Photo credit: Tony Tulathimutte

Sanjena Sathian’s novel Gold Diggers marks the arrival of a gifted and imaginative writer. Set primarily in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, in the early aughts, Gold Diggers is narrated by Neil Narayan, a well-intentioned teenager struggling to balance the expectations of his Indian immigrant family and community with his own desires for success, belonging, and love. A deft coming-of-age novel suffused with magical realism, alchemy, history, romance, and a knowing humor that pokes at the realities of second-generation immigrant experiences in 21st-century America, Gold Diggers is a whip-smart and surprising debut. We’re excited to present it in Volume 91 of Indiespensable

Rhianna Walton: When did you first become interested in alchemy, and what inspired you to incorporate it — and magic more generally — into the novel?

Sanjena Sathian: Well, I should say the whole thing started pre-magic. Gold is such a big part of the Indian culture, Indian American culture. Then it, obviously, has all these parallels in American culture too.

I started out by being interested in this spate of gold thefts that had happened in Atlanta when I was growing up here. Large amounts of gold were being stolen from people’s homes, Indian American homes in the suburbs. People outside the community were arrested for these crimes, but my mom always said someone from inside the community must be involved because it seemed like the people stealing knew exactly where to go in the houses: Go to the guest bedroom. Look for the large suitcase big enough to take on the travels back and forth from India to the U.S. I started by being interested in that germ. Who could be stealing from within the community?

When I started writing this, I was writing almost exclusively speculative fiction, even though, over the course of my career, I’ve written realism too. I do realism and surrealism. I was in speculative-fiction brain. Every realist idea I had automatically got transmuted into magic in this really interesting way. I knew that I wanted to write about people stealing gold, but I wanted to have a magical balance to it. Of course, there’s this long history of people who drink gold or try to make gold to consume.

It’s much more interesting to me to think about what this material has meant spiritually, religiously, magically, than materially and economically. That’s obvious. Everyone has that. How fascinating that across cultures this thing has signified something more powerful than economic security, that it has signified immortality too.

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Rhianna: Gold Diggers explores some of the ways gold lust manifested in early American history. Something I found especially fascinating was “The Tale of the Bombayan Gold Digger” a document Neil (and you) discover that dates back to the 1800s. Where did you first encounter it?

Sathian: I get so excited talking about this because I feel like historical adventuring is this incredibly nerdy thing that authors get to do when they do this research. I already had the contemporary details when I started looking into the histories of alchemy and the gold rush.

A lot of the novels I love are in communication with history and I knew that I wanted this to be in communication with history. I started doing this reading about the gold rush.

I read general histories. I started reading about international figures in the gold rush. We know that a lot of Chinese people came during the gold rush, and Chileans and Australians. There was no widespread evidence of Indians until I found a Library of Congress archive that had a German travelogue that was published later in the 19th century.

The very last tale in this German travelogue was called, I think, “The Tale of the Hindu.” It was a story of this guy from Bombay, and he was called a Bombayan, which no one from India would ever call someone, and it was thrilling to be like, Wow. This is a story of an Indian accused of gold theft in this incredibly American context.

It was also really dark because it was the story of a quasi-lynch mob. A bunch of people accusing this man of theft, and he didn’t have the language to defend himself, and so they beat him.

I just was obsessed with wondering if this man had been OK, if he was from India. If he was from India, how had he gotten there? Because it was too many ships for most people to take. It was one ship to get there from China, Hong Kong, or Singapore, but you would have had to make more journeys to get out from under the thumb of British Empire.

I became consumed with trying to understand this man’s position in American history. When I couldn’t find much more evidence of him, I was at first sad because I was like, I wanted this to be a 50-page chunk in the middle of the book.

Then I realized that my own sadness over this was going to be part of this subject and I was going to give that frustration to Neil, the narrator, when he is trying to do this research for himself. In that sense, it gets to be this commentary on erasures in American history, which is something I think about all the time.

Rhianna: I was also fascinated by this story, and really enjoyed Neil’s enjoyment in discovering and writing about the Bombayan. It made me think about how the stories we make up for ourselves are every bit as good, or maybe better, at defining who we are than the more verifiable historical and cultural narratives that we’re told construct us. I feel like that’s a moment in the novel where Neil is discovering that.

Sathian: That’s such a beautiful way of putting it. I think that is the American experience. We’re a culture that loves storytelling. I learned that my senior year when I first took an American studies class with an amazing English teacher.

We were reading Beloved, and we were reading Whitman, and we read All the King’s Men, which is a touchstone for this book. So much of that essential American narrative is about narratives compounding on themselves.

I think that’s something that’s been really interesting to see people rethink in the last couple of years, too, as we start to realize collectively and culturally what has been left out, what has been a lie, and what is wrong with the narratives that we’ve built the whole country on.

It became clear that Anita was my outer self and Neil was my inner self.

Rhianna: Absolutely. Were you ever tempted to turn the story of the Bombayan into a novel?

Sathian: I sort of did. I’m very much a vomit drafter, rather than what my professor in college, Anne Fadiman, called a diamond-polisher, which is where the sentences come out perfectly the first time.

I throw away a lot of material, and I threw away basically a little historical novella that started with the Bombayan in 1849 and took him and his descendants all the way through the middle of the 20th century.

I had this obsession with West Coast history, which does involve a lot more Asian American stories. I did a lot of research into this group called the Ghadar Party, which is basically a group of revolutionaries who gathered in Berkeley around 1914 and plotted against the British Empire from afar.

I basically got too carried away. It was something else. One of my early readers and friends, the novelist Andrew Ridker, was like: “Put it away. It might be book number four, but just be glad you’ve done that research, and you can come back to it.” [Laughs] It just didn’t belong in this book.

Rhianna: I would totally read that novel!

As a reader, I try not to read too much autobiography into fiction, but there are some clear parallels between your life and those of your characters — Atlanta, debate, academic achievement, cultural background. How did you decide to explore some of these issues through a teenage boy’s voice?

Sathian: I actually originally started writing the book from Anita’s perspective, but for some reason, she wasn’t fun for me. Maybe she was too close to me. She was just so intense and musing, and also, the whole thing is that she’s devoid of an inner life in high school because ambition has thinned her so much.

It became clear that Anita was my outer self and Neil was my inner self. Yes, I’ve been this high-achieving parody of the model minority, but inside, I really have always had this burnout, anti-achievement streak to me that is not visible from the outside.

There’s a lot of pain that goes beneath that level of high achievement. Neil ended up getting to be one part of me, and Anita was the other part of me. Then I had to fictionalize her to make her way hotter in order to actually have a love story between them, because you can’t have a love story between your two halves.

The other thing that was really enjoyable about getting to write Neil and feeling freed from some of my own gender identity stuff is I used parts of the guys I hung around with all the time in high school. I took Neil’s screen name, neil_is_indian, from my friend and former debate partner, Rajesh, who said it was OK for me to use his screen name, which was rajesh_is_indian.

He even gave me the password to his old email to try and let me read what our Gchats used to look like and just really inhabit that old teenage voice. It was really fun. It gave me a sense of play, and it freed me from, I think, the strict constraints of pure autobiography.

Rhianna: You do it so well. I didn’t want to look you up until after I finished the novel, because both Neil’s and Anita’s voices are so authentic that I couldn’t determine if the author was male or female.

Sathian: I love to hear that. It’s funny, because my brother read the book, and he was like: “I thought it was so cool that it’s not autobiographical, and you chose to write from a teenage boy’s perspective, and it’s just someone else’s story.” I was like, Squint, look again. That is very much me.


Rhianna: You mentioned the pain behind attaining a high level of achievement, which is a major theme in the book.

Without giving too much away, there’s a suicide in the novel for which some of the characters feel culpable. Much later, Anita gives a speech blaming aspects of the community, like groupthink and unreasonable expectations, for the tragedy. Are these issues you observed growing up?

Sathian: I did spend a lot of time looking into some statistics and aggregate ideas about Asian American mental health when I was doing revisions to make sure that I wasn’t doing that section irresponsibly.

I think it would be unfair to say that it affects everyone. In fact, it seems possible that some of the suicide rates are actually lower in Asian American communities than other communities. There are studies that say collectivism can help with preventing suicide.

That section definitely shouldn’t be read journalistically, but more as Anita’s point of view, which is my point of view, that there are factors both within the community and outside the community that I would say injure the inner life.

Is it my job to write about identity? How can I write about anything but identity?

The stuff within the community is this desire to highly achieve which was true of my subculture of Indian America. That pressure coming not from our parents, because there’s this idea of tiger parents, but look, I internalized that. I did that to myself.

My peers and I did that to each other. It’s not totally fair to blame the first generation. The other thing that I think is an important framing around that is there are external factors.

The “model minority myth,” which is so dangerous and so injurious and is racist, comes not from Asians being innately smarter or good at math. We, particularly the Indian American diaspora, were basically constructed and selected for through immigration policy between 1965 and today.

In order to emigrate, particularly as an Indian American, you have to be a so-called high-skilled worker. It’s really hard to get here if you have other skill sets. That’s why the Indian American community is so disproportionately wealthy and highly educated in these white-collar professions.

It’s really important to keep in mind that there are external factors that cause this injury too and that it’s not only within the community.

Rhianna: One question that resurfaces quite a bit throughout the novel is: What does it mean to be both Indian and American? It’s satirized through the Miss Teen India USA pageant, but it comes up enough that it takes on some weight. Neil in particular is dismissive of it, but also preoccupied with it — he seems to feel that dual identity unmoors him from history and any kind of trajectory.

The novel’s continual reengagement with the question made me curious about how you, as the novelist, feel about it; in particular, given the novel’s themes of immigration and identity, did you feel like you had to posit and try to answer it?

Sathian: I love that phrase, “unmoored from history.” First of all, I think that’s such a stunning way to think about what it feels like to have a hyphenated identity.

I think, as a novelist, I have some frustration with the idea that I’m somehow supposed to write about identity, that someone might come to the book and want a tour of my community.

At the same time, you’re writing your world into existence, like that thing people say about writing the book you don’t just want to read but kind of need to read. I think the book is grappling with, Is it my job to write about identity? How can I write about anything but identity?

The way through that, for me, artistically, is to realize that identity is not a small topic and that it doesn’t segregate you. Or if we’re lucky and readers read us the way we hope to be read as minority writers, it doesn’t necessarily have to segregate you from a mainstream story.

I place a lot of faith in the idea that you can access the universal through the particular. I think all the time about Philip Roth, about Zadie Smith, who I wrote my thesis on in undergrad, and how to me those two novelists’ work accesses these larger stories about their community but also other communities.

Zadie Smith has this incredible essay called “Speaking in Tongues” that is about residents of what she calls Dream City, where people have multiplicitous identities. How incredible is it that I read her work and I am not a biracial woman from London and yet some part of me is there in her work.

I have the same experience with reading Roth, who is now treated as an old white dude writer but in fact started his career as a minority writer. He then wrote his way to these universal, great American stories by being so particular about identity. Really just being like, I’m chronicling my community.

I have no idea if that answered your question. I just wanted to rant about my favorite writers.

Rhianna: I’m so glad you did.

I interviewed the novelist Chang-rae Lee recently about his coming-of-age novel My Year Abroad, which is also, in his words, a book about immigrant striving and ambition. Something he suggested is that living without that drive is a privilege of the comfortable, and something he experiences as real, personal loss.

But with Neil, I feel like what pours into the absence that ambition leaves is storytelling and creativity, and an openness to the narrative potentials of history that allow him to pave an original path.

Is that loss of immigrant striving that Lee identifies something you think about or share in?

I became consumed with trying to understand this man’s position in American history.

Sathian: I think I understand it. Maybe it’s that I’m younger and so haven’t fully experienced the loss that he has.

A person who I’ve been in intellectual private conversation with a lot is Viet Thanh Nguyen, who once addressed a conference that I attended and was like: “We should have the right to be mediocre.”

Maybe this is sort of the dialectic of the immigrant experience. I’m in this stage of saying, Let us be mediocre, and maybe by the time I’m a little bit older I’ll have a different perspective.

For me, I’m still incredibly ambitious. It requires a kind of arrogance to try to tell a story at all, so that is an ambition. I haven’t lost that. But I think, in some ways, the book isn’t even necessarily a critique of ambition. It’s just kind of an observation of how ambition both makes and unmakes a community.

If it’s a critique of anything, I think it’s a critique of narrow achievement culture, that there are only certain kinds of ambition that are rewarded within and outside the community. Maybe it’s kind of a plea to permit other kinds of ambition. Yeah, not mourning it yet. [Laughs]

Rhianna: We haven’t talked about the lemonade yet, but to me, part of what’s so wrong about it isn’t the gold theft, but that it puts Neil on a path forged by someone else’s ambitions, and away from the stability that comes from accepting who he is and what he loves.

Sathian: It takes him away from who he might be, but I also don’t know who he would be without it. In the same way that I have no idea who I would be if I hadn’t devoted 40 hours a week all through high school to policy debate.

I sometimes wish I knew, but the truth is it is just this almost inevitability, I think for some of us, that there’s just no way to become ourselves without these injurious, poisonous drinks, so to speak.

I think a lot of adulthood for some second-generation folks is trying to suck the venom out and figure out what else we can be now. That’s exciting, but it’s also scary because it feels like a reinvention to try and pull off in your twenties and thirties that other Americans potentially get to try when they’re in their teen years.

Rhianna: That’s so interesting.

A lot of what Neil and Anita and even Anjali are dealing with are universal issues — What or who can I be? Will I find love? — but I wonder if the added weight of being a second-generation child, living with the expectations of your community, your parents, your own internalized ambition, makes that a more harrowing experience.

Sathian: I think that there is a universal, particularly American experience about achievement culture.

I had an Australian friend who was at grad school with me who once read an excerpt from a classmate’s novel-in-progress about this teen girl from Kentucky who wanted to grow up and be an actress in LA. This Aussie girl was like: “That seems incredibly arrogant. Who thinks that they can do that?”

All of the American kids in the room were like: “No, this is a central American idea. You can go out and make it.” She was like: “That seems insane. I’m so offended on behalf of all of Australia and the idea of tall poppy syndrome.”

In that sense, definitely universal. While I was working on this, the college admissions scandal broke. That is a kind of stolen golden lemonade.

At the same time, I met people in college who I was just surprised to be like, Oh, my gosh, you have full artistic, creative personalities. You were fun in high school. You were doing all these things that I wasn’t doing. Then I met a lot of Indian Americans like me who had been a little bit nose to the grindstone, which wasn’t necessarily true of others. Part of that has to do with discrimination in college admissions.

You have to be so much better as an Asian American to get into these schools. That is used to drive a wedge against affirmative action, which is a problem, but it’s just not as hard in some ways to meet the barriers for achievement for a lot of white Americans.

Rhianna: In addition to ambition, there’s something really carnal about Neil’s gold consumption and the yearning he has for it. I’m thinking of when he talks about tasting Shruti, and the beautiful passage where he puts Anita’s gold hoops under his tongue; his feelings about Anita are suffused with references to consumption. The relationship between gold lust and a lust for love or even community in the novel feels tangled.

Sathian: I think the desire to achieve is a kind of desire to belong. The desire to be loved is also a desire to belong, so I think that’s the place that they meet.

There’s an awesome book that I just love called Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar that is this chronicle of an Indian immigrant who loves his way into America and is a chronicle of his love affairs.

The thing about that book that really resonated through me was the idea that you can suddenly feel at home when you’re in a relationship that’s working, or you fall for someone. I think maybe there’s a reason that marriage ended up being the thing that is the ambition for the second half of Gold Diggers.

It’s achievement culture in part one and then it becomes marriage and house and stability in part two. As I got older, I realized that my parents’ ambition for me and my brother wasn’t just that we go to fancy colleges, but actually they just wanted us to be safe. I think that same impulse comes through in a desire to marry your kid off.

If I’m going to be as empathetic as possible about it, it is just: Be safe, be at home, be settled, and then maybe everything will feel OK.

Rhianna: Something that made me feel so sad for Shruti is that everything Neil wants — connection, community — Shruti wants too. And Neil manipulates that to get at these other qualities that make her up.

Sathian: That’s the thing about teenage cruelty, and maybe all human cruelty. It’s easier for us to exploit the weakness that we recognize in other people. I think so much of bullying is self-hatred and just being like, I don’t want to be like you. You seem like the weaker, uglier version of me. I think that’s what Neil does to Shruti.

Rhianna: Despite dealing with some very heavy themes, the book is also really funny. A lot of the humor comes from the novel’s descriptions of Neil’s parents and the broader Indian immigrant community. Was it challenging to walk the line between presenting something authentically and falling into stereotype, or doing something that feels harmful?

Sathian: So many thoughts on this. First of all, thank you for asking about so many things in addition to the humor. I think when people see that it’s a book that’s being tagged as comic or semi-comic, I have been worrying about whether or not they would miss all the other stuff.

I think that if we see comedy as a kind of realism, it makes a lot of sense. I honestly did not think I was particularly funny until people started tagging this book as comic and I was like, This is just my worldview.

Maybe it comes from reading Roth, reading Franzen, reading, particularly, Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. These are all books that, if they’re laughing at a community, they’re doing it because it helps us see those people more clearly.

I think, also, you can’t really critique anything successfully in fiction unless you are writing about it personally and unless you’re writing about yourself. I think every character in fiction’s both the writer and not the writer, both you and not you. It’s easy for me to parody stuff that I have done and lived. These are the values that I have espoused before. In that sense, I hope there’s empathy and love and an affectionate lampooning of the community.

Regarding your question about stereotypes, I’m sweating over it.

The comic Jenny Yang talks about “rep sweats,” that if there aren’t that many stories about people like you out there, you can suddenly feel the burden of standing for everyone. The best answer I have for that is that, in that sense, this book can stand for a kind of narrow experience.

I have Indian American friends who are going to read this and are going to be like: “This is not like my teenage years at all. Glad you were such a nerd.” I just hope that those stories also get to be told.

I think some of those things are an entertainment industry and a publishing industry problem where we have to have more voices. My voice is a pretty easy one for people to latch onto. I grew up upper-middle class. I went to these fancy schools. I come from a dominant caste Hindu family.

People like me are often the first ones in the door, but I consider it my job to try and, if I get a little more societal power… The book has been optioned for television, so if I ever end up having any power in those kinds of rooms, [I want to try] to make space for other Asian American and Indian American stories that don’t look at all like mine, so that mine isn’t the only thing and mine isn’t the new stereotype.

I spoke with Sanjena Sathian by Zoom on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

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Sanjena Sathian was raised in Georgia by Indian immigrant parents. She’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an alumna of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and a former Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow. She has also worked as a journalist in San Francisco and in Mumbai. Her award winning short fiction appears or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, Boulevard, Joyland, Salt Hill, and The Master’s Review. She’s written nonfiction for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, Food and Wine, The Boston Globe, The Juggernaut, The Millions, OZY, and more. She has taught creative writing to high school, college, graduate, and post-graduate level students in Iowa, Alaska, India, and New Zealand. Gold Diggers is her first book.

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