Sunjeev Sahota is a stunning new voice in literary fiction. His second novel, The Year of the Runaways, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and according to The New York Times, “No recent novel does a more powerful job capturing the day-to-day lives of immigrants.”
Sahota was kind enough to sit down with us for a quick Q&A about the real-life people who inspired his characters, the literature that shaped him as a writer, and how his grandparents’ story factors into the plot of The Year of the Runaways. His thoughtful and honest responses are sure to enhance your reading group discussion.
Reading Group Center: You conducted research for this novel mostly in the form of conversations with men and women in India who dream of a better life in the West, or who made the leap but eventually returned home. Did any of those people directly inspire one of the characters?
Sunjeev Sahota: All the “low-caste” people I’ve met and seen on every trip to India I’ve ever made inspired the character of Tochi. His particular story grew out of my knowledge of the 1996 massacre of Dalits that took place in the village of Bathani Tola, Bihar, where the far-right Hindu-supremacist group, the Ranvir Sena, murdered women and babies in the most gruesome ways. All of that bloodshed and horror was in my mind as I was developing Tochi’s character.
RGC: There are many Punjabi terms used throughout the text, but you never interrupt the flow of the narrative to translate them. Why did you choose to leave them unexplained?
SS: It’s a novel so much in thrall to character that it felt necessary to leave things as the characters would see them, without too much authorial clarification. And given how closed the world of undocumented migrants is in the UK, how much it is for insiders only, I at times wanted the language to reflect that, to create a feeling of secrecy, of whisperings in the corner that the reader can only guess at—that’s why the last line is what it is. On a more meta level, if the reader is a little at sea with some of the language, then that nicely mirrors what the characters, newly arrived in England, are going through. Also, and perhaps more bloody-mindedly, I resented thinking I should go out of my way to explain things for an audience who wouldn’t ask the same of a writer writing about a totally white, English world. I mean, no one would ask a British writer to explain birdwatching for an Indian audience.
RGC: In an interview with BookPage you called The Year of the Runaways a “homage to the books that made me fall in love with reading.” Can you give us a few examples of the books that inspired you and explain their significance?
SS: These are all works that I read very early in my reading life, and from A Fine Balance and A Suitable Boy I learned how pleasurable, how luxurious, those big, immersive narratives can be, the ones that seem entirely driven by the will of characters who feel more real than your own family. Anna Karenina teaches me many, many things, but on a technical level I took from it the power of leitmotifs in knitting together a world. Where Tolstoy used the modern railway, I tried to use maps: Maps are everywhere in this book and mean different things to each of the characters. For the ending to my novel, I must have had in mind A Passage to India and its own last pages, which insist that Aziz and Fielding can’t ever be friends, not until India is free. A similar sentiment colors Narinder’s and Tochi’s relationship. The second chapter also contains a nod to Auden’s “Les Musée des Beaux Arts,” simply because it’s a poem I love.
RGC: You include an epilogue that describes the characters more than ten years after the events of the novel. Why did you feel that was necessary? Would you ever consider writing a sequel to more thoroughly explore the characters’ lives after the action in the book?
SS: I was thinking of my own grandparents who lived through a terrible, dramatic year—the year of India’s partition—when they effectively became refugees. They lost family members in the civil war that ensued and escaped with their lives. Several years on, they were in a terraced house in a northern English city, my grandfather working in a foundry, my grandmother in a biscuit factory, their children attending the local school, all of them living an uneventful, even prosaic life. I wanted to be honest to the idea that life often reasserts itself, in all its glorious mundanity. And, no, I wouldn’t write a sequel. I love these characters, but, like the house you once grew up in, I’m done with them, too.
RGC: Imagine you’re part of a book club discussing The Year of the Runaways. What is a passage you would want to discuss with the group and why?
SS: There’s no word for “privacy” in Punjabi. The entire concept is a little alien. I think that’s why the young men in my novel struggle so much in their cramped Sheffield house, living on top of one another but never actually making contact: It’s not so much that they don’t have privacy, but that they don’t know they need it. So I’d choose the scene in which Narinder wraps a bandage around Tochi’s arm. It’s the first time any of the four main protagonists touches another, unless they’re brawling. It has a profound effect on Tochi. I wonder if it would resonate with the book club, too?