Coming-of-age novel lands Sarah Thankam Mathews on Aspen Words Literary Prize shortlist
In “All this Could Be Different,” author Sarah Thankam Mathews tells a story about coming of age, immigration and sexuality through a young Indian woman’s move to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The book follows its protagonist to first job, her first love and her first real friendships. And now, the author’s first published novel has made her a finalist for the $35,000 Aspen Words Literary Prize, which honors one author of any nationality for a work of fiction that has a social impact.
Aspen Words, a local literary hub with programs tied to the Aspen Institute, will announce the winner at an award ceremony in New York City on April 19. The Pitkin County Library will livestream the ceremony at a watch party that night from 4 to 6 p.m.
Thankam Mathews spoke with Aspen Public Radio about her book and the prize earlier this month; interviews with all five Aspen Words Literary Prize finalists will be broadcast and shared online in the days leading up to next week’s ceremony.
Kaya Williams: You are on the shortlist for this year's Aspen Words Literary Prize. How does it feel?
Sarah Thankam Mathews: It feels absolutely amazing. I mean, what an honor. Over the years, I have — as a reader and then a fledgling, hopeful aspiring writer — I read so many books on the shortlist and also prizewinners as they came out. And I'm just really grateful to have my book be in such wonderful company with the other shortlist authors and longlisters.
And I'm grateful, frankly, for any recognition shown to my little book, which I feel sort of tender and protective and sort of wonder-filled feelings around in that it's this part of me that's like now out in the world, doing its thing.
Williams: Speaking of recognition, this is your debut novel. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction last year. Were you expecting this kind of response for your first novel?
Thankam Mathews: I mean, absolutely not, you know? I think I sort of felt this complicated feeling when “All This Could Be Different” came out, because while it is my first published book, it's not the first book I've ever written. If I look at the work I've submitted, over the decade or so I spent trying to be a writer in some capacity before sort of pursuing it in a more professional context, I think I've probably amassed, over — like, 150-plus rejections.
So I felt somewhat acquainted with this idea that you can put your work out there, and it will not find a home, let alone a warm reception. I think I hoped very hard for this novel. I hoped very hard for “All This Could Be Different” because I really gave it my all, I gave it everything. I really tried to swing for the fences with it. And I also understood that there's just no guarantees, right? Part of publishing a book is letting go and giving up control and sort of trusting that it finds its readers in the world and finds its home in the world. So it has all come to me as a beautiful surprise.
Williams: I'd love for you to speak a little bit about the development of this book. How did it originate? How long did it take to get it over the finish line?
Thankam Mathews: I wrote “All This Could Be Different” in 2020. It was really one of the strangest and sometimes hardest years of my life. I began the year in something close to a major depression. I was also very sad at having to basically put away a book I had worked on for seven years that I just felt like I didn't have the ability to write the way I wanted. And so I really kind of took a break from writing to think about what it was I wanted to do, what story it was I wanted to tell now.
And during that time, in early 2020, I went to therapy, I leaned on the people close to me in my life for support, the pandemic arrived in my life and I lost, like, a gigantic chunk, the majority of my income. And I started organizing in my neighborhood of central Brooklyn.
I created a mutual aid organization called Bed-Stuy Strong. About 3,000 people or more were just sort of coming together and working on creating this sort of crisis response system to get upwards of 25,000 people [access to] a week of groceries at a time. And seeing that sort of ordinary, muscular human goodness and solidarity had me thinking too about the ways in which we need each other and depend on each other. And [I] was wondering if I could find a sort of container to write about things that interest me like coming of age and immigration and sexuality, while also exploring this idea that we all belong to each other.
And in the summer of 2020, I had started work in earnest on what became “All This Could Be Different,” and I had a draft finished by the end of October 2020. So it really all kind of happened in this sort of fever dream.
And I felt really confident after a long time of not feeling confident in my writing. I felt like I knew exactly what I wanted to say for a change.
The world as we know it, and live in it, ... is a made thing, and by that logic, it can be remade."Sarah Thankam Mathews, on an idea she explores in "All This Could Be Different"
Williams: Speaking of what you wanted to say, what is the story or the message that you wanted to tell with this book?
Thankam Mathews: There isn't a singular message in “All This Could Be Different.” I think that novels are at their most interesting when they hold questions versus theses or manifestos within them. But it's interested, ultimately, I think, in what it means to come of age in the cultural moment that we've been living in for the past, let's say, 10 years. This novel is set in 2013.
And I think that it's sort of interested in this idea, ultimately, that the world as we know it, and live in it, the world that does not serve people, or the vast majority of people in all these ways, is a made thing, and by that logic, it can be remade. And it's a novel that's interested in the sort of small gestures and movements between each other, that build relationships or erode them, that offer solidarity or withdraws it.
I think it's interested in what it means to build a home and find your people. And in that sense, it's also a sort of different slant at the immigration story in that it sort of bypasses the question of a traditional kind of assimilation, I think, into American culture.
And I think it's more about this young immigrant who, I think, [is] feeling really caught between two places and two wildly different ways of life and two wildly different moral codes that she experiences as a queer woman who comes from this deeply conservative place and community in South India.
I think she's ultimately sort of drawn to an outcome where she integrates the different parts of herself and finds sort of a specific home and found family.
Williams: How does it feel that this story that you've poured so much of yourself into is the one that's being recognized for all of these laudatory awards?
Thankam Mathews: I just feel so grateful that it means that more people might read my work. I think that's what I'll never take for granted. I think that, yeah, it feels like an honor and something I'll always be grateful for.
This interview has been edited and condensed.