Sanjena Sathian on “The Missing Limousine”, a short story
“The Missing Limousine” is a short story from Sanjena Sathian. To mark the publication of the story in Atlantic, Sathian and Oliver Munday, the magazine’s design director, discussed the story via email. Their conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.
Olivier Munday: Your story, “The Missing Limousine”, has a central concern that many readers may find familiar – the reality show The single person. Can you tell us a bit about the storytelling process around such a pop culture phenomenon?
Sanjena Sathian: Among writers, there is a feeling that pop culture weighs on “serious” art, as if we are afraid to weigh down our work with specific markers of the moment. But all art and all thought is a product of its moment, whether we recognize it or not.
I decided to use the show’s real name instead of building an alternate version that everyone would recognize as The single person. I believe there is something specific, real and grotesque about talking directly to the “real thing”. I thought about David Foster Wallace’s choice to name Alex Trebek and Danger in “Little Expressionless Animals” and Miranda July’s choice to use the writer’s name Madeleine L’Engle in “Making Love in 2003”. In either case, the characters are not actually Trebek or L’Engle; Wallace and July have a memorable and wildly original aesthetic, and their stories are strong enough not to shatter under the burden of pop culture. You are not drawn into the underground world of low culture, you are carried by the more complex looks of Wallace and July. I learned from these examples.
On Monday : Avanti, the narrator of the story, is in her twenties and works in a salon owned by her brother in a shopping mall in Georgia. He’s an ambivalent character, slightly impenetrable, and at times his impassive voice obscures his real beliefs. Why is it important that this story be told in this way?
Sathien: I think a lot about how magical realism and magical thinking are intertwined – they straddle a fine line between the unreal and the real. I wrote “The Missing Limousine” when I was about three years old writing only magical realism or speculative fiction, including my first novel. This sense of unstable reality permeated Avanti’s voice. She hurts for the world because it must be so different that she begins to perceive it that way.
Most people would probably read the engine of the story as Avanti’s magical thought rather than magical vanity – it’s about Avanti’s belief in aliens, not aliens themselves. But if you are fully won over by Avanti’s thought, you might read the story as magical realism. I am in this vagueness.
On Monday : “The Missing Limousine” takes its title from a fictional promotional clip by The single person, featuring a limo full of Asian contestants that seemingly vanished into thin air. Avanti becomes obsessed with the mystery of her existence, which turns her into a bit of a conspiracy theorist. The clip also allows us to question several topical concerns: representation in the media, cultural memory and American identity. Where does the vanity of the clip come from?
Sathien: Because we only have this piece of video – a teaser, not even from the official show – we think maybe there was going to be Asian Americans on the show. But maybe not. You can almost imagine a room filled with white frames going, “Wait, do we have enough ‘diverse’ people on the show? And add or subtract candidates at the last minute, make them disappear, as well as their future careers as Instagram influencers, in an instant! We’ll never know what happened to eliminate these people from the show’s narrative (and therefore from the Avanti universe), so the story is forced to accept the mystery. And Avanti’s inability to live with mysterious forces is part of the pain that guides the story’s goal.
On Monday : Last April, you published your first novel, Gold diggers, which also partly takes place in greater Atlanta and follows a young protagonist. How does “The Missing Limousine” compare to the novel, and more broadly to your work?
Sathien: I wrote “The Missing Limousine” while I was finishing a first draft of Gold diggersSo I was immersed in the landscape of the dark suburbs of Atlanta where I grew up. These are really fun places to write, because they are nonplaces. Cookie-cutter houses, malls, highways – these geographies are begging to be filled, and growing up, I filled these places with a sort of raw desire. I just wanted a very abstract sense of Following. In Gold diggers, this manifests itself more in the ambition of American teenagers of Asian origin who want to enter the best colleges and whose whole sense of autonomy rests on their success. (There is also real desire in the form of love interest.) In “The Missing Limousine”, this Following is the desire to be seen, known, witnessed – romantically, sexually and spiritually.
The novel and this story – and much of my work so far – deals with the many ways we feel and don’t feel at home in the world. Sometimes feeling at home is linked to race, racism, ethnicity, migration, and a myriad of other material forces. But it also has to do with the intangible and the spiritual. In all my work, I am interested in situating the abstract in the concrete.
On Monday : Avanti starts dating Harry, a salon client, and the two spend nights watching The single person together. As a result, the show’s romantic aspirations begin to compete with Avanti’s own notions of real-life romance. What Avanti hopes to find in The single personthe representation of love?
Sathien: She wants to be consumed by something outside of herself. She falls in The single person (and its franchises) like a lot of us do – without thinking, just staring at this stuff until our eyes hurt. She kind of likes the erasure of that experience.
Apart from that, she desires clarity and crispness in how “love” is depicted on The single person. The folks on this show tell an absurd and also completely American story of what love is and means – it is the climax and completion of a self. It is the most important thing you can find.
And finally, she wants to feel narratively recognized by the way people on The single person are recognized. Nowadays, these people become influencers and monetize their profiles. They cover the tabloids and go on talk shows and people see each other in their love stories. (We do this with all the celebrities, but the people on The single person are unique because they are alone known for their “love” stories – not for the movies or the music they make.) Avanti wants other people – her brother, but also America herself – to watch her and recognize her desires , which seem huge to her, are real and beautiful and deserves to be fulfilled.
On Monday : Have you ever been a fan of The single person? How did writing this story affect your connection to the show?
Sathien: I’ve watched the show and its spinoffs since I was a teenager. I have always found it completely fascinating. I grew up in an immigrant community where dating was sometimes seen as strange and western and not entirely acceptable. I understood America through crappy 2000s movies and reality TV. (Also books, but whatever.) The single person is like America’s dominant Platonic ideal for what love and romance is, and the institution itself changes as American ideas about love and romance change. A wide 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, sexual positivity, it all comes down to and close to The single person and what the franchise calls “Bachelor Nation”.
After writing “The Missing Limousine” I stopped watching for a while, maybe because I thought I had expressed all my feelings about the franchise. Plus, the show just did some horrible things around racing and I felt like watching it was probably unethical. But my ethics are obviously flawed, because I started to watch Baccalaureate in paradise– a piece of genius from the trash can. In an art-mimicking life case, I recently spent an hour in a living room having a conversation with another woman of color about race at Bachelor Nation, and I was a little moved. It felt like we had a way to discuss very private experiences that we hadn’t necessarily had a chance to talk about otherwise. Also, it allowed me to chat.