The new novel "Lucky Boy" is a tale about immigration, privilege and motherhood. Its author, Shanthi Sakeran, visited us at Take Two to tell us about the book and the themes that motivated her writing.
What is the story of "Lucky Boy" about?
‘Lucky Boy’ is about two women. One of them is a young, undocumented Mexican woman named Soli who we follow across the border from Mexico up into Berkeley, California. And when we get here, she ends up pregnant and has a baby. And sort of early in the novel she gets picked up and put in detention and her son gets put with foster parents whose story we also follow, Kavya and Rishi. They take young Ignacio in and they fall in love with him. And they kind of want to keep him. And that's where our dilemma arises.
Why was it important to tell Soli's and Kavya's stories side-by-side?
With Soli, I wrote her as a mother. And I really wanted to know what it was like to be in a country as a mother, as sort of the guardian of a child who is American. And because it was very important to the structure of my story that she lose hold of her child in some way. And I wanted also to understand the people who ended up with Soli's child, and that would be Kavya. So the structure of this story necessitated two sides.
What was it that made you want to explore the theme of immigration in the U.S.?
I chose to look at immigration, I think, because it's sort of, in a way, what I always write about. It comes up again and again in my writing. And immigration, in some sense, is the ultimate story. It encompasses every plot type. Slaying the beast, and the hero's quest, and tragedy and comedy — I think it's the greatest story that can be told. And it's really, in so many ways, the story of America and the story of today's America.
How did your own family's story influence how you approached the book?
My family's narrative was relatively privileged. My parents came over in the '60s. My father was a medical graduate and he was given a visa; he was given a job. They did have to face the loneliness. They did have to face some ignorance and probably some bigotry as well during those early years, especially when there were very few Indians in the U.S. It did give me a way to look at what's happening in America today with people who are much less privileged, who really have to fight just for their right to be here.
Why set the story in Berkeley, California, of all places?
I set this book in California because, for one thing, it's where I live. It's really what I know. I chose Berkeley specifically because it's a very interactive environment. You are constantly coming up against other people, against minor conflicts and triumphs and great moments when you live in a place like Berkeley. I wanted to give that to my Mexican character especially; I wanted to give that to Soli since she was a newcomer. And I also wanted to set this in California, in a liberal setting, because I wanted to show that you don't have to be surrounded by bigotry, you don't have to be surrounded by terrible conditions in order for your life to be swept out from under you.
What do Soli's and Kavya's experiences say about achieving the American dream today?
Something that I've been thinking a lot about lately is, what defines the American dream? I think that that's something that's been defined differently for people for as long as there's been an America. We have people who come to the U.S. who are simply trying to stay alive. We have people who are literally running for their lives. We have people who have been here for generations, whose pursuit of happiness involves stability and a home and family. And they can complexify that pursuit a bit more than someone who's really just trying to survive. With Soli and Kavya, Soli is trying to establish a life here. Her pursuit of happiness starts with just trying to shed that alien feeling. Whereas for Kavya, she's grown up in the U.S. She is an American — an Indian-American. And her pursuit of happiness has more to do with fulfilling the roles that she has decided are important for herself. Like being a mother. Like having a good marriage and a job that she's happy with. And a lot of her life has been about negotiating what others see as happiness and what she decides is right for her.
Part of the American dream, and I think a very consistent part of the American dream, is the idea that you can come to this country and work hard and make something of yourself and establish a future for your children. What I see is that we pave the way differently for some immigrants over others. I don't have a policy answer to propose to this, but I would love it if people started to think about this and question who we value and why? And who deserves to come here and how that's changed over time?
* Quotes edited for clarity.
"Lucky Boy" author Shanthi Sakeran will be at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena Friday at 7 p.m. for a reading and book signing.