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Sunjeev Sahota: ‘I’ve always been in labour movements – but I’m critical of identity politics’

Sunjeev Sahota: ‘I’ve always been in labour movements – but I’m critical of identity politics’

Sunjeev Sahota, 43, was born and raised in Derbyshire. Named one of Granta’s best young British novelists in 2013, he made the Booker shortlist two years later with his second novel, The Year of the Runaways, an “epic of immigration… that brings to mind the great realist chroniclers” (the New Yorker). In 2021 he was longlisted for the same prize with his third novel, China Room, drawn on family history and set partly in 1920s Punjab. His new book,The Spoiled Heart, turns on a vicious leadership contest between two British Indian trade unionists divided by age, sex and class. Sahota, who teaches literature at Durham University, was speaking from his home in Sheffield.

Where did this book begin?
This is my first time writing a novel set entirely in the UK – for once the story doesn’t go back to India at all. It’s also my first novel properly set in my home town of Chesterfield, which my parents left between my writing China Room and The Spoiled Heart. I’ve now got no reason to go back, which freed me to write about it. I’d been thinking about my childhood in this deindustrialised former mining town and the childhood my kids are having in the middle-class suburb I’m in now. It made me want to explore how the left does or doesn’t talk about class. I’m on the left – I’ve been in a union for years and I’ve always been in labour movements – but I’m critical of identity politics and believe much more in solidarity and economic justice.

Did that make it tricky to write both sides of the quarrel at the book’s core?
While I do think people like Nayan who believe in class-first politics – arguments very much in line with mine – are being set aside in favour of identitarians like Megha, I had to leave my prejudices at the door: you have to try open-heartedly to give life to your characters in the most enthralling way possible. Megha is the first significant non-working-class character I’ve written and probably the hardest character I’ve ever had to write. But the novel came quickly. China Room took three or four years because I was riven with doubt about the narrator’s right to tell his ancestor’s story; with this, I wrote with an urge to put down on the page things I feel strongly about.

Were you influenced by other novels about class?
Nonfiction helped more. The American literary theorist Walter Benn Michaels crystallised so much for me. I read The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality when it first came out [in 2006]. In my early 20s I’d been thinking about race and class. Everyone was telling me that race was the thing that was going to have the largest impact on my life. Inside, I didn’t feel that to be true. I think a lot about his essay Going Boom, which says publishing has been concerned with historical novels about colonialism and slavery because [the culture] wants to feel good for no longer discriminating against people in those ways – while at the same time the gap between rich and poor is now as wide as can be.

Internet pile-ons are pivotal to the plot. Do you use social media?
No, I’ve never had a Facebook account or anything. I find it depressing for people on the left to indulge the mechanisms of neoliberal tech-bro billionaires who make huge profits from algorithms that enable a bearpit mentality. One of the reasons this denunciation culture has arisen is that the left currently lacks the belief that a different way of organising the world can actually happen. It reminds me of my kids: when they don’t have a project – building a den, say – they start finding ways to fight among themselves. Working out how to create a more egalitarian world is hard. It’s easier to point to some white yoga woman saying namaste and demand that her arse gets handed to her.

Which novels have been important to you as a reader?
In hindsight, reading Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers in my early 20s, having grown up around friends whose dads were former miners, made clear to me the pain of the job they did and weren’t able to do any more. In my teens I was completely taken over by Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, about destitute characters in India during the 1970s. I tried it again recently and couldn’t get through the first few pages: my idea of what I want a novel to do has changed.

Did you write in your teens?
No. I never kept a diary, I wasn’t scribbling stories, I just read. I didn’t have a formal education in the humanities [Sahota studied maths]: reading was my education. A big thing was discovering literary criticism: Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, Virginia Woolf’s essays, James Wood. I really enjoyed reading critics trying to make sense of how novels worked or didn’t. That’s what made me want to have a go at writing one myself [his 2011 debut Ours Are the Streets] when I was 24 or 25.

What do you recall reading as a child?
Mine wasn’t a bookish household. My parents had a shop and I mostly just read magazines and newspapers waiting to do the paper round. I didn’t read any fiction that I can remember, but I was always reading – even shampoo bottles. I remember intently looking at the backs of cereal boxes, wanting to read every single word, fascinated by their sounds.

Where do you write?
My kids are all at school, so Monday to Friday between half nine and half two at my dining table, where I’m sat now.

Name an author whose work you teach.
[Thomas] Pynchon. If we’re to use terms like “political writer”, he’s the kind I like. His narrative structures allow us to achieve an understanding of the systems that harm the lives of the poor, an understanding that might illuminate the problem and not simply request pity for what the problem causes.

Source: theguardian.com