Sunjeev Sahota: From mathematician to novelist

Dr Katy Shaw, left and Sunjeev Sahota, right at Leeds Big Bookend. Photo by Raj Passy

Dr Katy Shaw, left and Sunjeev Sahota, right at Leeds Big Bookend. Photo by Raj Passy

Sunjeev Sahota: From mathematician to novelist

10 June 2015

By Jemimah Steinfeld

Sunjeev Sahota, one of the rising stars of the UK literature scene, never dreamed about being a writer. At school he concentrated on sciences and didn’t read his first novel until he was 18.

“I had read lots of poetry and other types of literature, but the novel passed me by,” he said at a talk in Leeds Central Library chaired by Dr Katy Shaw, head of English at Leeds Beckett University. The talk was part of Leeds Big Bookend and held in partnership with the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival.  As for the first ever novel he read at the age of 18, it was Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and it would prove pivotal.

At university where he read Maths, Sahota started reading three to four novels a week. “Making up for lost time,” he joked. But Indian literature was always a strong focus.

“One book I loved was Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. It completely absorbed me and changed the way I thought.”

He then went on to work in marketing for insurance company Aviva. All the while his interest in becoming a writer was growing, albeit not in an all-encompassing way yet.

“If it was a penny dropping, it was a very slow penny dropping,” he said, when asked if there was a single instant when the switch from his science background to an arts one became apparent.

“Once I really became a reader, a heavy reader, it was only a matter of time before writing my own book. There was no one moment though – it was a gradual movement,” he added.

If anything, part of Sahota’s success might be attributed to his non-conventional path to writing. He penned his first novel, Ours are the Streets, while still in full-time employment. The novel was published in 2011 and received critical acclaim. In 2013 Sahota received the prestigious Granta Best of Young British Novelists award.

So how he manage to be disciplined enough to balance two time-consuming projects, on top of other commitments? “I was quite ruthless about it and got on with it,” he said, describing his approach as methodical, even “mathematical.”

While his academic background might have helped with structure, it was his family background that helped with material. Sahota’s grandparents immigrated to Britain from the Punjab in 1966.

“I live in the North, but my background is India via Pakistan. I am here due to massive geographical shifts. I’m interested in writing about the immigrant communities that I know,” he said.

Ours are the Streets follows a young British-Pakistani man called Imtiaz, who Sahota describes as being very sensitive, uncomfortable in his own skin and subject to lots of familial pressure. Imtiaz later becomes involved in a martyrdom project.

“I was living in Leeds at the time, post the 2005 London bombings and lived nearby one of the terrorists behind the attacks,” Sahota said, explaining what led him to this topic.

“I wanted to know how someone with a similar background to me could have gone down such a different path,” he added.

His latest novel, The Year of the Runaways, to be released on 18 June this year, follows the lives of illegal immigrants living in Sheffield.  One of the characters marries someone for a visa and all of them have sacrificed a lot to move to the UK.

“I don’t think people understand the staggering level of debt some people take on to get here. One person I spoke to took five years to pay back his own debts.”

He added: “India lives in separate centuries at the same time. Those from the poorest states don’t feel like they’re partaking in the new wealth of Mumbai and Delhi.” It’s these people who Sahota introduces us to in his latest book.

“On one level The Year of the Runaways could be thought of as a coming-of-age story as the characters are mainly young, but they’re old in what they’ve been through. They’re men already by the time they arrive in the UK,” he said.

“Belonging will always be a theme in my work,” said Sahota, when asked about the idea of where “home” is in a globalised context. This tension between wanting to fit into a new context versus wanting to maintain a sense of a homeland runs through his works.

Despite the heavy themes explored, Sahota’s novels are still very optimistic – and perhaps again this can be attributed to coming to literature later in life.

“I do sometimes wonder if I had grown up in a big literary household, would I be a slightly cynical writer?” he pondered, adding that his work is less nostalgic than other literature on immigrant communities. It contains positive messages and is outward-looking. As for looking outwards to his next project, we will have to wait and see.

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival is the only festival in the UK dedicated to Asian literature in a pan-Asian context. Events attached to the festival will continue throughout the summer of 2015, including a schools and libraries programme and a day devoted to translation. To read more about the events open to the public, click here.

To read other stories from this year’s literature festival click here.

Come and listen to Hyeonseo Lee, who escaped North Korea at the age of 17 talk about her memoir The Girl with Seven Names (published 2 July 2015) on Wednesday, 1 July. She will provide extraordinary insight into the lives of North Koreans generally, on top of telling her own incredible story. For more information click here.