Sara Thankam Mathews' 'All This Could Be Different'

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday December 6, 2022
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author Sarah Tankam Mathews (photo: Dondre Stuetley)
author Sarah Tankam Mathews (photo: Dondre Stuetley)

In what could be taken as her philosophy of fiction, Sara Thankam Mathews has produced a debut novel entitled "All This Could Be Different" (Viking). Before that title is dismissed with a Well, yes, it warrants saying that —at a time when experimental fiction is all the rage— Mathews can, undeniably, control a large block of prose with a clear, involving plot and characters that make strong impressions.

As likely is that "All This" is more than a novelization of Mathews' own life, although her own experience as a gay woman with South Asian roots whose experience of America goes well beyond assimilation clearly informs her work. Think what you will of what's now called autofiction, this is not it. There's nothing automatic about it, and Mathews leaves no doubt that she has approached her task with focus and dedication as well as demonstrable talent.

author Sarah Tankam Mathews  

Familiar ground
As much a truism as "all this could be different" is "there's nothing new under the sun." Mathews tackles themes and trends that count as familiar ground in literary fiction. But there's nothing generic about her depiction of being a first-generation immigrant with Indian parents.

Her protagonist, Sneha, has barely taken the stage before she clarifies how to pronounce her name (SNAY-hah). She has that kind of directness. She has come to America with her parents, who have returned to Karnataka after her father is deported for business malfeasance. A recent graduate from an unnamed college in what is by implication a more sophisticated part of the States, fate whisks her off to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to take a job with a decent salary (that she negotiates up) as a consultant with a Fortune 500 company.

The struggle of most of her age-mates in post-financial-crisis America plays out in Sneha's friends and colleagues, and what's notable about Sneha's situation is that she accepts it without complaint or at least without whining. And her skill at money management means that she can discharge the obligation borne by most of her fellow immigrant children: she can and does send her parents money they need.

Broken Heartland
Even in chilly Wisconsin —the freezing winter temperatures are almost a character— Sneha builds a life of her own with determination even when clear direction sometimes eludes her. The reader is never unaware of her strength of character in that regard.

The trials of the workplace notwithstanding, the strongest challenge she faces is finding her place in lesbian Milwaukee, where there are two dyke bars and otherwise scant opportunity for public openness. Reaching out, she finds herself on a tightrope between forthright women like Tig —a Black woman who has shortened her name from Antigone— and to her more attractive, and therefore less reliable partners such as Marina, a dancer (white, of course) who becomes her principal obsession. Although a familiar dynamic, there's nothing routine or generic about it for Sneha.

If this novel served no other purpose, it's an important addition to lesbian fiction that could only have been written by a sister. Pride may not be the precise word for it, but there's not a trace of denial on Sneha's part of the facts of her sexuality — or any dodging of their implications.

The sex writing is terrific and should be regarded as model. For all its specificity, it's never sensational or at least not intended to be. It's one of Mathew's primary ways of getting into her lesbian characters psychologically as well as bodily, and arguably some of its most successful and convincing writing.

The principal male characters, white friend and colleague Thom and Indian American Amit, a former boyfriend, are more than plausible and never set up for ridicule, this despite some joking about Thom's penis size and an unblinking look at his dipsomania.Thom could come off the bad guy; he's insufficiently appreciative of everything, particularly the favor Sneha has done getting him a job. Amit's care for a drug-addicted friend could cast him as the corresponding good guy, but despite having an ongoing affection for and allegiance to him, Sneha has his number.

It's friendship that briefly draws Amit to Milwaukee from his more remunerative work in the Bay Area's tech scene. Present-day San Franciscans will recognize his trashing of that culture, optimized in his goal of someday being able to afford to live in a walk-in closet in the Mission.

Down to earth
Mathews avoids loftiness at every turn. In the same way her characterizations skirt self-pity, neither are they given to inflation. She articulates Sneha's fundamental conflict in familiar terms..
"I'm afraid ... that I'm not very well constructed to ... be with anyone. For me there was only Amit and that was a disaster. Friendship I can navigate, though there are still things there that feel like too much.... I'm afraid maybe of being with someone I also really like, because then what if I'm ugly to that person.... I've never been in love, I don't have it in me to, I think sometimes."

"This is what my parents wanted for me," Sneha asserts elsewhere, "what everybody wanted. To be a dish laid out before a man's hunger. To be taken, to be quiet. Disappear into hair and parts. Disappear, in time, into marriage and motherhood."

Yet some of Sneha's deepest thoughts, and Mathews' best writing, come out of her fraught relationship with her parents, with whom she maintains a sympathy that offsets the awkwardness of her situation and theirs.

"My casual escapades with anyone of any gender were legible to me, left me more or less unbothered. They existed in darkness; they addressed a basic need of the body.... I would sooner dip both hands in molten tar that speak to the two people I came from about the private matter of sex. This was just normal, I knew. All decent families lived in that silence."

The quoted passages show Mathews writing at its most interior. In an environment that promotes and produces more blunt realities, these paragraphs are like pearls in oysters, the grossness of which is also vividly described.

You find these passages only after having ducked Mathews' more typical pellet prose, which at least initially comes at you in short sentences, sentence fragments, the period the only necessary punctuation, no quotation marks, not an adverb in sight, dialogue like bar talk just before alcohol levels get too high, and when amusing, chillingly so. It's a fast ride.

The question hanging over every debut novel is brutal: can the author write? Mathews indisputably can, and she enters a crowded field with a singular voice. A lingering question is whether she has another novel in her. Count me among those who would welcome and read it.

'All This Could Be Different' by Sarah Tankam Mathews. Viking/Penguin Random House, 312 pages. $27.

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