A³ (Asian American Authors) Spotlight is a writer interview series created by TMD’s Michigan in Color and Arts to spotlight and celebrate Asian American authors. The goal of this series is to feature artists whose content diversifies the landscape of Asian diasporic literature.
At the beginning of our call, Sanjena Sathian wanders through boxes stacked within her new home in Atlanta, scavenging for a pair of earphones. The moment is rare: Sathian, a high-achieving journalist and previously, a high-school debate prodigy, seems to never lose track of her bearings. Her responses to even my most ridiculous questions are deliberate, and a touch irreverent. Sathian is often compared to her high-achieving main character Anita from her critically acclaimed debut novel, “Gold Diggers,” currently being produced into a TV series by Mindy Kaling’s production company. “Gold Diggers,” which focuses on second-generation millennial Indian-Americans, is about the toll ambition takes, even on those who succeed. For our debut Asian American author spotlight, The Michigan Daily sat down with Sathian to discuss her experiences as an Indian American writer.
Fresh off her (virtual) book tour, Sathian’s had quite the unconventional author experience. “Gold Diggers,” published in 2021, follows Neil, a lost-in-thought high school boy in the Bush-era Atlanta suburbs lacking in a valuable currency of the Indian-American community: ambition. Infatuated with his driven neighbor, Anita, Neil gets pulled into Anita’s alchemical secret to success. As Anita and her mother Anjali steal gold to brew lemonade that “harnesses the ambition” of the owner, Neil downs the liquid in copious quantities until tragedy strikes. The book is a deeply entertaining mixture of comedy, history and magic, yet it manages to feel shockingly realistic (apart from the lemonade).
Instead of flying across the country on her book tour, Sathian has stayed home and watched her book be born into other worlds through the eyes of the internet. The author made sure to stop virtually at Ann Arbor’s Literati Bookstore, where she often spent her free afternoons in the summer when she stayed in Ann Arbor for high school debate camp. When her virtual tour was initially announced, Sathian was disappointed because the book release was a long-awaited dream — she had decided to be an author around the time she was in fourth grade. In hindsight, she’s relieved, mentioning that with an in-person book tour, the story would’ve been harder to let go of.
Sathian, for all her success in chasing facts, sees something beautiful in the abstract. I asked the author, who’s also a creative writing teacher, what makes a good story. Many would be intimidated with a request to whittle down their teaching philosophy expounded over the course of a few months into a couple of sentences, but Sathian only takes a few pensive seconds to answer: “A good story entertains in some way. It doesn’t have to be, like, ha-ha funny all the time, but it makes you want to live in it, and it makes you want to keep reading.” She ponders a little longer, adding, “I think it says something about the human condition, if that doesn’t sound too pompous — I think a lot of good storytelling is about trying to understand oneself better, and then turning that contemplative gaze on the outside world. There’s a lot to do with self and non-self and the interaction between those two forces. I also think the sentences just have to be good.”
Funnily enough, many close to Sathian have gone back and forth over whether characters from “Gold Diggers” are modeled after them. Her novel is deeply relatable, so honest in her storytelling that many assumed she pulled inspiration directly from her reality. Sathian finds the discussion a little ridiculous. She mentions that the “hardest part was my parents — I had to sit them down and give them a speech, saying, you know, some of these things seem really recognizable to you, but I hope you’ll also see that these characters are not you.” Neil’s thoroughly distinctive, narrating voice is extremely different from the way that many perceive Sathian, and she mentioned that when her brother read the book, he said something along the lines of: “It’s so great that you chose a narrator that isn’t you, and it’s not an autobiographical novel!” Laughing, she says, “If that’s what you feel, it’s not for me to tell you otherwise!”
Ultimately, Sathian, the documentarian of Indian-American ambition, is still figuring it out herself. As we joke about which character from “Gold Diggers” is representative of our zodiac signs, we also reflect. While many are sure that Sathian is an Anita — high-achieving, effortless — Sathian views herself as more of a Neil, saying, “When I was in high school and college I passed for someone who had her shit together.” There, she had countless moments oscillating between hyperintensity and “like, a meditation retreat, or not talking to anyone for a couple of months and just writing.” Neil, like her, has always been preoccupied with exploring inner life. Perhaps that’s why “Gold Diggers” was such an important story for Sathian — to say there’s a toll that ambition takes. “We don’t make enough space for the Neils of the world,” she declares. “People like him, who are considered on the edges of functional society, especially in Indian-American society.”
She continues, “I’m not sure I pass for an Anita anymore, seeing as I’m a writer.” We talk extensively about how the Indian-American community has treated her profession, and by extension, her. It’s always painful to be dismissed, and Sathian has had to deal with more than her fair share of snide or misunderstanding comments. She describes how, as she’s grown older, a new incarnation of condescension has surfaced: Snide comments evolve from “I’m sorry, you’re a writer?” to “I’m sorry, you’re this weird, barren, spinster writer? What do we do with you?” The frankness of her comments catches me off-guard, but she explains that she’s open about her process in case others, especially Indian Americans, are looking at her career trajectory. “If other people are out there reading this who want to be writers or do something outside the norm, you have to be prepared for it to be awkward and difficult and to feel like you’re on the margins for a lot of life,” she says. “Sometimes it gets easier, and then there’s a new generation of people who are confused by you.”
So how does she deal with the barrage of skepticism from her community about her career as a writer? Sathian offers the phrase, “Be a dick about your own time.” She warns that extended families often regard the career with extreme skepticism and disdain, mentioning the phrase, “Oh, well, you don’t have a ‘job’ job!” as an excuse for ridicule. On the topic of encouragement from South Asian culture to write (à la Lakshmi Joshi at the end of “Gold Diggers”), she mentions her grandmother, a well-known Sahitya Akademi Award-winning Malayalam to English literary translator, looking on with pride during her childhood. She adds, “the way Lakshmi encourages Neil is silly in some ways,” telling Neil he has to “achieve” the book. She mentions that she, also, has received a lot of well-meaning encouragement from elders, where the scope of achievement normally seen in other fields for Indian Americans is translated into the arts. “It’s great,” she says. “But be careful of being proud of a member of your community for doing well. Art has value in and of itself, so we have to be careful as we as second-generation Indian Americans assimilate to not just recreate the cycles of achievement in art, if we do go that way.” She adds on jokingly, “I haven’t figured out how to, yet.”
When speaking about the obsession with ambition in her story, I’m struck by the realization that “Gold Digger’s” Anjali Joshi could’ve easily been my mother, or thousands of other Indian women. Anjali Joshi comes from a “modern” family: Although she had some opportunities, her family didn’t care to invest in her further education, believing their sons to be a much better use of their time. Thankfully, when discussing Sathian’s own background, I was told that her mother’s family told Sathian’s mother to “study like a boy.” Sathian recounts how even when she lived in Mumbai, she recalls seeing peers her age caught up in the same cycles of patriarchal oppression. In the novel, Anjali takes her goals and shoves them on her daughter in an unhealthy way. Many like Anita are unsure of how to pursue ambition in a healthy way; for years, in her quest to succeed, Anita ends up in a dependent relationship similar to her mother and father. Sathian depicts generational patterns in her fiction that play out in ways that ring eerily true for many.
It’s only inevitable then, that Sathian’s work is compared to that of Jhumpa Lahiri, the sole voice commonly recognized when telling diasporic stories. Sathian wrote a piece on “Lahirism,” where she describes how all immigrant fiction, especially South Asian, is compared to that of Lahiri, who has created a highbrow, somber standard for telling stories that cater to a white gaze. In the essay, “Good Immigrant Novels,” Sathian points out that “blame falls on a publishing ecosystem that elevates a single aesthetic above others and sometimes markets minority authors as tour guides.” Sathian doesn’t view Lahiri’s voice as representative of her, or her experiences. She’s tired of the single, catch-all phrase “representation matters,” and is insistent on different kinds of representation within a normally static depiction of Indian Americans in widespread stories. She says, “Art is just so private. We smell a rat when we see something didactic. My hunch is when we have this reaction … ‘who’s this for, why is this a little weird, what’s off about this,’ it’s because there’s something insufficiently private about it. The writer is writing not what they needed, but what they thought someone else needed. That’s all a little mystical and loosey-goosey, and I do think you just have to start with what you need.”
When I ask Sathian what inspires her to start creating, she ponders for a few seconds, then decides: “other people’s art.” Sathian mentions “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki, declaring, “People don’t read it as much as they should.” The author has also sung the praises of Hanif Kureishi’s “The Buddha of Suburbia” in many interviews, and this time was no exception. In fact, Sathian describes the book as the antidote to being handed somber immigrant stories all her life. Kureishi’s work tells the irreverent, raunchy story of second-generation, bisexual Karim coming of age in South London. When Sathian picked up the book in graduate school, she was floored by its satire. When speaking about her past, Sathian mentions that she wishes she “had access to more kinds of South Asian and immigrant voices.” Kureishi’s book was one of the first she came across that told a different kind of immigrant story: one that manages to be tongue in cheek, while still deeply political. Unsurprisingly, “Gold Diggers” is just that.
Sathian describes herself as superstitious when talking about upcoming projects, but mentions she’s working on new fiction. Additionally, as an executive co-producer and co-writer of the upcoming TV series adaptation of “Gold Diggers” in its earliest stages, Sathian’s work isn’t over. She appreciates the production timing of the TV series: While the novel currently exists within the literary world, the story will soon be brought to life in different planes when the Kaling-produced show releases. Sathian is eager for the challenge of balancing the needs of her story and TV audience; she acknowledges that “the landscape is far from where we need it to be,” but there’s more appetite for shows like “Gold Diggers,” noting that they’re “pitching the show in a media environment that didn’t exist five years ago.” Every piece of art adds understanding to the zeitgeist — by telling stories of inner worlds, authors like Sathian create honest portraits of environments and write directly against what we, as a society, think we know. Multiple times during the conversation, Sathian emphasized the significance of unconventional, raw voices in Asian American writing that reveal curious inner worlds, saying, “If there’s one message to put in contemporary discourse, it’s that we need more (art), from more people.”
Daily Arts writer Meera Kumar can be reached at email@example.com.