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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.

 

 

 

USA Election – The Graphic Novel

9 Nov

This is the United States of America:

 

This was the USA during the presidential campaign:

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This is the USA today:

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This is my dream for the USA:

To get there, this needs to happen:

And then we’ve got to stop doing this:

And start doing this:

The END

Listen to Your Mother – video release!!!

14 Jul

So while I’m frantically revising picture book manuscripts to take to Highlights Summer Camp

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Fake picture of me….

 

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The Real Me

 Listen To Your Mother released the 2016 videos from shows in 41 cities. As promised, here’s my piece in the San Francisco Show! It was a privilege and an honor to be on stage with such amazing women. Cheers!

Summer Life Saving

17 Jun

I hadn’t planned on going to my niece’s wedding. She was getting married in Orlando last week and had planned a large party/reception for friends and family in Illinois in early July. In honor of her grandparents (my parents) who had been married 65 years, she had decided to get married on their wedding anniversary, June 10.

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But when I received my niece’s email, asking friends and family to send or bring a rock to the wedding, I knew I had to go. You see, my mom LOVED rocks. She once chased a Caterpillar D10

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working on road construction through a field on her little John Deere

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to ask the driver if he would push a mountain of a boulder onto the farm ground. He did.

My niece learned to love rocks—well, that might be a stretch—she learned to wash the landscape rocks that surrounded my parents’ house. My mother believed that the landscape should be washed every spring, and the grandchildren (once the kids were grown and gone) were just the people to help her do it. So my niece learned to LOVE washing rocks.

It was natural that she would want rocks for her wedding. They’re a symbol of a strong foundation, right?

I got the email and immediately knew I had to TAKE the rocks to Florida, not ship them. We boated over to Angel Island, scavenged one large 10-pounder, one fist-sized, and a handful of smaller green stones called serpentine. Perfect! I would skimp on clothes and carry these in my luggage.

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Yes, the TSA left their calling card in my suitcase. They must still be shaking their heads, wondering why anyone would cart around a bunch of rocks.

Anyway, I delivered those rocks and myself to Orlando four days later. The ceremony was quite moving, with my nephew telling his rock story during the ceremony. A few months earlier, he had been shopping for a First Communion gift for a family member and saw a pile of rocks at the store. One read something along the lines of “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The saying reminded him of his grandfather’s calmness and how he dealt with stress. The second rock he picked up read “This Too Shall Pass,” his grandmother’s favorite saying. He decided those two rocks were meant for him, and he bought them along with a communion gift.

Then a couple of months later, he gets this request from his sister to bring rocks to her wedding on a date that honors their grandparents. So instead of keeping those rocks for himself as mementos of his grandparents, he gave them to his sister. (Yes, he is a fantastic guy!)

Really, those two rocks were my parents’ way of sneaking into the wedding.

Now, fast forward a couple of hours after we all head out to the hotel pool complex.

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We’re settling in, when my sister-in-law passes by a couple of people shaking the arms of a little girl lying on the pool deck. They had just pulled her from the water, and she’s not responsive.

Sooo, my sister-in-law grabs my niece and nephew (her kids) who happen to be physician’s assistants. They find no pulse and begin lifesaving techniques that include an inverted heimlich with the girl’s head below her waist. My nephew tries to activate the little girl’s gag reflex by sticking his finger down her throat. (Someone calls 911. Concerned bystanders suggest laying her flat. NO! Don’t do that! They also suggest giving her a glass of water. REALLY??) Still no response, but the heimlich is pumping lots of water out of her. My nephew tries again and again until he gets a gag from her and she begins to vomit water and food. Another few seconds of heimlich with her head down and she’s still vomiting but begins to cry. Success!!

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In honor of the wonderful world of Disney

Paramedics arrive, give her oxygen, and prep her for heading to the hospital, where she will stay for observation.

Two days later, I leave for home and get a text with a photo of my niece and nephew “meeting” the little girl and her babydoll at the hotel after she was released from the hospital. I’m not going to show it here because I don’t have a release from her parents, but suffice to say, I cried when I saw all three of them together and smiling.

Soooo, everyone, it’s summer swimming pool season. Please be vigilant. This was one of two bright spots (wedding, too!) in a horrific week for Orlando. Watch those swimmers, and if they don’t know how to swim, keep them in floaties whenever they’re near the pool. The one shown below snaps behind the child’s back, so they can’t take it off themselves. 

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Remember, a child slips below the surface without making noise. Be watchful, and listen for silence.

Life, Love, and LTYM Show – San Francisco

21 Mar

When my son was three, he was fascinated by all things siren-related. One night in the Mission District of San Francisco, an ambulance was parked outside the restaurant where we were eating.

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No emergency, just hungry paramedics waiting for their “TO GO” order. 

When we left the restaurant, my son ran to the ambulance and peered inside the open sliding door. The next thing I knew, a paramedic was asking him if he’d like to see his heartbeat.

What! 

My son was too shy to agree, but I wasn’t. So the paramedic hooked me up to the heart rate monitor, and we all watched as a paper tape began unfurling from the machine.

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“This is what your mama’s heartbeat looks like when she’s loving you,” the paramedic said.

I still have the copy of that printout, but it’s stored in a box of my son’s baby memorabilia in the garage. Maybe I should frame it with the paramedic’s words and give it to my son for his 18th birthday. 

But I digress….I want to tell you about last night.

Listen To Your Mother – First Rehearsal

In a political environment bent on emphasizing our differences, I’d like to ask: What do all moms have in common, other than being female? Maybe the question should be “What do we all have in common”?

It’s that person whose food, body, and oxygen we shared for the first nine months of our lives. The heartbeat that will forever reverberate in our subconscious.

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MOM

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MOM

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MOM

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MOM

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MOM

As I listened to ten women share their diverse stories of motherhood and then added my own voice to the mix, I contemplated just how wide and deep this ocean of experience is. And while each story is unique, I found myself nodding, laughing, or crying in recognition. The emotional core was all that mattered.

The joy, pain, anger, loss, fear, laughter, and—love. The love that lives and simmers below the surface of all those other emotions.

For those of you who can’t join us at the Listen To Your Mother show in San Francisco on May 6, 2016, LTYM will post the video of our performance (along with 40 other shows from around the country) on their national website.  When those videos go up, you’ll be the first to know.

Last year, the show sold out two weeks in advance. So I’ll let locals know as soon as they go on sale. But if you live in a city that’s hosting a LTYM performance, by all means GO!

I promise, it will be an amazing night, a celebration of the beating heart, otherwise known as life.

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Justice For All?

26 Jun
The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
 

Laurel Leigh, a dear friend, colleague, and co-founder of the Dogpatch Writer’s Collective, has an essay published in the July issue of The Sun literary magazine. It’s a devastating story about her nephew who’s serving a life sentence for killing a toddler, a crime he did not commit. The story will pierce your heart, and I hope it turns more than a few heads who might be able to “do something.”

In writing this story, Laurel has bravely shared her family’s struggles. But she has also DONE something.

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“We Should Do Something”  by Laurel Leigh

 

 

 

Death and Poetry – UCSF Memory and Aging Center

18 May

I few months ago, I wrote about my out-of-body experience (spending the evening with a couple of exes)

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Crossing the velvet bridge

compliments of the University of California San Francisco Memory and Aging Center, where death and dying was discussed through the medium of poetry.

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield, poet and the Hellman Visiting Artist at the center (2012-13), led the evening that left me exhausted and exhilarated.

Here’s the link to all of the poets/speakers that evening: UCSF Memory & Aging Center, Poetry & End of Life.  Each video is listed separately.

I want to draw particular attention to Frank Ostaseski, Founder of the Zen Hospice Center in San Francisco. He recites a death poem written by an elderly woman (Sono) who had been homeless before coming to the hospice center to die. The poem, a gift to herself and to him, was cremated with her body.

Ostaseski starts talking about Sono at minute 12:00. The poem is finished at 15:45, but I think you might want to watch to the end.

Ashes to ashes. Let’s raise a glass and toast to our unworlding.

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Cheers!

For after all, it is truly part of living—until we are no more.

 

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