Sanjena Sathian, GOLD DIGGERS

Sanjena Sathian, GOLD DIGGERS

“It’s just really hard to locate yourself as an Asian American in American history. Even though you might have been here, you were just always floating in the periphery of historical vision.” Sanjena Sathian talks with Zibby about all of the elements that make up her debut novel, Gold Diggers: from discussing the research on the alchemical traditions that support the book’s magic to the lived experiences of Asian Americans throughout American history, Sanjena and Zibby’s conversation has almost as many layers as the novel itself.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sanjena. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Gold Diggers.

Sanjena Sathian: Thank you for having me. This is kind of a legendary podcast, so I’m really glad to be included.

Zibby: Legendary? I don’t know about that.

Sanjena: You have better blurbs than most authors do. I really enjoyed your interview, too, with Chang-Rae. I’m running behind him on all the interviews, so I keep talking to people who have just talked to him, which is incredibly intimidating.

Zibby: I had so much fun talking to him. I kept joking around. Sometimes with people who I feel like are really important or literary or whatever I just have to lighten the mood. I don’t know. Yes, so happy to have you tread behind him. That’s awesome. Sanjena, you are only twenty-nine years old. That is insanely amazing that you have written this novel, Gold Diggers, which is great. Like the cover, which is very festive and warm and inviting and someplace you just want to hang out, that’s sort of how I felt about your whole book. The characters are very relatable. You just want to insert yourself into the fray and not miss out. Tell me a little bit about writing this book and how you came up with the idea for it and the process of writing it and all of that.

Sanjena: Thank you for saying all those really nice things. The book takes place half in the suburbs of Atlanta where I grew up, the same ones that just flipped the state blue by diversifying. It follows this group of Indian Americans, second generation. They are in this hypercompetitive Asian bubble. Neil, the narrator, very much like me, is both sort of trying to be a high achiever and also feeling internally burned out. Then he happens upon this fact that his best friend has been stealing gold from other Indians in the community, turning it into this magical elixir that helps her steal the ambition of the rest of the community. As you know, it follows that group of friends through 2006 Bush-era suburban Georgia. When I started writing that first half of the book, that experience of my childhood had been with me for about a decade. I had been trying to write about that experience of the suburbs for a while. It was always kind of somber and just took itself really seriously. Then when I found this conceit of something a little more playful, I all of a sudden was able to deal with a little bit more serious material in a way that was surprising, so this idea of estranging the familiar and then having a new way into the familiar. When I wrote the second half, which takes place in Silicon Valley, I got to draw on my experience of living there in my early twenties where I was having lots of status-striving anxiety feeling like, again, a massive underachiever next to my friends who were working for these big unicorn companies and having fat salaries. I was trying to be a writer. There’s definitely some material that I got to pull from my own life.

Zibby: Let’s go all the way back to your younger years. You went to Yale. Did you major in English? Did you take lots of writing class? Yes, majored in English.

Sanjena: I did. I actually did a little more nonfiction than fiction there. I didn’t get into fiction classes the first bunch of times that I applied, but I got into nonfiction classes with truly amazing teachers. Fred Strebeigh and Anne Fadiman were my nonfiction teachers. Then I got to work with John Crowley on my fiction thesis. He has advised just generations of want-to-be writers. Those teachers really shaped me. They made me feel like I had the right to be writing when all of my schooling before had suggested that that was something I was supposed to do on the side.

Zibby: What did you think you were going to do? What was your main thing?

Sanjena: I always wanted to be a writer. In high school, I was really into policy debate. That took up my whole life. I always had this second-gen immigrant thing of being like, okay, I’ll be a lawyer, but I’ll write on the side. I’ll have this respectable career that makes sense to my family and my community. I’ll just be penning stuff in secret. Then maybe I will be plucked from obscurity one day. Then I met these teachers who were like, no, this is a thing you can do. It’s going to be really, really hard, but here’s a little more about how to do it.

Zibby: Wow, that’s great. That’s not, by the way, what my experience at Yale was like. I got to Yale wanting to be a writer. My first English class, I was like, I don’t want to take all these classes that are required to be an English major. I can’t remember if it was 125 or 129. You had to read —

Sanjena: — Major English poets.

Zibby: Right. I was like, no, thanks. No. I took a nonfiction writing class, which I loved, freshman year. I remember that. I can’t remember the teacher. I still have some essay I wrote about going whitewater rafting with my dad or something. Then I didn’t end up taking any more writing classes. I wrote on the side, but I became a psychology major because that seemed really interesting to me. I kind of wish I had met some of your teachers.

Sanjena: I think it’s really good to be able to spend time with material that isn’t just your own writing at that age too. I was really glad that I did so much journalism because it’s this antidote to narcissism. You have to experience other people’s lives. I feel like psychology does a similar thing. It takes you outside yourself, which is important for a writer.

Zibby: Absolutely. I like that, an antidote to narcissism. We need more antidotes to narcissism in our current culture, I think. Maybe we could make a list. Maybe we could brainstorm and put them on the whiteboard.

Sanjena: Send the TikTok stars to journalism school.

Zibby: Exactly. That’s a funny article. If you have any interest in writing it, I have a new magazine, Moms Don’t Have Time to Write. You don’t have to be a mom, by the way. That’s funny. So you went to Yale. You were an English major. You had these amazing teachers. Then you graduated. Then what happened? I know you got a bunch of fellowships. What happened then?

Sanjena: I was a journalist for five years. I worked at some regional papers. I did internships at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which I loved, and The Boston Globe. Then I was struggling to find a job in journalism. It was 2013. The Globe had just been sold. Bezos had just bought The Post. Buzzfeed wasn’t a thing yet. I was not a great journalist, and so I couldn’t get a job. Then I drove my car out to California to get a little vitamin D after years in New Haven. I ended up getting a job in journalism out there, finally. I was a tech reporter for about a year and a half. Then I got sent by the magazine that I was working for to India. I got to be a foreign correspondent for about two years before going to graduate school.

Zibby: Wow. Then tell me about graduate school.

Sanjena: I moved from a city of twenty million, Bombay, to a state of three million, Iowa. It was definitely a big jump, but I had a really good experience at Iowa. It’s a really strange place, but so rewarding. It felt to me more like an extended writer’s residency than a set of classes. I think that’s kind of on purpose. The direction of the workshop, Sam Chang, has made it ethnically and socioeconomically and aesthetically diverse. I got to be in rich company with other people who wanted to do the same thing. That was so valuable. I also just kind of locked myself away in the snowy winters and got to work on this book. That was really, really extraordinary.

Zibby: Is this your project that came out of that?

Sanjena: Yeah, it was. I was writing short stories when I came in. I offered up short stories to workshop as a ritual sacrifice because they’re going to get kind of torn apart. I spent most of my time on this novel which came out of a failed short story.

Zibby: There’s a lot to get into a short story, right? Was that the root of the failure?

Sanjena: It’s the root of the failure of most of my short stories. Most of my workshops were just, you’re doing way too much. I had a friend who I was also living with who ended up being my roommate at Iowa who looked me in the eye and was like, “I don’t know if you’re primarily a short story writer. You might not be very good at that form, but I think you might be a novelist. That might be better.”

Zibby: Wow. That’s great advice. How amazing.

Sanjena: Pretty good friend.

Zibby: Pretty good friend. You have all these great friends, your friends with the penguins, your friends with the advice. That’s pretty awesome. I loved this opening line of not the prologue, but the first chapter when you wrote, “When I was younger, I consisted of little but my parents’ ambitions for who I was to become. But by the end of ninth grade, all I wanted for myself was a date to the spring fling dance, a hot one.” How do you not want to keep going? I really think it makes such a difference the way people start off. I know this is trite and said all the time, but I haven’t said it lately. Your sentence made me remember it. It’s as if you’re throwing open the door to your house. What’s the first thing you say to people to welcome them in? Do you see a smile? Are you totally freaked out? Do you want to run the other way? There’s just something so inviting about it.

Sanjena: Thank you. I think especially with coming-of-age stories, that ends up being so important, like the opening of The Bell Jar, “That was the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs,” or the opening of one of my favorite books, The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi. It opens, “My name is Karim Amir, and I am Englishman born and bred, but a different sort of one.” Then he gets into what it’s like to be the child of empire as half Indian and then also a British mom. These people have to introduce themselves as new writers but also young people trying to come into themselves. I think those people were on my mind in the opening.

Zibby: I feel like you grapple with not only coming of age, but almost coming of identity in many ways, coming of an identity in an immigrant community and what that feels like versus just going to TCBY, as you referenced, which I thought was amazing because that was my favorite place back in the day. Tell me about that and how that mirrors or doesn’t mirror your own experience.

Sanjena: I am part of the second wave of second-generation Indian Americans. We were basically banned from entering the country for most of the twentieth century. The Indian diaspora as it exists today basically begins in 1965. My parents came in the eighties. I was coming of age in the nineties and early two thousands as my entire community was coming of age. As I got older, I realized that all of these anxieties I had about being totally undatable in the white South and also more serious things like what it felt like to be brown after 9/11 and see my dad and my brother be harassed at airport security and my mom tell my brother to shave his beard and wear collared shirts to look as “respectable as possible,” I saw how both of those things were not just my experience, but actually the experience of many in my generation, certainly not all Indian Americans. I started out just writing about these goofy kids who are on AIM all the time and flirting on AIM and also unable to talk to each other as real people offline, dancing to Usher at school dances. I started writing about the stuff that was small and familiar. As I was writing, I realized I was writing about a wider community coming of age and from there, leveling a critique of the community that I belonged to. As we have assimilated, we have also taken on more and more power and privilege. What does that mean now that we are a little more at home? What do we do with all that we have been given and all that we have worked for? What does it mean to be American now?

Zibby: How do you answer that now?

Sanjena: I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the last couple of years. I think South Asian Americans, a lot of Asian Americans, operate in this racial in-between space in America. We’re treated as “model minorities.” That term is racist both in the way that it strips us of the ability to be ourselves, be full, be mediocre, just be anything other than what the majority tells us. It’s also historically been used as a wedge to keep Asian Americans from getting along with black Americans and Latinx Americans. As I wrote this book and started to be more critical of that “model minority” narrative as it is accepted by my community and pushed by mostly dominant white America, I wrote myself to a political and moral space, which was, we have to avoid being a technocratic, insular elite. We have to find a way to be in solidarity with other communities of color. We have to read our own histories, the stuff that comes before 1965 where we learn about how we weren’t always model minorities. The first round of Asian Americans and Indian Americans in particular who came to the US were unskilled laborers, were farm workers, and worked in factories. If we think about that history, does that change who we are today? Neil does a little bit of this in the book too. He’s thinking about the history of Indian America and reading about the Gold Rush and learning that the picture of who we are today does not have to be the only picture. I think that’s exciting and empowering.

Zibby: That’s amazing. You can tell you did so much research. I know at the end of the book you have pages of — not pages, but a very packed page and a half or so of all the source material you used for this book, which is unique in that it’s a novel. Tell me a little about how you wove all that in and why did you did so much research.

Sanjena: The research is basically for two different historical chunks of the book. There’s stuff that draws on traditions of alchemy in India, China, and Europe just to get inspiration for how this elixir would work, what its flaws might be. Most of my ideas for how the rules of magic in the book function, they came from me. They were from my own mind, but then I started doing all this research into Vedic alchemical traditions in ancient India and finding that some of the things I thought I had imagined up on my own were actually real. People did consume gold and try to consume gold. That was one chunk of it. The other chunk was this American history. That actually started long before I was writing this book. When I moved to California, I learned that there was a really rich Asian American history on the West Coast that I didn’t know anything about. The only Asian American history you tended to get in high school classrooms when I was growing up was Japanese internment. There was nothing else. When I moved out to California, I went on this walking tour that two friends of mine run in Berkeley that’s this history of Indian revolutionaries who arrived in the US around World War I. I started reading these books about Bengali Harlem and Bengali immigrants who arrived in New York in the early twentieth century and integrated with communities of color, passed as Puerto Ricans. This just truly blew my mind.

When I was writing my own book, I was like, I want to have this textured history. I ended up reading about the Gold Rush in particular because it was almost like it was on the nose — I was like, I’m already writing about gold — and finding this story of an Indian man stealing gold or accused of stealing gold in the Gold Rush and basically being chased down by a lynch mob. I found very little evidence of this guy outside of that document. When Neil becomes a history grad student at Berkeley, he’s trying to chase down more evidence of this man. He’s heartbroken when he finds that it’s just really hard to locate yourself as an Asian American in American history. Even though you might have been here, you were just always floating in the periphery of historical vision. That tells us a lot about why we feel the way we do in 2021 as Asian Americans.

Zibby: I love what you just said, floating in the periphery of American vision. Wow, it makes me feel I’m at a school dance being completely ignored by the popular kids or something, the way you describe that.

Sanjena: I very much know what that felt like because that was my experience.

Zibby: I went to some dance in sixth grade. My mother had me wear this ankle-length Laura Ashley skirt which you probably don’t even know because you’re so young.

Sanjena: Oh, I know the fashion.

Zibby: You know the brand? Okay. It was this floral skirt with this matching wool pink sweater and slats and a headband. I was against the wall totally shy and being like, I do not know how I’m ever going to get off the wall. My mother was like, “Just being yourself.” I was like, what? Who is that? What am I even wearing? Anyway, yes, I relate to that as well.

Sanjena: yourself, who is that? is the cry between mothers and teens over generations, I feel like.

Zibby: Yes, oh, my gosh, and now I have thirteen-year-old twins plus two other kids. I’m just like, I have to do this right. I have to play it right. I feel like I was thirteen two minutes ago. Anyway, so what is coming next for you? Are you working on another novel already?

Sanjena: I’m a little superstitious about talking about work in progress, but I am working on something new. What I’ll say about it is that I’m writing from a female perspective, which is weirdly hard. Writing Neil was just natural. He was my more bumbling, goofy side. Also, it just felt nice to put all of my stuff in the head of someone who was different from me. His inherent difference would change how I wrote it. Now it’s closer to home. I’ve also been writing a lot of essays, which has been really enjoyable to return to nonfiction after spending time in fiction.

Zibby: Awesome. If you ever want to write for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write on Medium, please submit a story. We would love it. Any advice to aspiring authors?

Sanjena: I feel a little fragile in giving advice because I’m so new here too. Read widely. Don’t just read the new, hip stuff that everyone’s talking about on Twitter. You should still buy debut novels like mine. I think it’s cool to trace literary ancestry and try to figure out, the writers you admire today, who they admire, and read them. That’ll help you figure out who you’re inheriting and what your literary genealogy is. The other advice I give students is taken from Anne Fadiman, my teacher at Yale, who used to call us into office hours and make us defend, word for word, every phrase, every piece of writing in the thousand-word essay that we had turned in. She would have this big, fat Roget’s Thesaurus, which your podcasters can’t see but I’m holding up, and help you find the most precise word. When I do that to students, it sort of terrorizes and demoralizes some, especially those who really want to be writers because they realize that they have to do all this stuff with em dashes and dangling modifiers. You have to learn how to fall in love with that stuff as much as your own raw genius. That was good advice from Anne that I’ll pass on.

Zibby: Literary genealogy, that’s another thing you should write a whole thing about. This is great. You’re brilliant. I love it. I could just listen to you. I can’t wait to now see. You have so much ahead of you. Not that I’m that much older, but I just am so excited. Especially as a fellow Yale alumni, I’m very excited that you’re up and coming and just excited for what happens.

Sanjena: Thank you.

Zibby: It’ll be great. Thank you. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Best of luck with everything. I’m going to keep my eye on you.

Sanjena: Thanks for having me, Zibby. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care.

Sanjena: Take care.

Zibby: Bye.

Sanjena Sathian, GOLD DIGGERS

Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian

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