Author Sarah Thankam Mathews grew up between Oman and India, and migrated to the United States in her late teens. Her debut novel All This Could Be Different was shortlisted for the 2022 National Book Award in the US.
Mathews’s novel follows Sneha who has moved to Milwaukee for an entry-level corporate job. She begins dating women – soon developing a burning crush on a beguiling and beautiful dancer who always seems just out of reach. But before long, trouble arrives. Painful secrets rear their heads; jobs go off the rails; evictions loom. Sneha struggles to be truly close and open with anybody, even as her friendships deepen, even as she throws herself headlong into a dizzying romance with Marina. In the meantime, her friend looks for a radical solution in hopes to save them all.
The debut novelist spoke to Scroll about her novel and her own identity as an immigrant. Excerpts from the interview:
I want to talk about the queerness of brown bodies in All This Could Be Different. What tropes did you try to stay away from? What kind of traits did you want to imbue your characters with?
That’s an interesting question. I wanted to write a deeply specific main character in Sneha, the kind of layered, complex, deeply alive character that I love reading most. Her queerness is an essential part of her and also not all she is. She is an immigrant, a worker, a person: prickly, prideful, loving, pained, independent-minded, alternately cowardly and brave. I wanted to write something that feels authentically desi in its queerness; the end goal of the novel is not a character’s coming out, and in fact, Sneha never sits her parents down and has a coming out conversation in the Western sense. But overall, I simply wanted to create depth and specificity and a sense of felt personal history for my main characters.
The sentence-level craft of your book is quite astonishing and beautiful. Somewhere it feels ephemeral, when Sneha says, “The world has ended a thousand times and my name called in each new book of it.” While elsewhere it is so physical and grounded that it leaves the reader aching, like “I wanted a white girl.” Where did this come from?
Thank you so much! I used to write mostly poetry when I was younger, and it’s possible that left its mark on my style, in terms of writing prose that uses a lot of figurative language (metaphors, similes, looser figures) and that also tries for economy and elegance, though of course one can try for those things and not succeed. I try to vary sentences – their length and complexity – both to build voice and to keep, I hope, the reader interested.
I love the metaphors and similes in the book. Some of my favorites are: “SUVs – American cars that looked like they had been bred with trucks”; “...the yeasty darkness of the dive bar like some perpetually camouflaged moth”; “ambition was a shiny layered geode of a word.” There are many more.
Metaphors are central to my overall writing project in a micro and macro sense. We understand a thing better by noting that it is like something else, while also understanding that is not exactly like something else – something is gained from the distance.
How did you come to the decision to disseminate data in the book by drawing tables?
I liked that it drew from Sneha’s world as an Excel jockey/baby consultant. Using Excel cells as the chapter numbers kept me organised, in a slightly comical way. Mostly, I stumbled onto it, and it worked for me.
In the first two pages of the book, Sneha declares two important things about her narrative: “This is not a story about work or precarity”, and “I am trying…to say something about love, which for many of us is not separable from the other shit.” Both work and love implicate her in the following pages – do you think it is necessary for the protagonist of a bildungsroman to break their own rules?
I don’t know that I believe it necessary for the protagonist of a bildungsroman to break their own rules that they announce to the audience – though I think coming of age, in fiction and in life, necessarily involves a disruption or disruptive event, and sometimes multiple of them. I love the phrase “both work and love implicate her.” I suppose I was trying to signal to the reader early on that this was a certain kind of character, molten and full of feeling below a cool surface, despite her aloof air and clipped sentences.
There is so much multiplicity in your descriptions of your characters’ queerness. Of course, there is no one way to be queer. Why is it then important to show flawed brown, queer bodies?
Thank you for this question! I think brown and queer characters should have flaws because everybody has flaws. We as a society accept and celebrate imperfection in fictionalised white men–Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Augie March were all cultural icons of their specific time. First, at a pure craft level, if you don’t give people flaws or problems, you don’t have narrative tension or really, all that much to read for.
Second, the premise of a character being flawed as a central observation about them is, in the present moment, something I find to be racialised and gendered. We are working with cultural scripts we have been given – the less structural power you have, the more you are expected to be accommodating, agreeable, a moral paragon – both in fiction and in life. To give a certain kind of character flaws, to make her difficult, for me, is to insist on her humanity.
Sneha sums it up when talking about her father – but she’s also, really, talking about herself – when she says, “This is what it means, to come here as an immigrant. You are here on sufferance. You are a form of currency, not a person, and only a person has the right to desire, which is to say, to be difficult.”
There is so much queer and brown freedom in the book. However, Sneha is quite bound to her duties towards work and family. Do you think it is characteristic of immigrants to burden themselves this way? What do you think can break these shackles – if they may be considered as such – for them?
This is an unsatisfying answer, probably, but I can’t speak for or of all immigrants. The reality is that families are wildly different. Most of the families I know who’ve experienced immigration – and specifically, where people have engaged in this script of “we are investing in our children, we’re giving everything to our children” – the primary impulse isn’t anything other than dogged, sacrificial love. I want to honour that. It’s the collision of this love against an unequal and extractive world that creates the hardship, in my eyes. It’s the hardship of familial separation. It’s the hardship of using guilt as a weapon because you don’t see your child, who you love so much, as separate from you, and so you’re trying to control what your child ends up doing. I see it all as a flawed, deeply human expression of something beautiful and transcendent – which is love.
Some of the shackles, if you will, are things like racial and wealth inequality, and some of them are the unwillingness to accept that your child has their own life and agency – which is a challenge for many parents to accept across all cultures, frankly. I think building a more equal and just society, as well as more people being willing to do honest and vulnerable relational work – these things can help the matter at hand. I don’t think there are any easy fixes.
I admire your open-ended final scene. In a lot of ways, it tests and attests to the intelligence and perception of the reader.
That is so kind. I was rewatching the Richard Linklater Before films. There’s a very particular kind of ending to these films that I like, where there’s this moment of ambiguity, like in the second film in the trilogy, where you don’t know the choice Ethan Hawke’s character is going to make about Julie Delpy’s character, and then it cuts to black.
But it’s not true ambiguity; if you think as a reader about everything that’s come before, you can make an educated guess about what this character is actually going to do. The ending in All This Could Be Different can also serve, in my opinion, as a litmus test for how hopeful or pessimistic an individual reader might be. This is a novel that asks: how should I live? I think the beauty of the novel form is that it can allow deep characterisation, individual consciousness, and individual history to inhabit these questions. By the end of the novel, the reader has Sneha’s history, has spent 300 pages in her consciousness. I wanted an ending that felt participatory in some way, that allowed the reader to explicitly make meaning too.
What is your favourite desi book, and why?
Picking one favourite seems difficult bordering on impossible. The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy had a huge, lifelong, transformative impact on me. The book from desh I recommend the most often is Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag. I really have been liking the short stories of MT Vasudevan Nair. And of my somewhat-contemporaries, I have recently found myself deeply admiring of Akil Kumarasamy and Anuk Arudpragasam’s books.
Finally, I want to talk about capitalism and how, in some ways, it breaks humanity down to desperate survival. Did your experience running a mutual-aid COVID relief fund aid you in providing depth to the many ways in which community-based societies can help combat the downsides of capitalism?
Yes, I think so. I did mutual aid organising (and climate and immigration organising before that) with a range of smart, committed ordinary people who wanted to do something about the way they felt the world should be. That influenced the book. There were also gaps between intention and outcome, and fractures and friction, because ultimately real people were involved, and people are multiplicitous sites of possibility and flaw. That influenced the novel, too.