How the Pandemic Allowed One Author to Affect Change in Her Community and Reinvent Her Debut Novel

How the Pandemic Allowed One Author to Affect Change in Her Community and Reinvent Her Debut Novel

August 7, 2022

In February 2020, Sarah Thankam Mathews was struggling to write a novel; freelancing wasn’t going so great, either. So, she took a writing break, looked at the burgeoning threat of Covid-19, and immersed herself in the needs she predicted were on the horizon as the pandemic altered everyone’s reality. “What grew out of that anxiety-spiral-meets-moment-of-clarity was I built this online Slack network that was sort of a neighborhood-based mutual-aid network,” she says.

It started with a few flyers — which called on her Bed-Stuy neighbors to “stay together and keep each other safe and be connected as a community,” and also included a join link to her Bed-Stuy Strong Slack — and snowballed into an organic form of mutual-aid organizing, where people worked together to provide for one another within Bed-Stuy. By the end of 2020, she says, “We had supported 23,000 people during those first seven months with a week’s worth of groceries. And by the end of our Covid-specific food-security operation, we’d raised and redistributed $1.3 million. And the average donation was $68, which is not something many people know.”

Working on Bed-Stuy Strong had another effect: It transformed her concept for a novel, which was originally a satire of the modern office. Instead, it evolved into All This Could Be Different, a moving immigrant’s story and a heartfelt queer love story that tackles socioeconomic issues with nuance.

For Sneha, the main character in Mathews’ engrossing novel, the future seems promising as she lands a new job and a free apartment in a new city. In her adopted Milwaukee locale, the prickly 22-year-old immigrant befriends Tig, stays in touch with college buddies Thom and Amit, makes enough dough to send money to her parents in India, and begins dating Marina, a beguiling dancer. As Sneha forges new relationships and slowly begins to open up to new ideas, the traumatic history she keeps to herself and the present collide and unravel, which challenge Sneha’s way of navigating life. As shit hits the fan from all directions for Sneha and her friends, Tig devises an unconventional path forward.

While recent college grads making their way through early-career life will connect to the book’s coming-of-age story, its themes are universally relatable at any age, given the times (from politics to the pandemic), where safety is challenged and it’s a struggle making sense of the world when so much feels mired in catastrophe. “I think one very accurate way to describe this novel is it is the story of a young person in search of a home,” says Mathews. “And I will say that my protagonist and I are quite, quite different in terms of personality, but I think we’re both sort of united in a shared yearning for home.”

Raised in India and Oman, Mathews immigrated to the U.S. when she was 17. “There isn’t an easy answer for me for what home means. I often say, if someone asks me where I’m from, I’m from Kerala in South India, ’cause that’s sort of like my ancestral home and a point of return, a point I know, a place I know I can always go back to — but it’s a work in progress for me, too.” She wrote her first unpublished novel, which she circulated among friends, when she was 16 (“It was trash,” she says, laughing).

Though All This Could Be Different is set nearly a decade ago, in 2013 — before marriage equality — the issues it explores around racism, class, immigration, politics, gay rights, and the emphasis on community continue to resonate.

Mathews hopes “readers first and foremost [find] pleasure and comfort and challenge in the book. … And then I would say that I hope more than anything that people take away this idea that we’re all, each of us is, a finite unit of power. And together, if you join up all these little finite units of power, we can really move to reshape the society we wish to see and the society we wish to live in. Put another way, it’s that we do have power and that we matter.”

This piece appears in Rolling Stone’s annual Hot List, in the July-August issue of the magazine.

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