These books echo worries about the difficulty of building a diverse and cohesive societyby Sameer Rahim / November 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
This year Europe’s refugee crisis became impossible to ignore as 430,000 people arrived, fleeing war or poverty. But mainly absent from the political debate have been migrant voices. What does it feel like to be an illegal immigrant or to be British-born but culturally alienated? Four novels published in the last year describe how newcomers to Britain negotiate with the host culture a dozen times a day. The picture they collectively draw is not of a happy multicultural nation; they all echo worries about the difficulty of building a diverse and cohesive society. They also explore how those migrants keen to work and integrate into Britain, experience a country very different from the one they imagined. There is opportunity, yes, but also isolation, poverty and racism.
Sunjeev Sahota’s Booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways (Picador) delves into the grimy world of illegal immigration. Sahota, of Punjabi descent, was born in Derby in 1981. He has an eye for newsworthy issues: his first novel, Ours Are the Streets, was about a would-be suicide bomber. His new work follows three Indian “illegals” working on a Sheffield building site.
The story of one character, an auto rickshaw driver from Patna, examines an asylum seeker who is also an economic migrant. Tochi and his family are attacked by Hindu extremists for moving beyond their caste; his parents are killed and he is badly burned. Disillusioned with India, Tochi pays people smugglers to take him to Britain. Tochi’s deprivation is inseparable from his caste status, something he believes he can slough off in his new country through working hard. “Work on day one. This was good. Maybe it was true what they said about England. That this is where you could make something.”