Sunjeev Sahota, CHINA ROOM

Sunjeev Sahota, CHINA ROOM

Zibby is joined by Sunjeev Sahota to discuss his latest novel, China Room. Inspired by a family legend, Sunjeev wove together two different books he had been working on to tell distinct but intricately connected parallel stories. Sunjeev shares the winding journey he went on to write this book, what he thinks of the gendered power dynamics that shape the story, and how dads also don’t have time to read.


Zibby Owens: Welcome. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss China Room. I’m so excited that you’re here.

Sunjeev Sahota: Thanks, Zibby. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for asking me.

Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners what your book is about? Also, I would love to hear more of the backstory of your family and how it this loosely based on folklore in your own family and all that good stuff.

Sunjeev: The book’s about a place, a room which in a farm in rural India in a state in the northwest of India called Punjab, and the two lives that inhabit that room and also, in turn, are inhabited by it. In 1929, we have Mehar, who’s a girl young. She fifteen years old. She’s one of three women that has been married to three brothers. Because of the customs of the time and the fact that they were married in one ceremony and they’re kept sequestered from the men, she doesn’t know which of the brothers is her husband. The novel, in a way, charts her desire to not only just find out who it is that she’s married to, but also her development to an increased knowledge of her own personhood, of her own right to feel desire and to have needs and wants of her own, and for freedom and self-expression. That’s in 1929. Then there’s another strand, it’s set in 1999, which is when a young man, her great-grandson, we come to learn, comes to stay on the farm in that same room to come to terms with his own travails and his difficulties of growing up in the deindustrialized North of England. It’s a story set across three summers, actually, where both these characters are trying to — it’s a summer of reckoning. They’re trying to come to terms with ideas of self-worth and freedom and both try to make themselves liberated. It’s a sort of liberation, I see it.

The seed of the story was, it’s this legend or this family lore about my great-grandmother who was apparently one of four women — actually, not three, one of four women — who was married to four brothers. So the story goes. How this story has been embellished over the decades, lord knows. It’s always been passed down that she didn’t know which of the brothers she was married to until a year later when they saw who was holding which child when they’d all actually had a child by them. It was always spoken of a with a degree of humor or levity, this story, but it always struck me as being a quite dark and painful kind of story as well, if not predominantly. There was that. That first seed was perhaps that legend of my great-grandmother, and secondly, the fact that that room still exists. It used to be called the women’s room. That room on that farm, which is my family’s farm in India, it’s now used as a grain store. It’s still got bars on the windows. It just made me think about, why was it called the women’s room? What did they do in there? Why were in there? What did being in that room for so long mean and do to them? That was the second thing. Then the third thing, there was also some very sketchy detail about a male ancestor of around that time who was involved in some sort of scandalized way with the burgeoning Indian independence movement. Those three things were the three posts around which I webbed in, created a work of fiction.

Zibby: Wow. Tell me about how this started. One day, are you just walking by the bars on the windows and you’re like, ooh, maybe this could be a good novel? When did you take the seed of it and then how did you decide this was going to make it as a novel? Did you test it out? Did you know right away? Did you write any of it? Did you outline it? I’m just very fascinated by the idea of when we get these glimmers of ideas, how do you know when it’s going to be a great book? How far do you take it until you decide?

Sunjeev: Zibby, you never know whether it’s going to turn out to be a book or whether it’s going to be an idea that’s discarded. I find that’s part of the writing process for me with all my books so far. Sometimes as much as sixty thousand words, I’ll get into a book. Then I’ll find out it’s not working. I’ll have to just discard it and start again. It’s always frustrating, to say the least, but I think it’s just part of how I work. With this book, I started off with, there was this idea of this premise. Not knowing who your husband was could give rise to so much drama. There’s just so much in there on how it might play out over the generations and over the years. I started writing that story. My initial idea was it would just play out over the generation and we’d see what awful misunderstanding — how that might play out over time. The 1999 was never in my consciousness at that point. I started writing that story in about 2017. I wrote about maybe fifteen thousand words before that wobble in my writing which I’d become so used to happened. I thought, this isn’t working. I didn’t see why I needed to write that story. I didn’t see, what was the urgency behind that story? I seem to require something really pulling me to the page, the sense that this story has to be written for me to actually keep turning up at the desk.

I lost faith in that story. I remember talking about it with my friends. That story just died. It was like a bereavement. The story just died on me. It’s not mine to tell. I set that aside. Actually, one of the ideas in that initial idea I had with this idea of a doppelganger, it was going to have kind of a magical element to it, the idea of a double and seeing double. It’s quite a potent image in Indian folklore as well as in other mythologies. It’s kind of a harbinger of death and doom and end of times. That was that . Though I thought I’d set aside that story, that image of the doppelganger really stayed with me. I started writing what I thought were complete separate and different novels with this playful image and this fantastical image of the doppelganger. It was set in the future. The other novels I started writing or started starting to write, they were set in the future where the doppelgangers were happening. It sounds all very strange. I’m aware it sounds strange. They weren’t quite coming to life, so I started putting myself into those stories, or versions of myself.

Slowly, this doppelganger became a version of me until I realized it was just a version of me that I was transmuting and mapping onto the page. These doppelgangers, in time as well, whereas the story was set in the future, became closer and closer to our present moment and then went past the present moment into the slight historical past. I realized I was writing about a version of myself and that I was actually writing something that was autofictional. This would’ve been in 2019. Then I realized that this unnamed narrator that I was writing about, his concerns and his difficulties and what he was searching for were also liberation, freedom, a place to call home. Then I remember thinking, that’s quite similar to what this Mehar character that I was writing about two years previously was also dealing with. I took that back out of the drawer, that initial fifteen thousand words. I realized that these stories actually could both belong side by side or they could spiral around each other. That’s how I see the stories in the book. They just spiral around each other. That’s how the novel came to be, really.

Zibby: I love that. That’s so interesting. It just goes to show, don’t throw away those extra words. Maybe you feel like the story has died. Yet you can revive it. These are resurrect-able, if you will, the discarded drafts.

Sunjeev: Yeah, nothing’s ever lost. I do believe that everything will find its way in there somehow even when you think there’s no way it can be.

Zibby: In the book, I was really struck by how much fear there must be. We’re living in this time of Me Too and women being able to say no and women’s rights and the actions of men against women. The idea that Mehar and her siblings, or her sisters-in-law, I don’t even know what you call them, that they’re all there and yet they can’t even see, barely, who it is, and they don’t know, and all they can feel are the callouses and catch glimpses and try to see out from their veils the next day, it’s really almost hard as a woman to even process how that would be. Then to have to open yourself up and have children with these men who are essentially animals, it’s crazy when you think about it. The way you made it was so vivid and kind of horrifying, to be honest, putting myself in these women’s shoes. You definitely created this world where that was — even the way that they laughed together and they tried to find the humor in it to get through, as women often do in difficult situations, and try to find any sort of levity during what must have been a very disheartening time to say the least, I was really struck by all that.

Sunjeev: Thank you. I’m not sure thank you is quite the right — I’m glad it was vivid. That’s what you want on the page. You want the page to feel alive. You want it to actually kind of live inside the reader’s head. They have no voice. The women, Mehar and , the two sisters-in-law, they have no right to feel anything. They have no right to know anything, according to the other people in the room, not least their tyrannical mother-in-law who’s the watchful eye they live over. Today, we would consider those behaviors in terms of gendered power dynamics. Of course, those kind of terms weren’t available to them. Nevertheless, it’s really interesting to me how those kinds of power dynamics do play out and do corrupt these people’s love for each other, actually. Even though on one hand, the story could be read as kind of a love story because Mehar and Suraj, but also, it’s a love that is corrupted by these very gendered power dynamics. This is a note in the book. How much of Mehar’s professed love for Suraj is actually just her projection for her need for freedom? How much does she just see him as a vehicle to get out of the china room and to get to a place where she does have greater liberation? Likewise, how much is Suraj’s professed love for Mehar actually just a projection and an illustration of his need to, as he says, destroy the world? The difficulty he faces to be the youngest born in a family where the youngest is not allowed any or permitted any sort of rights to land or to status, it’s interesting to me how their love, how the gendered power dynamics do actually play a big part in their feelings for each other. Also, I just love the fact that Mehar, you’re right, she doesn’t have a voice, but she is courageous. She is strong-willed. She’s spirited. Part of the joy for me in the book is watching how she takes ownership of her right to feel desire and of her right to her own personhood as the novel goes on.

Zibby: Did you debate using any other titles, or were you sure this would be it the whole time?

Sunjeev: When I started, it was called The Women’s Room. It felt a little too on the nose and slightly both too generic and also just too particular. It kind of pointed too much to that space without talking to the things that the space might represent a bit more widely. When China Room came to my head, it felt right. Usually with titles, that’s it. When you have it, they feel right. They refer to something in the novel or they refer to something outside of the novel. China Room did both. It both refers to the space and also refers to what that space represents. It points outside of the space as well. I have these silly ideas that china is — the idea of delicacy versus room, rooms are meant to be quite solid spaces. I like that kind of opposition. Also, and this is a silly thing, I like the fact that no letters in the word china are repeated in the word room. The letters all stand apart. quite a spare gazing, quite like a , which no one else would ever notice, but it’s something that I think appeals to my sense of what a title can do and can be.

Zibby: Interesting. Letter repetition, I’ve never even really thought about that. There you go. Who knew? I think that’s definitely a good call because I feel like The Women’s Room could be the bathroom. You dodged a bullet there. Nice job. Wait, so how did you become a novelist to begin with?

Sunjeev: Like most writers, I was a reader first, though I was a late reader. I didn’t start novels until I was in my late teens, until I was about eighteen when I got the bug. I realized that through the act of reading was where I found meaning. In that kind of a conversation between reader and writer is where meaning is produced. Watching these characters going through their lives in this hypothetical space which we call a novel was where ideas of truth and dramatic truth actually really came to the fore. They resonated really strong with me. When I first started reading novels, I was just reading so heavily. I was reading three or four novels a day. It was like a dam had burst. All the storytelling had just came over me like a wave. I read heavily. At some point, I started asking questions of the writer beyond the page. Why did you write this book in this way? Why in this order? Why not like this instead? I think once you start wondering how a book is put together and how it works, for some, it’s not too great a leap to think that you can have a go yourself. Actually, I could have a go at this. I can actually see if I can do the nuts and bolts and mechanics and put together this clockwork arrangement and try to make a novel work. I started writing my first novel when I was in my mid-twenties, about twenty-six. That came out when I was twenty-nine.

Zibby: Wow. Were you working full time also? Did you make that your job? How did you fit it in?

Sunjeev: I was working full time. I was working for a financial services firm. It was an insurance firm, actually. I was in the marketing department for them. I’d write in the evenings and the weekends and through holidays. Instead of going anywhere interesting, I’d just sit in the room my parents’ house secretly squirreling away just writing. I didn’t tell anyone I wanted to be a writer or that I was writing. It felt like something I needed to keep quite secret and to myself. I didn’t start writing full time until I was halfway through my second novel or just when it became financially viable to do so.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Why were you afraid? You were afraid you wouldn’t be successful? Where did the fear come from? Let’s dig deep here.

Sunjeev: I suppose I had no examples of people around me in the arts or were a bookish — I’m not from a literary kind of family or a bookish household. No one around was bookish. It just felt quite a slightly bombastic thing to say. I want to be a writer. I’m going to be a writer. It’s like, well, who are you to be a — what a strange and slightly unbelievable goal to aim for. I think that’s why, just not wanting to appear bigheaded, and also perhaps not feeling as if quite at that time had the right to claim that kind of thing. you realize it’s nothing at all. Anyone can and should do it. It shouldn’t be something that is put on a different plane to any other kind of profession at all. By that time, I did feel something that was just otherworldly about it.

Zibby: So your doppelganger could be a professional author while you could be squirreling away in marketing or something.

Sunjeev: Yeah, that’d work.

Zibby: Are you working on a new novel now?

Sunjeev: I am. I’ve just started. It’s very early days. The idea of the doppelganger, Zibby, won’t go away. It’s still gnawing at me. There is something in that image and in that idea which I’m going to have to just write out because I don’t think it’s going to go away until I do actually get it on the page. The book may well center that kind of idea or notion. Again, knowing how my creative process has worked in the last three novels, I could get thirty thousand words into it and realize that’s not going to fly and just start again. At the moment, it’s just at the very early, delicate stage where I’m just trying to work out not even what the book is about, but what do I want the book to be about? It’s usually in the second draft that the book will tell me what it’s really about.

Zibby: Interesting. What do you like to read? Do you still love to read? Do you read all the time?

Sunjeev: I don’t read anywhere near as much as I used to. I have three young children, so the time just isn’t there to read as much as I did, though it’s getting easier.

Zibby: Dads don’t have time to read books, perhaps?

Sunjeev: Yeah, but it’s getting easier as they are slowly but surely getting older. I love to read. I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment at the moment. Somehow, I didn’t read it when it first came out. I’m really loving that, actually. That’s really enjoyable. I love , the South African, or I suppose now, Australian novelist. Joan Didion, I really very her work, Helen Garner. The late Les Murray, he’s a real favorite of mine, the Australian poet. I tend to respond to writing that’s really spare and taut and terse kind of like Didion that really feels like it’s just about to break, that really hard, lyrical edge to a sentence. That’s the writing I want to get to and try to write myself.

Zibby: There was a memoir I read a while ago that I feel like has that same sort of aesthetic. Maybe aesthetic’s the wrong word. Literary style. It’s called Joy Enough by Sarah McColl. It’s of the Joan Didion — it’s memoir, not poetry or anything else. You might like it. Not that you’re looking for a book recommendation, but it’s easy to read in a day. It’s very short. It’s about losing her mother. You’re so good at writing female characters, so it could be research. You might enjoy it.

Sunjeev: Joy Enough by Sarah McColl, I will make a note.

Zibby: It’s really good. I don’t know why I’m recommending books to you. How old are your kids, by the way?

Sunjeev: They’re eight, six, and four. It’s girl, boy, girl. Obviously, they keep me more than occupied. With the summer holidays bearing down on us, I’m kind of fearful. What on earth are we going to do for seven weeks with the restrictions as they are? Lots of woodland walks, I imagine.

Zibby: Yes. I have the same. I have an eight-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy also, but I also have fourteen-year-old twins. I finally have sent them to day camp, which wasn’t open out here last summer. I’m like, this is amazing.

Sunjeev: It really helped to get those few hours. I can load the dishwasher. I can get something else done.

Zibby: That came out wrong. I actually started crying when they all left for camp yesterday. I burst into tears. I don’t mean that I don’t love them home. You know what I mean.

Sunjeev: Yeah, definitely. I actually do know what you mean.

Zibby: Sometimes I’m just like, I don’t know how I think I’m getting all this stuff done. They are not leaving me alone. Thank god for these four weeks of camp so I can read like a thousand books. Do you have advice to aspiring authors?

Sunjeev: What would I say to aspiring authors? I’d say it took me a long time to work out, and I still probably haven’t got there, what kind of writer I am and want to be. I tend to be okay with that. I spent a lot of time mimicking or emulating other writers when I was younger that I admired because I thought that’s what writing should be. I think the sooner you can get over that, the better and the sooner you’ll get to the work that feels alive. I don’t know if there’s any way to get to that point without perhaps first just being aware of it. Be aware of when you are perhaps just mimicking other writers that you love and that you justifiably love and that you want to pay your dues to or doff your cap to. Sometimes the writers we love are not the writers that are most useful to us, and recognizing that difference. I found that, certainly. I hear a lot of people say write every day. I say you don’t need to write every day. That isn’t to say only write when you feel inspired. Also, don’t put off writing as well. Once things are down on the page, it’s easier. The first draft is always difficult. Whereas the editing process, it’s not joyous, but it’s easier than the initial trying to something out of your body and get it onto the page.

Zibby: I don’t know, though. I’m working on a memoir myself. I just printed out my first draft. Now I’m like, how on earth am I going to edit this? It’s so big. It’s so easy for me to edit an essay because you can see it all and move it. I’m like, how am I ever going to do this?

Sunjeev: Not that I’m giving advice, but if I can put it away for a month or so, that usually helps me in trying to just see it differently and not just come with fresh eyes, but also other things will have happened in that meantime where I’ll start thinking about it differently. You’re right. It’s a big thing. It’s like trying to look at an elephant through a microscope. It’s not easy.

Zibby: I guess it has to be by chapter or something. Anyway, I have so much respect for you and your ability to do this over and over again and the worlds that you create and the style in which you write and even just how you shined a light on this group of women. They came to life in their own experience, and how that informs my own day in feeling so grateful that I don’t have to be in a china room or a women’s room or whatever. Thank you for sharing. I hope you find more time to read and write and do whatever. There’s also Roblox for the kids on iPads if you allow that. That’s my go-to strategy.

Sunjeev: My oldest is a fan of Roblox. We’ve got that one chalked up.

Zibby: Okay, good. Have a great day. Thanks for coming on.

Sunjeev: Thanks, Zibby. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Sunjeev Sahota, CHINA ROOM

CHINA ROOM by Sunjeev Sahota

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