Love and Critique: A Conversation with Sanjena Sathian




OVER THE LAST few years, we’ve seen several second-generation Indian American coming-of-age stories emerge, but few that fuse magical realism and social satire more smartly than Sanjena Sathian’s debut novel, Gold Diggers. Gold Diggers tells the story of Neil Narayan, a teenager growing up in the Bush-era Atlanta suburbs who doesn’t share the same drive as his peers. He falls for his neighbor, Anita, whose family has been brewing a magical potion out of gold, a potion that represents the ambition of the gold’s original owner. The second part of the novel fast-forwards a decade, to Silicon Valley in 2016, where Neil and Anita team up for a gold heist. 

This is a coming-of-age story that explores questions of identity and the uber-competitive culture that runs rampant in Indian American communities. It’s a theme Sathian is familiar with — and the author has followed the creative advice to write what she knows. Like her character Neil, she’s also an Indian American who grew up in the Atlanta suburbs. “There was something to be said about the places that I felt like I came from,” Sathian says, “these suburbs that seem to have no character but actually turned out to have this kind of bustling life in basements and in kitchens — just these like really unsexy places that actually do harbor a lot.” 

Sathian’s initial conception of the novel was what she describes as “somber realism,” and she felt she was writing the kind of book she thought “a serious Brown writer was supposed to write.” It lacked playfulness, Sathian explains. So eventually, she began including more magic and science-fictional elements and thus found a new way into the old material. Even before the book’s publication in April, it generated buzz from Hollywood: Mindy Kaling’s production company has announced that it will adapt Gold Diggers for TV, with Sathian set to co-write.

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VIGNESH RAMACHANDRAN: In popular media, second-generation Indian Americans are sometimes reduced to the “ABCD” stereotype: “American-born confused desi.” But in Gold Diggers, the second-gen characters are far more nuanced. How did you develop the main character Neil Narayan, to break the popular conception of an “ABCD”?

SANJENA SATHIAN: Neil does seem to meet some of the definitions, and maybe our aunts and uncles would call him an ABCD. He probably couldn’t name any of the foods that he grew up eating or make them again. There are these superficial ways in which I think the diaspora judges the supposedly “Indian-ness” or “South Asian-ness” of its second generation, as though your cultural identity can be measured by your knowledge of the food or the language or film.

What I was interested in is this sense that identity is much deeper than Maggi noodles and samosas and Bollywood. It has super high stakes. It has political stakes, it has stakes in the community, like … issues of mental health. There are huge consequences for people who don’t understand themselves because they don’t have a language for who they are. That’s the kind of “C” (confused) part that I was interested in. But confusion has been passed off as this cute thing that is a result of the second generation not being in touch with its roots. But actually, I wanted to get into the whole swirl of confusion at a more existential or spiritual level.

What was your intent when addressing serious issues in South Asian–American communities, such as unhealthy competitiveness and mental health?

I look at my childhood and teenage years now — and even Gen-Z kids. I look at some of the arcs of growing up, and I’m like: There is a terrifying inevitability, watching these communities where everyone is at each other’s throats all the time. Even though, theoretically, everyone supports each other, they’re also really out to get one another.

Of course, that’s going to result in people being on the outside. Of course, it’s going to result in really bad things for everyone’s mental health. I didn’t use language like “mental health” when I was writing this because I was just like: Here are these characters. This is what’s wrong with them, what they’re dealing with.

This is something that a lot of my Asian American and Brown friends would probably identify with. It’s just there. You can’t look away from it now, but I think, when we were growing up, I didn’t have any vocabulary for identifying that there was something sort of pernicious or dangerous going on.

The Georgia part of the novel takes place in a fictional suburb called Hammond Creek. What inspirations did you take from your own childhood in the Atlanta suburbs and what does Hammond Creek symbolize?

Hammond Creek is an amalgam of a bunch of Atlanta suburbs — and it has a lot of the Bay Area suburbs, New Jersey, Texas, Chicagoland. There are these places that the first generation seeks out. They sought out these kinds of places to sort of settle and establish a new community for a lot of reasons. There was a sense that the suburbs were “safe” — of course that’s riddled with components of anti-Blackness and hangovers of white flight. A lot of South Asian Americans emigrated and were swept up into these places or chose to go to these whiter spaces and then created strongholds.

I both understand and am critical of that. I get why you would want to all sit together and have people who look like you so that the public schools that you’re going to have enough Asians that you all feel welcome. But you’ve chosen to exist apart from an American society that might be “bad” for your kids — like that might be somehow dangerous. I get the impulse to create Hammond Creeks, but I also think it comes from a conservatism that I have soured on in adulthood, now that I know what it looks like.

In the book, you write about what you call an inconvenient truth — that,

[d]espite our bubble of Brownness in Hammond Creek, we were, in fact, the minority. That the white kids were still, on average, considered more attractive, more popular. More essentially at home in themselves. That sometimes America baffled us teenagers as much as it did our parents.

How did you think about that sense of Brownness and belonging, having grown up in Atlanta?

When I was in high school, I didn’t have a lot of language around race. It’s also hard to have language to talk about the bubble when you’re in the bubble. Then, when you grow older, you have to develop new vocabulary to articulate your experiences of selfhood and your experiences of growing up, because there’s a cultural vocabulary for people outside the bubble — but you have to invent it when you’re inside one.

In the book, the characters drink a golden potion — “lemonade,” as you call it — that symbolizes ambition, a major theme of the book. What was your “lemonade” growing up that inspired this?

I was a policy debater in high school, which is the kind when you talk at like 300 words a minute — the activity that Neil does after school as well. I started doing that competitively on a national scale as a sophomore, and I was boosted up to debate with someone much older than me when I was a sophomore, one of the best debaters who has ever debated. And I couldn’t keep up. I felt like Neil did that year where I was in situations with a lot of pressure, and I could never live up to it.

But once I started winning, I couldn’t get enough of it. I became addicted to the hope of winning, and then actually winning — like my existence was confirmed if I won a debate. I sort of became a flat creature if I lost because I didn’t know what to do with that loss. I put a lot of my feelings about high school debate into the lemonade.

Because of the book’s inspirations from your real life, are any family or childhood friends going to see themselves in any of the characters?

Everything that gets critiqued in the book is something that I have understood well enough to have embodied. The book can be read as a critique of ambition, but I was one of the most ambitious kids that I knew in high school. So, if I’m taking someone down, I really think it’s me. That has just felt like a really important thing for me to say to friends and family — you might notice a detail borrowed from life here or there, but ultimately, there is love and critique, and both have a lot more to do with versions of myself that I have wanted to correct or investigate. That’s one of the strange things about writing fiction — it’s this ultimate exercise in narcissism and subjectivity because you really only know yourself. But then you have to lend a little bits of yourself to create different characters.

The second half of the book transitions from touching on academic pressures to dealing with other societal pressures later in life. You use the phrase “shaadi-shaadi-shaadi” in the book when referring to Indian weddings, for example (shaadi means wedding in Hindi). Tell us why.

I was about a decade away from my experiences in high school when I was writing the first half, and I was living the experiences of my mid-20s when I was writing the second half. It took a minute to get language for how ambition in an upper-middle-class Asian American environment in high school becomes in your 20s. What it becomes is upward mobility, engagement season, wedding season, marriage season. There’s just this privatization of life that seems to start happening at the end of your 20s and then the start of your 30s.

The whole thing is that you feel it everywhere. You don’t just feel it in Indian communities, you feel it on Instagram. The sense that you’re supposed to be somehow settling into yourself and calcifying by getting married and finding your partner at this age. To me, it seems like just as much of a crazy blind chase as the Ivy-striving does.

The second half of the book takes place in Silicon Valley in 2016, a place where you lived yourself. What influences did you carry over to the book?

I moved out there in 2013 for two years. People kind of knew there was something off about Big Tech, but the full force of what had gone wrong there had not really entered mainstream discussion. In that period, it was just this weird, quirky place where Asians took ourselves for granted. You walk into the LinkedIn cafeteria or the Google cafeteria, and there’s a biryani bar. You walk down Valencia Street in San Francisco, and there’s a hipster dosa joint. There was something so crazy and really beautiful in some ways about being like, Wow, I don’t feel weird here; I feel like everyone is sort of like me. This is maybe what it looks like for Asian Americans who are like me to take ourselves for granted.

The flipside is we’re taking ourselves for granted in an environment of plenty. When I started to realize that, I was like, maybe we haven’t just arrived, but we’ve arrived. This is particularly true of Indians, because of the specifics of how our diaspora was formed, with who was let in and who was given visas.

The Valley was where I started to understand that taking ourselves for granted and being pleased to belong was deeply insufficient, because taking yourself for granted and suddenly just feeling happy to belong, what does that get you if it turns out you might actually be part of the problems in American society?

What sort of research did you do into gold and alchemy, which are major components of the novel?

I can think about two mythical forebears to gold as it plays out in the book — one would be the Indian side, and one would be the American side. I started doing research into the alchemical traditions of China, India, and Europe. Seeing that a lot of the stuff I thought I had sort of dreamt up, like the idea that people would drink gold, some of that has been around for thousands of years as a story that motivates people. I was able to draw on the alchemical stuff without it breaking the existing story line too much, because it was intuitive — it was already there.

We have this story of the American Gold Rush as this moment when Americans pushed the frontiers. We were this ambitious country that wanted more, and then immigrants came and they got in on the action and that “greed is good” kind of thing. But, of course, there were serious consequences to the Gold Rush. I was interested in whether someone who looked like they came from the South Asian subcontinent could have ended up in the middle of the California Gold Rush. And I spent a while reading, and apparently there were not a lot of Indians in the Gold Rush. But then I found this story in the Library of Congress that appears in the book as “The Tale of the Bombayan Gold Digger.” It just seemed too good to be true: my characters are already gold thieves, and here’s this story of an Indian man who is a gold thief.

What are other Asian American works that you recommend?

The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) by Hanif Kureishi. It is an absolutely hilarious story of a young, bisexual, biracial guy growing up in the suburbs, who basically has this sexual coming of age in London’s theatrical scene. His dad is a charlatan, pretending to be a guru in order to charm women. The whole story is so self-aware about the silliness that migration causes an identity. It’s able to be quite a radical novel about class, sexuality, race, and politics because it’s playful.

I’m also super excited about Sarah Thankam Mathews’s book, All This Could Be Different, which is coming out next year. It has a movement with identity that I’ve never seen in a novel with South Asian protagonists. It’s about class and power and work, but it’s also about love. She is so aware of how power impacts identity, but she manages to hold all these big political questions really lightly in telling a story about a group of friends coming of age in Milwaukee.

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Vignesh Ramachandran is co-founder of Red, White and Brown Media and a journalist who covers race, culture, and politics. He’s on Twitter at @VigneshR.

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Banner image: “Symbolic alchemical watercolour drawings Wellcome” by Wellcome Collection gallery is licensed under CC BY 4.0. Image has been cropped.

 

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