Sunjeev Sahota & Petra Meterc

Reading time: 18 minutes

As part of our series of discussions between authors and their translators, we present Sunjeev Sahota, the award-winning British novelist, and Slovenian translator Petra Meterc.

For his second novel, which came out in 2015, The Year of the Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota won the European Union Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The series of discussions between authors and their translators is organized by KUD Police Dubove in cooperation with Društvo humanistov Goriške, within the framework of the ‘Migrations in Reality’ project which is co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union.

Series: Authors & Translators
Online discussion: Sunjeev Sahota (UK) & Petra Meterc (Slovenia)
Premiere: 22nd December 2020 | (Books under the Christmas Tree Festival, Nova Gorica
Video with English and Slovenian subtitles

Advice to aspiring writers: “Find that thing that you really feel passionate about.”

Petra Meterc (PM): For the beginning, I would like to ask you what led you to write this novel in the first place, and how long did it take you? I read that you wrote your first novel Ours are the Streets while you were still working. What was the process with the second novel? How much time did it take? Were you still working at the time?

Sunjeev Sahota: The Year of the Runaways (2015, UK)
Sunjeev Sahota: The Year of the Runaways (2015, UK)

Sunjeev Sahota (SS): You’re right. I was working full-time while I wrote my first novel Ours are the Streets, and I wrote that in the evenings and at weekends and during holiday periods. With The Year of the Runaways, it was about 50/50. About halfway through writing that novel, I was in a position where I could leave full-time work. My publisher had bought The Year of the Runaways based on just a few chapters, which put me in a position where I could just concentrate on it full-time.

So I’d say two thirds of that book was written with me working on it full-time. Which was wonderful in lots of ways, but it’s also really strange, because I don’t feel I worked any more on the book compared to Ours are the Streets. It’s almost like the work just expands to fill whatever time you’ve got to do it in. That old economics law! So it still took three, four years to complete. I suppose it is a bigger book and it’s on a larger canvas. In terms of the process of writing it, Ours are the Streets felt quite organic, there was a lot of stopping and starting and scrapping drafts and doing it again. I felt like I was learning about that book as I was going, probably because I didn’t plan it out at the beginning.

From a turbulence to a more classical tone

With The Year of the Runaways, I did spend a lot of time before writing a single word planning the story out, trying to understand how the characters would move through the year and what their histories and pasts were, which enabled me to go through the writing of that book in a slightly more stately and dignified fashion. Rather than just going, “oh, there’s a mistake”, scrapping it and starting again all the time. So it was a more considered process, writing that book, which I think you can tell when you look at those two books. There’s kind of a turbulence to Ours are the Streets and a more classical tone to The Year of the Runaways. I think it has a lot to do with the process of writing those books as much as anything else.

I wrote the first chapter of The Year of the Runaways first, and then I wrote the three mini-chapters that go into the character’s histories. I wrote those three chapters, because I needed to do that so that I knew how they came to be where they were in the opening chapter. And then I went back and wrote the rest of the book, filled in those missing chapters early on, and then carried on with the rest of the book once all the characters were explained and in situ. That was the process of writing. It took about three years to write and a year of editing with my editor and publisher before it finally hit the shelves.

Structure of the book

PM: The structure is very carefully planned in this book, as you mentioned. Before sitting down and writing, did you plan out the structure first, or did you think of it while you were writing it already and just piecing it together?

SS: No, unlike Ours are the Streets, which wasn’t planned at all, I did plan the structure for The Runaways quite closely. I knew I wanted to open with all four characters arriving in Sheffield, and there needed to be a question mark about how they got to be there, so far away from their home. Then I wanted to go back and reveal that to the reader.

And I started off with Tochi because I felt he was the last character to arrive in chapter one, he’s the outsider, the interloper who arrives – which is kind of an archetype in novels, when a stranger comes in and sends everyone into a bit of a tizzy. I started off with his history because I thought that would be the most surprising thing to do, and also because I wasn’t quite sure how he came to be in Sheffield at the turn of the century. I was interested in that as well. I knew I wanted to keep Narinder as a mystery for as long as possible. I wanted to keep the readers in thrall to her and questioning her motives about why she’s doing what she’s doing. So I knew I wanted to leave her history to be the final one of the four I revealed. So that’s Tochi.

Then Randeep and Avtar arrive together, as a unit, almost. That’s why when they do separate, about two thirds through novel, that does hit home because they’re considered very much to be a pair for much of the early part of the novel, until circumstances force one to betray the other.

And then Narinder comes in. I was really happy that she’s the last one whose history is shown to the reader. She almost becomes the moral centre of the book, and she’s the character around which the boys orbit.

So I wanted to leave that question unanswered for as long as I could. It’s all at once, but halfway through the novel. Once we know all four characters, how they got to be where they are, then the narrative engine just takes on a second life. There’s momentum to the book then, which carries you through the second half of the book.

I knew I wanted that kind of structure, have them arriving, explain how they got there, in a way that enthrals and enchants but doesn’t answer too much, and then have a really strong second half, which builds on the momentum from the first half.

Stories of those men and women who are desperate to come to the West

PM: The characters, they all come from different backgrounds, classes, castes. Did you have to do much research regarding some of the particularities of the backgrounds of the characters? The best quality of this novel for me is how different they all are, and they’re still stuck in the same position. But the deeper you delve into their stories, you just realize they’re completely different in terms of their initial position.

SS: You’re right. They are totally different. But the tragedy is that the society they find themselves in treats them all as one homogenous block, without nuance and without particular specific histories.

Research… I feel I’ve been researching this novel my whole life because it’s set in Sheffield, which is a city I know well, the city I grew up beside. And the other setting that’s very important is India. Punjab, a state in the northwest of India, is a place I know really well. It’s where my family hails from. I’ve still got a large family contingent there. Before all this Covid stuff happened, I visited there, I’d go there annually.

So I know that part of India quite well, and I know the stories that inhabit that space, the stories of men, mostly men, but also women, who are desperate to come to the West, and the steps they take to come to the West: whether they’re selling their organs, or taking on incredible amounts of debt, or re-mortgaging their land. The desperate acts they commit to try to fund their passage over to Europe. Those stories I’ve been hearing my entire life. And when I go to India, you always meet people who have been over to England and living here illegally, then they come back and you speak to them and they tell you what life was like, how difficult it was, how they made ends meet, how they lived, how they ate, how they didn’t have a roof over their heads.

So those stories have always been there. And it’s not a secret conversation, at least in that part of India. It’s an open discussion in markets, in bazaars, around the temple. People are always going to be exchanging ideas about how they can make their way over, or the trials that they experience when they do make it over. It’s an open conversation.

Because I am just naturally quite curious about people’s lives, it was one I always felt myself attuned to. So I didn’t feel I had to do any formal field research, to go out and interview people. It’s always been there.

Perspective of someone who comes from the diaspora

PM: You have three characters who come to England, then you have Narinder who is there already. How was planning and developing her character different in this sense? Was it also your personal experience that you portrayed through Narinder, because she comes from the diaspora?

SS: Yes. I think Narinder came about initially because I knew I wanted a character who was a visa wife, who was going to marry one of these boys from India to help him get across to the UK. Then my question was, why would someone do that? And the obvious reason is an economic one. They do it for the money. But I knew I had three characters who are also very driven by their economic and financial circumstances. I didn’t want Narinder to be driven by her economic position, so I thought that another more interesting way would be if she was driven by a sense of wanting to do good or wanting to help someone. And if that’s driven by a religious conviction.

It is a question that – because I do have cousins who are, or who have been in the position of Randeep, Avtar, Tochi – I do sometimes question myself about what my role is in helping them, or understanding them, or portraying them. It’s a kind of a vexed question for many people in the diaspora, about what does it mean to be good, not just to your fellow man, but also to fellow members of your family who are in difficulty and in need. Who might ask for some sort of assistance? What do I owe them?

I think it was that question that lingers inside Narinder. And there is probably an element of her personality that I was drawing on for that particular question, which is also a question that I do still wrestle with at times.

To be truthful and honest about characters

PM: When writing about the experiences of migrants who do have a marginal status in Europe and elsewhere in the world, what were you most careful about regarding your representation of the newcomers, the migrants?

SS: It’s interesting, because the impulse, the conviction, is always to portray them sympathetically, in a way that’s going to make people want to help them or understand them more deeply. But my conviction as a writer is always to be as truthful and as honest as I can be about these characters.

The truth is these immigrants or migrants or those living here illegally, or under dubious circumstances, they’re as prone to behaving appallingly and as scabrously and as badly as anyone else. They might be driven by a situation which is much harder compared to people who have lived here from birth, but my conviction was always to portray them as humanly as possible, and to show them being good but also being bad. That’s what’s going to make people think that they are real and their situation is real, and that their difficulties are real.

I didn’t want to sanitize these characters or portray them totally as victims, as people that we should feel sorry for. I wanted to portray them as humanly as I could, full of the complexities and difficulties of being a human in the world today. They are victims of terrible racism, but they’re also victims of the attitude of people in their so-called own community, who don’t treat them well, either.

It was important for me to be honest about that as well, about the people in the UK who you think might be more sympathetic. Oftentimes they’re the worst perpetrators and make life more difficult for the men than they otherwise need to. It was important to be as honest about their situation and their humanity as I could.

Topical and timely book

PM: The novel came out in 2015. This was also the year when there were thousands of newcomers to Europe, and your book collided with this period.

SS: The Syrian refugees, the so-called refugee crisis… All that was happening, yes.

PM: Did you get a lot of responses connecting your novel to what was going on politically, in the society, in Europe at that time?

SS: Yes, it’s really strange. Lots of reviewers and readers kept on saying that it’s such a topical, timely book, how it’s come out at just the right time. In England, Theresa May was our Home Secretary at that time, she went on to become Prime Minister. There was a hostile environment towards immigrants in the UK, there were vans going around saying “go home” and all this awful behaviour on the part of our government.

So, if it’s that topical and timely, I just felt, well, it’s been that way for 2000 years. The story of people trying to make their way across borders to improve their life, is it new? It’s always been there. It doesn’t feel timely or resonant now. This is just how it’s always been until we redefine the way we think about borders and homelands and our attitude towards people in different parts of the world, our attitude towards wealth distribution. Until those attitudes change, this story is always going to need to be told.

Language is being used to represent these characters’ interior worlds

PM: I was also wondering, in the novel your language is specific in the sense that you use a lot of words that are not of English origin, and just place them into the text. I was wondering, how do you think about that? How do you think about infusing English with foreign words that the ‘common’ English reader won’t understand? How did you consider this when you were writing it?

SS: Good question. I’m just finishing writing my third novel now, and I’ve taken a different approach because the book demands a different approach. Whereas with The Year of the Runaways, you’re right that there’s a lot of untranslated Punjabi in the book.

I don’t have a glossary in the book. I don’t think there’s one in the translation, either. It seemed quite necessary to me, for the novel in English at least, that things weren’t explained or handed to the reader on a plate too easily. I thought these young boys, they’re coming to the UK, they’re confused, they don’t know what’s happening, they’re in a state of tumult, there’s this constant question of them trying to work out the country and work out their position in the country.

And I wanted the language to reflect that for the reader, I wanted the reader to be put in a similar position to those characters. If the reader is reading the book and they come across a sentence in Punjabi, and they’re confused and they can’t work out what it means, then they’re trying to piece things together. It puts the reader in the position of the character.

So it’s quite important for me to have that parallel, it’s the art of this particular book. It’s also a book that’s very much about a kind of a subculture and a very internal, interior world. I wanted there to be that sense of secrecy, of things being known only to the boys. I think having those elements of Punjabi being untranslated adds to that as well. This is a secret world that we’re almost just overhearing, that we are almost being allowed into for this one year.

Those were the main reasons why it was important for me not to have the Punjabi words translated. Or even to have them in italics. It’s quite important to me in the novel, in English. I think italicizing words, so-called foreign words, can other them, increases othering: this is something that’s different. This is not part of the English language.

I didn’t want that sense, I wanted a unified whole, a unified representation of these men in England. Also because I think that it makes sense in context. If the reader doesn’t make sense of something, that’s fine. It’s just part of the music of the book and the background of the book.

No one would ask a white British author, or a white American, to explain something for an Indian audience, so I don’t see why I should have to go out of my way to explain something for any other audience either. It should be a given that this is what’s right for the book. And that this is how language is being used to represent these characters’ interior worlds most effectively.

A nod to the books that make us want to be readers

PM: In one of your interviews, you say that you learn most from reading. Which books gave you the most knowledge, or inspired you the most to write The Year of the Runaways?

SS: A big influence is Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, a novel set in India during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975. That is a big book. It’s 700 pages. It’s about four characters who come together in Bombay and about their difficulties over the course of two or three months. I read that book when I was about 19 or 20. And it just blew me away. It was the first book that properly absorbed me, made me care deeply about the characters and their fates.

The Year of the Runaways is my attempt to write a book which does something similar. I wanted to write a book where the reader feels really invested in the characters and really cares about where they end up. If Ours are the Streets was a nod to my adolescence and my past, and how I feel about England, The Year of Runaways is almost like a nod to my history of reading, the books that made me want to be a reader.

So, A Fine Balance. And also the big Russian novels like Anna Karenina, another book I just totally fell in love with and that made me really not want to leave those characters. I think those were the big books that made me want to write a large, immersive book with an ensemble cast and characters that you don’t want to part with. The future holds different kinds of books, but The Year of the Runaways is almost me doffing my cap to the books that made me want to become a reader.

And lots of Irish novelists, particularly the late John McGahern, who wrote wonderfully about religion and guilt and shame and sex. What I love about that particular strand of Irish writing is that it’s more lyrical, but very much attuned to the emotional turmoil of a character.

Response to the book in the West and from readers in India

PM: The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, so it got a really great response everywhere in the West. And I was wondering if there was a specific response to the book from readers in India, or perhaps from your own diaspora?

SS: The response as a whole was hugely positive and it really shifted things for me as a writer, enabled me to just be a full-time writer. It was wonderful. It’s interesting how the response in India was different to the response in the UK. Many UK readers, whether from the diaspora or not, said we really admire the bits set in the UK, but the bits in India, those chapters were amazing, they told us so much that we didn’t know about these young men’s histories. And when I went to India, they’d say, yes, we like the bits in India, but the bits in the UK, they were the ones that told us so much. This I suppose always catches people, with this book in particular. So that was quite an interesting juxtaposition that I felt in readers’ responses.

The reviews in India, as well as the readers, were just really wonderful. And they really responded to Tochi’s story. There was a sense, in India, when they were talking about Tochi’s story – because of course, the readers in India those who will read a book in English, they’re of a certain class. They tend to be of the upper-middle class. If they can read in English, they’re living a reasonably comfortable life compared to people like Tochi.

I think that caste is still a shame factor in India. And something that the middle classes don’t talk about. They know it happens, but they choose not to gaze at it for too long at a time. So, there was an element in some of the responses of, this happens and we need to address it, or, we should feel ashamed of it. It was touching a nerve with a certain section of Indian readership, which I thought was interesting. A kind of shame that they’re still carrying around, ideas of caste, how it does still control people’s lives in quite a horrific way.

The city of Sheffield

PM: Sheffield is almost like a character in the novel. I’ve never visited Sheffield, but I feel like I know it a bit now, after reading your novel. Could you talk a bit about that, how you consider Sheffield, how you transport it into your writing and why it’s an important place for you to embed into the writing?

SS: I grew up near Sheffield, I didn’t grow up in Sheffield. It’s the city that’s always been closest to me. I live in Sheffield now and have done for a long time. I love this city. I think it’s wonderful. Just the topography of the city, it’s very hilly, it’s got lots of countryside, and the Peak District, which is a big national park, is on the doorstep. There’s also quite a vibrant city culture as well. It’s a wonderfully diverse city. I really enjoy just walking around the place, it means a lot to me.

But actually, with these characters, one of the points of the novel is that these young men will go anywhere. They just happened to end up in Sheffield. And they end up in Sheffield because that’s the city I know best. The novel could be set in West London, or in Birmingham, or in Nottingham, or any of the big cities. This story could have been there because these boys will go anywhere. They will shovel shit, clean sewers, do whatever they have to do and go wherever they have to go to earn enough money to survive, and to live.

So Sheffield as a place wasn’t really that important to the book, in the sense that it’s not important to the characters. It just happens to be where they go for this year. And even within a year, they travel to other parts of the UK because they need to, for money. It always felt, for me as a writer, that place isn’t really that important to me when I’m setting a book in the UK. It happens to be Sheffield because that’s where I know, but I always feel like it’s a bit of a cheat, because my relationship with England is so complicated and perplexing.

relationship with England

The question about where I belong in England is quite a difficult question for me. And how welcome I feel in England continues to be a question I pick at. I think as a consequence, I feel a bit like always at one remove from England, any city in England. I compare it to my cousins who were born and grew up in India, and the visceral love they feel for that place and for their land. I’m there feeling quite wistful and quite sad that I didn’t have that in England. I didn’t really feel that.

I admire lots of things in England. There’s a million things I love about it, but I’m not sure I have that actual deep love for the land. Because, I contend I wasn’t allowed to feel that because of the society I grew up in. As a consequence of that my relationship to place in my books is always a tricky one.

It is set in Sheffield and I try to depict it as closely and as realistically and, hopefully, as sympathetically as I can, because I do love the city. But I think there’s always a question around how close I can get to that city, and therefore it always feels slightly odd in the book, the question of Sheffield. I’m glad you said it felt quite real, which makes me think I did a good job of disguising my own relationship with the city, or with the country. I’m glad it worked for you.

PM: It worked from the perspective of the characters.

Advice to young writers

PM: I was also wondering, I read that you’re teaching now.

SS: Yes, I just started teaching.

PM: What do you tell your students now about writing? How does it feel to do that?

SS: I started teaching just about a year ago at Durham University. What I enjoy about it is how it makes me think more closely about my own writing. Which sounds like quite a selfish thing to say, but it’s interesting how it makes me get into the DNA of my own work. Why I write in the way I do, why I make the choices I do. Teaching creative writing, or teaching any art, I’d contend, there can’t be a sense that “I’m the expert, I’m going to deliver my wisdom to you students…” The teacher learns as much as the students, in many ways. I love actually interrogating my own work by considering what the students have produced, or said, or done.

What do I tell them? If you can possibly not be a writer, if you can possibly do something else, it’s probably better to do something else because it’s not easy. And I tell them to think of character, but then the problem is that every time you tell students to concentrate on something, you can always come up with a counterexample about how it could be done elsewhere. The wonderful thing about the novel is there are no rules. If you do it well, you can do whatever you want to do.

I think that’s what I tell them. Write about whatever you want to write, but do it well, and find that thing that you really feel passionate about. I do tell them to spend some time at the beginning thinking really hard about what it is that really ignites you, fires you up, and what’s that burning bush. That means a lot. Sometimes that might mean going into yourself, or sometimes going out there into the world. Writing is never easy, but it’s easier if you can write a story that only you can tell.

The novel teaching the writer what it needs to be about

PM: A new novel of yours is coming out next year. Could you tell us what’s it about, or what the process was with the third novel?

SS: It was an odd process. It almost felt like the novel was telling me what it wanted to be about and how I should write it. I started off writing it in one way and that wasn’t working. So I put that aside and spent two, three years writing other novels and trying to work out what the novel is. And slowly I was just kind of coming back to that original idea. It almost reversed into that original novel I started off, and then it changed, of course, but it was a really odd process where I felt the novel was teaching me what it needed to be about.

It’s quite a personal book. It’s quite a short book, it’s not much more than 50000 words, so it’s kind of disgusting that it took nearly six years to write. It’s partly based on my family history, a family legend from 100 years ago that’s been passed down. I don’t want to say too much about it, I apologise, Petra, I’m being quite vague and mysterious. But I’m drawing on my family history. It’s mostly set in India, in 1929 and 1999, so it’s got two strands running through it and it’s going to be out next spring, summertime.

I’m a bit anxious about it because it is quite different, it’s formally more obviously innovative compared to my previous books. Structurally there is a bit more going on. But I’m looking forward to it being published.

PM: I’m looking forward to reading it. I think that’s it! It’s around half an hour as planned.

SS: Thanks, Petra. That was great.

PM: When does the book come out? Do you have a date already?

SS: It’s May. In the UK, it’s May, in the US, it’s July. It’s called China Room. I should have said the name!

PM: We will check it out and read it. Thanks.

SS: Thanks, Petra.

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