Ambition, Greed, and Love Collide in a Brilliant New Novel

Sanjena Sathian’s stunning Gold Diggers calls into question the relentless American pursuit of success

If you could drink a beverage that imbued you with the ambition, passion, and energy of someone you admired, would you? What if that beverage were infused with liquid gold? What if you had to steal that gold from the person whose ambition you craved? And what if, by claiming that ambition for yourself, you threatened to drain that person of their own drive?

This is the magic that Neil Narayan and Anita Dayal, two Atlanta teens and the children of parents who immigrated from India, cultivate in Anita’s basement, to varying success. Anita is naturally driven, and thrives from the attention of her beloved mother, who for all intents and purposes is a single mom after her cold and distant husband moves to California. Neil needs a bit more help. He’s aimless and ambivalent about what he wants from life; all he knows is that he is expected to be something , someone who can compete with his terrifyingly ambitious Atlanta friends and show his family how worthy he is of their love and admiration. This desperation, however, turns sour, and when he goes too far, his community pays a terrible price that will haunt him for years.

Study in Rhythm: Red and Gold. Joseph Schillinger, 1934. Courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Nearly a decade later, Neil is a graduate student at Berkeley half-heartedly writing his dissertation on the California Gold Rush, while Anita is enmeshed in Silicon Valley, working at a toxic startup and surrounded by tech billionaires, narcissists, and assholes. When she tracks Neil down with a desperate plea for help, he readily agrees, knowing he’ll get another taste of the gold drink that he thinks would help him finally get his life back on track — and a shot at finally being with Anita, with whom he’s been in love for years. But the stakes are high — potentially even higher than they were when his teenaged pursuit resulted in catastrophe — forcing both Neil and Anita to reconsider just how far they’d be willing to go in search of success, wealth, and the respect of their family and peers.

Critics have called dazzling” and I think it’s the most apt descriptor for this gorgeous novel. Sathian’s prose, told through Niel’s first person POV, is clever, funny, and sharp. It’s approachable and startlingly insightful, the kind of story you need to read with a pen in hand because you’ll be underlining something pithy and smart every other page.

It’s also timely, in that there’s a slowly growing movement of people questioning the necessity of a ladder-climbing career, the worship of Americans’ relentless pursuit of wealth and power, that is draining us of time and energy we could devote to our families, friends, and own damn selves instead. asks the question: is all this worth it? Why am I working sixty hours a week on this app? Is this purposeful? Who am I working so hard for? Is this really, truly, what the people who love me want and expect of me?

I connected deeply with Neil. He, like me, has the general idea that he’s smart and has something to offer, but he’s insecure and lacks direction. He feels that others underestimate him, but he’s not exactly doing anything to counter that perception. I’m not the child of recent immigrants, but I come from a background that left me feeling like I had a long way to go to make myself worthy of the love and self-respect that always seems just out of reach. I, like Neil, have sometimes wished everyone would give up on me. I’ve thrown myself headfirst into rooms I thought would offer me success, and the accompanying positive regard of people I considered important, only to barrel into disaster instead.

As the millennial generation emerges from our second economic meltdown of our adult lives, and Gen Z stares bewilderingly out onto an inhospitable and uncertain future, it’s rational to question why we’re giving ourselves over to other people’s ambitions for us and buying into greed when the chance of true and lasting success is so difficult to attain and comes at such a high cost. brilliantly addresses this conflict through the perspective of someone hindered by his own insecurity and desire. But Neil isn’t hopeless, and with assistance from the considerably more self-aware Anita, he’ll begin to understand where he needs to devote his ambition and energy, and what he can afford to leave behind.

NPR calls a “rollicking, at times painful, and ultimately intensely satisfying tale.” says it’s “imaginative and intoxicating.” And Mindy Kaling is currently in the process of adapting it for TV. You can buy Gold Diggers at Bookshop, or first, read an excerpt at Lit Hub.

I chatted with Sanjena Sathian about her literary influences, how she melds together realism and fantasy, and her favorite hangover breakfast.

A Goldsmith in his Shop. Petrus Christus, 1449. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

How did you decide to incorporate fantasy into an overall realist novel? Did the fantastical element inspire the rest of the story? Or did you craft it in response to the needs of the characters and narrative? Do you think you’ll integrate genre elements into future work in a similar way?

I’ve always loved magical realism. Some of the first writers who made me want to write were non-realists like Julio Cortázar and Salman Rushdie. And Rushdie made a real impact on me with one of his big ideas, that magical realism is a way not of evading but of accurately describing reality when you come from migration or colonial contexts. The condition of migration is Absurd and displaced and disjointed — reality is shifted inherently.

I wrote mostly realism till I was 23, though, and it was all really somber, self-serious stuff. But after college, I didn’t have to read for class or to impress people for the first time, and I started reading authors like Kelly Link and George Saunders and Aimee Bender and Haruki Murakami and Ruth Ozeki. I realized how much fun I had reading their novels. They could tackle really serious issues in refreshing ways because of a non-realist element. So I sort of undertook to study non-realism in a more intentional way, reading a little more science fiction — I still struggle with hard sci fi — and contemporary speculative fiction. I went to the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and learned how people who are serious genre writers think about their craft. I’ve never felt like I’m doing genre, fantasy, or sci fi, though — I’m just fiddling with a single variable in reality and then watching what happens.

As for future work, I’m not sure. I like having a conceit help shape a project. That can be realist or non realist. But I’m into concept as much as character and I think the two feed each other.

What drew you to including the history of the California Gold Rush in Gold Diggers? Was there a specific historical event or character, or artistic depiction of the period, that inspired you?

It was sort of inevitable. I wanted to include some sense of the past, because I always love that in novels — the idea that the present isn’t the only storyline. And so I turned to the mythological history of gold in India (alchemy) and to the California Gold Rush, which is so ingrained in both the American conception of ourselves and in the cultural history of gold in general.

The Gold Rush was an international phenomenon too, though, and I was interested in involving something like Indian history there. The trouble is that not many Indians could get to California in the 1850s — it was too far, India was colonized, et cetera. I was about to give up on the idea that I could put Indian and American history in conversation that way when I found the story, in a Library of Congress archive, of an Indian man being chased by a mob of whites after being accused of gold theft. It was chilling — basically a tale of a lynch mob — and I knew I had to use it.

The Necklace. Alice Pike Barney, 1898. Courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Anita begins to actively question the ambition she, her mother, and Neil had pursued for decades before Neil does. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how Anita and Neil each approach ambition, and their individual pursuits of it through their gold drinking.

Neil is always skeptical of ambition in some ways, mostly because it’s so difficult for him to come by it honestly. He begins the novel already burned out and frustrated with his community, and then when he drinks the lemonade in part one he’s giving in and acceding to his community’s values. When he grapples with the legacy of the lemonade — which has true, awful costs at the end of part one — he’s in a way returning to a worldview that was natively his, but which his world beat out of him.

Anita, on the other hand, really did OK by her community’s standards. She’s smart enough and lives up to everyone’s expectations — she’s a pageant winner, a star student, and eventually makes it to Stanford. Something has to dislodge Anita, almost brutally, from her position on the smug and satisfied inside of the Indian American elite. That “something” is in part the loss that transpires in part one, but it’s also her own personal unraveling as she realizes that the raw ambition that’s propelled her for so long will run out. At Stanford, she’s struck by something people call “Duck Syndrome,” the idea that you can seem cool and collected on the surface but also be paddling like crazy to stay afloat underneath.

Both of these characters find that ambition works for them in some essential ways, but both of them are also failed by this central value in the end. In some ways, I feel quite proud of Anita for figuring that out. Neil always stood apart from society a bit, as a reader and a thinker. For Anita to “get out” requires more. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself writing a more mature Anita who does figure that out when I reached part two. It wasn’t intentional.

What is, in your opinion, the ideal hangover breakfast?

When I’m living in India, there is nothing better than a ghee-drenched aloo, gobi, or paneer paratha with raita for a hangover Sunday breakfast. Parathas are stuffed breads — aloo is potato, gobi is cauliflower, and paneer is the thick Indian “cheese” that’s like halloumi. In America, grits and a biscuit if I’m in the south. A big fat bagel in New York.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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