With a knack of tapping into the zeitgeist, Sheffield author Sunjeev Sahota talks to Yvette Huddleston.
A talented mathematician who didn’t pick up his first novel until he was 18, Sunjeev Sahota wasn’t exactly marked out for literary greatness.
It might have been a slow start, but today he has two books to his name, is widely regarded as one of literature’s bright young things and next week will find out if he had made the leap onto the Man Booker Prize shortlist. He’s also pretty good at chiming
His 2011 debut novel Ours Are the Streets was a gripping behind-the-headlines exploration of the mind of a would-be suicide bomber in Sheffield. It deservedly garnered much critical acclaim and in 2013 Sahota was included in Granta’s list of 20 Best Young British Novelists.
His latest novel, The Year of the Runaways, is equally resonant. Set in a house in Sheffield where a group of thirteen young men, all in flight from India, endeavour to make a new life for themselves, it too has received much positive attention and has earned him a place on the 2015 Man Booker Prize longlist.
Although Sahota appears to be adept at choosing subjects that are of the moment, he insists that it is not intentional. “The idea for Runaways had been sitting in my mind for a good few years, probably even before I wrote my first book, so before current events,” he says. “I thought I would like to write a novel around the subject of migrant people in the UK. I am part of the Sikh community in England and there is an awareness in the community that there is this hidden group of people. I travel to India quite often and I was always meeting people who wanted to come to the UK or had been here and for various reasons had been deported back. I am the child of immigrants – my grandparents came to the UK in the 1960s – and so it has always played a part in my thinking and in my life.”
The plot of The Year of the Runaways centres principally on the lives of three Indian men – Tochi, Randeep and Avtar – and one British-Indian woman, Narindar. The narrative of the novel has a broad sweep incorporating the main characters’ past lives and childhoods in India as well their present situation in Sheffield.
That fleshing out of the protagonists’ hinterland and the significant differences between them is important – and seems especially pertinent in the light of current events with refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants often being depicted in the media as a homogenous group. The truth is much more complicated.
“I feel at the moment there is this conflation happening in the media, but people have different needs and different reasons for migrating,” says Sahota. “I wrote the opening of the book first and then I wrote the history of the three characters next – just to help me to get under their skin and to understand how they got to be in the position they are in at the beginning in Sheffield. I could have then discarded it but I decided to keep that in because it enables a better understanding of the characters. And their vastly different histories means that amongst themselves there is a hierarchy at play which from a novelist’s point of view creates an interesting tension.”
Sahota started work on the novel around four years ago – although the idea had been developing for longer – and at the time he still had a day job, but in the spring of 2013 he was able to leave work and since then has been able to focus on his writing full-time.
“It’s a complete joy,” he says. “I find it fascinating – writing at my desk is when I am at my most content. I wrote the second half of the novel in about 18 months or so. A lot of the research was already done – most of it was talking to people in India, in the Punjab in particular, on trips back, people who had been in those situations.
They told me about what their living arrangements were like and how they managed uncomfortable situations, how they got to work and what kind of work they did. I also spoke to people there who had been over here but had gone back because they had found it too difficult in the UK.
“In the book there are 13 people in the house and it’s dog eat dog. It is incredibly hard – one of the things I found heart-breaking was just how much debt people get into just to get over here, especially if they come illegally. They spend the first three to five years, sometimes even up to 10 years, paying off those debts before they can even make any money.”
The book’s setting in Sheffield seems appropriate – in 2007 it became the UK’s first City of Sanctuary – although Sahota, who grew up in Chesterfield, says his primary reason for choosing the city was because it is a place he knows well.
“Sheffield has very strong civic roots and a good left-wing reputation,” he says. “But these men keep themselves pretty much to themselves – they go and do their work and come back and try not to leave the house unless they need to, to avoid arousing suspicion, so I’m not sure they put themselves in a position of being welcomed or not.”
Humanity is at the heart of the novel – in particular how we relate to one another and how we are all in some sense responsible for each other – and it details the small acts of kindness that can make such a huge difference in the face of adversity and injustice. The book has been described as a political novel and while Sahota says that he is not uncomfortable with the description that was not its starting point.
“I didn’t set out with any message or rationale,” he says. “Both my books started from a very personal place. With Ours Are the Streets – I was living quite close to Beeston in Leeds at the time, where two of the 7/7 bombers came from.
“I was a young man, a child of immigrants brought up in the North of England and I wondered what would make someone who had a very similar background to mine go down such a different route. They don’t start off to me as political subjects, just very human subjects. I would hate people to come away thinking it’s all black and white. Things are much more complex than we think.”
Sahota has already started thinking about his next novel – which he says will have “a slightly fantastical premise”, adding that “I’m sure Sheffield will play a part in it” – but in the meantime, there’s next week’s Booker shortlist announcement on the horizon. “It would be absolutely wonderful but I can’t allow myself to think that I might be on the shortlist – it is wonderful to have got this far,” he says. “I write because I want to be read. Writing is a two-way thing – my bit is to write the book but things aren’t complete until readers read it and if more readers are reading my work because of this, that’s great. It’s a wonderful feeling that these judges, who are all experts who know their stuff, think my book is good enough to be one of the 13 on the longlist.”
The Year of the Runaways is published by Pan Macmillan, £14.99. The Man Booker Prize shortlist is announced on September 15.