Marriage Material is the story of three generations of a Punjabi Sikh family, from the 1960s to the present day, set against the backdrop of their Wolverhampton corner shop. It sets the story of this one family, with its individual secrets and scandals, up against the broader political context of the period. From Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech, to the discussions of race that resurfaced around the 2011 riots. The novel also cleverly updates Arnold Bennett’s Victorian-set novel The Old Wives’ Tale, from which Sathnam Sanghera took the model for his plot.
Marriage Material is Sanghera’s first novel, but as a Times features journalist and author of the well-received memoir The Boy with the Topknot (an account of his discovery that his father had been secretly suffering from paranoid schizophrenia for many years), it’s impossible to call it a debut. So was it hard to make the switch from journalism and memoir writing to the world of fiction?
“Yes,” he admits without hesitation. “It was completely against my personality to write a novel – I’m quite a sociable person and I’m interested in what’s going on in the world. But I had to do it so I locked myself away. I can’t remember who said this, but they said, ‘When you’re writing, you’re not living,’ and I definitely felt that, but the only way to write is to not live, you’ve got to downscale everything – make everything so boring so the most interesting thing is your manuscript. I came off Twitter, I did everything I didn’t want to do. I locked myself away, and I don’t think that’s what life is about. As you might have noticed,” he laughs, “I’ve gone as far as you can to make it as un-novelistic as possible, so it’s almost an exercise in journalism. There’s lots of politics, and it’s inspired by the structure of another book. It’s weird, but I find making stuff up really hard, which seems contradictory.”
Because he is trained in journalistic fact-finding? “Yes, I think it’s because I’ve been a journalist for a very long time, but I think it’s also because when you’re studying fiction, you put it on a pedestal, and you feel like other people do it, and you’re kind of scared of it.” He pauses. “I’m quite scared of novel writing – and on top of that, I never wanted to be a novelist. When I look at novelists it’s not a lifestyle or a look I ever wanted. I never thought I’d write a memoir, a novel or even be a features writer. I wanted to be a news reporter. But when you’re doing something I think it’s important to do it to the best of your ability. I remember someone interviewing Neil Armstrong and saying, ‘Wow, you flew to the moon, you must be so proud that you achieved this ambition.’ And he said, ‘I didn’t ever want to fly to the moon, I became an engineer, and I tried to be the best engineer I could, and then I ended up flying to the moon.’ I think that people who have specific ambitions are odd. I come from a background where I didn’t know any writers so I never dreamed about it; the whole thing’s been a big surprise. I want to do other things in my life too, though – I’d love to run a business, I’d love to do loads of things. I like to be involved in the world. For me writing’s got to be involved with the world as much as it can be, I don’t want to be a writer for the sake of it.”
In the end he was compelled to write Marriage Material simply because he found he “had something to say: I wanted to write it because that part of my community’s history – during and around Enoch Powell – is completely forgotten, and I think it’s really important nationally. OK, that ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech comes up every three or four months; it’s always in the news, but no one really understands why he made that speech, or what the social circumstances around it were, and I wanted to explore that.”
He’d done some initial research about the period when he was writing his memoir – about the time his parents arrived in the UK and settled in Wolverhampton in 1968 – and what he’d found had been “amazing stuff”. Something like three TV documentaries about the town were made that year alone, he tells me. “It was a really important town in terms of mass immigration – it was like Harlem in America.” And the town’s story stayed with him, pushed to the forefront of his mind again when the riots broke out in 2011. David Starkey kicking off on Newsnight set the cogs in motion. “I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be great to write a family story that linked the 2011 riots to Powell in 1968; a story set in Wolverhampton that brought all the threads together.
“I’m not really interested in the Sikh community, or the Punjabi community,” he adds, somewhat surprisingly, “I’m only interested in what they represent and what it says about Britain at large. The Sikh community is tiny, but the political battles they’ve been involved in and the timing of their arrival says a lot about mass immigrations, says a lot about multiculturalism, and says a lot about Britain, and that’s what I think is the interesting thing.
“There’s no point in just telling a single community’s story because, you know, so what? I’m interested in the national story. Because Enoch Powell is part of a national conversation, part of how we see ourselves, and that’s why the Sikh community is interesting. I think I mention this in the book, but Powell’s house is completely deleted from the history of Wolverhampton, yet he’s probably the biggest political figure to have come out of the town, ever. He’s not commemorated in any way, but equally, the Sikh history has also been wiped out – there’s no collective memory of it at all. The few Sikhs who’ve read the book have been very surprised by the politics of it all. We don’t know how to talk about ourselves, and we’re not a literary community, we don’t read much.
I’m interested to find out at what point he came up with the idea of rewriting Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale. Was it after he’d decided to write the novel, or before the idea had fully crystallised?
“Do you know,” he says, “I can’t remember. The creative process is a funny thing. I know it was my friend Lottie Moggach who gave me the Bennett to read, and I didn’t read it immediately, but then when I did it was a bizarre experience. I think he references Wolverhampton in the first four pages so I recognised some of the geography, but also it felt like I was reading a story about Punjabi immigrants. Life in the 1870s for Victorian workers, that kind of Methodist, puritanical mentality – ‘You must work, you must earn money, you must believe in God and do good!’ – is exactly like the Punjabi immigrant mentality. ‘You must accumulate wealth, you must work long hours!.’ And then there’s the conundrum about what happens when you make all that money and the next generation inherit it, but they aren’t the ones who worked for it. What happens then – that’s the dilemma we have now. It felt like a story about Punjabi immigrants, so I kind of nicked it!” He laughs, “No, let’s say I was inspired by it.”
Asian writers are asked all the time, why are you writing about shopkeepers and arranged marriages? – they’re clichés. But I love the fact that they’re the same clichés Arnold Bennett wrote about.”
Joking aside, Sanghera is clearly a huge fan of Bennett’s novel and completely upfront about how important it’s been for him, describing Marriage Material as a ‘remix’ of the original. “I would love it if people read mine and then read the Bennett,” he admits, “that really excites me because it’s meant to be a conversation. He’s pretty much been forgotten, which he doesn’t deserve to have been because he’s one of the greatest writers we’ve ever had.”
We talk about whether Bennett would have approved of the appropriation, “I think he would have fucking hated it,” Sanghera laughs. “Though one thing I did read recently was that Bennett really likes Staffordshire oatcakes, they were a big thing in the Potteries, and he liked them so much that he would get them sent by train to the Savoy. Staffordshire oatcakes, though, were based on chapatis, originally made by people who had come back from India. So sometimes I think maybe he would have liked elements of Indian culture.
“I’m interested in the social context. It’s a really interesting discussion about how the country has changed. And another really fascinating thing I found about the Bennett is that’s he’s really concerned about the death of the small, family shop – basically exactly the same as now, though now we worry about online shopping, et cetera, but he was worried about railways – that was the big technological advance back then. People have been going on about the death of the small shop for two hundred years and actually the small shop is very much around, it just changes, it’s always changing.
“Asian writers are asked all the time, why are you writing about shopkeepers and arranged marriages? – they’re clichés. But I love the fact that they’re the same clichés Arnold Bennett wrote about. But actually they’re not clichés, it’s like saying, why does everyone write about love and death – it’s life!”
Whether premeditated or not, Bennett’s novel becomes a sort of scapegoat for some of the questions Sanghera’s inevitably going to be asked about Marriage Material, from queries about inspiration and plot structure through to the million-dollar first-novel question, “How much is autobiographical?” Yes, Sanghera’s protagonist, Arjan, is a similar age to his creator; yes, they both grew up in Punjabi Sikh families in Wolverhamptom; and yes, they both then moved to London to pursue untraditional careers, but that’s where the similarities end. But he did this ‘on purpose’, Sanghera admits, not least to distract from his memoir.
“If you’ve written about your life, people feel they can ask you really personal questions forever,” he explains, “so I thought I’d write a new book to change the subject, but then I realised that they’re not going to stop. Basing it on another book was a kind of defence – I can go, ‘Oh no, it’s not about me, it’s inspired by Arnold Bennett.’” It’s a canny move but also a mischievous one, and he plays around with the reader’s expectations even more with his choice of author photo (above). “I wanted to take the big clichés and play around with them and have some fun, yes,” he admits, “but also hopefully it’s a way of killing the questions. I’ve always been interested in postmodern meta-fictional stuff. I love the way Martin Amis puts himself in his books, for example. When I read the Bennett I found the lead character reminding me of my mum – I found that fascinating, that a Victorian mother can be exactly like a Punjabi mother – isn’t that amazing?”
A couple of days after Sanghera and I meet, he announces on Twitter that Marriage Material has been optioned by Kudos, who are developing it as a multi-part TV drama. He’s also had a couple of first rave reviews in the broadsheets. I send my congratulations, adding that, for someone who didn’t especially want to write a book, he’s not done badly. “Haha,” he replies, “the message not the book is what matters.”
Marriage Material is published by William Heinemann. Read more.
Lucy Scholes is contributing editor at Bookanista and a literary critic and book reviewer for publications including the Daily Beast, the Independent, the Observer and the TLS. She also teaches courses at Tate Modern and Tate Britain.