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Sarah Thankam Mathews is a new voice in South Asian American literature. She spent her early years in India and Oman, immigrating to the United States when she was seventeen. All This Could Be Different is her debut novel.

Unlike many writers, Mathews is also an organizer and activist for causes like mutual aid, immigration, and climate. She founded the mutual aid network Bed-Stuy Strong, which was able to raise 1.2 million dollars to distribute groceries and other items to Brooklynites during the pandemic. The representation of South Asian queer identity through her writing, as well as her pursuit of social justice as a community organizer, come to an appealing synthesis in her novel.

The novel centers around Sneha, a young South Asian lesbian woman who is a new college graduate negotiating the job market at the time of the 2008 recession. She is hired as a contractor working for a client which is a Fortune 500 company. In lay terms, she does not have the benefits of job security and fringe benefits. But at a time when her classmates are moving back with their parents due to the recession, she is unable to negotiate a better deal, limited as she is by the lack of legal permanent residency.

This situation will resonate with many Indian tech workers whose lives are on hold because of the long backlog in employment-based Green Cards with no hopes for anything changing in the foreseeable future. The novel exposes the precarity of employment in the early twenty-first century, and the particular vulnerabilities faced by women and people of color.

As the novel progresses, Sneha’s once stable middle-class life tailspins when her employer decides to withhold payments till he gets reimbursed from the client company. In addition, Sneha finds her housing situation to be unsustainable as her apartment is managed by a hostile property manager who is quite intolerant of her social habits. She routinely refuses to provide basic maintenance and adequate heating during winter.

Sneha finds herself spiralling into a situation of unemployment and homelessness because of her visa and job situation. This is doubly traumatic since her father has been deported because of becoming inadvertently involved in illegal business practices. Sneha feels a sense of duty towards her parents who have gone through so much disappointment.

Sneha is constantly battling feelings of professional inadequacy while also trying to negotiate her complex identity as a South Asian woman who rejects traditional expectations of heterosexual marriage. She is unabashedly attracted to women but is also aware that she desires beautiful white women rather than women of color like Antigone (Tig) towards whom she feels emotional closeness. Sneha falls in love with a dancer named Marina, but the relationship is rocky because of her inability to share her many buried personal and familial traumas.

Even though there are many instances of personal and professional failure that the novel charts, Sneha’s life does improve in the end. This is not just because she finds stable employment in a government agency, but because in the end her community of eclectic and flawed friends rally around and help her in her darkest moments. In addition, her family, especially her mother also comes to take care of her and eventually accepts her lesbian identity. 

The novel ends with a nostalgic reunion of friends at a wedding, several years after Sneha has relocated to the East Coast. Some of her friends have by then fulfilled what had seemed an impossible dream: a collective/cooperative housing project to counter the vicious cycle of unaffordable rents and evictions. Sneha is not part of this collective, but she shares her admiration for Milwaukee’s socialist heritage that makes it a perfect venue to host such a utopian experiment.

In many ways, the novel is a paean to this midwestern city on the lake, which for most immigrants clustered in the coasts is flyover country. For Mathews, it is a city where her protagonist finds herself as a member of a community. The novel is memorable for the laughter and camaraderie of friends, including acts of sheer mischief and bravado of youth negotiating oppression and injustice.

Mathews has published her short fiction in venues like Kenyon Review and Agni. Her work has been selected in the anthology Best American Short Stories 2020, and she has received several notable fellowships like the Rona Jaffe Fellowship in fiction at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and the Margins Fellowship at The Asian American Writers Workshop.

Lopamudra Basu

Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English and Philosophy and Co-Chair of the Literature Committee at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Wisconsin's Polytechnic University.