A Note from Sanjena Sathian, Author of Gold Diggers: A Novel:
I first encountered Sarah Thankam Mathews' work in the fall of 2017, when we became friends in graduate school. I knew right away that hers was a brilliant new voice, unlike anything I'd encountered before – I recognized strains of Arundhati Roy's musicality and Jamaica Kincaid's incisiveness, but she was also doing something all her own. All This Could Be Different gives us that piercing voice and tours us through the lives of a group of 20-somethings trying to become themselves.
The following questions were written from Sanjena to Sarah.
How did "All This Could Be Different" originate? When did you know you had a real novel on your hands?
ATCBD grew out of what I thought would be a short story titled Milwaukee, that I had first pictured as a satire of the modern office meets disaffected queer romance. But as I wrote more and more, the novel deepened and expanded, becoming itself. I had experienced precarity when I was in my early twenties, and in 2020, with a pandemic shuttering my freelance work, while I watched thousands of people participate in the mutual aid network I was helping build in Brooklyn, I wrote the novel I wanted most to read — a character-driven, intelligent story of becoming and interdependence and imagination that was angry and funny, and hopeful and sad. I knew I had a real novel on my hands because it made real demands of me. Like some small and imperious child, it asked for my attention, my time, really – for a period – all I had to give. The voice of the novel, the characters preoccupied me as much as real life did. But also, sometimes you just know something has the breath of life. This did.
You've lived in so many different places — India, Oman, Canada, the Midwest, D.C., New York. What drew you to set your debut in Milwaukee?
I’m not a Midwesterner, but I have love for the Midwest. Wisconsin, where I went to school and worked, is a microcosm of the nation’s larger political history and journey, and so it endlessly fascinates me. Milwaukee, in particular, is an important and underrespected place. It is one of the most segregated cities in the nation, but also has this fascinating political history, including real social democratic roots — the city government was run by the “Sewer Socialists,” who were focused on the dignity and rights and amenities of the masses. I’m going to quote Tig, a Black Milwaukee native and one of my favorite characters in the novel here, because they sum it up well, in my opinion:
“Don’t you ever, ever, ever become one of those people nose in the air, calling all this flyover country. Thinking we’re just about beer and cheese and serial killers and corn. Things happen here. Happened here. This place is part of why the rest of this stupid godforsaken nation has child labor laws and workplace safety and unemployment insurance. Why we have weekends and an eight hour workday. We had forty years of actual socialist city government, democratically elected, here. Only city in the nation. FDR was inspired by what happened here. When he dreamed up his lil’ New Deal and shit. Milwaukee baby. We have real history. Remember us right.”
“All This Could Be Different” is a unique coming-of-age story in that it's not only about one main character coming into herself — it's a collective tale about many 20-something millennials growing up in different ways. What made you want to write about this "we" and not just an "I"?
One of my great hungers when I was a younger writer was an emotional one: to feel my story, my specific life story, seen and understood in its entirety. I wanted to be represented, I wanted to be legible. I think that’s a very common and understandable desire. I wrote a whole other novel from this place of need that has never seen the light of day. But with this novel, with All This Could Be Different, I showed up with a different impulse. “What structure can I architect,” I asked, “to make people feel what I hope they will feel, to make them more likely to hold certain questions deeply?” That, I think, made for a stronger work of art. The person I am now cares a little less about the pure fact of representation than the question of for what, and for whom, can power be marshaled. The novel is at its heart a somewhat conservative form, historically best suited to show the journey and consciousness of a single self, and often a self that mirrors a nation-state. I wanted to see if I could work within this form while making it work for me. I wanted to tell a story that began with an “I” – a person like Sneha who believes herself alone and atomized – and chart an arc towards a “We” – a collective, compound love story that showed what interdependence can look like, that showed a self being formed by other people. All This Could Be Different tells this story of someone who dreams so little for herself beyond an individual security and safety, and finds herself schooled by love.
Work, labor, a monstrous economy, and the impossible financial choices forced on young people are crucial parts of the novel, and I read the book as taking a quietly radical political stance on these questions while also telling very specific, human stories. What's the role of our politics in the art we make?
What a beautiful question and compliment to the book. As we both know, a novel is not a manifesto or a tract or an ideal tool for a didactic capital P politics. No one reads a novel to decide who to vote for or whatever. But something happens in the journey from a novel’s opening to the novel’s close that, almost without fail, shows you what the narration believes. Every novel contains a politic. With All This Could Be Different, I wanted to work in the classic tradition of the coming-of-age novel while also undermining it – to ask what it means to be a young person trying to assume one’s place in the frequently cruel and senseless world one has inherited. Listen, I reserve the right to write about whatever I please: I might set my next novel entirely at a cocktail party and not include a single Political Sentiment, and I’m allowed that, anybody is. But I also am going to be spicy right now and say that I hold quite dear this Darby English quote from an Artnet interview:
“It’s full-time work just to feel okay; being actually creative is icing on the cake. But I think we’ve lost hold of the part of art that’s centrally involved with challenge, with the pursuit of surprise, with the widening of tolerance. To my very limited view, the last thing we can afford is to place obstructions in our own paths by…valorizing art that says what everybody already knows, and publishing words that don’t say anything. This, to me, seems a terrible waste of very extremely hard-won resources and opportunities.”
Your book has one of the best covers of the year. Can you talk about what it was like to settle on this cover and what it means to you and the novel?
God, I love the cover so much! It’s a painting by Nicole Eisenman, a queer nonbinary artist who is, in my opinion, one of the greatest contemporary painters working today. They’re a genius, and this painting, Another Green World, holds so much that I feel is held within the novel: tenderness, alienation, connection, wryness, humor. What I always want for fellow artists of color is for our work to be taken seriously as capital A art, for people to not diminish it as therapy or unconsidered autobiography or something that exists first and foremost to educate white people. Having this painting, this incredible work of art — in a cover beautifully designed by Elizabeth Yaffe — attached to the book, means so much to me because it helped position my novel itself as a work of art in its own right. An honor, for real.
A Final Note from Sanjena:
All This Could Be Different is a beautiful and brave story of sexual awakening, work, identity, daring, and hope. I can't wait for you all to pick this book up at your local independent bookseller and fall in love, just as I have.