Getting to know Sathnam Sanghera

Sathnam Sanghera was born in Wolverhampton in 1976. He graduated from Cambridge with a first class degree in English Language and Literature. He currently works as a British journalist and writes a weekly Business LifeThe Times.  If You Don’t Know Me By Now is his first book. To find out more about you can visit his website http://www.sathnam.com

The Asian Writers Project interviewed Sathnam Sanghera to discover what made him write about his family and why he decided to share the story…

What were your greatest fears when you were writing the memoir?
One of the main reasons I wanted to write the book was to tell my family I wasn’t going to have an arranged marriage to a Jat Sikh girl, and to admit I had had relationships to unsuitable non-Indian girls. So my greatest fear was that they would disown me. That single thing drowned out any other anxieties. On the day I finally confronted my mother I woke up and threw up – that’s how stressful it was.
What was your reason for writing the memoir? Was it simply a conscious attempt to understand yourself or was it something else?
There were many different reasons. I wrote it as a kind of insurance policy – if I was disowned by my family, I would need my friends and colleagues to understand why I was so upset. I wrote it because somehow it is easier to be brave when you have an audience – if I didn’t confront my mother in the form of a book, I think I would have chickened out, as I had done on previous occasions. I wrote it as a tribute to my mother, and as a way of rescuing my father’s and sisters’ experience from oblivion – as mentally ill, unemployed immigrants they don’t really exist in the eyes of society. I wrote it as an apology to the various girlfriends I have let down. I wrote it as a way of making sense of how I had ended up in such a bizarre position. I wrote it because I was tired of profiling business people and celebrities when I didn’t know anything about my own family. I wrote it as a way of drawing a line in my story and moving on. (Of course, the irony is that publication makes you return to it, again and again). And on some extremely banal and laughable level I also wrote it as a kind of singles advert.
Did you think it was high time Asians talk about mental illness?
I wrote the book for personal reasons, I didn’t deliberately set out to confront taboos, I just needed to write my family story. And I wanted to write my family story because I knew that the one thing my mother would say in the event of a confrontation would be: “you wouldn’t do this if you knew what I had been through”. The book was a structured way of finding out exactly what she had been through, to establish whether I really wanted to go through with my plan, and mental illness came up as a subject because it turned out, to my surprise, that my father and sister have suffered from schizophrenia for all their adult lives.
It was only when I started researching the topic that it struck me that there are almost no Asian books from a cultural perspective about mental illness. I hope If You Don’t Know Me By Now fills a gap. Too many people suffer in silence when it comes to mental illness – it is even more of a taboo in the East than it is in the West. It turns out my great grandfather probably suffered from schizophrenia and was simply tied to a bed until he died. A great deal of mental illness in Indian families is blamed on the sufferer or the family of the sufferer, and there is great injustice. I read an incredible statistic in the New York Times recently: apparently, India, which has a population of more than one billion, has fewer than 4,000 psychiatrists, one-tenth the United States total, which has a much smaller population. Most Indians with mental illness go untreated.

Reading the book I felt that I was able to get a real sense of what it was like to grow up in your family, what your mum and dad were like, their habits, were you afraid of exposing what is usually a rather private world?

Yes, I was. But I didn’t include everything. All the stories mentioned in the book appear with the permission of my immediate family – I didn’t include a great many things and stuff was edited out. I actually thought my family would want to take more out, but they didn’t because it is, after all, an affectionate and compassionate portrait. I haven’t invaded anyone’s privacy in a negative way.

It never felt like you really held back in the book, its a very honest and frank account – is that how you wanted the book to be?
The book wrestles quite self-consciously with the question of “what is truth”, which is a challenge for all memoirists. I had a particular issue with it because of my background in business journalism, where “truth” is everything. People make investments on the basis of what you say, so you can’t go around making things up. But when I began talking to my family it quickly became evident that that kind of Financial Times truth was going to be impossible to establish – when you come from an oral culture, there is often no written evidence of events, people contradict one another, they exaggerate and also, most troublingly, they tend to omit hugely important things for reasons of honour and embarrassment and shame. It was a big challenge, but I do think I ended up with a kind of truth…. As I say in the book, something doesn’t have to appear between the pages of a novel or on the pages of a newspaper to be true.

You tackle many grim issues in the book, from mental illness to poverty were you ever worried that people would view the book as just that, grim?
Again, I wrestle with this quite self consciously in the book – my natural writing style is jokey and light, I was specialising in light-hearted personality interviewees when I started writing the book, and yet the story is, as you say, very dark in places. But I would disagree that it is grim – most people who like the book say it made them laugh and cry in equal measure… and that was my intention. I wanted to capture the happiness and sadness of my family life. It is certainly not a misery memoir. I had a fantastic childhood, and my mum and my siblings have a really cool sense of humour and there are lots of things about Punjabi culture that are inherently comic.

Did it worry you that you talked about the number one taboo issue, and it played a pivotal role in your memoir – the impending arranged marriage – or did you not care what others would think?
I would say that mental illness is the number one taboo issue and that arranged marriages are pretty easy to talk about – it’s almost a cliché now. There are hundreds of books about arranged marriages. When it came to relationships, the tricky subject was actually mixed-race relationships and, yes, I was wary about discussing the fact that I had had English as well as Indian girlfriends, because no one in my large extended family – I have 54 first cousins – had married “out”. I’m sure elements of the community disapprove, but it turns out my family don’t (though they still want me to marry a sikh girl) and that’s all that matters to me. Also, it is happening more and more often and people need to accept it.

Its a very long memoir – was there a rigorous editing process or is this much of the original manuscript?
It’s not long at all! 100,000 words. Which is average really. Maybe you were just bored by it! But no, it needed to be a decent length because I was telling the story of six people in my family. I personally put the book through more than 30 drafts and in the final edit quite a lot of stuff related to me was taken out by my editor, which I’m very glad about because it is good to have something resembling a private life. It’s very odd meeting strangers who know so much about you, but at least I know they don’t know absolutely everything.

Everytime something went wrong in your London life, you marched off to Wolverhampton and more importantly to mum, what did she make of the book?
Obviously my mother’s reaction is a key part of the book and I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was a huge surprise, and I am proud of how she reacted. Of course, more generally, her reaction to the books is complicated by the fact that she does not read English, but she knows exactly what I have written about her because she was my primary source for her story, and my sister has translated the rest of it for her. She is pleased with the final thing. She is glad someone has told her story. After all, not only was she married off to a violent mentally ill man in a foreign country when she was a teenager, but she was then blamed for his illness. I’m glad I’ve been able to give her a voice. I am also hugely proud of her and my dad and my wider family. The book has made our relationships stronger and more transparent. I’m glad I did it.