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‘Class has had a bigger effect on my life than race or my immigration status’

British writer Sunjeev Sahota on his new novel, China Room, the impact of class on immigrants in the UK and his discomfort with the idea of the political novel

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | New Delhi |
Updated: July 4, 2021 9:32:25 am
Sunjeev Sahota, writer Sunjeev Sahota, Sunjeev Sahota interview, Sunjeev Sahota on new book, Sunjeev Sahota new book, immigration, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsSpeaking for themselves: The immigrant and the working class find their way into Sahota’s work.

Like many of his generation, Sunjeev Sahota, 40, a second-generation immigrant of Sikh parentage, had always been aware of the invisible hierarchies that sequester the lives of the immigrant working class. When he found his way into writing, in each of his three books — Ours Are The Streets (2011), a confessional first-person account of a would-be suicide bomber, the Man Booker shortlisted The Year of The Runaways (2015), the story of four illegal immigrants in Sheffield, and now, China Room — it would be to explore these fractured identities.

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In China Room, 16-year-old Mehar is married off to one of four brothers in a community ceremony in 1929, when the country is in the middle of a tumultuous independence struggle. Like her sisters-in-law, the identity of her husband, whom she is only allowed to meet for copulation in the darkness of the night, remains a mystery for Mehar. Parallel to her search for her husband’s identity and her self-awakening runs the story of her great grandson, who travels from the UK to his ancestral farm in India to get over memories of racism and to recover from heroin addiction.

Through their discomfiting search for love and autonomy, Sahota, who was among Granta Magazine’s best young British novelists in 2013, continues his exploration of how personal histories inform and influence our social and political lives. In this interview, Sahota speaks of how a family lore became the basis of his new work, the impact of the idea of class on immigrant lives and his discomfort with the idea of the political novel. Excerpts:

There’s a photograph at the end of the novel of an old lady holding a baby in her arms. Did the story begin with that image — the personal history that is hinted at in the blurb?

The story began with some family lore: that my great-grandmother was one of four women married to four brothers in a single ceremony, and that none knew which man was her husband until children came along. But the idea was abandoned and then returned to when I realised that the concerns of the unnamed narrator in the book in some way connected to those of his great-grandmother.

Did you intend for the similarity in Mehar and her great grandson’s searches for home, love and autonomy to also be a deliberation on power structures?

It’s all about freedom and connection. Not only are the two strands connected — by motifs, links, echoes — but the protagonists are also seeking connection; the kind of connection that is denied to them by their society’s oppression, by power structures in which they are allowed no voice.

Did it require more imaginative heft than your previous two novels to take this away from the documentary to the fictional?

I don’t think so. I’m not sure I see much of a divide between the imagination and the documentary. Most of my time when writing is spent thinking about form and artistry — at the level of sentence and structure — so that’s where most of the effort always goes.

This is the first time you have written from a female perspective. Was that difficult? Were you bothered by questions of authorship, about who gets to tell a story?

I’m not sure I have a feeling for which was easier: both strands are doing different things, gave rise to different skills. I was concerned about questions of authorship, about why I should tell this story of my great-grandmother. But once I started seeing the act of writing this story as homage, as an act of love, then it seemed easier. And, of course, ideas of authorship, of constructing a story and who it is being constructed for, are sewn into the narrative.

When we look at immigrant history, there is often a tendency to club together all experiences under one blanket umbrella. How do you react to this?

It’s a bad tendency that stops us from seeing, acknowledging and responding properly to individual experience and meeting people’s specific needs. It creates a ‘them and us’ narrative, which won’t help anyone.

Sunjeev Sahota, writer Sunjeev Sahota, Sunjeev Sahota interview, Sunjeev Sahota on new book, Sunjeev Sahota new book, immigration, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news China Room By Sunjeev Sahota/Penguin Random House/256 pages/Rs 599

How has your family’s history of immigration informed your sense of identity and purpose?

I’m a child of immigrants so inevitably that informs how I look at the world. I’m also from working-class stock, so class, too, is always somewhere in my mind. Those two things — the immigrant and the working class — are in all my novels to date because they’re the two ‘identities’ that have most impacted my life and my life chances. Of the two, I’d argue that class has had a bigger effect on my life than race or my immigration status.

Could you elaborate on that?

The most invidious thing about class, at least for those of us brought up at the lower end of that scale, is how it makes invisible to you so many avenues that your life might take. Your idea of a successful life is so limited simply because you’re blind to all the other, potentially more fulfilling opportunities that life can offer, opportunities that the middle and upper class take for granted.

What is your idea of a political novel? Even though politics has always scaffolded your work, you’ve had reservations about the term.

My problem with the idea of a political novel is that, for non-white writers in particular, the ‘political’ part of that formulation swamps the ‘novel’ part. Whatever artistry the writer has brought to bear on the novel is sidelined because some political message has been identified. I don’t think I write political novels, or campaigning novels, because my novels have no overt or single message. I don’t tell readers what to feel or think. If some readers think they identify a political message in my work, then fine, but that’s all on them. This isn’t to say that my characters don’t undergo a political education; they do. I think Avtar, in my last novel, is arguably the most political of my characters, because by the end of the novel, larger societal forces have disabused him of his belief in meritocracy, in any sense of natural justice.

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