Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Born and raised in Sacramento to parents who immigrated from India as medical professionals in the 1960s, Shanthi Sekaran finds that her background continually informs her work. Her first novel, The Prayer Room, (MacAdam/Cage; 2009) is the story of Viji, a young Indian woman who marries an American man, moves to Sacramento, gives birth to triplets, and navigates culture clashes as an immigrant in 1974 America.
Sekaran’s second novel, Lucky Boy (Penguin Random House; 2017), opens with Soli, an undocumented immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico, who finds work as a housekeeper in Berkeley. After giving birth to a son, Ignacio, Soli’s life goes terribly awry when she's placed in immigrant detention and sent out of California. Her baby is put in the care of two thirty-something Indian-American professionals, Kavya and Rishi. From there, the novel delves into complicated and harrowing stories of motherhood, and explores how the bonds of love develop and forever alter families, biological and otherwise.
Sekaran, who attended UC Berkeley as an undergrad and lived abroad for a few years before returning to California, is an adjunct creative writing instructor at St. Mary’s College and the California College of the Arts. She lives in Berkeley with her husband and two sons, ages 4 and 9.
In a recent interview you said: “I want people to see that there isn’t actually much of a difference between a documented immigrant and an undocumented immigrant.” Can you talk about how this informs the themes and plot of Lucky Boy?
Like any writer of fiction, I had to approach Lucky Boy partially through plot, but really, deeply through character. My goal was to create a vibrant and full character [in Soli]. That kind of inherently connects to this idea that an undocumented immigrant on the inside is not much different from any young woman anywhere—who is trying to make something for herself, who finds herself in various types of trouble, who finds herself in a struggle. Being undocumented didn’t make her inherently different, didn’t affect her moral framework, it didn’t affect her humanity, the human struggles and triumphs that she goes through. Those can be found anywhere in this world, regardless of status. Her undocumented status informed the trajectory of her story and shaped what was going to happen to her. But the undocumented status was not her.
My husband’s parents are immigrants from Hong Kong, both now U.S citizens. I’ve been thinking about the different forms that immigration takes in the United States — who is seen as a legitimate immigrant and who is demonized. What's your experience with that been like?
I’ve written a lot about that. My parents struggled. They dealt with being taken advantage of in the workplace, and with various sorts of ignorance and racism. But they had the privilege of being here with legal documentation and a way to live and save and put down their roots. That’s something that people struggle with now, even though they come over with their own skill sets and similar hopes.
Motherhood is an important part of Lucky Boy’s plot. How has motherhood impacted your writing process and the themes in your work?
Motherhood raises the stakes for everything in your life. It raises the stakes for the emotional connection you can make to other people and to characters. I think it sharpens your ability to empathize because you’ve produced something from your body that you’re so emotionally connected to. And that goes for adoptive parents as well — they forge these extremely strong emotional connections to someone outside of their own body.
In terms of how motherhood has helped me as a writer, I think back to my first novel. In The Prayer Room I gave my protagonist triplets; this was before I had children. I kind of just gave her triplets as a plot point. I had no clue. I had no idea what I was doing to the poor woman. Or how big of a story that actually is of itself. Having three children at once. That would be the novel. I think [motherhood] has given me a better understanding of the mechanics and the shape of being human.
Are there certain places in the Bay Area that trigger your creativity?
Walking is really important. I walk a lot to Indian Rock, which is in my neighborhood. I’m in one of those neighborhoods in Berkeley with tons of secret stairways and little pathways, and I like wandering around the hills where I live. It’s not the place, it’s the action of walking that helps me. And frankly, I have a lot of my connective, good ideas in the shower. I don’t know why. But I was realizing that the other day. Whenever I come up with a key to the books that I’m writing it’s been in the shower. Something about water.
My philosophy is to support independent bookstores, and, when you find one that you like, to support the hell out of it. So I spend a lot of my time at Pegasus Books on Solano Avenue. I like walking over there and seeing what’s around. I love that they get to know their customers. They start to understand what certain neighborhoods and cities are into. It’s important to have people on the ground who know what people are reading.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
My ideal future would involve a lot of funding for women artists. And opportunities for young women and girls to be exposed to the arts at an early age through the public school system, in a way that doesn’t involve tons of fundraising. Just to have it worked into the framework of public education again.
In terms of craft and the aesthetic, I want to see a world where women don’t have to be representatives of anything. They don’t have to be the “woman artist” or the “South Asian artist.” They could just be themselves. I’d like to see a world where we have anomalies and contradictions between female artists without a demand that they deliver a certain message or represent a certain group.
I’d like to see the art scene follow the trend it’s on now; it’s growing more and more complex. People are more daring with what they are willing to say about themselves and their experiences. I like seeing that. I also think that we are in a political atmosphere now where just telling someone’s story and humanizing them can be a revolutionary act. I appreciate the women who are digging deep, taking risks, and not following the demands of the mainstream and the status quo.
Curious about who else made the list? Check out the Women to Watch series page, including photo galleries, interviews and videos. Do you know a Bay Area artist who is doing amazing things? We want to hear from you! Highlight her efforts using #BayBrilliant.