Sanjena Sathian on the Downfalls of Ambition
This Week on the Book Dreams Podcast
Book Dreams is a podcast for everyone who loves books and misses English class. Co-hosted by Julie Sternberg and Eve Yohalem, Book Dreams releases new episodes every Thursday. Each episode explores book-related topics you can’t stop thinking about—whether you know it yet or not.
What does it say about the American Dream if immigrants achieve financial success but their children, and their children’s children, still experience a lack of belonging? What does it mean to be part of groups that are both privileged and treated as outsiders? What are the flaws in the stories we tell ourselves about our parents’ generation, and what are their consequences? What are the forces, internal and external, that shape our ambition? And when might ambition become our downfall? This week on Book Dreams, Sanjena Sathian—using the particular stories of two Indian American families in her debut novel, Gold Diggers, to access a universal story—shares thoughts on these questions and more.
From the episode:
Julie: The book is largely about ambition, and especially the ambition of immigrants. Can you share your thoughts about the internal and external forces that shape ambition?
Sanjena: I can speak to that in the narrow experience that ended up shaping the book. I think there are so many iterations of ambition that it’s hard to speak to it super broadly, but I have spent a lot of time talking about and thinking about the way ambition functioned in my corner of the Indian diaspora, and it came from both community kind of standards.
I think there is this erroneous picture of the tiger parent breathing down your neck and yelling that you have to get into the best school, and while that’s sometimes an accurate portrayal, really it’s something more sort of insidious and pernicious. It’s the fact that the entire Indian diaspora, or much of it in the US, is shaped by an immigration process that demands that people my parents’ age and new immigrants have to be “good enough.”
They have to pass a lot of tests and hurdles in order to get the visa, and then get the green card, and get the job that’s going to sponsor them. And so with all of that constant striving and hustle, of course you’re gonna pass some of that on to your kids and your community. It’s more implicit than anything. It’s not always caricature-ish—you know, shoving your kid in extra math classes. Though that happened too.
So that’s the kind of external thing that you’re talking about, but then there’s this much more complex internal battle. That’s where the book is ultimately interested. We begin with the external circumstances of a community that relies on ambition to make itself, but internally I was much more interested in the inner lives of characters who are defined by their want—not even necessarily a traditional ambition to have the best job, but just the desire to remake yourself, the desire to know yourself, the desire to finally feel confident, especially in a new country. That’s where the lines between ambition and lust and desire and greed all blur into one another, and I think that’s the fertile terrain of so much American literature that I was really interested in exploring.
Julie: Do you think ambition is a finite resource the way that gold is?
Sanjena: Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t know. I haven’t thought of it in those terms exactly. I do think there is a sense that it can run out, not necessarily because it’s finite but because it takes so much energy to keep generating it. You lose the power to keep making yourself want more.
I think growing up, I felt like it was on me to keep producing this desire and drive, and then rely on that drive to get me through the next debate tournament or test or get me to college. And then at some point, you lose the will to keep making that. So maybe the will to be ambitious is a little more finite or has limitations.
Sanjena Sathian is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an alumna of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and a former Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow. She’s worked as a journalist in San Francisco and in Mumbai, and she has written nonfiction for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vox, Time, Food & Wine, and more. Her award-winning short fiction appears in Conjunctions, Boulevard, Joyland, Salt Hill, and The Masters Review. Booksellers named Gold Diggers an “Indie Next” pick, and Mindy Kaling’s production company is adapting it for a TV series, with Sanjena co-writing the adaptation and Mindy Kaling herself set to executive produce.