Eighteen years old and on his way to India for a vacation, Sunjeev Sahota picked up his first novel from an airport bookshop. It was definitely not going to be his last. Today, after one successful novel and a second on the way, he finds himself included in the prestigious list of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, 2013. Of Sikh origin, Sahota is third-generation British, and his debut novel, Ours Are The Streets (2011), addressed the controversial subject of suicide bombers.SWATI DAFTUARspeaks to the writer
As part of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists list, you’ve joined a long list of illustrious names: Jeanette Winterson, Martin Amis, Monica Ali, Kazuo Ishiguro. What does this mean to you?
It’s wonderful, actually. It’s such a compliment, a pat on the back that makes you go on. The whole thing feels like the world is telling you what you’re doing is great, and to carry on doing it. It feels like your work has been recognised and liked. I’m very grateful for it.
Your first novel, Ours Are The Streets , tackles some very current issues like terrorism, identities and the idea of a homeland. Tell us a little about writing this book and the impulse behind it.
I consider a few things very important when it comes to writing a novel. The subject has to be long and interesting enough; it has to be meaty, keep you hooked. One reason I don’t write about my life is because, frankly, it’s not interesting enough. It’s sort of boring. In some ways though, like Imtiaz (the British-Pakistani protagonist of Ours Are The Streets ), I live in North London too. I was in Leeds when the July 7, 2005 bombings happened. The blasts and its aftermath sowed the seeds of the novel in my head. So I started asking myself questions about the whole incident. When I begin a novel, I try to work with questions that I cannot answer; questions that intrigue me and I grapple with. Ours Are The Streets works with the idea of a homeland, of living in two different worlds and finding your place. I am of South Asian origin too, like Imtiaz Raina in the book. But the paths that we choose in our lives are very different. And understanding the psychology of his choice was very important to me.
The story included in the Granta issue is an extract from your second novel. Tell us about ‘Arrivals’, the extract, and The Years of the Runaways , the book.
The extract is the beginning of my second book. The book examines the lives of illegal immigrants in Britain. There are all these people who come from different places and live under constant fear and uncertainty. They wake up at four in the morning and pile into vans that take them away to building sites and farms. They work the whole day and come back late night. They lead invisible lives hiding from authorities. This is a world that is around me. It’s a world that I’m aware of and I wanted to understand. The book itself is about four illegal immigrants — three men and one woman, whose lives intersect and intervene as the book progresses. In a way, my second book deals with a lot of similar issues as the first; the idea of leaving home and making your way somewhere else, and when you leave your home, what do you give up, what do you take with you?
First a book about suicide bombings and now one about illegal immigrants. Is writing about these issues a conscious choice?
I don’t actively decide to write on these issues but, yes, writing about the concerns of the moment is what grabs me. I want to understand what’s happening in the world and why. The idea of writing for me has a lot to do with exploring hidden lives, hidden stories. Around me, I see people living their lives unnoticed. Through my work, it’s these stories that I want to try and delve deep into.
A novelist who started reading novels at the age of 18. That’s a rare story. How do you think this affected you, being introduced to the world of novels at what many would consider pretty late for a future novelist?
Sometimes I think that if I had started reading earlier, I would be a more sophisticated writer. As to how it affected my writing, I don’t quite know if it has. It would probably make an interesting study, the comparison between authors who started reading early and those who didn’t.
But once I did start reading, I felt like there wasn’t enough time to read all the great books that I was constantly coming across. There was a whole new world I was introduced to. And then, at 19, I read Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and it drew me in completely. I was utterly absorbed. I read how he wrote and what he wrote about and I hoped that, one day, I could write a story like that.
Sanjeev Sahota is currently in the country as part of The British Council’s collaboration with Granta in which 12 out of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists will be touring India.