“At Home with Literati” has quickly become one of my favorite parts of Ann Arbor community culture. I started attending the book store’s “Fiction at Literati” speaker series over a year ago for Daily Arts reviews like this one, and now I log on to the Zoom webinars on my own time several times a month to listen and learn from the impressive, intelligent authors calling in from all over the country. Though I’ve been to quite a few of these events, my absolute favorite was a conversation between two up-and-coming authors, Sanjena Sathian and Sarah Thankam Mathews, last Friday night.
Friday’s event featured a book reading and Q&A session for Sathian’s debut novel “Gold Diggers.” Sathian has been on both sides of headlines: Her reporting has been published in The Washington Post, The LA Times, The New York Times and TIME Magazine, while “Gold Diggers,” has already garnered praise from NPR, The Washington Post and The New York Times Book Review in its few-week lifespan. Literati describes the novel as “a brilliant Indian-American magical realist coming of age story and the debut of a major talent.”
After her introduction, Sathian began by stating that she used to spend every summer in Ann Arbor for debate camp, “like all cool people do.” Sathian and Thankam Mathews both agreed that Literati is legendary, and they were happy to be speaking even in the virtual space of the bookstore. Sathian then read the end of the first chapter of “Gold Diggers” to the webinar audience.
It quickly became clear that Sathian not only had a talent for writing, but also for reading. She expertly acted out the dialogue of each of her characters, giving each a distinct voice: a higher pitch for the young girls and boys, a slight Indian accent for a mother, a deep and husky voice for a college boy. Her creativity and specificity for character shined through the engaging reading, enticing audience members (myself included) to read the full work after the event.
Directly following the reading, Thankam Mathews described her relationship with Sathian (who she affectionately calls “Sanj”). The two met while they were both aspiring writers at the Iowa Writers Workshop, remaining close friends as they navigated their respective writing and publishing processes for their debut novels. Thankam Mathews congratulated Sathian on her book, calling it an “amazing, delightfully plotty romcom” and describing how it explores “the search to articulate one’s place in American history.”
One particularly thought-provoking portion of their discussion was Thankam Mathews’s point that female authors and authors of color often don’t get asked craft questions, and instead, they’re only asked to speak on their identity. She explained that in her opinion, this trend stems from these authors not actually being taken seriously as creators of art. So before they started discussing the plot or history of the story, Thankam Mathews asked Sathian what she has learned about the mechanics and craft of writing as she created her literary debut.
In response to this, Sathian described how in all her creative writing classes, there is a typical archetype of what she called a “brainy, sophomore, male, film writer dude.” She explained that this writer would always be focused on the complex concepts and intellectual ideas that he could put into his writing.
Sathian used to be like this too — in fact, she remembers wanting to be “pyrotechnical” and “sassy (in her) ideas.” She wanted people to know, first and foremost, that she was a smart author. However, she found through working on this novel that this sort of concept-heavy writing isn’t interesting if it isn’t grounded in real, complex characters.
They also touched on other authors who inspire them. When asked which other South Asian writers she loves, Sathian did not hesitate to say that whenever she’s asked this question, she says to look out for Thankam Mathew’s book, “All This Could Be Different,” which will be published by Viking in 2022. She went on to name a few other friends of the two of them, describing how they all learn and grow by reading each other’s work.
“When we read each other’s books, it creates a new constellation of identity,” Sathian said. The two agreed that after little to no South Asian representation in mainstream American literature for so many years, they’re grateful to have so many new South Asian writers in recent years.
Audience questions ranged from serious writing queries to a question about Sathian’s large, electric-blue earrings. When asked where she got them, she smiled, asking “Sarah, where did you get me these earrings?” Thankam Mathews laughed, saying she bought them from a friend’s company BRWNGRLZ that makes jewelry specifically for women of color. Even the seemingly unrelated and shallow question about jewelry underlined the strength of the care and friendship between the two women.
Another viewer asked Sathian if she had any advice for younger writers whose parents believe working on a novel is “as productive as doing drugs.” Sathian, quick to match this snarky, irreverent energy, responded with, “You have to be a dick about your own time and value.”
She recalled how one summer while she was in the process of writing “Gold Diggers,” she attended a wedding where every family member disdained her non-traditional job. This experience, while aggravating, forced her to develop internal scorn for the need to account for her career.
All in all, this “At Home with Literati” event was my favorite because of the lively mix of genuinely friendly banter and thoughtful discussion of today’s literary community. The two conversationalists were incredibly well-spoken, intelligent about their craft and passionate about authors supporting each other.
Upcoming “At Home with Literati” events can be found on Literati’s event calendar.
Daily Arts Writer Caroline Atkinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.