Sarah Thankam Mathews believes ‘this could all be different’

Sarah Thankam Mathews Dondre Stuetley

Every year there is the season of the Buzzy Book. Buzzy Books are first-person novels, often about twenty-somethings, that take on capitalism and sex in an attempt to say something about The Culture. There’s always a touch of dread when a Buzzy Book finally comes out – the right balance between making something beautiful and something involved with The Culture is hard to find. Happy, Sarah Thankam Mathews’ Debut Novel This could all be different (August 2, Viking) is easily a contender for Book of the Year. It’s a confident and warm geode of a novel that follows Sneha as she navigates her first job after college in Milwaukee and her first relationship with a woman. Mathews’ take on intercourse, sex and love is revealing and fresh, never falling into the snares that many Buzzy Books do. It is devastating, but never maudlin or cynical, and intertwines with the way racial capitalism affects everyday life without reading like a textbook. These are characters, in the words of Mathews, who “certainly aren’t saints to each other and they let each other down a few times, but there’s not that extractivity. There is ultimately this real willingness to look at each other as human beings and commit to each other over time.”

Mathews has had quite a bit of success, including a Rona Jaffe Fellow in fiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop and a Margins Fellow at The Asian American Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2020The Kenyon Reviewbarrel housethe juggernautand autostraddle† Her writing tackles big questions pragmatically. “When I write fiction, I move with questions and the questions I held onto were things like what does it mean to take care of someone and also want what they have? What does it mean to long for someone and not see that history dragging along like jellyfish tentacles? What does it mean to be a friend when both of you are in need?”

In 2020 Sarah founded Thankam Mathews Bedstuy Strong, work to facilitate mutual aid that grew to a staggering scale. “Everyone has needs, everyone is also a unit of power.” This cooperative view of resource sharing and facilitation is a common thread running through Mathews’ work. “I don’t think it makes much sense to be of value to the community, I think it makes sense to deal with it carefully and thoughtfully and lack of idealization. I think the community can at its best provide us with a sense of security, constantly and consistently reminding us who our people are, and providing some sort of answer or a fraction of an answer to this question: for what or for whom are you living? ? †

A lot of This could all be different was written in the summer and autumn of 2020 and inspires clear-eyed reflections on building solidarity. Originally, Mathews had a very different debut novel in mind. “That other novel didn’t work. It really broke my heart.” It wasn’t until she started what started out as a long short story called “Milwaukee” that she found material humming on the page. What originally started as a satire on the modern office with a queer romance turned into ‘something alive’. The work paid off. This could all be different has big questions about the precariat, and also carries with it a classic will-they/won’t-story.

As Sneha navigates with her family living in India, in addition to her romantic relationship with a dancer named Marina, time and again she tries to divide her life into neat, tidy sections. Friends rarely meet, family hears fragments about certain friends but not others, she starts making up stories to understand the caves she digs. Sneha calls her family a ‘geode of silences’. Basically, like many queer people, she struggles to let people in. Like many of us, she knows betrayal.

All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews Viking

In forming the structure of the novel, Mathews knew she wanted to adopt the bildungsroman. “I really knew for a number of reasons that I wanted this novel’s journey to go from an ‘I’ to a ‘we.'” Mathews set out to challenge the neoliberal idea of ​​the self being formed in a vacuum, instead showing that a self is formed by others.

The conservative western coming-of-age tradition is referenced directly in the book when Sneha’s mother catches her reading Goethe. The two fail to connect through the book at a pivotal moment as they try to understand each other and their relationships with home. “I think the western conception of youth has been tremendously powerful and is increasingly global at the moment. There’s this idea of ​​a liminal phase between childhood and adolescence where you have freedom and don’t have to take on the full roster of adult responsibilities and what I mean specifically is the work of making society function as it has been on a conservative way. Instead, Mathews used the bildungsroman as a form to address the conservative ideas we have about coming of age—the stark individualism, the failure of the systems we must maintain, and the different ways we navigate love. “I was interested in the clashes of these different characters around race, class and immigration status when they want to love each other, be friends with each other, take care of each other and come to love each other.”

Love comes and goes in surprising ways throughout the novel, including a stunningly hot scene with a Kia Soul gearshift. “I wanted to write a novel that really pushed against shame. The shame I’ve felt as a queer person, especially as someone who didn’t grow up in a liberal setting… As a young queer person, I was really involved in the idea that Pride – Pride ™ and pride to be queer – was involved an absence of shame and I’ve come to a perhaps more evolved or comprehensive understanding of this stuff, in the sense that it could also just be what you do in the face of shame, shame is something the hegemony imposes on you.”

Sneha’s relationship with gender always seems to be in flux. Yet the novel lends a certain grace to the narrator by allowing her to retain her agency and ambiguity. The novel offers lots of questions and certainly has a clear, powerful ending, but doesn’t close every door it opens. This feels refreshing, giving characters an ocean mystery that many novelists may have needed to solve.

Mathews grew up between Oman and India before immigrating to Wisconsin at age 17. At one point, a character evokes Sneha’s relationship with the Midwest and challenges her to remember it as a place that made her when she leaves for a job in DC. “The Midwest was my first home in the United States,” Mathews said. On the East Coast, she found a degree of “provincial snobbery.” As a fellow Midwesterner from New York, I can confirm this. “I think I wanted to complicate this figure of speech in a way, namely: character makes movements and leaves a place. I wanted a moment of challenge for that.” Mathews’s fervent love for Milwaukee is evident – from its socialist history to the way mutual aid in the Midwest helped fuel the early labor movement.

Caught between worlds, Sneha often reflects on how immigrants affect her relationship to community and romance: “Because I’m crazy, sometimes I miss the asteroid, I long for my family taken from me, long to be back with my People.” A big part of the novel is her attempt to reconcile the different worlds she comes from. “She really gets torn between these feelings of love and duty coupled with a sense of betrayal,” explains Mathews explains: “There are ways in which, like many young diaspora people, her way of thinking has become a bit colonized. Her description of missing the asteroid versus the sun, which in this universe is the United States of America and all the The kind of power it possesses isn’t that she’s ambitious. It’s just her truth.”

Towards the end of our conversation, I ask Mathews what she thought of this Pride Month. We inevitably talk about the attacks on gays and transgenders – “I often felt crushed when I let myself feel what I feel” – before adding – “I’ve been thinking about two things. I’ve been thinking about historicity, what the non- linear patterns of real history, which often look like one step forward, two steps back, over and over again, what can that teach or place us in the direction of, some kind of resilience and protection from despair? honestly thought about militancy, what it means to honor our political history as queer people, in addition to living and communicating with other queer people and finding joy that is also very, very important.”

Pride Spotlight: Sarah Thankam Mathews' Novel and Politics Prove She Believes

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