can play in tackling such issues as Lucky Boy does, in regards to immigration, family, privilege and motherhood?
Story is a great way to welcome someone to an issue. Our brains are neurologically more receptive to story than statistics, especially when we’re faced with situations we don’t understand or don’t agree with.
How did your own experience as a mother shape Lucky Boy and the crafting of its characters?
I couldn’t have written this book before I had kids. For one thing, I now understand the everyday nitty-gritty work that goes into being a mother. This is something that Kavya – the foster mother – takes on as wholeheartedly as Soli. It’s that daily, dedicated, loving work that makes someone a mother, no matter what their official title is.
What influence, if any, did your own family heritage and history play in writing Lucky Boy?
I’ve grown up with a constant, ongoing narrative of the immigrant experience. I think having parents who are immigrants from India has given me some respect for the complexity and depth of the immigrant experience.