In mid-September, young Indian-American writer Sarah Thankam Mathews became one of the finalists for the prestigious National Book Awards 2022 with her debut novel, All This Could Be Different, which tells the story of a young queer immigrant struggling in an unwelcome world. Mathews grew up in Oman and India and moved to the United States when she was 17. She is the recipient of a Best American Short Stories 2020 award and fellowships from the Asian American Writers Workshop and the Iowa Writers Workshop. Excerpts from her interview to Frontline:
Congratulations on making it to the final list for the National Book Awards 2022 for fiction announced by The New Yorker.
I feel so grateful and lucky! I am also trying to balance gratitude with humility. Many people supported and advised me in my journey as a writer and this achievement belongs to them as well. It is not lost on me that a South Asian novelist has never won this prize before, and there have not been many South Asian finalists in the prize’s history. One through line in my novel is the importance of community, and the story behind writing this book underlines for me that no one accomplishes anything worthwhile alone. I owe so much to so many people, from my ancestors, to my loving friends and family, to other writers who I learned from along the way.
This is your first novel. Can you tell us about the journey that took you to writing it?
Throughout my twenties while working an office job, and during my graduate studies, I worked on a novel that I now call ‘Novel Zero’. It was over seven years of work but at some point, I decided that I didn’t know how to make the book what I wanted it to be. I set it aside in early 2020.
Then COVID happened and I lost my job. I was active in organising around food issues where I live since many people did not have enough to eat because of the COVID crisis. It was in these months of working in a frenzied way in concert with other people that the vision for All This Could Be Different took shape.
My fellow organisers agreed to take on more of my work so I could write this book. I went on unemployment benefits since I had lost my job and no places were hiring. I wrote the book in a fast and urgent way, feeling like I knew exactly what I wanted to say. By the end of the year, an agent, Bill Clegg, had offered to represent the finished novel and take it to publishers. It is not lost on me that All This Could Be Different, which argues for interdependence, a social safety net, and real community in so many ways, was made possible at all by each of these things.
How did you arrive at this title?
The original title for this book was Sneha. After a period of deliberation, my agent asked me if I wanted to try a title that went broader. All This Could be Different worked in multiple registers. It showed the narrator’s longing for change within herself, it critiqued needless suffering under a capitalistic system, and it declared the possibility of a kinder and better world. I loved most of all the phrase as a defiant and hopeful assertion.
You are an Indian immigrant living in the US, with close links to South India, especially Kerala.
I was born in Bangalore to Malayali parents and raised by them in a tight-knit Indian enclave in Muscat, Oman. My family and I immigrated to the US in my late teens. I have lived a very nomadic life but Kerala is my beloved ancestral home and my point of return. I try to go back as often as I can. I am very proud to be Malayali.
All This Could Be Different talks about same-sex love.
The job of a writer is to tell the truth without fear. We do ourselves no favours by pretending same-sex love does not exist. Same-sex love has always existed, and it is a part of life—just like desire, shame, and being torn between longing and obligation are all part of life. Just as much as high cost of living and difficult bosses are a part of life.
Why did you decide to write fiction?
Fiction uses the invented to tell the truth in a way that allows people to hear it. It draws on our ancient need to hear and tell stories and hold a mirror up to life using art. You get to imagine new worlds, new ways of being, you get to make characters wholesale that other people might believe in and care about.
Literature is a long conversation across time. Before I got into fiction, I was working in politics; when I left that world, I made my peace with working in a more long-term time signature, with ceding a lot of control to other people. In my life, there is a connection between reading Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai, or Toni Morrison as a teenager in Oman and what I ended up working on, living, believing. There’s something moving to me about the thought of getting to be a part of that particular relational mode with people I have never met, people who may not yet have been born.
Many say reading and writing are an unlikely medium of communication for the “new generation”...
Reading prose is a participatory medium. You get to walk along another person’s thoughts and narration, making your own meaning, involving yourself deeply in a way that’s very different from the passive consumption of images and sounds. It’s the medium I love most, and so have chosen to work in it.
Tell us about your writing influences.
My writing influences are varied, but the writers I read that really left a mark on me when young were Arundhati Roy, Toni Morrison, T.S. Eliot, Vikram Seth, and Michael Cunningham.
What are you reading now?
Some writers that I’ve been reading of late are Vivek Shanbhag, Perumal Murugan, Chandramohan Sathyanathan, Amia Srinivasan, Fernanda Melchor, Dur-e-Aziz Amna, Patricia Highsmith, Hernan Diaz, and Jenny Bhatt.
Tell us about your next book.
I’m working on it now, so cross your fingers for me! One thing that I am enjoying about working on this newer project is that, unlike All This Could Be Different, which shows a single Indian immigrant’s journey in a multiracial-but-mostly-white American environment, this project is not set in the US and is peopled by mostly Indian characters. It’ll be out whenever I’m done with it—I hope it won’t take too long, but you never know.
The 2022 National Book Award will be announced on November 16 in New York.