'Gold Diggers' Excavates the Universal Search for Belonging
Debut author Sanjena Sathian begins with a story about two Indian American aspirational gold thieves and ends with the acknowledgment of the inner search for home in all of us.
June 16, 2021
Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.
Christina Harcar: Hello, I'm Christina Harcar, and it's my pleasure today to chat with author Sanjena Sathian, whose debut novel, Gold Diggers, has garnered critical and commercial success. Fans of the novel, and I count myself among them, have embraced the story of Indian immigrant families in the Atlanta suburbs during the George W. Bush years, a story tinged with magical realism, humor, and pathos. Did I say I was fan? So is Mindy Kaling, who recently announced her intention to work with Sanjena to bring Gold Diggers to the screen. Thank you, Sanjena, and welcome to Audible.
Sanjena Sathian: Thank you. I'm such a big fan of Audible, so really exciting to be here.
CH: Oh, thank you. So, my first question is, how would you describe your book in one sentence?
SS: It's an immigrant story about two teenagers, Neil and Anita, who embark on an unlikely quest to be gold thieves, and it follows them through their high school years and then picks up again in their 20s when they reunite for one last job.
CH: Following up on the gold digging theme, what was the gold you were in search of that drove you to write this book?
SS: That's a beautiful phrasing. I always was a reader first, before becoming a writer, and people say that you need to write the book not just that you want to read, but the book that you need to read, and that's what sent me on this sort of journey to write this book. I was trying to write something set in the Atlanta suburb where I grew up for about eight years, and it just wasn't holding together. It wasn't until I started playing with magical realism and speculative fiction that I found a way back into that period of my life and it kind of came out of me just as though it had been waiting 20 years. That was the gold—trying to say something about this world that I come from that I think hadn't totally been put to paper before, and I felt this visceral need to articulate it.
"This is the reason that people love audiobooks; sometimes it has an extra layer of life that comes through when you have the right voice actor for it."
CH: Wow. I have to ask, what was your favorite part of the story to write?
SS: I loved writing in Neil's voice. I liked the periods of time when I could be in his head. I like writing the scenes, I like writing the dialogue, I like writing the heists and the capers, but there is something about just lingering in a character’s consciousness that is really appealing. In graduate school, I learned that this is called general time. So you have the scenes of the novel that are in specific time and then you have general time when you're just sort of in a character's brain. There’s something very Proustian about being allowed to be in that space.
It's been really nice to see that people have responded to Neil's voice and responded to Neil, the narrator, as a character. I think that came from just me liking being in his head and commenting upon the world around him snarkily and sassily, which is how he is in relation to his community.
CH: Yes, he is a very engaging guide through the story. What was it like to hear Rama Vallury's performance? To hear him being Neil, the character you're close to?
SS: It was extraordinary. I got to hear a few auditions working with the Penguin Random House audio team, and my producer for the book and I heard maybe six or seven and we had the chance to hear a few more, but I think we both heard Rama's voice in the first few minutes and were like, "That's Neil." Not just someone who is speaking the words, but he embodied it. He is such a talented performer and narrator. I've had people reach out to me and say that the Audible book is the best audiobook they've ever heard, which I think is really, really cool. He does so many voices and inhabits so many characters that a few people have texted me to say, "It's cool that you got multiple people to narrate your audiobook." And I was like, "No, that's all Rama."
He developed a deep connection to the material. He's a voice actor. He studied history in college, as I learned. There's something Indian American everyman-ish about Neil that Rama really connected to. This is the reason that people love audiobooks; sometimes it has an extra layer of life that comes through when you have the right voice actor for it.
CH: It is so great to hear that, and I, as a listener, completely agree. I read the novel and I'm in the middle of listening to it now, and I also am a huge new fan of Rama Vallury because I think there's a wit and a humanity that he puts into everything. I thought I already loved the characters and now I love them more.
So, you mentioned Proust, and I don't want to spoil too much of the book, but I thought that I got some serious Gatsby vibes in a couple of spots, especially at the end of the novel. I'm curious, how much, if at all, does the Great Gatsby inspire Gold Diggers, and did you mean it to?
SS: Yeah. Gatsby is in me. It's one of those books that I return to. There are a few that I return to fairly often, where I'll read or reread them every few years. The Bell Jar is one of them, and I actually often listen to the Maggie Gyllenhaal narration instead of rereading. I think Jake Gyllenhaal does Gatsby. But I think Gatsby spoke to me when I read it in 10th grade because it's surprisingly accessible for one of these books that you teach high schoolers, but it's also so multilayered that it gives something new to you every time you read it.
In high school I related to the richness of the language. There's this line in a party scene in an early chapter where Nick Carraway, the narrator, says, "I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life." I remember copying that into my notebook and just thinking that was the greatest sentence ever written. When I returned to it at the end of high school, it was in a class called American studies, where we read Gatsby, we read All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, which is also very much in Gold Diggers, we read Beloved, we read The Awakening, and Whitman and Thoreau. It was this kind of intentional engagement with the American literary tradition. Suddenly, it all made sense to me. I am the child of immigrants. I never felt like I understood America. But reading American literature gave me a sense of what America is. It gave me my first insight into this notion of the American dream, which is so important in literature and film and politics and just the way we conceive of ourselves as a country.
There's no book that is more that than Gatsby. It is a novel of longing and of a desire to remake oneself. And it's also a novel about how greed intersects with longing, and I think it plays those two against each other. It's critical of an age of access, but it's also very loving in the way it pays attention to the desire that leads to excess. I think that's a kind of everything-ness that you find in great literature—the ability to hold all of these truths. And so Gatsby was always in my head when I started writing Gold Diggers. Aspirational a little bit, but also the values that I learned from it, that a novel can be both critical and empathetic, and that, in fact, the good novels walk this line between both.
CH: Thank you. That was such a wonderful answer, and I love that as an added bonus I have a little list of other books I love that I can find in Gold Diggers.
So, I'm going to circle around. You just said that Rama Vallury studied history in college, which sent me down a path, and also, one of the things that I also loved about the book, as the official Audible history editor, is how deftly you made the case about the richness for the intersection of personal history and a nation’s history. I really loved that, so thank you. Was there anything in researching and writing the book that surprised you or excited you about American history in particular? Or is there anything you didn't expect to find that you found? And what was that part of it like?
SS: Yeah. I have always loved history. I nearly majored in it in college until I realized that you had to do a lot more work digging through archives, and I was like, no, I like to talk about it, I don't want to do the hard work. I did a lot of research into the history of the American gold rush, and multiple gold rushes, I should say. So, there was the 29ers rush in Georgia and the 49ers rush in California. That was a moment of synchronicity for me. The first half of the book is set in Georgia, the second half is set in California, and they're 10 years apart. And these gold rushes took place in these two states 20 years apart. There were so many moments of overlap for me. I already had the idea that my characters were going to be Indian American gold thieves, and I was looking for some kind of chunk of history that I could draw on. I wasn't sure what I was looking for specifically; I just wanted to engage with American history.
"...A novel can be both critical and empathetic, and... in fact, the good novels walk this line between both."
And so, I was reading all of these histories of the gold rush. We know that the gold rush was an international phenomenon. We know that Chinese workers came, that folks from Switzerland and Germany and Chile and Australia came, but I had never heard about an Indian in the gold rush. It's not like I had to have an Indian, but I was curious. And just when I was giving up hope that I would find the story of an Indian in the gold rush, I found in this German travelogue uploaded to the Library of Congress archives, this story...that was called "The Hindu," and it was, like, three or four pages. It was at the very end of this sort of episodic travelogue, and it told the story of a man who was accused of stealing gold, and the author of the travelogue believed him to be from the coastal city of Bombay. That's what he said; we have no way of knowing if this man was actually Indian. This was a story written by a very racist man, and it ultimately is actually the story of a quasi-lynch mob, because the German writer and his crew basically decided to hold a vigilante justice trial and beat this man who they accused of being a gold thief.
But what I found so fascinating is the pain I felt at knowing that this man was potentially an Indian who probably didn't speak very much English, who had found his way to California, which was such a journey to escape from colonized India, and take so many ships to get to California. What could have drawn that man here? And then, how heartbreaking that I couldn't hear his voice, that there are these other voices that are preserved in American history, and in history period, but if you come from a nation that was colonized, you have fewer stories to deal with. You have fewer ways to access your own heritage. I was surprised by how emotional I got about the dead hand of history. It felt very alive to me.
This allowed me to basically give all of those emotions to Neil, the narrator, who goes on to study history in the second half of the book, to bring him the personal journey that I personally went through, and it's something that I'm not done with. I spent many years reading about particularly Asian American history in California when I was living there, and there is so much that we're not taught in schools.
We get Japanese internment and then maybe we get the Chinese Exclusion Act, but we don't cover very much. I feel very passionately about bringing those little-known histories into conversations like this so people get their appetites whetted and go out and try to read more, because it's been transformative for me.
CH: Yes. And before you said that about Neil, I had this wonderful moment that I felt like I was speaking actually to Neil about the novel. He kind of started in the middle of the [story], but I don't want to spoil anything for listeners. But that was great. Thank you.
I also want to ask, having heard everything you said, what is the message or the feeling that you want your readers and listeners to take away from Gold Diggers?
SS: What a wonderful question. I don't know if I have a takeaway, but I can tell you what I felt that I hope kind of gets through, which is, this desire to understand what makes someone at home or not at home in a country and a family and a community. Because this is a story of belonging, ultimately, about a desire to belong, and about all the barriers to belonging. A lot of the conversations around the novel have focused on that immigrant identity level, and that's part of the book. But it's also about how hard it is to just be a person in a family where your values don't align.
"A lot of the conversations around the novel have focused on that immigrant identity level, and that's part of the book. But it's also about how hard it is to just be a person in a family where your values don't align."
It's also about what it's like to try to feel at home in a relationship with a partner. I hope people feel that engagement with the complexity of the idea of being at home in oneself and in the world, and I hope that speaks to people in some way. I don't know what it'll do, but that's the feeling.
CH: It definitely made me feel that way. It was a gift, and thank you. If I may, I'm going to ask a personal question now, because I loved what you said about belonging. I'm curious if publishing this novel and getting the feedback makes you feel like you belong more to any particular community, and if so, which one?
SS: I felt surprisingly welcomed. I did hope and sort of expect that some Indian Americans would read the book and recognize something of their experience, and that's been true. I'm sure others read it and were like, “I hate it. This is not what I felt,” and that's actually super important too. I think that's a really important thing, to have both, that sort of push–pull. What has been really cool has been realizing that people are willing to see the universality of the story in addition to the specificity. Because I think something that a lot of minority writers deal with is the fear that we will be pushed into speaking to and for only our community. Literature is always about using the specific to access the universal, and the fact that people who aren't ethnically like me, who didn't grow up in the South, who didn't work in tech, the fact that those people have found something to relate to, that has made me just feel more at home and more trusting that readers of literature do that work. I was nervous. I was afraid that people would only want to see me as X type of writer, and it's been really nice to hear from people who related to the novel from its many angles.
So, if I feel more belonging, perhaps it's to this world of readers and listeners who were always my tribe to begin with.
CH: That's a nice point. Again, congratulations on the deal to take Gold Diggers to screen. Is that your next big project, or do you also have another book in the works? Or can you tell us what's next up for you?
SS: I'm juggling a few projects right now. I'm superstitious about fiction, so I am working on some, but I try not to expose it to the light too early. The adaptation for television is in progress. I'm starting to work with a collaborator on that, someone who has a lot of experience in the world of television, and that has been really exciting. Just speaking to someone who has a completely different kind of narrative intelligence is so cool. And it's so cool to get to collaborate. You don't do that in fiction, and I've had enough time away from this book now that it doesn't feel like I'm preciously attached to every single thing. I'm willing to say, "Yeah, let's think about changing this scene," or, "Let's add a character. Let's explore this new person," or, "We can chop that part and do something different for the TV show." That will be a big project for my summer and hopefully the fall if we get to actually take it to a network.
CH: Yes. The world does run on an academic calendar in a way that the calendar doesn't. I hear you. I loved the book, and I want to thank you for it, and I want to thank you for your time today. I cannot wait for all of our listeners to discover this conversation and the book, both of which kind of start with gold theft and end up in a place of belonging and joy and the intersection of personal history and national histories, and I can't wait to read more. Thank you.
SS: Thank you.