A Potion Made of Stolen Gold to Achieve the Indian American Dream
Sanjena Sathian, author of "Gold Diggers," on exploring the dark side of immigrant ambition and the cost of upward mobility
Sanjena Sathian’s debut novel Gold Diggers is set in the Indian American suburbs of Atlanta—a world of competitive debate and spelling bees, of racing to get into the most prestigious academic summer camps, of Miss Teen India pageants—all roads leading to the promised land of America’s most elite colleges and universities. (The book has already been optioned by Mindy Kaling for a TV adaptation.)
Neil Narayan, lacking the ambition to keep up and crushing hard on girl-next-door Anita Dayal, gets drawn into Anita’s mother Anjali’s scheme of stealing gold jewelry from members of the desi community to brew an alchemical potion that harnesses the powers of the original owners, with ultimately tragic results.
A decade later, Neil and Anita reconnect, having graduated from prestigious schools and still feeling directionless, wondering what it was all for. A history grad student at Berkeley, Neil ignores the work he should be doing to search obsessively for an Indian American spiritual forebear in the records of the California Gold Rush. Meanwhile, Anita has gotten herself involved in organizing elaborate Indian wedding expos she hardly seems to believe in. Neil soon realizes there’s more to this than meets the eye, and quickly gets drawn back into the world of her magical schemes.
Though I have long disappointed my mother by wearing the sorts of dangly silver jewelry I can get on Etsy for $20, I put on my hereditary gold before sitting down to chat with Sathian about giving second-generation desis our own unique brand of magic, looking back through history for Indian American forebears, and breaking open outdated and restrictive ideas of what Asian and South Asian lives in America can look like.
Preety Sidhu: One of the first things that interested me about this book is that, until I saw it, it hadn’t even occurred to me that second-generation Indian Americans could have our own highly specific brand of fictional magic. Is that where this story started for you? Or, at what point did you know that this uniquely tailored magic would become central?
Sanjena Sathian: I started with the conceit of the gold because, when I was growing up, there were a spate of gold thefts around Atlanta, and it happened everywhere there were Indians in the suburbs. My mom always said there’s got to be an Indian person involved, because they know where to go. They know exactly where the gold is located, they seem to know when people are gonna be out of the house, there’s something happening there. So I had thought about that for a long time, wondering who could be in the community but also stealing from other people in the community. That breaks a lot of my conceptions of who I grew up around. I had carried that around for a while and always wondered about who I could write. When I thought about it being a mother and a daughter, that’s when things fell into place for me around the conceit.
I grew up with a sense that magic realism had something to do with the immigrant experience—reading a lot of Rushdie and feeling like there was something about being displaced, or being migrant, or being separate from your roots, that made magical realism more fertile or more plausible. I was never gonna write a particularly great novel that was about India only, because this is the world that I came from. Once I was able to accept that writing about the suburbs was a legitimate choice and not inherently boring, things could get more playful.
PS: At one point a minor character who’s a white academic mentions “he heard of these kinds of things when living in the Indian hinterlands. Stories of kings drinking the plunder of their conquered subjects.” To what extent did legends and research about Indian gold and alchemy inform the creation of this magic, and to what extent did you craft it to suit your own storytelling purposes?
SS: The conceit, I built it for what I needed it to do. It would have been too great a burden to be beholden to the rules of magic according to myth. The conceit was entirely contemporary at the start. When I realized I did want to have some connection to an older world, both in India and America, I started looking into old myths of gold, just to enrich it and enliven it. I read a lot about alchemy and I realized that this is a universal idea that people have come into over years.
There’s a reason that gold is such a powerful—not just metal, or source of economic wealth—but it has taken on a disproportionate meaning in so many culture’s imaginations, because it doesn’t get messed up. You can shower in these gold earrings that we’re wearing, you can sleep in them, they don’t lose their luster. It’s really hard to make it from scratch. So all of these facts about this metal have made it carry all these metaphorical and magical connotations throughout history. I think it’s always nice, when you’re writing magical realism, to have mythical traditions to bump up against, when you want it to yield more. It’s fruitful to have it to draw on, but it’s not primarily from Vedic texts or anything like that.
PS: When Neil first encounters the idea of a Bombayan participating in the American Gold Rush in the 19th century, he feels an instant kinship, though he’s never taken much of an interest in his Indian ancestry as it took place in India. Later, he pursues this obsession as a grad student, at one point stating: “Isaac Snider [the Bombayan] was an unproven theory of history, formulated solely to explain me. I would never have a corollary in the past, never have a legible American ancestor to provide guidance on how to make a life.” Can you speak more to the idea of history—or missing history—as a second-generation immigrant, of what it means to look to the past and see no one—or almost no one—like you?
SS: I became really obsessed with South Asian American history in 2014, when I read Vivek Bald’s work on South Asian diasporic history before 1965—which is where the contemporary diaspora that makes us possible comes from. His work looks at the history of ship workers who jumped ship and integrated into communities of color in Harlem, in New Orleans. I became really interested in West Coast histories of Asian Americans. Everyone is now finally talking about Erika Lee’s book—which is amazing, really good scholarship—and other books like that.
I was living in California and I realized that there, Asian American history is American history, is California history. I had this sense of being cheated. I have studied American history and studied American literature—this was so important to me in my education—and I had managed to only learn about … Japanese internment was the only part of Asian American history that I’d ever learned in school, and that was skated by and taught in all kinds of problematic ways. So the experience of learning more about South Asian American history and Asian American history was both thrilling—in the way that Neil experiences that as this thrill and sense of recognition—and it’s also heartbreaking, because there’s never enough. There are people who lived these lives, who we just have no communication with, we have no sense of who they were.
I feel quite jealous of my friends who do understand their history more, who aren’t trapped in the untranslatability between generations. I have difficulty enough understanding the worlds that my parents and my grandparents came from, let alone dating back to the 19th century. It feels like we’re making it up anew. And there are so many communities in America who feel versions of this, who have had the right to a historical identity taken away from them because of colonialism or other forms of oppression, and genocide, and enslavement. I think that is another version of American history. I grew up with this story of American history as, like, “City on the Hill,” “the American dream.” I’m now coming to understand that alongside that stands all of these questions of the voices we haven’t heard before, those ghosts. That’s the reason I love Beloved and The Sympathizer and these other stories. These are great American novels that are of the minority voices and they’re obsessed with the same things.
I think there are stories waiting to be reclaimed. I don’t know if you’ve spent any time reading the South Asian American Digital Archive, but that has been an incredible resource for me personally, coming to understand all the textures of South Asian identity in the US. Like learning about the Ghadar Party, the revolutionaries who gathered and organized in San Francisco and Berkeley around 1914. These stories are there.
PS: Neil thinks that becoming a professional writer of English and writing himself into America is Snider’s way of making use of all he took, an idea that haunts Neil because he took too much from someone in his past. Can you speak more to this running theme for Neil and Anita, about whether they are making use of all they took?
SS: I think a lot about the transition that my family made, from feeling like outsiders to feeling like something closer to insiders. When my parents first got to the U.S., there weren’t that many Indian Americans, there were like half a million Indians living in the U.S. at the time. They were part of this lonelier, earlier generation of immigrants. I remember when we were growing up, my mom wanted us to buy our jeans out of Kmart discount bins. The idea that we would get jeans from American Eagle that cost $40 was abhorrent to her. She was like: absolutely not, that is not how we spend our money. We are immigrants, we scrimp and save.
Now, things feel more settled. There has been an upward mobility in terms of class and privilege that I’ve seen in my subset of Indian America. For me, that comes with a worry of: are we going to remember what it felt like to be an outsider? Will that ethically inform our stance in America? Will that politically inform our stance in America? So that’s the wider world that I think about around the Neil and Anita question.
In the space of the book, they go from similarly being outsiders to being insiders. They go from having to strive and save everything they can to try and make it into a college that they feel will be the promised land (of course, we know it’s not, but they think it is). On the other side, they’re like: well, we have won the game, in a lot of ways. What was it all for? What do we do now that we’re sitting pretty? I feel like that’s the challenge facing so many people my age, of my generation, my particular subset of the diaspora. What happens now? What was all that work for and what was all the pain for? What happens in the next stage of life? We have to invent it now.
PS: While Neil has some romantic and sexual encounters with East Asian and white women, the object of his lifelong obsession is another Indian American, and both she and his sister also have their more serious relationships with desi men. So often representation of second-generation desis has us aspiring to date white or across racial lines. Is this something you were consciously pushing back on?
SS: I wasn’t consciously pushing back on it. Just, this was the world that my characters were in. I had a lot of friends who lived in even more Indian enclaves than I did growing up, and they were a little more secure in their sexual and romantic identities, so they didn’t think twice about dating other brown people. I was writing in that world. I grew up in a slightly whiter world than some of the characters in Gold Diggers do, but as I’ve gotten older, so many more of my friendships are with other Asian Americans and South Asian Americans, with whom I take myself for granted and vice versa. In those spaces, all of a sudden, I feel like I can breathe a sigh of relief—you know, date who you want to date, connect with who you want to connect with—and it doesn’t feel so heavy.
Ayana Mathis was my advisor at Iowa, and when we were working through some of the early pages, she was like: so where are all the white people? It’s funny coming from her, she’s a Black writer, but she pushed me in a way that was important. She was like: I get that you’re writing about this particular bubble, but whiteness surrounds them and so you have to engage with it. And she was correct. So there’s a sense of the white world around them and of what that does to their identities, but ultimately their lives play out in more Asian bubbles, as a lot of people’s do.
PS: Neil observes attendees at an Indian wedding expo and thinks: “They believed they were planning weddings. Did any of them smell the ugly, world-inverting lusts undergirding the romantic ones? Everyone wants something from someone else.” Talk to me more about these ugly, world-inverting lusts.
SS: I feel a little bad about the second half of the book being so anti-wedding and marriage, because my brother’s getting married this year. I was like: I promise I wrote this before you were engaged, this is not an indictment of you!
But I have a lot of skepticism of the way societies think about marriages and home. There is something in a lot of Indian American culture that puts so much faith in wanting to literally house the next generation into couples. In Hindu ideas of the four stages of life, you’ve got the student and then you’ve got the householder, and you’ve got to go from one to the other pretty quickly. Obviously, there’s all kinds of burdens that women carry around this as well. So I had some criticism about that, that seeps through implicitly.
I also think Neil’s criticizing himself there, because he realizes that desire has been responsible for him committing the greatest evil that he has committed. Desire, lust, gold lust, ambition—all of these words swirl around together in the book. I’m exploring a bunch of facets of things that Americans lionize, and Indians also sometimes lionize, but it is a very American value: the great American dream is to go West to make your fortune, it’s to strive your way into the upper middle class. All of these things get conflated for Neil and in the plot, where all these kinds of lusts connect. Neil starts to see how any desire that large can both make and unmake you. And there’s no way around those desires for him, because they get him through life—they get his entire community through life—but he’s also obsessed with understanding the morality surrounding them and the costs of them.
PS: Neil’s roommate Chidi asks him: “Why do you devote your life to these institutions we invented for different times—universities, marriage?” And the immigrant culture we see throughout the novel is clearly steeped in prizing these things. Neil’s admittedly not much of a revolutionary and doesn’t linger on it, but can you speak more to your own views of these institutions, the opportunities and constraints they offer second-generation desis, our scope for pushing back on our own behalf or for the generations we might raise?
SS: I have so much personal anxiety around the fact that there are prescribed ways of being. It’s particularly there in immigrant life, but it’s just there in late capitalism. There’s a way to make it through the world and that way is to strive your way to a really good university. The characters in the first half of the book are correct, in that if you go to a fancy school and get a fancy degree, your life is often easier. It insulates you, makes you safer. It allows you to take risks, and I think that’s messed up. I wish that weren’t the case.
Particularly, though, I feel a lot of pain around the fact that it feels like there are limited ways of being, when your entire community has a restricted imagination for how you can go from childhood to adulthood. I feel this among a lot of my other friends who are children of immigrants. They, similar to me, sometimes feel this desire to break open the vessels that our lives are supposed to fit into. That feels easier now that there are more of us coming of age, as more and more of my friends of color and Asian American friends make it through our 20s and into our 30s. Now it seems like we are inventing new ways just by living them. But there’s this extra imaginative burden that we take on that I do not see in my white friends. Every single step—I’m gonna major in this instead of this, I’m gonna get this kind of job instead of this kind of job, I’m gonna live with a partner before marriage and risk my family’s scorn—these are not things that my white friends ever have to deal with. They’re not risking breaking something in the way that I, and other people who feel like this, are. We are at risk of losing something when we don’t follow the mold, and that makes me angry.
PS: Neil’s mother has this desire to protect him from “nonsense,” meaning any partying or alcohol or substance use, which is a path he goes down pretty hard. Almost like the lemonade was his gateway drug, and then he turns to study drugs or other substitutes when he can’t get that. So it doesn’t feel like that was “America” coming to get him. Can you speak to his engagement with the “nonsense” and lemonade’s role in getting him there?
SS: She wants so badly to keep the bad stuff out, and it comes from a place of love. She wants him to be safe, she wants her kids to be safe. But what she doesn’t realize is that the implicit pressures of their community are unsafe. They are much more unsafe than if he were to smoke a little weed. The damage caused by not just pressures but again this restricted imagination, this flattened sense of selfhood, that is what causes the great tragedy of the book. That’s what ruins Neil’s life and thins Anita, and makes it so hard for them to just be people. That’s what sends them toward these substances, what sends Anita to a toxic relationship, and sends Neil to his substance abuse problems. That’s something that a lot of communities don’t think about: there’s something worse than immorality. There are things that are much, much worse than the things you think of as immoral.
PS: Gossip is a theme that runs throughout the book. It seems to come back in a lot of different ways. Is that related?
SS: I mean, I love to gossip. It’s a writerly instinct, to look around at other people and wonder what’s going on with them. But there’s an additional layer for Neil’s mom, and for a lot of the aunties in that world, which is they’re looking around at other people and they’re trying to see who’s doing it right, according to their moralities. It’s a little bit of prosperity gospel with a dash of goddess Lakshmi. There’s a sense that if you are moving up that upward mobility ladder—if you’re getting into fancy schools and you’re making a lot of money—that’s “doing it right.” Also, not getting divorced, that’s “doing it right.” Keeping your nuclear family together, that’s “doing it right.” It’s funny, but it’s also what causes that restricted sense of imagination, the idea that there are always eyes looking around. Or that thing that Hindi speakers always say, their parents say: log kya kahenge? What will people say? That sense that there is a community narrative at stake. That’s what you’re testing against when you’re gossiping, you’re testing against this imagined ideal of a community that is not actually true of anyone. That is what causes so much of the pain of the book.