Immigrants Behaving Badly: Maria Kuznetsova and Sanjena Sathian in Conversation

April 9, 2021 | 7 books mentioned 9 min read

On the surface, Maria Kuznetsova’s second novel Something Unbelievable (Random House, April 13) and Sanjena Sathian’s debut Gold Diggers (Penguin Press, April 6) might not have much in common. Kuznetsova’s is a story about a Ukrainian-American actress living in Brooklyn who puts on a play based on her grandmother’s experiences during World War II. Sathian’s is about a slacker-stoner Indian American teenager struggling his way through an American high school (and later graduate school), until he finds relief in a magical potion made from stolen gold.

But these two novels— and their authors, who became friends at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—share some sensibilities: an interest in the American immigrant story, an aesthetic sensibility that involves a mix of comedy and seriousness, and a tendency to write about slightly badly behaved immigrants.

They discussed their two books, comedy, and the challenges of writing the “Old World” vs. the “New World” earlier this year.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Sanjena Sathian: Your book alternates between the story of Natasha, the actress, and Larissa, her grandmother, as Natasha wheedles Larissa into recounting her experiences of the war.

As a second-generation immigrant, I always struggled with feeling a need to write “the Old World” because I don’t know 20th-century India all that well. But you manage to pull off a sensitive, funny, precise, and warm rendering of Larissa’s life that feels so lived in, while also giving us a contemporary story to relate to with Natasha. How did you strike that balance between writing about the motherland versus the new country, in your career, and in this book?

Maria Kuznetsova: I came to America from Kiev, Ukraine, when I was six and spoke Russian at home, so the “Old World” was very much a part of my daily life. When I was younger, I wrote either coming-of-age stories or stories about my family’s life in Soviet Russia, and I was convinced that their history was much more important—and worthy of fiction—than my own, which was colorful, but felt pretty low stakes compared to the things my family went through—struggling in ESL wasn’t exactly starving in the Ural Mountains during the war. But as I kept writing and living, I saw that I did have my own story to tell, and that these Soviet ancestors hovering in the background were part of my story.

Something Unbelievable started with just Larissa’s point of view—it came from a story I wrote for Ethan Canin’s workshop at Iowa—with a frame of Natasha, Larissa’s granddaughter, receiving her story. But as I kept going, I saw there wasn’t enough book there. When I put the piece up for workshop, my classmates said I either ditch the modern frame or develop it. A second point of view would add meaning to the first and give people a modern character to care about, and would also give the book a sense of continuity and history.

How about you? The prologue of your book opens in 1980s Bombay with a scene of one of the characters brewing a magical potion, but most of it takes place in 21st-century Georgia and California, where the golden potion is still being made but is a little different. That prologue closes with the line, “the old recipes are never quite the same on this side of the world.” How did you find that balance between old and new?

SS: You’re about half a generation closer to that old world than I am, because I was born here, and I didn’t grow up speaking an Indian language. My book is mostly new world, as you say. Gold Diggers is half-set in a suburban American high school in 2006, where the kids are dancing to Usher songs and obsessed with SAT prep, and half in 2016 Silicon Valley during the tech boom. And the main conceit is contemporary—Neil, the narrator, and neighbor-slash-crush Anita become addicted to a potion made of stolen gold that helps them steal the ambition of other Indian Americans.

But once I had the new world laid out, I did a ton of research into old world alchemical traditions, following alchemy from China to India to Europe, just to have more material to work with around gold’s mythology and history. And then I found passages from Vedic and Hindu texts about rituals that involved ingesting or consuming gold in some form. I thought I’d made this thing up, and it turned out to be real!

MK: And then you also had an American angle, too. Your narrator, Neil, becomes obsessed with the California gold rush. Why did you decide to weave that in?

SS: It seemed too obvious not to include. Gold has an incredibly powerful history everywhere in the world, but especially in my two cultures—Indian and American. So I had the Hindu history down, and now I wanted to braid in an American history, too.

I met with a similar coincidence there, too—my characters were already gold thieves when I found a story in a 19th-century German travelogue of an Indian man accused of being a gold thief during the California gold rush. Neil then writes about this story. If I weren’t so cynical and secular, I would say it’s synchronicity. But I’ll settle for calling it a cool coincidence.

It’s funny we both found ways to slip in history this way. I had my narrator be a historian and you had yours be writing a play.

It’s also interesting—Natasha, the actress in Something Unbelievable, is a new mother, which is what inspires her to insist on her grandmother telling her story. You were a relatively new mother when you wrote this, and I know you said some of these anecdotes are inspired by your own grandmother’s WWII stories. Did you get more interested in her family history because of being a new mom?

MK: Definitely—after becoming a mom, I thought a lot more about how I would pass these stories down to my daughter instead of how they affected me. Natasha is at a desperate point in her life—she felt like all her life revolves around this creature, and she’s so used to being an artist, so this was her way of bringing the story to life, and feeling like she was contributing something. So maybe it was my way of doing the same thing, honoring my grandmother in a convoluted way.

I was thinking of autobiographical writing when I was reading your novel, which feels autobiographical in some ways—the narrator’s parents immigrated to America from India; like you, he grew up in a competitive Georgia suburb and lived in the Bay Area for a while, and so on. A lot of debut novels, like mine, tend to cover autobiographical territory, but I can’t think of one that does so from the perspective of another gender. How did telling the story from Neil’s perspective come to you?

SS: I wrote from Anita’s perspective at first. She’s closest to the gold thefts, since her mother is the one initiating them. But everything was so somber and serious and un-fun when I wrote her. In fact, I workshopped a short story in which she was the narrator, and it didn’t land. But there was a male character in her periphery who intrigued me.

Then I started thinking about one of my best friends in high school, though, my male debate partner, and the side of me that came out when I hung out with him and my guy friends. I was funnier, lighter, goofier, and more bumbling. So I hopped heads, out of Anita and into her neighbor, Neil, and then, suddenly, I had a voice that I knew I could live in for hundreds of pages. Neil is both me and not me.

coverVoice is so tough, though! I grew up with books like The God of Small Things, which I love and is set in Kerala, where half my family comes from. And I always though that’s what my work was supposed to look like, as a brown writer—lush and serious and Indian. I didn’t have much of a voice until I started being comfortable writing contemporary America. Like you, I had to realize that my contemporary experience was as legitimate to write as, say, a serious post-Partition novel.

Did you feel any of this, as someone also tagged a “funny female writer?”

MK: I hear what you’re saying. I didn’t know many Soviet immigrant writers growing up, so I read writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, Chang-Rae Lee, who I love, but they—understandably—leaned more on how hard immigration was, how challenging the nostalgia and attempt to understand American culture could be, so I sensed that there was no room for the immigration narrative that I experienced–sure, my family struggled a lot, but one of my family’s favorite activities was telling hilarious early immigration stories—like how my grandmother threw the trash out in the mail for our first month in America, for example. I didn’t think there was a place for stories like that in fiction.

covercoverSS: Yeah, it’s hard to see comedy as a legitimate aesthetic for what it means to tell an immigrant story. I got that from White Teeth and The Buddha of Suburbia. I do think there’s this burden to tell a noble story of sacrifice, but I was just a kid dicking around in the suburbs, on AIM all the time.

MK: Same! I feel like a lot of immigrant lit was serious, but especially lit by women. Men like Gary Shteyngart, they can have more fun. I think some women—not all women, obviously—have this pressure to be more serious.

SS: How did you find your sense of humor? You’ve told me before you’d written a novel about Chernobyl that wasn’t very funny.

MK: I worked on it for five, six years. I wrote, like, 50 drafts of that book, and had an agent who couldn’t sell it, and thank God, because it was really bad. It’s hard to make Chernobyl jokes—I mean, there are a lot of them in the Soviet Union—but I wasn’t yet able to write in a way that sounded like me. It felt super mournful and nostalgic, and I’m just not as interested in that as much anymore.

coverBut also, Oksana, Behave!, my first book, to me, is a profoundly sad book—it just has a comic tone. And your book, too, goes both ways. The ending has a melancholy feeling, in a really good way, even though there’s a hilarious jewelry heist leading up to that. 

SS: One of the challenges of being irreverent in telling a story about a minority community, though, is knowing that your world might be underrepresented, and knowing people might get upset.

You do something really cool with representation in Something Unbelievable, though: Natasha belongs to the Borsch Babies, a group of other Soviet American actresses who compete for the same roles, like a lot of Russian prostitutes.

coverThis is why I thought the contemporary frame was so rich in terms of commenting on the rest of the story. In workshop, people say a story teaches you how to read it, and your novel, I think, also teaches someone who’s completely unfamiliar with Soviet or Russian American history why it’s important to have this kind of story—almost like the prologue of There There. Natasha tells us all the jobs she can get are talking in Russian in the background of the show The Americans. And now The Americans isn’t on TV anymore, so all the jobs are gone. And I’m curious how conscious that was to include commentary on the state of how Americans see, like a Soviet story.

MK: I came to America in 1991 as a Jewish refugee, and my dad was a Cold War physicist for the other side. I didn’t get that this was why people called me a Commie. I was like, I thought we left the Soviet Union to escape the communists?

I went through a phase of watching a lot of action movies where the Soviets were the evil bad guys, like Air Force One. But you know, my friend who’s a Jewish actress and immigrant from Ukraine like me, told me there were way more Russian parts in the Trump era, because we became the enemy again. That made me think about whether I have an obligation to tell a certain story about Russians, or if I should just create human characters who happen to be Russian. Natasha isn’t the typical Soviet immigrant because she didn’t go to college. She pursued the arts.

SS: It’s really interesting that you didn’t even grow up knowing about the fact that Russians were always the villains in American pop culture.

I grew up brown in the south in the post 9/11 era, like my characters, so I was there in the heat of history, whereas when you got here like Cold War stuff was technically abating but it was just this lingering hangover.

MK: Speaking of where your characters grew up, it sounds like we went to the same high school. Large, public, lots of immigrants, competitive.

SS: Neil in Gold Diggers goes to that kind of high school, set in this fictionalized Georgia ur-suburb—an amalgam of the ones that flipped the state blue this year!—but his crush and neighbor, Anita, goes to a very white, conservative Christian high school, which is actually where I went. I lived this double life—I spent all this time in the suburbs, hanging out with competitive Asian nerds from high school debate, and then attending this school full of white Republicans.

But, yeah, Gold Diggers is about those competitive immigrant bubbles, which Natasha in your book sort of rejects, becoming an actress and dropping out of college.

MK: You and I both did some traditionally “correct” things as immigrant children—we went to good colleges. But then we didn’t totally emulate our parents and pursue “practical” careers. What do you think made you not follow the more expected path of having a socially acceptable career?

SS: I don’t know if you feel like this. It just didn’t ever feel like that was totally a choice. I always think of this sort of pretentious Bukowski quote about how no one should be a writer “unless being still would / drive you to madness or / suicide or murder,” which I heard in college. It’s a good message: don’t be a writer if you literally can’t function in any other corners of society.

I think both of us can passively function in other corners of society. We had these Silicon Valley gigs—me at a media startup, and you at WikiHow—but we couldn’t keep going in those jobs. Neil, in Gold Diggers, flails in a similar way when he moves to Silicon Valley in adulthood. He just can’t handle it there, which is sometimes how I felt. That work took something too great out of me. It didn’t leave space for art.

MK: The dream of being a writer is as absurd as wanting to be a rock star. I don’t think it’s easier, right? I thought that if you just worked hard at it, like being a lawyer, and it would happen. I guess it took a level of bravery I don’t have at 35.

SS: Maybe more than bravery. I think it’s megalomania. Or maybe it’s just a really desperate need to prove something. What could be more immigrant than that?

Sanjena Sathian is the author of the novel Gold Diggers. She has also written for the New Yorker, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and more. // Maria Kuznetsova is the author of the novels Something Unbelievable and Oksana, Behave! She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Auburn University.

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