Of alchemists, gold and the American dream

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By Vishnu Makhijani
New Delhi, (IANS)
It began as a tale of a mother and a daughter, two Indian Americans who are gold thieves, but expanded into a magical realist story about two immigrant families and about the costs of ambition, says Atlanta-based author Sanjena Sathian, of her debut novel, “Gold Diggers” (HarperCollins).
“It began as a story of a mother and a daughter, two Indian Americans who are gold thieves, which is based on a real series of gold thefts that took place in various American suburbs,” Sathian, the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Malayali translators who was raised in the US by immigrant parents and traces her literary heritage to Mumbai, a city with which she still maintains her links, told IANS in an interview
“I wrote it over two years while in graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It became the book it is today when I settled on the narrator – not the mother or the daughter, but their neighbor Neil, who gets involved in the thefts with them. From there, as I wrote, the book expanded and became a magical realist story about two immigrant families and about the costs of ambition,” Sathian explained.
A floundering teenager growing up in Atlanta’s suburbs, Neil Narayan doesn’t have the same drive as everyone around him. The expectations of his immigrant parents for him are high, and he tries to want their version of success, but mostly, Neil just wants his neighbor Anita Dayal.
But Anita has a secret: she and her mother, Anjali, have been brewing an ancient alchemical potion from stolen gold that transfers the ambition of the jewellery’s original owner to the drinker. Anita needs just a little boost to get into Harvard, but when Neil – who needs a whole lot more – joins in the plot, events spiral into a tragedy that rips their community apart.
Spanning two continents, two coasts, and four epochs, “Gold Diggers” expertly balances social satire and magical realism, asking what a community must do to achieve the American dream.
A considerable amount of research went into the book.
“It’s about gold, so I looked into the histories of alchemy in China, India, and Europe, and at the American gold rushes. I read quite a lot for what only became a few pages, but there’s an important part that takes place in the 1849 California gold rush. We meet a character from then-Bombay who has found his way to California. I really did find such a character, and became very interested in how an Indian man may have wound up in America in the 19th century,” the author elaborated.
“I’m thrilled that ‘Gold Diggers’ has a home at the vaunted HarperCollins India! As the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Malayali translators, my own literary heritage begins in India, and I’ve long dreamt of having readers there. Living in Mumbai for several years myself and interviewing my family about their time growing up and attending college in then-Bombay was essential in writing the book, so I’m delighted to bring the work to India,” she said.
Santhian has worked as a journalist in San Fransisco and Mumbai and her award-winning short fiction appears in the literary journals Conjunctions, Boulevard, Joyland, Salt Hill, and The Master’s Review. She’s written nonfiction for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Food and Wine, and more.
She has taught creative writing to high school, college and graduate students in Iowa, Alaska and New Zealand and recently founded the Bombay Writers’ Workshop.
“I’ve been teaching writing for a few years now and wanted to set up some creative writing courses in Mumbai, where I have lived on and off. The Bombay Writers’ Workshop launched last year – I had planned a 9 week workshop, meeting in Colaba in South Bombay – but due to COVID, I was back in the US and led it online. It was still a wonderful experience leading a class where we had mostly Indian writers in the Zoom room.
“We spent three weeks learning to read for craft, studying the use of image in, say, the poems of Arun Kolatkar, and character in the stories of Akhil Sharma, etc. Then we did workshops, in which people submitted a piece of prose – fiction or nonfiction – and their fellow students and I critiqued it. This is the style of creative writing education pioneered by my alma mater, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’m looking forward to doing this in person, hopefully in 2022,” Sathian elaborated.

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