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A L Kennedy: "The use of language is underestimated as a force"

The Books Interview.

Your new book, On Writing, is a collection of essays and blogs. How did you start blogging?
I like what I do. I like reading. That whole area of my life has always been very joyful and supportive and well supported.

It’s probably just me being evangelical – not about people being writers but about people having access to what writing can do. That’s why I go around and do a one-person show and that’s why I started blogging.

Writing has become one of your central themes, hasn’t it?
Yes. The use of language is underestimated as a force. It’s how advertising influences; it’s how politicians influence. The way you are defined by the law is framed in words. It influences every aspect of your life, so if you’re not in control of language, language is in control of you. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

The blogs, which function as a sort of diary, give a strong sense of the toll that writing has taken, particularly on your health.
When I was coming through, there weren’t any [writing] courses. You somehow had the idea that you should get a room of your own and that the more time you had, the more you would write; and then you’d get published and that would be it. That was all the information you had and, even with the courses, it’s pretty much all the information you have now.

Warwick, where I teach, is very good; the emphasis is on the words on the page. Still, you need to ask: do you have a comfortable chair? Are you working on a laptop, which means your head is in the wrong position or your hands are in the wrong position – or both? If you do that for four, six, eight hours, when you’re basically built to swing through trees and eat fruit, you’ll become ill.

In one essay, you talk about “being with people in art”. The way you work seems very communal.
I don’t know many writers who work in an ivory tower. That was only really possible for a very brief period when a particular class of person had vast amounts of leisure time. If you look at history, [you’ll find that] the people who told stories were primarily performers and it was always public or it was a communal activity and everybody did it.

What effect has the growth of creative writing courses had?
It depends on whether the course is good or not. Writing is not a communal activity when you’re doing it, putting words on paper. If your name’s on it, it’s your responsibility. It’s not a group decision.

A lot of courses and sessions and books are about making money; making people dependent upon a process that is unnecessary and upon which they should not become dependent.

Writing is the most self-contained form of self-employment. You don’t have to go on a course; you don’t have to have gone to university – but you do have to understand your craft. It is a craft and you can learn it, regardless of how you serve your apprenticeship.

Why do you think creative writing as an academic discipline has been so controversial – in this country, at least?
Because it’s not fit for purpose. It wasn’t designed by writers; it was designed by English departments. The idea that the English department should be the one that creative writing is attached to makes no more sense than it being attached to the anthropology department or the physics department.

Your background is in theatre studies. You write about actors a lot in the book.
Actors are extraordinarily good readers. In a way, they’re the most forgiving readers around because even if you’re producing unmelodious and unbelievable rubbish, they have to be out there wearing it and if it doesn’t cover them, then their arse is out of the window.

The cover of the book makes you look like a polar explorer. Is that a good metaphor for the writing life?
It’s completely polar. You’re walking out across a great, white wasteland, making little black marks.

A L Kennedy’s “On Writing” is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99)

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis