Contemplating Attachment and Separation
Shanthi Sekaran’s “Lucky Boy” tackles complex issues.
Photo by Daniel Grisales
A new novel by Shanthi Sekaran acts like a double-edge sword that simultaneously slays and soothes the soul with complex and ultimately love-affirming narratives.
Her first novel, The Prayer Room (2009), told the story of an impulsive marriage between an Englishman and an Indian woman and the family they created. The cross-cultural clash blended tension and humor in episodic scenes, featuring language satisfyingly rendered in gorgeous prose, astute descriptions of place, and earnest investigations of the Indian diaspora.
Lucky Boy (Putnam, 2017), Sekaran’s sophomore book, builds upon the first novel’s strengths and takes on a hot roster of topics: legal and illegal immigration, fertility and infertility, biological and foster parenting, freedom and incarceration, motherhood and fatherhood, and complex moral questions.
The 39-year-old Sekaran grew up near Sacramento, the setting for her first novel, and lives with her husband and two young children in Berkeley, where Lucky Boy takes place primarily.
“My characters definitely stay with me after a book is done,” she said. “They’re people I knew, people I created. It’s abstract: They walk with me as a presence.”
Which means that Ignacio El Viento Castro Valdez, the 2-year-old American citizen around whom Lucky Boy’s narrative swirls, is not explicitly imagined as squirming adorably and reaching for animal-shaped cookies while she’s in the grocery store. Nevertheless, Sekaran zeroes in on the themes of mother-child attachment and separation. “Mothers inspire and teach each other just by living our lives. We’re constantly watching each other, sometimes in a positive way, sometimes judgmental. [The mothers] in Lucky Boy in some form or another yearn or are separated from their children.”
Sekaran says she has gained “more mellow” perspectives on her own children’s eventual departures through her writing. “Life, college, or just maturity will take them away from me. I don’t distance myself as a result. Instead, I’m more engaged with my children because I see that basically everything with them is temporary. All things will pass: I either roll with it or treasure it.”
Lucky Boy has Solimar Castro Valdez (Soli), the biological mother of Ignacio (Nacho) crossing illegally into the United States, landing a plum job as a full-time nanny, and giving birth to her son. After misfortune causes her to be detained by the police, Soli is incarcerated in a detention center. Ignacio is placed in the home of Kavya and Rishi Reddy, a handsome, young Berkeley couple who’ve depleted their savings and relationship with failed infertility treatments.
Kavya bonds and re-nicknames the foster child “Iggy.” Rishi, too, comes to adore him. Their lives as an independent professional chef (Kavya) and an up-and-coming air-quality engineer (Rishi) seem assuredly happy. They make plans to permanently adopt Iggy.
It would spoil the experience to disclose the ending—which Sekaran changed completely during drafts. “It wasn’t doing justice to the plot. When you’re writing over a period of multiple years, your characters change because you, the writer change.”
It took four years to write Lucky Boy. Preferring to write in cafes with “low-level activity and noise,” she eschewed small round tables and searched out locations with “straight lines and big rectangle tables where I can physically spread my body and put my elbows somewhere,” she said.
Along the way, Sekaran’s research revealed truths and lessons: the warmth of foster parents, the courage that drives immigrants, the fleeting nature of memory. She gained appreciation for freedom after realizing that she has always “lived in a bubble” in which her physical life, principles, and opportunities have been protected.
“Writing a book is like having a child—labor and delivery. I still have a fresh idea of how much work it took to write this book. I’m waiting to forget that.” In the meantime, the problems facing the United States are compelling and leading her to write more nonfiction articles and essays. “I want to engage in the world we’re in right now. The state of immigrants, the new president, the political moment.”
Sekaran said that when she’s rejuvenated, she might attempt a novel that takes place in a single day. “So much can happen; that might be my next book. I’m just waiting to think of what story goes in it.”
Published online on May 5, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.