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Lucky Boy – Shanthi Sekaran

3 May

In a nation overtaken by arguments about immigration and the building of walls, Shanthi Sekaran’s new novel

underscores the complexity of the situation.

But immigration issues are more than a decorative backdrop in Sekaran’s novel. They provide the disturbing context for its premise: two women fighting for the right to raise one child, one of them the birth mother, the other unable to conceive a child of her own. The former is a young, undocumented immigrant in the U.S., who works as a nanny-housekeeper for a Berkeley family. The latter is an affluent daughter of successful Indian immigrants who made California their home in the 1970s.

I thank the Muses that we live in the San Francisco Bay Area midst so many talented, astute, and diverse authors. In recent years, we were fortunate to host Mary Roach, Lalita Tademy, and Nayomi Munaweera at our women’s literary dinner. This year, we were lucky to dine and talk with Shanthi Sekaran.

Given the current state of immigration upheaval in the U.S., Lucky Boy is certain to raise even more questions about longstanding failures related to immigration detention, deportation, and the fate of children of undocumented immigrants.

However, other questions tend toward the personal: What defines motherhood? What is most important when raising a child? What do we mean when we consider the best interests of a child?

Two narrative threads course through Lucky Boy, one of Soli, the teenager from a tiny village in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the other of Kavyah, a 30-something, second generation Indian-American living near the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley, California.

Kavya, a chef, enjoys a privileged life, one where the greatest challenge turns out to be getting pregnant. When we’re first introduced to her, she and her husband, Rishi, are getting ready to attend the wedding of one of her childhood rivals and friends.

“Preeti Patel was getting married and sealing forever her victory over Kavya. Over the years, the girls had grown from playmates to rivals and begrudging friends. To be fair, it was Kavya who begrudged; Preeti was endlessly gracious, completely unimpeachable in her maintenance of friendship. Preeti was infallibly interested and interesting, and if she felt superior to Kavya, she never spoke of it, never mentioned her own achievements. That was left to the mothers.”

On the other end of the immigrant spectrum, we have Soli, an 18-year-old desperate to leave her dead-end village.

“She was leaving! The promise of it stoked a flame that blazed through her….Already, this existence was nothing but a distant prick of light. Electrified by the promised of forward motion, Soli stretched up to kiss the sky, growing and growing, until she too was a flaming tower, a castle of light, sparking from the eyes, spitting streaks of joy.”

Part of the desperation stems from being abandoned by a succession of boyfriends and romance who, one by one, have all left for America.

“Popocalco offered no work, only the growing and eating of a few stalks of corn. When the money left, the people followed, except for the very poor and very old….always the same faces…not exactly waiting to die, Soli believed, but not quite living, either.”

Soli, an “Indio,” shares only the pleasant details of her former village life with her employers, the Cassidy family. She keeps the “thinner times” to herself.

“You don’t know poverty until it’s you who has to feed and clothe your children, her papi used to say. Poverty is a pit that rumbles in your gut. You squash it down and pack it over with family and drink and music, but still it rumbles, threatening any day to erupt and send you and everything you know careening down a hillside.”

How did Soli and Kavya’s story come to be? Sekaran described hearing a brief report on NPR in 2011 about an undocumented Guatemalan woman who was being threatened with deportation and fighting to be reunited with her child. The court ruled in favor of the adoptive parents. Horrified, Sekaran sought to understand how seemingly good people could be so eager to take this woman’s child. In the process, Lucky Boy was born.

Sekaran researched the case she’d heard on NPR. She also talked with adoptive parents, immigration lawyers and their clients, social workers, and infertility specialists. She read policy reports, including how current detention practices violate immigrants’ rights. And she shadowed a chef so she’d know what it was like to cook on a massive scale for a sorority house.

When it came time to revise her early draft, she studied the way Toni Morrison played with time  in her novel, Beloved. Sekaran then used similar techniques to shape the temporal structure of Lucky Boy, skillfully intermingling flashbacks with current events.

The novel raises many questions, including What defines motherhood? What is best for a child? What is the motivation behind wanting to take away another woman’s child? And on a more political level, How does our current immigration system create untenable situations and fail on so many levels?

I was gobsmacked by this book.

Having written for California Rural Legal Assistance, I had some idea about how horrific the trip across the border can be for those without documentation, but to feel it through the story of a teenage girl who’s filled with so much yearning for a better life? This, my friends, creates a form of empathy that intellectual knowledge and statistics cannot. The sheer weight of the details add to the pain. I had no idea that immigrants are being detained and moved to detention centers that are sometimes no more than tent encampments. They may not have proper clothing or bedding for cold weather even if their detention center is not heated. They can be abused (and often are) by their guards and treated like criminals.

And despite having committed no real crime, they are treated as if they have no rights. They often have no idea where they’re being taken or held, or when they’ll be transferred either to another facility or across the border. They have little access to any form of communication with the outside world, including lawyers. It’s a Kafka-esque system. One that fills me with dread when I put myself in Soli’s shoes.

The only difference between these unlucky immigrants and Shanthi’s parents? The U.S. government wanted her parents and their medical skills, similar to immigrants today who have desirable technology expertise.

Yes, this is tough subject matter, but there are also frequent moments of humor that ring so true, you may smile or laugh out loud. In a conversation between Soli and the cousin she has sought out in Berkeley, Soli’s cousin exposes the irony for many living in the Bay Area:

“‘Nobody here has any goddamn money,” Silvia told her. “Even the people who have money don’t have money.”

Soli asked why.

“It’s their houses, their houses are vacuum cleaners that suck up all their money. Those pretty trees? Money. Those nice flowers? Good paint, no water stains? Money and more money.”

“But they have homes. That’s something.”

“Mortgages,” Silvia said. “They don’t have homes. They have mortgages.”‘

Thus begins the education of Soli.

The story heats up when Soli’s status is discovered, she’s detained for deportation, and also separated from her son, who’s placed in foster care with Kavya and Rishi.

Against all odds, from the confines of multiple detention centers (where phone privileges are given or restricted arbitrarily) she tries to fight for the rights to her son. After days, possibly weeks, of being given only intermittent access to a phone, here is Soli on the morning of the first custody hearing. A guard has told her the phone “isn’t working.”

“But there was the phone. Soli could see the phone. The phone existed.

Soli tried a different tack. ‘Senora, they are taking my son away from me. I need to call the court. I will lose him. The phone in the office? The office phone?’

Her jaw clenched. ‘Get back to your cell.’

‘I need the phone.’

Silence.

‘I need the phone.’

‘I’m calling backup.’ She looked slightly frightened.”

Weeks of frustration, desperation, isolation, and sleepless nights come to a head.

“‘I need the phone,’ Soli growled. She shoved the guard to the side and ran for the phone, but the guard was faster and stronger….

‘Don’t put me there. Please don’t put me there. Please.’

A door opened to a cushioned sunlit closet. The hands threw her in, and she bounced off a wall and landed hard on the padding.

The door shut.

From a skylight, the sun glared down.

Hours came and hours went. Somewhere in Berkeley, people were walking into a room, saying things about Soli and her son….The night passed. She didn’t move.”

Compare this to Kavya’s preparations for the hearing.

“The morning of the hearing, Kavya woke up, showered, dressed, and vomited. It happened so suddenly that she had no time to lunge for a trash can. One second, she was fastening her top button and the next, she found herself covered in a yellow sheet of bile…When she got to the kitchen, her mother was waiting. She’d asked her to babysit that day, had explained to her the reason for the hearing, the possible outcomes…something in her wanted her mother there, in case things went very badly, in case she needed to come home, quit her job, and crawl into bed for days.”

Clearly, lives will be shattered no matter the outcome of this dispute, as lives will most likely continue to be shattered in this country for the near and perhaps distant future. But if Sekaran’s novel can open some eyes to the devastation wrought by our national policies and immigration system, then perhaps the future will change for the better.

I hope so.

Thank you to Shanthi Sekaran for writing such a beautiful and important book. I can only hope that it gains wide readership.

 

 

 

Harlem: A Poem by Walter Dean Myers

14 Apr

In honor of National Poetry Month and Perfect Picture Book Friday, I’m shining the spotlight on a brilliant Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Award Winner from 1997:

“They took to the road in Waycross, Georgia

Skipped over the tracks in East St. Louis

Took the bus from Holly Springs

Hitched a ride from Gee’s Bend

Took the long way through Memphis

The third deck down from Trinidad

A wrench of heart from Gorree Island 

A wrench of heart from Gorree Island

To a place called Harlem

Harlem was a promise

Of a better life, of a place where a man didn’t

Have to know his place

Simply because he was Black.”

 

Thus begins a tactile and rhythmic journey through Harlem. This book may have been written twenty years ago, but it feels quite contemporary. Current nonfiction writers are increasingly telling the stories of people, events, or places with similar atmospheric details and poetic language. Walter Dean Myers was far ahead of his time.  

The only thing missing is back matter. The names of people and places are sprinkled throughout, but if you want to know more, you must do the research. If this book were being published in 2017, you can bet the back matter would be rich with details, including a timeline with key events and people as well as author/illustrator notes. 

Although Walter Dean Myers has passed, I would love to see a new edition of this book published, complete with back matter and an illustrator’s note from Christopher Myers, Walter’s son. 

The collage illustrations add so much texture to the poem that I would recommend reading the picture book. However, if you just want to immerse yourself in Myers’ poem, here’s a link to the text of “Harlem” online. 

Title: Harlem

Author: Walter Dean Myers

Illustrator: Christopher Myers

Publisher: Scholastic Press, 1997

Target Audience: Everyone

Return from the Abyss

22 Sep

Summer slips away, leaving room for Fall. The first order of the day is to talk for a moment about a friend’s book of poems, Selene by Michael Odom. 

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Don’t turn your back on her

I see this book as a reflection of an obsession. A woman. A sorceress. A corpse. An eternal ambivalence, love and hate. The cover uncovers, revealing the darkness within. It is not an easy read. But then, poetry can be unsettling. A way of seeing that slices through the dailiness to a core that may be exquisitely ugly. But it is real, and we cannot turn our guilty gaze away from the disaster. Just the opposite. We hope to understand more about our own lives the longer we stare at the ruins of others’.

The opening poem lets the reader know that men will not get off easily in this book:

“The simple strength of men who never know,

Their muscle-coats, their steel, their robotic wars,

Their Scantron lives lesson-planned in their brains,

The blows they give and take to the head, sports,

Their races to finish lines, walks to start,

Ready-go guns, their disciplined controlled

Resilience, their climbing grasps, like primates,

For leafier nests, prettier mates, shinier cars,

And Power, the lying god, their angry work

Ethics with long old ages dreaming TV

And beaches and golf, their nearby balls-of-dust

Planets they reach for and prayers to a ghost,

Big man boasts…I know a boy much smaller

Who carries in his pocket a collapsed sun.”

For what it’s worth, I can’t help but think that the boy is the poet’s sun. Pun intended.
The reading pendulum will swing completely in the other direction tomorrow with a new title for Perfect Picture Book Friday. And then a rec for a new YA or two next week. Some Middle Grade novels…Stay tuned! Looking forward to catching up with everyone in the blogosphere.

What Lies Between Us – Nayomi Munaweera

29 Apr

This past Saturday, a friend and I hosted a women’s literary dinner at my home. The guests of honor were Nayomi Munaweera

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and her devastating new novel, What Lies Between Us.

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First, a little background.

Fifteen years ago, Nayomi was earning a PhD in English Literature when she realized she wanted to write fiction instead of WRITE ABOUT fiction. So she dropped out of school (cue parental angst), moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and spent the next decade working various jobs while writing Island of a Thousand Mirrors, a novel about the Sri Lankan civil war and its effect on families. 

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Nayomi’s preferred cover

The novel won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region, was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and was chosen as a Target Book Club pick this past January. Here’s the Target cover:

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This latest edition includes information about Nayomi’s family (including photos), book group questions, recommended further reading, and a sneak peak at the first chapter of her new book, What Lies Between Us.

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This new novel explores the much more private trauma of sexual abuse, mental illness—including postpartum psychosis, and its impact on families. It depicts the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship bound by a thin strand of desperation with the tensile strength of a spider’s web. A strand that extends to a new baby girl, a strand that will come to break.

“Motherhood. With her birth a new person is released in me. A person who has nothing to do with the person I was before. I had not known until I crossed into this new land what would be asked from me. What is asked is everything.”

The novel also shines a light on how patriarchal and class-based cultures pressure women to make choices that follow others’ expectations rather than their own preferences. And how patriarchy fashions a woman’s sense of self as a reflection in someone else’s eyes. And that reflection is often fractured, missing essential pieces.

Early on in the novel, the narrator tells us “It was something I learned then. That you could take the crumpled remains of something destroyed and smooth them into newness. You could pretend certain things weren’t happening even when you had seen or felt them. Everything done can be denied.”

But much later, she capitulates: “Nothing is forgotten or finished. All of history is lodged in the earth, in the water, in the strata of our flesh.”

Nayomi shared the background behind her story, saying that women who kill their children are often considered monsters. She wanted to explore what was hidden behind that label. What were the stories behind women such as Andrea Yates who drowned all five of her children in the bathtub? Nayomi’s research found that these women often do show early signs of distress, but no one really understands just how close to the edge they are until it’s too late. Similarly, the young mother in this novel is surrounded by co-workers in the medical profession and other intelligent people who don’t fully comprehend the depth of her struggles. 

San Francisco Chronicle writer, Anita Fellicelli, gave What Lies Between Us a stellar review. She wrote: “Trauma is rarely captured in literary form with as much fiery intensity as it is in Nayomi Munaweera’s devastating second novel, What Lies Between Us…the novel sinks into the kind of heart-wrenching darkness found in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’…It’s a testament to the power of Munaweera’s dazzling, no-holds-barred storytelling that the novel’s climax still feels shocking.”

I agree. This book shattered me.

And I must disagree with the Kirkus reviewer who lauded the book before saying: “The melodramatic framing device only distracts from the crystalline precision with which Munaweera renders the richness of the immigrant experience as well as her character’s singular longings, fears, joys, and demons.”

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That statement left me wondering if the reviewer was male, because every woman I know who’s read this book did not think of the story’s setup as a “melodramatic framing device,” but as real life fallout resulting from sexual abuse and/or mental illness, experiences that many women share. Experiences that are often hidden from consciousness while heavily influencing the course of their lives. Some end up killing themselves or becoming society’s monsters.

So, be off with you Kirkus! To me, it’s not so much about the “richness of the immigrant experience” as about the darkness that lurks within too many women’s lives.

Nuff said.

 

Cry, Heart, But Never Break – Perfect Picture Book Friday

1 Apr

I was so moved by another writer’s beautiful post about grief, including a picture book recommendation, that I wanted to share it for Susanna Leonard Hill’s PPBF. Here’s the book:

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And here’s the post. Enjoy!!

http://joycorcoran.com/2016/03/30/convergence-grief-books-life/

Title: Cry, Heart, But Never Break

Author: Glenn Ringtved

Illustrator: Charlotte Pardi

Publisher: Enchanted Lion, 2016

Umberto Eco – On Memory, Books, and Computers

22 Feb

Umberto Eco died on February 19, 2016. He was a brilliant man who wrote fascinating books. 

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He also had an encyclopedic memory. Here’s a brief interview filmed by David Ferrario. In the interview, Eco discusses memory, computers, and a terrifying future. 

For those of you with serious book envy that may trigger a Pavlovian response, have your drool cups ready at minute 5 of the interview (with English subtitles). 

Who will inherit that labyrinthian library?

LitQuake – The Bridge Between Fiction and Nonfiction

13 Oct

The conversation last night, between two Pulitzer prize winners—Adam Johnson


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and TJ Stiles Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 4.28.49 PM

kept me scribbling notes while I tended bar. Yes, I volunteered to work the event.

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Adam Johnson and TJ Stiles

Johnson recounted how his journalism professor would identify all of the false quotes he had created while reporting on community meetings, quotes that Johnson thought told the truth about what wasn’t being said. His professor wisely steered him toward fiction, clearly the best fit since Johnson believes that the facts don’t always get you to the truth, whereas in fiction, the narrative becomes the “meaning-making machine.”

Stiles explained how writing biographies about individuals allows him the scope to talk about the world, something that his biographies are known for—societal perspective. He has a new book about General George Armstrong Custer, Custer’s Trials, coming out Oct. 27, and it’s already generating buzz. Look for it! 

But what I really, really, really, really want to talk about is this: Both Pulitzer winners explained how they seek to find the humanity in those who may be considered tyrants, murderers, or even monsters.

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Finding the humanity in their subjects allows them to construct believable characters, whether it is Cornelius Vanderbilt or Kim Jong Il. 

This attitude is sorely lacking in our current public discourse where we end up demonizing politicians, people who are pro or anti abortion, pro gun or anti gun, etc…..I could go on ad nauseam. I’m thinking that listening and recognizing an individual’s humanity might take some of the wind out of HATE’s sails. And that would benefit us all. 

I’m scarce this week and the next month or so for two reasons:

1) We just bought a house! EEk! Double EEEK! in San Francisco!! Triple EEEEk! I think it was the 7th? house we put an offer on since May. And as I’ve said: Buying a house in San Francisco is like winning the lottery in a parallel universe. When you finally win the bidding war, you are no longer certain that you have won. In any case, we are swamped with moving “to dos.”

2) LITQUAKE!!!! Hundreds of authors, a packed schedule of events, culminating in Litcrawl on Oct. 17. 

Soooo, please be patient with me…..

Oh, and here’s a link to the New York Review of Books Interview between President Obama and Marilyn Robinson. It speaks to this topic quite nicely.

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