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Gold Diggers' Is A Magical Look At What It Means To Be Indian-American

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

If you could drink ambition, what would it be made of, and how would it taste? The debut novel "Gold Diggers" takes us inside a fictional Indian American community where only magic distilled from precious gold can provide the energy needed to succeed in America. Sanjena Sathian's tale is epic in scope, spanning four decades and two societies, tackling the alienation, longing and fierce drive that define the experience of so many immigrants and their children here. And it's gotten a lot of buzz, with Mindy Kaling now adapting the book for television.

Sanjena Sathian joins us now from Atlanta. Welcome to the program.

SANJENA SATHIAN: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to give a little bit of a CliffNote (ph) synopsis here because the book is so rich and layered. But the two main characters are Neil and Anita, who grow up as neighbors in the same fictional Atlanta suburb with a tight Indian American community. They alternately sort of compete with each other and support each other in a white America.

You've said that Neil and Anita represent the two parts of you. Can you explain what you mean and who they are?

SATHIAN: I think anyone who knew me in high school would identify me as Anita, who is this sort of comically intense and extremely ambitious person. She's kind of a familiar figure to a lot of people who might have grown up in the South Asian diaspora, someone who seeks success. Neil, on the other hand, appears to be more of an underachiever. And even though I was a really hard worker, on the inside, I always felt a lot more like Neil, just afraid that I might let people down around me and afraid that I wouldn't live up to the high expectations of my community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, the book is about so much. It is vividly, beautifully written. But at its heart, it's about the cost of the sort of single-minded pursuit of success. Immigrant parents sacrifice so much for their children, and the burden is so very heavy. And in this world that you've created, everyone wants to go to Harvard. Explain why the need to excel is so fierce.

SATHIAN: I think in the particular corner of Indian America where I grew up, which is not to say this is the case for every Indian American, that was just the one vision we had for America. You know, Harvard is a great example because no matter where you're from in the world, even in kind of the most remote village in India, if you emigrated to a suburb in Georgia, as my parents did, everyone back home knows what Harvard is. There is a kind of limited picture of America that you might have when you arrive here as an adult and you're raising your children in a foreign context. And as I grew up, I came to understand that there are a million other ways to be a person in America. But when I was young, I thought of quite a very narrow definition of success as the only way to be American.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. So all these big themes, but enter the magic. Anita and Neil have drifted apart when we first meet them in high school. Anita is now popular. She's super driven. She's gotten accepted into a tony, mostly white private school. And Neil, as you mentioned, is kind of a slacker. And he discovers her secret, which is this brew. Explain how Anita gets her power.

SATHIAN: Yeah. So Anita's mother, Anjali, works as kind of a home chef or caterer, cooking Indian food in other mothers' homes, moms who maybe don't have as much skill in the kitchen or don't have the time. And so Anjali has access to all these other Indian families' homes. And she uses that access to steal gold, often gold jewelry, from other members of the community. Then, using a recipe that Anjali herself kind of learned from her own mother back in India, Anjali transmutes that gold and makes this magical lemonade that helps Anita imbibe the ambitions of the original owner of that gold. So to put it simply, Anita is stealing ambition from other people in her community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And there's a scene where Anita's mother explains why she's been stealing the gold only from Indians. And she explains, it's the quality of the gold, you know, the craftsmanship. But it's also, and I'm quoting here, "owned by people who possess the kind of energy and ambition we need. And the point is, who else is really, truly ambitious? It's immigrants."

SATHIAN: I mean, I think that a lot of my friends growing up who didn't come from immigrant families were, to put it simply, just a lot chiller.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

SATHIAN: I think they knew that it was OK to have a varied teenage experience. But the kind of single-mindedness that was there in my life and in the lives of my other friends who came from immigrant families, there was just this hustle and this need to put our noses to the grindstone. I think a lot of it also comes from the fact that that ambition can insulate you from the judgments and the xenophobia of other Americans.

You know, I was growing up in Georgia in the post-Sept. 11 era. And I do have memories of my dad and brother being hassled at airport security. And I also have memories of aunties and uncles in the community emphasizing, I'm Dr. So-And-So (ph), as a way to have a buffer between themselves and racism. And so the ambition is deeply tied up in a self-protective survival instinct.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to pause and mention that you grew up and currently live close to where eight people were killed in a shooting, six of them East Asian women, in Atlanta last month. And you wrote about it for the LA Times. And you said that too many of us aren't in the story at all, and that sort of shows the fragility of belonging. What have been your thoughts since that happened and having to see that place where that terrible thing happened?

SATHIAN: In some ways, the shootings were very close to home. They were - two of them were about five minutes away from where I'm talking to you now. But there are other ways in which those women's experiences are so unlike mine and so unlike the characters in my book. I come from and my characters come from a middle and upper-middle-class - background, mostly Indian. And those were working-class Korean and Chinese American women who were victimized.

The question you're asking about the gaps in the story of Asian America are exactly this, that all of us can be lumped into one group, everyone from Hmong refugees to wealthy Bangladeshis. We don't all belong in exactly the same demographic. And so what I hope people can do is try to expand their imagination of that textured reality of what it is to be Asian American and to understand there are a lot of different kinds of Asian Americans. And you can't just learn from one of us and understand the rest of us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, last question, though, Mindy Kaling - it must have been pretty mind-blowing to have your debut novel picked up by her.

SATHIAN: That was crazy. I remember my agent saying we'd sent her the manuscript. And I was like, Mindy Kaling doesn't have time for me. And I guess she connected with the material. And we are, you know, definitely a ways away from this actually being a show, but I am so excited to co-write the adaptation. I think that popular media has included a lot more depictions of Asian Americans over the last few years, and I'm excited to have a whole different way to explore the world of Hammond Creek and the world of the book.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Sanjena Sathian, the author of "Gold Diggers," out now. Thank you so much.

SATHIAN: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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