The Blurry Line Between Magical Realism and Magical Thinking

Sanjena Sathian on the thin border between the unreal and the real

A portrait of Sanjena Sathian
Ishita Chordia; The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read Sanjena Sathian’s new short story, “The Missing Limousine.”

The Missing Limousine” is a new short story by Sanjena Sathian. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Sathian and Oliver Munday, the design director of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Oliver Munday: Your story, “The Missing Limousine,” has a central preoccupation that many readers may find familiar—the reality-television show The Bachelor. Can you talk a bit about the process of constructing the narrative around such a pop-culture phenomenon?

Sanjena Sathian: Among writers, there’s a sense that pop culture weighs down “serious” art—like we’re afraid of burdening our work with specific markers of the moment. But all art and thought is a product of its moment, whether we acknowledge it or not.

I decided to use the real show’s name instead of constructing an alternate version that everyone would recognize as The Bachelor. I believe there’s something specific, real, and grotesque about speaking directly to the “real thing.” I thought about David Foster Wallace’s choice to name Alex Trebek and Jeopardy in “Little Expressionless Animals” and Miranda July’s choice to use the writer Madeleine L’Engle’s name in “Making Love in 2003.” In both cases, the characters are not actually Trebek or L’Engle; Wallace and July have memorable and wildly original aesthetics and their stories are strong enough not to break beneath the burden of pop culture. You’re not tugged down into the actual underworld of low culture—you’re carried by Wallace’s and July’s more complex gazes. I learned from those examples.

Munday: Avanti, the story’s narrator, is in her early 20s and works at a salon owned by her brother in a Georgia strip mall. She’s an ambivalent, slightly inscrutable character, and at times her deadpan voice obscures her actual beliefs. Why is it important for this story to be told in such a way?

Sathian: I think a lot about how magical realism and magical thinking are very linked—they straddle a thin border between the unreal and the real. I wrote “The Missing Limousine” when I was coming off of about three years of writing only magical realism or speculative fiction, including my first novel. That sense of reality’s instability infused Avanti’s voice. She aches for the world as it is to be different to such a degree that she begins to perceive it that way.

Most people would probably read the story’s engine as Avanti’s magical thinking rather than a magical conceit—it’s about Avanti’s belief in aliens, not aliens themselves. But if you’re fully seduced by Avanti’s thinking, you might read the story as magical realism. I’m into that blurriness.

Munday:The Missing Limousine” takes its title from a fictional promo clip of The Bachelor, featuring a limo filled with Asian contestants that has seemingly disappeared into thin air. Avanti becomes obsessed with the mystery of its existence, which turns her into a bit of a conspiracy theorist. The clip also allows for an interrogation of several timely concerns: representation in media, cultural memory, and American identity. Where did the conceit of the clip originate?

Sathian: Because we only have this scrap of video—a teaser, not even from the official show—we think maybe there were going to be Asian Americans cast on the show. But maybe not. You can almost picture a room full of white execs going, “Wait, do we have enough ‘diverse’ people on the show?” and adding or subtracting contestants at the last minute—vanishing them, and their future careers as Instagram influencers, in an instant! We’ll never know what happened to wipe these people out of the narrative of the show (and therefore out of Avanti’s universe), so the story is forced to accept mystery. And Avanti’s inability to live with mysterious forces is part of the pain that guides the story’s aim.

Munday: Last April, you published your debut novel, Gold Diggers, which is also partly set in greater Atlanta and follows a young protagonist. How does “The Missing Limousine” compare with the novel, and your work more broadly?

Sathian: I wrote “The Missing Limousine” when I was finishing a first draft of Gold Diggers, so I was deep in the landscape of the bleak Atlanta suburbs where I grew up. Those are really fun places to write, because they’re such non-places. Cul-de-sac cookie-cutter homes, strip malls, highways—these geographies just beg to be filled in, and growing up, I filled those places in with a kind of raw desire. I just wanted a very abstract sense of more. In Gold Diggers, that more manifests in the ambition of Asian American teenagers who want to get into the best colleges, and whose entire sense of self rides on their achievement. (There’s also actual desire in the form of a love interest.) In “The Missing Limousine,” that more is the lust to be seen, known, witnessed—romantically and sexually and spiritually.

Both the novel and this story—and a lot of my work so far—are interested in the many ways we do and don’t feel at home in the world. Sometimes feeling at home has to do with race, racism, ethnicity, migration, and myriad other material forces. But it also has to do with the immaterial and spiritual. In all my work, I’m interested in locating the abstract in the concrete.

Munday: Avanti starts dating Harry, a client at the salon, and the two spend nights watching The Bachelor together. As a result, the show’s romantic aspirations begin to compete with Avanti’s own notions of real-life romance. What is Avanti hoping to find in The Bachelor’s depiction of love?

Sathian: She wants to be consumed by something outside herself. She falls into The Bachelor (and its franchises) the way a lot of us do—unthinkingly, just binge-watching this stuff until our eyes hurt. She sort of loves the obliteration of that experience.

Aside from that, she desires the clarity and neatness of the way “love” is depicted on The Bachelor. People on that show pitch an absurd and also completely American story of what love is and means—it’s the climax and completion of a self. It’s the most important thing you can find.

And lastly, she wants to feel narratively recognized the way the people on The Bachelor are recognized. These days, those people become influencers and monetize their profiles. They’re on the covers of tabloids and they get to go on talk shows and people see themselves in their “love” stories. (We do this with all celebrities, but the people on The Bachelor are unique because they’re only known for their “love” stories—not for the movies or music they make.) Avanti wants other people—her brother, but also America itself—to look at her and acknowledge that her desires, which feel enormous to her, are real and beautiful and deserve to be fulfilled.

Munday: Had you already been a fan of The Bachelor? How did the writing of this story affect your connection to the show?

Sathian: I have watched the show and its spin-offs on and off since I was a teenager. I’ve always found it completely fascinating. I grew up in an immigrant community in which dating was sometimes cast as weird and Western and not totally okay. I came to understand America through shitty 2000s movies and reality TV. (Also books, but whatever.) The Bachelor is like mainstream America’s Platonic ideal for what love and romance is, and the institution itself changes as America’s ideas of love and romance change. A huge variety of people watch it—Republican, Democrat, ultra-rich, working class—and it sometimes becomes an unlikely place where distinct cultures collide. Racism, slut-shaming, sex positivity—all of it comes up on and in the vicinity of The Bachelor and what the franchise calls “Bachelor Nation.”

After writing “The Missing Limousine,” I stopped watching for a while, maybe because I thought I’d gotten all my feelings about the franchise out. Also, the show has just done some awful things around race and I felt like watching it was probably unethical. But my ethics are evidently flaky, because I started watching Bachelor in Paradise—a genius work of trash. In a case of life imitating art, I recently spent an hour in a salon having a conversation with another woman of color about race in Bachelor Nation, and I was kind of moved. It felt like we had a way to discuss very private experiences we hadn’t necessarily had occasion to talk about otherwise. Also, it got me around small talk.