Interview: Sanjena Sathian, Author, Gold Diggers‘The American Dream is a deeply dangerous idea’

Published on Aug 06, 2021 07:54 PM IST

A work of social satire and magical realism, Sanjena Sathian’s Gold Diggers, which draws on her experience of being raised in the US by Indian immigrant parents, is built around ambition, alchemy and the American dream.

Author Sanjena Sathian (Tony Tulathimutte)
Author Sanjena Sathian (Tony Tulathimutte)
ByChintan Girish Modi

You began writing Gold Diggers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What pushed you to create this fictional world?

Gold Diggers began as a failed short story which I wrote for a workshop at Iowa. I was interested in the conceit of a mother and a daughter who became gold thieves. But the story didn’t work, and my professor had no difficulty telling me as much! I felt pushed to turn it into a novel, though, because I realized the conceit was intriguing and kept drawing me back in. I originally wrote the story from Anita’s perspective but hopped into Neil’s point of view soon, and after that I could not leave the story alone. Soon I realized I was going to use this conceit to explore many things I’d been wanting to explore for years — the bland suburbs of Atlanta where I grew up, yet where so much immigrant striving took place; also the strangeness of Silicon Valley.

242pp, ₹599; HarperCollins India
242pp, ₹599; HarperCollins India

What kind of close reading, feedback and mentoring did you find most helpful with each draft?

I was lucky to have Ayana Mathis, the novelist, as my thesis advisor in grad school, so she read some drafts. She pushed me to drop out of narration and into scene more often without making me sacrifice Neil’s voice. I also was so happy to live with two writers who became my interlocutors. It can feel dangerous to let someone else into a work in progress, and I’m still very picky about who I let in, and when. But having my novelist and poet roommates literally living with the book as it came into being was rare. I had a few early readers who carefully suggested I cut the draft down (it was about 30,000 words longer than it is now), and who helped me see what was and wasn’t essential. My agent and editor later helped me fine tune the project even further, asking me questions to help open up characters’ inner lives even more, and encouraging me to keep only what was most essential of the zany plot.

How did your journalistic skills help with the research on alchemy and the gold rush in California that found its way into the book?

I didn’t really use journalistic skills. I just read a lot of books from the library! But if journalism taught me anything, it had more to do with maintaining a curious disposition and always knowing to ask more. I wanted to learn about Indians in the American gold rush, and when the first set of books I read didn’t yield information, I just kept plowing and finally found a story of a man identified only as “the Bombayan.” Reporters are persistent!

What convinced you to explore the genre of magical realism in Gold Diggers?

I have always liked magical realism. I grew up reading Rushdie and Márquez and Cortázar, and in my twenties I discovered the American speculative fiction canon including people like George Saunders and Aimee Bender. I think Rushdie has said before that magical realism is not mere metaphor when telling stories of migration and displacement – it’s in many ways an accurate depiction of the condition of being estranged from the place you come from. The “absurd” is actually realistic because real life is absurd for immigrants. Ultimately, Gold Diggers uses a magical realist conceit, but it’s basically a socially realist novel. Yes, there are dashes of Murakami in there, but it also has a lot in common with Zadie Smith and Philip Roth.

Your characters are trying to make sense of what it means to be both Indian and American. How has that journey been for you as a person who was raised in the US by Indian immigrant parents? Neil in your novel says, “I consisted largely of my parents’ ambitions.” How much of that is you?

Well, the refrain of “What does it mean to be both Indian and American?” is actually satirized in the book. I grew up being told that there were “real Indians” like my parents, and then ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis) like me. I think that’s just a ridiculous way to teach someone to think about their identity -- as though the fact that I’m born in America inherently makes me confused. What it does is give me a multiplicitous identity, which is something that writers like Smith and Rushdie have engaged with much more richly. So the book is concerned with identity, but in ways that are less basic than “Am I Indian or am I American or both?”

This gets to what you’re asking about the “journey.” Many diaspora desis were fed very flat ideas of who we were and what India was. It’s no secret that some first generation immigrants in America are far more conservative than people who have gone on living in India. Immigrants arrive with a static picture of the country they left -- which they might have left in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s -- and then they feed that false picture to their children. Then the children are stuck being compared to a false and constructed memory of their parents’ homeland, which they can’t live up to because, well, it was never real to begin with. India today looks so unlike India of 1983!

I did actually come back and live in India on my own in my twenties -- formative years for me. I was a journalist based in Mumbai and I travelled a lot. I developed my own relationship with India, and that in many ways helped me “get over” the drama of that old question that I satirize in the book.

You write about brown parents in a predominantly white country who “collaborated to create a simulacrum of India” in Georgia even as they chased the American dream. According to you, what makes this dream so compelling for your characters, and for contemporary Indians that you know?

The American dream is a fiction that we Americans feed ourselves to believe that there is such thing as meritocracy in this country. This is an appealing idea because, as in books like The Great Gatsby, Americans are taught to believe that it’s possible to remake ourselves entirely, to come up from nothing and wind up rich or famous or wildly successful. Of course, that’s a compelling idea -- so many of us want more for ourselves and our families. And that idea is what brought many Indians of my parents’ generation to the US, especially those who left in the 1960s-80s when the Indian economy was closed. But the American dream is also a deeply dangerous idea because it presupposes that those who aren’t wealthy somehow just aren’t striving enough. And it’s hugely irresponsible of many Indians to not think about how we fit into the perpetuation of the fictions of American meritocracy. The Indian diaspora in the U.S. is socially engineered, as the writer Arun Venugopal has put it (in an article titled The Truth Behind Indian American Exceptionalism published in The Atlantic). We were selected to be upper middle class and highly educated -- we were “model minorities” chosen, in many ways, to prove the American dream is true. But not every immigrant who arrives in the US is showing up for a job in technology or medicine, which means not every immigrant has equal access to the American dream. My novel is written with both empathy for those who are moved by the fiction of the American dream -- I am, and have been -- and distaste for those who buy into it wholesale without considering its contexts.

How did your book benefit from the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour and the South Asian American Digital Archive? What did you learn about your own heritage in the process of working on this book?

I’m so grateful to the incredible scholars, documentarians, community historians, and archivists like Vijay Prashad, Vivek Bald, Barnali Ghosh and Anirvan Chatterjee, and Samip Mallick, all of whom contribute something specific and distinct to the project of documenting South Asian diasporic history. Talk about people who help us get beyond the idea of being ABCDs vs. FOBs (Fresh Off the Boat)! I think history is an amazing place to turn to in trying to complicate and layer the discourse around South Asian American identity. It’s incredibly moving to learn, for instance, about the undocumented workers from Bengal and Punjab who arrived on both American coasts in the 18th and 19th centuries, or about the Ghadar party and the anti-colonial agitations that took place in Berkeley and San Francisco in 1914. There is a history of desis in the US that stretches much earlier than today’s exoduses of doctors and engineers and businesspeople -- a history that reminds us that the relationship between diaspora and subcontinent is dynamic and textured. It reminds us, in other words, that there is no single answer to that silly question “what does it mean to be both Indian and American” -- we have to do the work to understand how many ways people’s lived experiences have responded to that question.

Mindy Kaling’s production company, Kaling International, has already optioned the film and television rights for Gold Diggers. How do you feel about seeing your characters on screen?

I’m excited! We’re in very early stages, just pitching the adaptation to networks soon, but I’m excited to explore these characters’ worlds in new ways. It’ll also be somewhat radical to see a majority Asian American cast of characters on TV, if we are lucky enough to make the show.

What are you doing to nurture other writers? Would you mind sharing your plans for the Bombay Writers’ Workshop and other writerly initiatives that you are part of?

I started the Bombay Writers’ Workshop last year, in 2020, but wasn’t able to hold the inaugural session in person due to the pandemic. Instead, I held the course online. But my hope is to bring the kind of creative writing education and community I got at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to artists of all ages and skill levels writing literary prose in Mumbai. The bulk of writing is a solitary act, and you can’t really teach someone how to do that. But I can help writers who want to better their sentences or learn more about story structure or just read others’ work. Last year, the online course was pretty incredible -- a talented bunch of people in both India and the diaspora. I always hope to pay it forward by passing on to other writers whatever small knowledge I’ve gotten from my teachers and friends.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect

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