Sunjeev Sahota's debut novel Ours Are The Streets deals with the difficulties of being a second-generation immigrant and the complexities of cultural identity in a story that takes us from Sheffield to the mountains of Kashmir and Afghanistan. The Guardian named him as one of their six faces to watch in 2011 so we thought it was about time we had a natter.
Can you tell us a little bit about your experience of reading Midnight's Children, and the effect it's had on your work?
I read it when I was 18, during an uncomfortably hot summer in India. It was the first novel I read. It’s a complex book and on that first reading I understood very little. But I knew I’d loved the experience of reading a novel, of entering this world of stories that tried to make sense of the world around me. It was an experience I wanted to repeat.
I think it’s too early to say what effect it’s had on my own work – I’ve only written one novel!
What was your research process like for this novel? Did you have to rely primarily on your imagination for the scenes in Kashmir and Afghanistan?
Yes, I did. I’ve never been to Pakistan, Kashmir or Afghanistan, so I did do some basic research into what life might be like in those countries: what do people wear? how do they travel? what’s grown in the fields? But mostly I relied on my imagination, and on trying to make the reader believe what’s happening in the book by choosing the right detail and placing it into the book in the right way.
Were you conscious of trying to make the novel accessible to a non-Muslim readership, or was that not a priority for you?
It definitely wasn’t a priority, and I don’t think it ever crossed my mind. I was just writing the book as I felt it needed to be written regardless of who the audience might be.
Much of Imtiaz's struggle seems to spring from his uneasiness at being a second-generation immigrant. Is that something you faced yourself, as a third-generation immigrant?
I’m not sure. I love England, it’s given me a lot, and if I belong anywhere then it is here. But I do think that what I feel for England is different to what my white friends feel for this country or what my Indian-born cousins feel for India.
I think I can only really answer this question when I’m much older than I am now and will (hopefully) have a much better perspective on my life!
Do you think this fractured sense of identity is the root cause of the 'radicalization' of young British Muslims?
I think it can play an important part, and that it would be difficult to commit an act of aggression against a country – least of all your country of birth – if you felt a deep love for that land.
Imtiaz yearns to belong, to feel something that he doesn’t get from England. He thinks he finds this ‘back home’. Perhaps this new-found sense of belonging is only illusory, but even if it is, it only seems to make Imitiaz’s yearning all the more keen.
I was impressed with your portrayal of the female characters in the book, particularly Becka and Qasoomah. Why did you decide to have Imtiaz marry a white woman? Was it to give you an opportunity to include a white British point of view, to stress how 'integrated' he is prior to visiting Pakistan, or for some other reason?
Thank you! I think it was one of a number of decisions I made to try and show Imtiaz as assimilated as possible, though that assimilation is largely superficial.
I do think that if people decide to blow themselves up then the interesting reasons for that are internal and psychological, and I think I felt that I could only really get at and concentrate on those internal factors if everything was going reasonably well in the rest of his life. So it was important for me that, for example, he’s not the victim of racism, or influenced by a radicalised preacher, and he does have understanding parents and a loving wife.
What's your response to other takes on 'home-grown' terrorism, for example Four Lions?
Perhaps deliberately, I’ve not read much of anyone else’s take on home-grown terrorism. I have seen Four Lions, though, and thought it was interesting that in both the film and my book there’s much pressure placed on the idea of friendship and loyalty and of being part of a brotherhood, something bigger than your own singular life.
The Yorkshire Post reported last year that you were working on a second novel - is that still underway, and if so what can you tell us about it?
I am still working on it. It’s about a handful of immigrants - some illegal, some legit - whose lives come together in Sheffield. It’s slow work, and there’s some way to go before it’s going to be finished, but I am enjoying it.
What's it like to be nominated?
Thrilling, really thrilling. I’ve never been nominated for anything before, so it came as the best kind of surprise.
Sunjeev Sahota’s Ours are the Streets is available from Picador for £12.99
The winner of the East Midlands Book Award will be announced during the Derbyshire Literature Festival, at Haddon Hall on Thursday 24 May 2012.
Share this article
Ads by Google