SUNJEEV SAHOTA STUNNED readers with Ours Are the Streets, his debut novel about the gradual radicalisation of Imtiaz Raina, a Sheffield-born secularised Muslim, and again with his latest offering, The Year of the Runaways, which delves unflinchingly into the thorny issue of illegal immigration. This novel scrutinises the situations of a handful of so-called ‘runaways’, who leave India by various means (kidneys are sold; crippling loans taken; visa marriages forged – and these are the successful ones) for a new life in England.
In describing their experiences, Sahota forces life into recent reports of migrant desperation, giving a face to the ugly statistics we read in our newspapers. This is his talent: to look beyond the superficial to find the human dramas lurking beneath. It is no surprise, then, that he has been called ‘the real thing’ by Salman Rushdie, and garnered himself a place on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, as well as Granta’s Best Under 40 list. We are fortunate to have had the opportunity to discuss with Sahota the characters, inspiration and intentions behind his writing.
Asian Art Newspaper: The fact that you read your first novel (Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children) at the age of 18 has intrigued many. Could you describe the decision – given this late-blooming interest in novels – to begin writing your own?
Sunjeev Sahota: Like most, writing came from reading. I started to become fascinated in how novels worked, why the writer made the decisions they had, and once I’d started thinking like that it was probably only a matter of time before I wanted to have a go at it myself.
AAN: From which writers do you draw inspiration?
SS: I love Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Alice Munro for their great-heartedness, John McGahern for his feel for family life, and all that is seething within it, Gordimer and Coetzee for their fierce language, and Naipaul for the way he puts societies on trial.
AAN: Both your books are admired for the vividness and the sympathy behind their characterisation especially. This sympathy – the determination to look beyond the zeitgeist to the human behaviour that underpins the headlines – seems to be essential to your work. How did you feel confronting such huge subjects as religious radicalisation and immigration?
SS: I did not use the word radicalisation, or terrorist for that matter, at all in my first novel, and I do not think The Year of the Runaways contains the word immigrant. And there is the rub: novelistically, these labels are only useful in so far as they force a writer to look beyond them, and looking beyond to the individuals behind the labels is one of the novelist’s jobs; so if I was confronting these subjects then I think I was only doing my job.
AAN: In a similar vein: how did you research these subjects?
SS: Ours are the Streets is a character study, really, so the central character is almost entirely an imaginative construct (of course, he is also me). For my second novel, I go to India annually and there’s no shortage of people happy to talk about their experiences as migrants (illegal, or otherwise) in the UK.
AAN: Do you begin with characters, or concepts?
SS: For The Year of the Runaways, I knew I wanted to write about the world of illegal immigrants and quickly knew that two people connected via a visa marriage would be key to that. So I began with an idea, which rapidly moved on to a situation. The characters come later.
AAN: ‘What decadence this belonging rubbish was, what time the rich must have if they could sit around and weave great worries out of such threadbare things,’ Avtar thinks in The Year of the Runaways. And yet, do not both novels deal quite comprehensively with this question of belonging?
SS: There is a similar note in my first novel, when Imtiaz worries that his concerns about belonging are trifling, or would be considered trifling, set beside the daily struggles of his family in Pakistan. Not-belonging, or not being allowed to belong, is a definite problem, and what both passages hint at is the difficulty of understanding how big the problem even is, how incomprehensible it can seem to those who feel a strong, uncomplicated and easy national identity. If Avtar has any kids, I bet they’d feel differently to their father…
AAN: Salman Rushdie describes the act of migration as one of ‘translation’, of being ‘borne across’. What prompted your desire to tell the story of these ‘translated’ characters in
The Year of the Runaways?
SS: Immigration has been at my back since before I was born. My grand-parents and parents are all migrants so it would have been surprising if the subject had not cropped up in my fiction at some point.
AAN: In both novels a recurring theme, or moral, if you will, is that love and duty are frequently at loggerheads, and we should strive to find a way of reconciling the two (and, indeed, Randeep and Avtar have a conversation to this effect). But do you believe that novels can, or should, have morals?
SS: I agree the novel shows that the two are at loggerheads, but I do not think it says we should find a way of reconciling them. Hopefully, it does nothing more than showing the consequences of the various decisions various people take. In that sense, I do think the novel is a moral endeavour: it shows people making choices and living, or not, with them; and we, as readers, learn something about our own lives from that witnessing.
AAN: You were included in a Granta list of best young writers and have been shortlisted for the Booker prize. No mean feat – congratulations! Has critical recognition impacted the way you write?
SS: Thank you! I’ve been very lucky, but I don’t think it changes the way I write, or what I choose to write about. I guess it does give me the confidence to just plough ahead with the next thing.
AAN: How has The Year of the Runaways been received in India?
SS: Very positively. The response and reviews have been sensitive and thoughtful. I am going to the Jaipur Festival for the first time this January and it will be interesting to speak to Indian readers in India face to face.
AAN: Is it too soon to talk about your next writing project?
SS: Afraid so. There are several ideas, but not a word has been written yet.