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Literature: Golden States

by Paul Wilner

Former San Francisco resident Sanjena Sathian has been in the spotlight of late with rave reviews of her new book, which inspired an upcoming television series.

Sanjena Sathian’s talents shine in a glowing fiction debut.

Literary wunderkind Sanjena Sathian’s new novel, Gold Diggers, explores how a group of characters caught up in the Indian diaspora adapt, first to new environs in Georgia, and then to the promise of endless riches in Silicon Valley. The book has garnered rave reviews — and has even been optioned by Mindy Kaling’s production company.

Sathian is uniquely equipped to address the latest chapter in the American immigrant narrative. She was raised in Atlanta by her South Indian parents, attending a private school where she won a national debate championship (the stresses of that process are depicted in Gold Diggers) — then fasttracked to Yale. After graduation, she accepted a position with Ozy, a digital media company based in Mountain View. “I moved out here because I couldn’t get a job on the East Coast, actually,’’ she says with a laugh. “I graduated the year that the Washington Post and the Boston Globe were both sold.” She lived in Potrero Hill from 2013 to 2015, then was transferred to her company’s Mumbai bureau. But she kept working on her fiction and was ultimately accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on a grant from the Paul and Daisy Soros Foundation. It was there that Gold Diggers took root.

“The state of Indian American fiction now is something like Jewish American fiction in the ’70s and ’80s.” — Sanjena Sathian

At the ripe old age of 29, Sathian has control of her instrument — from name-checking Kanye West with her book’s title to exploring the struggles people of her generation face adapting to the expectations faced by “model minorities.” In a departure from what she describes as the “somber immigrant literature” she had been reading and writing earlier, Gold Diggers also includes elements of magic realism, as her characters use ancient techniques of alchemy to advance their professional and personal fortunes. When Neil Narayan and Anita Dayal, the childhood friend he has long crushed on, both move to the Bay Area — Narayan to study history at UC Berkeley, and Dayal to work for Galadriel Ventures, a Silicon Valley megalith — they reconnect in surprising ways. No spoilers here, but let’s just say the promise of gold continues its allure as the two collaborate on a scheme to once again unlock its potential in ways that go hilariously wrong. Using alchemy as a plot point “definitely came from a metaphorical place,” Sathian says. “The seed of the story was an interest in gold. Once I had that conceit, I kind of made up what they would do with it. Maybe they’ll drink it? I did a bunch of research and discovered that that actually was something that people did with gold. Historically and culturally in India, there was an idea that if you consumed gold, it would somehow change you for the better.”

Gold Diggers (Penguin Press) – Sathian’s tale winds its way from Atlanta to the Bay Area, while infusing the plot with humor and a touch of magic.

A different kind of alchemy is part and parcel of the Indian American experience, including the pressures of being a model minority. “My parents were not [saying]: ‘You must do this many hours of math a day,’ but they were both doctors who went to medical schools that they had to slog and slog to get into,” she reflects. “So those are values that you explicitly and implicitly impart to your kids.” Sathian adds, “The question that the book kind of mocks is: What does it mean to be both Indian and American? Obviously, the irony of the book is that it mocks the obsession with identity and is also sort of obsessed with it.” The author goes on to note: “The state of Indian American fiction now is something like Jewish American fiction in the ’70s and ’80s — constantly straddling the line between ‘We’re OK because our community collectively is doing well and people have seen us as models,’ but then, of course, society continues to ‘other’ you all the time.” She points to Philip Roth, as well as Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick, as writers who’ve captured the dilemmas of assimilation.

Returning to tech culture, Sathian says she was initially susceptible to the optimism her characters feel that “Silicon Valley was really pie in the sky,” but adds that “it’s pretty easy to get disillusioned after a little while when you realize that the place is run by people whose experience of the world is so narrow and sort of so inhuman and homogenous that they can’t really change the world for the better.’’

Meanwhile, she is keeping her cool, despite the excitement of Hollywood gold and a flurry of media attention, and has been hunkering down since the pandemic back home in Atlanta, far from celebrity culture — literary or otherwise. “Most of my friends here are not writers,’’ she says. “It’s actually kind of good for your health.”

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