Sunjeev Sahota: ‘I don’t see why I should benefit from migration when other people don’t’

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Classic storytelling … Sunjeev Sahota. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

The Year of the Runaways was selected for the 2015 Man Booker shortlist and propelled Sahota, now 34, into a new league, despite being beaten to the £50,000 prize by Marlon James. It is a bold and original novel about illegal immigration to Britain: two of its four protagonists have married for the purposes of securing a visa; another is a refugee from Hindu nationalist violence who arrived in the back of a lorry; and the fourth is on a student visa – another scam, as he has given up studying. The novel gives an account of each of their backgrounds – three in India, one in London – and describes how their paths meet, cross and diverge. Unlike his first novel, which he calls an “emotionally driven” exercise in voice and character, The Year of the Runaways uses a traditional social‑realist structure; Sahota calls it “a homage to the books that made me fall in love with reading – immersive, classic storytelling”.

But if the form of the novel is familiar, its contents are eye-openingly fresh. The subject matter ranges from political violence in rural north India, to the appalling living conditions, chaotic building sites and grubby corners of the catering trade in the north of England. Sahota’s characters cling on, but debt, loneliness and disappointment threaten to overwhelm them. The wolves of hunger, destitution, exploitation and death hang around the door.

With his wife and two young children, Sahota has recently moved into a new, red-brick house on one of Sheffield’s leafy suburban hills, with a view over the city. Ecclesall Road, where much of the action of the book takes place, is just around the corner. Did he make it up? Or was this a novel that required research, conversations, interviews on street corners and in takeaways?

“I knew there were houses in Sheffield full of 10, 12 or 15 young men; you hear stories,” he says. “I didn’t feel I needed to go and read books.”

Sahota, whose grandfather came to Britain in 1962, grew up in Normanton, Derby, in a close-knit community of British-Indian Sikhs, and says temples, or gurdwaras, have played a role in looking after new arrivals. One true story he adapted for his novel told of how the congregation of one temple objected to homeless young men sleeping there, and promised to bring them food and blankets if they agreed to move to a railway bridge.

As an adolescent and young adult living back with his parents, he did not know any young men in the process of radicalisation. But he thinks his own feelings of alienation and disengagement may have had something in common with those of the 7/7 suicide bombers, who grew up not far away in Huddersfield and Leeds.

“There was an idea of belonging that seemed to connect with what I was feeling in my late teens – not that I would ever have gone down that route,” he explains. “But given a certain time and place, and given who you think your people are and what might be happening in the geopolitical sphere, a set of circumstances could trigger that sense of not feeling connected to the country. The biggest factor is not feeling English inside.”

Sahota himself feels a strong sense of connection to his relatives and background in colonial India. Previous generations of his family came from near Lahore and fled to Punjab following partition. His grandmother used to speak of the atrocities she witnessed in that tumultuous period.

As an adolescent and young adult living back with his parents, he did not know any young men in the process of radicalisation. But he thinks his own feelings of alienation and disengagement may have had something in common with those of the 7/7 suicide bombers, who grew up not far away in Huddersfield and Leeds.

“There was an idea of belonging that seemed to connect with what I was feeling in my late teens – not that I would ever have gone down that route,” he explains. “But given a certain time and place, and given who you think your people are and what might be happening in the geopolitical sphere, a set of circumstances could trigger that sense of not feeling connected to the country. The biggest factor is not feeling English inside.”

Sahota himself feels a strong sense of connection to his relatives and background in colonial India. Previous generations of his family came from near Lahore and fled to Punjab following partition. His grandmother used to speak of the atrocities she witnessed in that tumultuous period.

Read the entire article here.

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