ALREADY being mentioned in literary supplements as one of the novels to look out for in 2011, Ours Are the Streets tells of a second-generation Pakistani from Sheffield who becomes a suicide bomber.
It is the debut novel by Sanjeev Sahota who grew up in Chesterfield and now lives in York, where he works as marketing manager for Aviva, but chose to locate the story in Sheffield.
“I know it as a place where I hung out a lot in my youth and knew places like the Leadmill which was a second home at one time,” he says, and the club features in the book as the place where the protagonist, Imtiaz, meets his wife, Rebekah from Meersbrook.
“It is a large ethnic city which makes it more the sort of place for the events to unfold,” he explains. “If I had set it in Chesterfield it would have raised other questions. Sheffield has an established Muslim community.”
Sahota was born in Derby and was aged seven when his family moved to Chesterfield to start a business and he grew up there before going off to university in London – to study maths.
That would suggest that literature was not then his priority, so when did he form an ambition to write a book? “I really started reading novels when I was about 18 and it grew from there,” he explains. “I developed a love for language and storytelling.”
In one interview he said that a trigger for choosing to write about a man driven to undertaking a terrorist act was the fact that at the time of the London bombings in 2007 he was working in Leeds, the city where most of the bombers came from.
“It’s really difficult to say where I got things from,” he corrects. “It’s true Beeston was only a couple of miles away from where I was living and it must have had something to do with thinking about how someone would want to go down that route and wanting to explore that.”
Various Western novelists have attempted to get inside the head of a suicide bomber – Martin Amis, John Updike, Sebastian Faulks – but Sahota writes from the inside as a second-generation Asian, although not a Muslim himself.
“There have been a lot of novels around the issue from some prominent writers but I definitely didn’t see myself as offering a riposte to them, nor did I write with that in mind,” he insists. “I thought there was a story there that was worth telling.”
The narrative of Ours Are the Streets is relating through the voice of Imtiaz, who is dictating a confessional to his wife, Rebekah, and is recounted in a haphazard way, full of Sheffield vernacular.
“I wanted to write from inside his head and the voice becomes important and it needed to be credible to where he comes from,” he continues.
“The Sheffield influence comes through in one or two instances and the rest follows by association.”
It was when he goes to Lahore on the death of his father that Imtiaz is set on his path to terrorism. It brings to the fore a strong sense of alienation from his birthplace, Britain, and although feeling a connection to his father’s homeland realises he is an outsider in both places. His motives for his extreme actions are therefore very much about trying to find an identity for himself.
Sahota has never been to Pakistan or Afghanistan, the journey taken by Imtiaz, but has made regular trips to North India where his family originate.
He understands “I am very aware I have a cultural heritage and you can look both ways,” he says. “I have a large family in the Punjab and I am a frequent visitor there and feel a strong attachment to it.”
In depicting suicide bombers emanating from Sheffield, Ours Are the Streets follows Chris Morris’s film, Four Lions, released earlier this year.
“I was aware of it when it was coming out but I didn’t realise it was set in Sheffield and have never seen it,” he says. “Books and films are different and have different objectives so I am not too concerned about that.”
Unlike many first-time writers today, Sunjeev Sahota did not attend creative writing classes or a writer’s group, but began writing the book very much on his own in 2006 and then sent it out on spec to find himself an agent who in turn got it accepted by publishers.
“I wrote it in the evenings and at weekends and then instead of going on holiday I stayed at home and wrote. To write you have to isolate yourself to some extent,” he says. He is equally happy to do the opposite, however, now the book is out and his publishers have arranged publicity readings and signings.
“I’m looking forward to meeting readers,” he says, acknowledging that the subject matter is potentially controversial. “But I have not encountered any negativity so far.”
Ours Are the Streets (Picador, £12.99).