Open Book Festival 2013– A Talk with Sunjeev Sahota

2013-09-11 14:49

This week I was fortunate enough to be invited to events around the Open Book Festival, and privileged to meet one of the visiting writers. Connect ZA (@connect_za) is an initiative with the British Council which aims to bridge the gap between the UK and South Africa. An admirable, yet ambitious goal if there ever were one. One of the many artists brought to South Africa with this initiative for the Open Book Festival was Sunjeev Sahota.

We met at 6 Spin Street on Sunday the 8th, the same day that he arrived in South Africa, not his first time to our country.

He is currently working on his second novel, a considerably bigger project about illegal immigrants living in Sheffield. Ours Are The Streets, his well-lauded debut novel is a brave exploration of a subject that can still be described as touchy. Controversy aside, the novel handles the subject of terrorism in a sensitive, yet entertaining way. Imtiaz, the protagonist, is a young Briton torn between tradition and modernity – an already tough compromise for most young people. Sahota, who is not Muslim, shows a great deal of empathy with his subject, exploring his mind, without condoning the act of violence. Ours Are The Streets is not so much about the act of terrorism, but the state of turmoil that the character goes through leading up to the event, and Sahota attempts to understand this confusion. In an almost prophetic passage, especially with the (real) civil war, and impending strikes against Syria, Imtiaz in a letter to his daughter says

Noor, my little soldier, I learnt when I went away that any land that attacks your homeland or your Muslim brothers and sisters has to face the consequences of its decisions. Always remember that and carry it with you. Don’t be scared. These people think that what happens to our people in Palestine and Kashmir and Afghanistan is just what happens to people whose lives are meant to be lived in a different way to theirs. That’s how they think.
This chilling passage displays one of the legs of his emotional journey. Each of the vignettes is punctuated with “Ameen”, which grounds the reader, lest we forget about the density of the subject matter. Another passage which gives a poignant insight to the mind of Imtiaz comes as he writes to his daughter. He tells her  
To live your life like you’re proud enough to die. Don’t be trivial like everyone else. Or worry about trivial things like possessions.

___

On Monday the 9th, in a talk with students from the UWC Creates Creative Writing programme, Sahota spoke about his process as a writer. He described writing as one of the things about which he has a strong sense of urgency. Confirming the words of the advice of many great writers, he said that “self-doubt never goes away”. He also spoke about his unique experiences as a writer – having never read a novel until the age of 18, he consumed them at a rapid rate as a university student of mathematics, reading three to four novels a week. He wrote in the evenings and went through whole drafts of the novel before he was satisfied that he had told this story. He was happy when he believed the story he was telling, even though there were certain cultural nuances, according to readers, that he got wrong.

In the summer of 2006, the year after the London bombings, he started dabbling in writing professionally. The conception of the novel happened when it “felt meaty enough to write about” and he really wanted to get a better understanding of what these people must have been feeling before committing such an act of aggression.

His writing practice is simple – do it every day. He trusts himself to not be offensive and does his utmost to get details correct, but like he said, “My writing is direct”.

Reading from his second novel, Sahota displayed his keen sense of voice, as well as the understanding of the minds of his subjects. As with his debut novel, he will undoubtedly deliver as he did previously. Proving that books are indeed precious commodities, I found these words rather inspiring as he said, “Stories help me make sense of the world”.

Thank you to the British Council and Connect ZA for inviting me to these events.

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