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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.

 

 

 

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors – Perfect Picture Book Friday

21 Apr

As we prepare to do battle in the name of science on Earth Day tomorrow, I thought I’d put the spotlight on the legendary battles being played across the country, the ones happening in school yards, classrooms, and perhaps during dinner when children are challenged to eat their vegetables, no matter how odious.  

Picture book writers, you are about to be schooled in voice by Drew Daywalt.

“Long ago, in an ancient and distant realm called the Kingdom of Backyard, there lived a warrior named ROCK. Rock was the strongest in all the land, but he was sad because no one could give him a worthy challenge.”

And so poor rock battles an assortment of unworthy opponents, including a clothespin and an apricot from grandma’s tree in the back yard. But he finds no joy in his easily won victories.

“Meanwhile….

in the Empire of Mom’s Home Office, on lonely and windswept Desk Mountain, a second great warrior sought the glory of battle. And his name was Paper.”

So paper fights his own battles with other unworthy opponents, including the printer and a half-eaten package of trail mix in the garbage can. Alas, heavy-hearted Paper must journey to distant lands to find a warrior who is his equal. 

“At the same time….

in the Kitchen Realm, in the tiny village of Junk Drawer, there lived a third great warrior. They called her SCISSORS, and she was the fastest blade in all the land. She, too, was unchallenged. On this day, her first opponent was a strange and sticky circle-man.” 

Yes, you guessed it, a tape dispenser. Victorious, she turns her attention to an unruly group of breaded dinosaurs in the refrigerator. The results aren’t pretty. Scissors, too, must journey beyond her realm to find a challenging opponent.

And so these three great warriors are destined to meet. 

Ingenious. Laugh out loud funny. A marvelously illustrated and engaging read aloud. I predict this book will never go out of print. Ever.

For those of you who would like to know a little more about the history of “Rochambeau,” you may turn to the following resources:

Is Rochambeau named after the French army general who served during the American Revolution?

Rock-Paper-Scissors (history and mathematical analysis)

Title: The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors

Author: Drew Daywalt

Illustrator: Adam Rex

Publisher: Balzer & Bray (Harper Collins) 

Pub Date: April 4, 2017

Target Age group: Anyone who’s ever played Rock Paper Scissors (Rochambeau)

The Salamander-ish Sully Competition

22 Mar

Despite the fact that “salamander” reminds me of slander, and that the definition of “sully” falls in line with slander, I am entering the Sully Competition because I—well, who can resist entering a competition where one of the prizes is an official Sully certificate from the fabulous Mike Allegra, children’s book author, playwright, freelance writer and editor, etc, etc, etc, etc? The rules: 200 words max, ANY genre (including picture books) except poetry, plays or screenplays. And only one entry. Deadline is March 28. You, too, could win. 

Here is my flash fiction entry:

Fairy Tale

By Jilanne Hoffmann

 

The truth lies beyond her knowledge, somewhere silent, dry, and hostile. A desert where life just mummifies.

Toenail clippings lie scattered on a table near her worn recliner. Does she still have toes?

“Peter!” she yells, although he stands behind her. “You been sitting in my chair?”

“No, Mother,” Peter says, then tries a joke. “And I haven’t been eating your porridge, either.”

“Laid these toenails here like breadcrumbs just to tease me? You gonna put me in the oven?”

“No Mother,” Peter whispers, then looks square at her face. He lifts her hand and squeezes. Tries to bring her back. “Think now, you wouldn’t fit inside the oven.”

Peter smiles.

She peers into his eyes, searching for understanding, for forgiveness, for a memory. Comes up empty.

He stoops to kiss her forehead.

“How can that be?” she says, voice narrow and suspicious. She wipes a hand across her brow to shoo away his scratch of beard.

“What about the big bad wolf?”

Peter takes a breath, prepares to lie, and falters. “The wolf? I’m scared, too, Mother. We all are.”

The doorbell rings.

“Peter?”

“Here Mother, hold my hand. We’ll pretend that we’re not here.”

 

 

The Power of the Pen

24 Feb

I wrote this post in May of 2012 after reading an article in the New York Times. Seems fitting since the Times was just barred from a White House press conference. Chilling…

Jilanne Hoffmann

I love the quote mentioned in today’s New York Times (5/14/2012), regarding a march instigated by a group of Russian writers just wanting to take a protest stroll (against Putin’s crackdown on dissent) through central Moscow without being harassed, beaten, arrested, etc. :

“Russian history is full of confrontations between leaders and writers, whom Stalin once described as ‘engineers of the soul.'”

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The 2nd Annual Valentiny Contest FINALISTS!!!

21 Feb

Woohooo! I’m a finalist! Check out the stories and vote for the one you like best! Woohoo!

Susanna Leonard Hill

Okay.  So this is the part where we pretend it’s Monday morning instead of Monday fashionably late evening 🙂

(Don’t look at the clock!  You’re only imaging that it’s nearly midnight and basically Tuesday for all intents and purposes!)

You have only yourselves to blame!

There we were. . .

Three innocent judges minding our own business, confident in our ability to choose a group of finalists for this contest, happily gobbling heart-shaped chocolates whilst sipping delicious coffee from writerly-themed mugs, glasses perched, pens in hand, ready to make informed decisions, and . . .

. . . WHAM!!!

We were blind-sided by such a landslide of unrivaled entries that we quickly found ourselves overwhelmed by awesomeness to the point where we had to drag in an extra judge to help settle disputes that threatened to become physically violent!

A certain amount of knock-down-drag-out-fighting confusion ensued over what, exactly

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Cupid’s Heart Finds a Home

11 Feb

Thought I’d come back to life for a moment and enter Susanna Leonard Hill’s Valentiny story competition. Rules: 1) story must contain a character who is confused, 2) be no more than 214 words, and 3) be written for kids to enjoy. Well, maybe I’m entertaining and distracting myself, too, in these troubling times. So here’s my 214-word story….

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Cupid’s Heart Finds a Home

 

By Jilanne Hoffmann

 

Dear Stupid Cupid,

Last year, you gave me a green candy cane. I barfed. Please don’t do that again.

Disgustedly Yours,

Gertie

*****************

Dear Hurty Gertie,

You hurt my feelings. It’s not nice to call someone stupid.

Sorry you’ve been sick. I know nothing about candy canes or the color green. I only know about chocolate, the color red, and hearts. Maybe you have me confused with someone else?

Cluelessly,

Cupid

******************

Dear Clueless and Confused Cupid,

Sorry to hurt your feelings, but I’m sure it was you. Speaking of red, you wear a red suit, don’t you?

Sincerely,

Gertie

******************

Dear Gertie,

No, I wear my birthday suit.

Warmly,

Bare-bunned Cupid

******************

Dear Birthday Suit Cupid,

Now I’m confused. My birthday’s in June, but I got the candy cane in December, along with a bunch of toys. Does your mom really let you go outside naked?

Flabbergasted,

Gertie

*******************

Dear Gertie,

I have no family, no home. I’m just a lonely cherub, spreading love and chocolate around the world, not toys.

Sadly,

Cupid

*******************

Dear Sad and Homeless Cupid,

Please come live with me! You can sleep in my room, and I’ll give you clothes to wear. We’ll hide the chocolates under my bed.

Your friend,

Gertie

********************

Dearest Gertie,

On my way! Happy Valentine’s Day!

All my love,

Cupid

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Now, if I were a lit major, I’d read between the lines and realize that this story is really about becoming a little less selfish and welcoming those who need a little extra love and support into our homes. 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

Spring Night (After Wang Wei via Robert Okaji)

10 May

Well, it seems I’ve been inspired by one of my favorite poets, Robert Okaji.

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Spring Night

(after Wang Wei via Robert Okaji)

 

Dogwood petals sigh in spirals, blessing my recline.

Spring darkness rests on hollow muted hills

while moonlight strikes the owls awake,

their hoots slipstreaming through ravines.

 

Unlike Robert, I named the birds and took liberties with the tree petals. I’m writing a new rhyming picture book right now, so this detour was a welcome respite. Feeling a little spring-feverish. Ahhh—ahhh—Cheers!

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