How far would you go for the American dream? Sanjena Sathian’s brilliantly original debut follows first-generation Indian immigrant neighbors Neil and Anita as they straddle the line between their ambitions and their parents’ pursuit of the American dream — all with a touch of magic. Anita has her sights set on Harvard and Neil has his sights set on making it through his summer math class and, well, Anita. Neil soon discovers the secret to Anita’s recent successes; it’s pure gold and he wants in. What happens next is all at once mystical, tragic, and at times, pretty funny. Here, Sanjena Sathian discusses the inspiration behind her fierce debut, the symbolic meaning of gold across cultures and the magic that ties it all together.
When I first had a friend read the short story that became my novel, Gold Diggers, he suggested I make one big edit: ditch the magic. The piece was about a mother and a daughter who steal gold from their Indian community. The unlikely thieves then turn that stolen gold into a magical elixir, and drink it, gaining certain powers.
“Gold,” my friend said, “is valuable enough. Why do you need to do this whole potion thing?” He suggested I just write about people stealing gold for cash. It would be more straightforward, a more believable and manageable project.
But gold has never just meant cash. In many societies, including in my two cultures — Indian and American — gold has taken on symbolic meaning. Alchemists tried to make gold from scratch because they believed doing so would make them immortal. Many Hindu brides and newborn children receive gifts of gold, which carry sacred connotations while also serving as economic security; meanwhile, many Westerners’ wedding rings are also gold. Its value comes from both its longevity and the myth that has grown up around that longevity.
And the California gold rush, in which the cry of “Gold, Gold!” drew people from around the globe to the American West, is an almost fantastical event in human history. The scale at which the fever dream of riches and greed infected people warped reality at the time. The truth is that I never had to slap magic onto gold — gold itself has always been magical in the human imagination.
All I did, in writing Gold Diggers, was create a slightly newer version of that magic. My characters, an underachieving stressed-out teenager named Neil and his best friend Anita, steal gold that belongs to highly ambitious achievers in their community. When they drink their magical elixir, they’re not becoming godlike the way ancient gold-worshipers wished to — they’re just trying to get into Harvard or swing an A-minus on an algebra test.
To bolster my contemporary storyline, I read volumes of history about alchemical traditions from China to India to Europe and came upon some evidence suggesting that people might have been consuming gold thousands of years ago, for just the reasons I’d imagined my characters doing in 2006 — to become more socially powerful. And I trawled through the histories of the gold rush to understand the lusts and losses of that era.
One thing became clear as I researched and wrote: for many centuries, gold has suggested to us the possibility of more. And humans, flawed and finite as we are, seem always to want more.