When Sanjena Sathian’s agent first suggested that they send an advance copy of her debut novel to Mindy Kaling and her production company, Sathian was all for it — but she was skeptical that anything would come of it.
She was thrilled when she received a positive response. “It seemed like they had really engaged with it and understood that it was both comedy and drama,” Sathian said in an interview.
Sathian’s debut novel, “Gold Diggers,” which takes its title from the hit 2005 song by Kanye West, is set in an Atlanta suburb during the George W. Bush administration. It focuses on Neil Narayan, a directionless Indian American teen who struggles with the expectations placed on him. Everything changes when he is drawn into a scheme led by his longtime crush, Anita Dayal, and her mother. For years, the Dayals had been stealing gold jewelry from members of their tight-knit Indian community to create an ancient potion that, when consumed, allowed them to steal the talent of the gold’s previous owners.
Kaling saw a story that she could bring to the small screen. In February, her company, Kaling International, announced that it would adapt “Gold Diggers,” which will be released Tuesday by Penguin Press, for television, with Sathian co-writing the script and Kaling serving as executive producer.
Sathian was inspired to create the plot when she heard about a spate of jewelry thefts that targeted Atlanta’s Indian community in 2012. Some speculated at the time that thieves were focusing on Indian Americans because they were known to have elaborate jewelry in their homes. “I remember my mom saying, ‘I know that people outside the community are being blamed, but I promised you, Indians are involved somewhere,’” Sathian said. “I remember just thinking about that for a while and thinking, ‘What would it be like to be an Indian person who was stealing from other Indian people?’”
As a co-writer of the proposed television series, Sathian is eager to contribute to the growing number of portrayals of South Asian American life on American television. She credits Kaling and her work on the hit NBC show “The Office” for showing a generation of South Asians what was possible when it came to storytelling. “I just really admire Mindy's own arc. I’ve admired her since I saw the Diwali episode of ‘The Office,’” she said. “I did not know you can do that as a brown comedian and take up space and be snarky and irreverent in this mainstream sitcom.”
Creating the characters of Neil and Anita, two young people who came of age in Georgia in the early 2000s, also allowed Sathian to examine the South Asian experience in the South. While friends and early readers often note that the aimless Neil seems very different from Sathian herself, she says she feels she has a lot in common with him.
“I looked like a success to the people around me, but I really struggled with about half of school. I was very good at the humanities, but I really flailed my way through math and science,” she said, adding that her struggles with those subjects led to a lot of insecurities and anxiety. “People are reading [Neil] as though he's kind of an aberration or a new picture of the community, but that is just always what it felt like for me.”
“Gold Diggers” is set in the fictional town of Hammond Creek, which was based on the Atlanta suburbs the author grew up in. Now 29, she has had a firsthand look at how Asian Atlanta has evolved over her lifetime. “I went to a majority-white high school, and there was a little bubble of Indians who all stuck together,” she said. “A lot of us were on the debate team, and the debate team’s motto was ‘What can brown do for you?’ It was very tight-knit.”
Sathian said she also tried to draw on the long histories of South Asians in the U.S. throughout the story. As her character Neil grows up, he begins to study the histories of Indian workers during the Gold Rush in the 1800s as a grad student. She began thinking about those histories while she was living in the San Francisco Bay Area as a recent college graduate. “I really had never heard a drop of South Asian American history until I was living in California. I then learned about the Ghadar Party and the history of Sikh Americans in Stockton,” she said. The Ghadar Party was a World War I era movement among Indians in the United States who mobilized to end the British colonization of their homeland. “That just exploded my conception of who we were as a community.”
Sathian said that as she gets ready to introduce her book to the world, she has been struck by the different ways readers have been responding to Neil and Anita.
“All I've ever wanted was to write a novel and exist in the world as a writer,” she said. “I've been lucky enough to be in conversation with other writers who have this really sharp reading of the book. I’ve just been thrilled to see that it connects with other people. That’s one of the coolest gifts I think anyone can have with their writing.”