Shanthi Sekaran, an East Bay Belletristic Star
From Jack London to Gertrude Stein to Michael Chabon, the East Bay has a rich literary history and present. Meet Shanthi Sekaran.
Photo by CC Campbell
Berkeley novelist Shanthi Sekaran is no stranger to juggling multiple identities. She’s a mother and a writer; a writer with a day job (currently teaching at Oakland’s Mills College); an American child of Indian parents who’s lived and worked abroad and whose creative work almost always has “an element of immigration.”
“I tend to look at privilege a lot, whether that’s financial or geographical,” Sekaran said recently over coffee in front of the Highwire trailer at Solano Avenue’s Flowerland.
Her own parents were immigrants who arrived in the United States in 1965, her mother leaving her third year of medical school to follow her dad to a new job in the States.
“She came over here and her whole family was pissed off at her,” Sekaran said. “She had my two brothers and went back to India with a two-month and an 18-month-old on her own and she finished med school.”
After her mother rejoined her father in the states, Sekaran was born, and the family bounced around, ending up in Sacramento before she headed off to college at UC Berkeley and then to Johns Hopkins for a master’s in writing.
“That’s where I wrote my very first novel that’s never seen the light of day and probably shouldn’t,” she said with a laugh. But she did taste her first success while there, publishing a short story in 2004 that made it into the Best New American Voices anthology.
From Baltimore, she headed to Germany and then England — getting married along the way — where she taught academic writing and began working on what would become her first novel, The Prayer Room. The novel, about a marriage between an English professor and his Indian wife, was set in Sacramento and was written just as her parents were selling their house and leaving the state capital. “It was really saying goodbye to Sacramento that made me want to write about it,” Sekaran said.
San Francisco publisher MacAdam-Cage took on the novel, just as the house was on the verge of going bankrupt. The novel made its way to the public in 2009, though the publisher wasn’t able to offer much support before it folded. But it was a start. “For a lot of first novelists, this is what the goal is, to become part of the literary world and set yourself up for your next novel,” Sekaran said
“I started to meet other authors. I was still living in England [and completing a Ph.D. in creative writing] and I had just had a baby when the book came out,” Sekaran said. “My day-to-day life [before publishing a book] was me pushing a pram around and going to Tesco and buying milk.”
Jump forward a few years, and Sekaran was ensconced in Berkeley, where she finished a dissertation on representations of food in South Asian literature and came up with the idea for her newest novel, Lucky Boy, which would eventually be an NPR Best Book of 2017.
Since her prior publisher had shut down, Sekaran had to find a new publisher. It wasn’t an easy road and the novel was rejected multiple times. Now a mother of two, Sekaran worked on revisions while her new infant napped. Finally, after two years of rejection, she found a boost from the members of San Francisco’s home-for-authors, the Writers’ Grotto (she’s a member though rarely works there, tending to write in East Bay cafes instead or even booking a solo Airbnb for the weekend to get away from parenting her two children, now 5 and 11.)
She sent out a plea for help to the group’s whole email list. The support she received was astounding. “People took me to lunch, to coffee, and gave me the pep talks I needed,” she said. “I went at it for one more summer, really worked and made some major changes. I started thinking of it more as a book about California, rather than just the story of two women. I started to see it as a larger narrative.”
The work paid off. A few months later, there were three publishers vying to buy rights to the novel, which chronicles the fierce love two women — one a Mexican immigrant who’s taken into immigration detention, one a middle-class Indian-American foster mother — have for the same boy, the biological son of the first woman.
The novel, published in 2017, received critical and popular acclaim. Library Journal wrote that the book “humanizes current discussions of immigration, privilege, and what it means to be an American.”
Tackling the story of a Mexican immigrant wasn’t without risk. “I was pretty nervous when it came out,” Sekaran said. “I didn’t know how it would be received by the Latinx community but I think that there’s been a lot of appreciation that there’s been someone outside of the community that chose to tell a story like that.”
Interested in plugging into the East Bay’s literary community? Check out classes at Left Margin Lit, events at the Octopus Literary Salon, or visit one of our many indie bookstores.