A conversation with...Sathnam Sanghera
With the Writer Spotlight Series, we create a positive image for young girls to refer to by having conversations with different writers and illustrators. This month we have been doing Q&As with many writers, to get to know more about them
and their work. Here, we are showcasing all the questions we have asked
Author Sathnam Sanghera. We discuss his new middle grade book, Stolen History: The Truth about the British Empire and how it shaped us.
Photo Credit Fred Windsor Clive
Congratulations on your first published children’s book. Stolen History: The Truth about the British Empire and how it shaped us. Chapter seven - What can I do? Explains the importance of readers expressing their knowledge. How important is this for young readers?
I think it's important for them, but also for the entire country, because of this history, it's just never been taught at school properly. This history that we struggle to talk about on a national level. I think the only way we finally begin talking about the biggest thing we ever did as a country is if children start talking about it; I believe it’s happening already.
To be honest, I think kids are going to school. And they're saying, “Miss or Sir, can you tell me about colonialism"? This has never happened before. Black Lives Matter has been a part of expressing and sharing the knowledge of our history. You can only repress the truth for so long. So I think it's incredibly important, and it's already happening.
How much research did you need to do for Stolen History: The Truth about the British Empire and how it shaped us? What was the journey like?
I wrote Empireland, thinking that Stolen History: The Truth about the British Empire and how it shaped us was going to be easier. I simplified the language, add a few jokes. But actually, there's no shortcut with writing, and it was really hard. The empire is such a big subject, always and still are discovering additional facts. There are a few brand additional facts in the Stolen History: The Truth about the British Empire and how it shaped us.
For example, I didn’t know the Imperial background of London Zoo; I didn't know about the history and Lancashire of the workers there, and the history around the enslaved. Britain's favourite brands are filled with facts, including HP sauce, cigarette cards. There's probably 80,000 ways of writing this book, because this history is 400 years long. There's so many ways of telling the story, so that keeps it interesting as well for me.
What do you hope young readers will take away from this book?
I think there's two main things. One is, I hope they understand something that I did not understand until I was in my 40s, which is that history is an argument based on facts. I left school with GCSE history, however I left school with the idea that history was facts. I didn't realise there were multiple versions of events.
Children are really smart enough to be able to comprehend that. And that also solves the problem of the fact that the empire is such a divisive subject. I think children can understand that people have different views.
So that's the first thing. Secondly, I feel that I want people to understand that we are a multicultural country, because we had a multicultural empire. It's something that is not understood by politicians, by our state. It's why we had the Windrush crisis scandal, you know, where we're deporting British citizens to a country they don't even know. Because it's not understood. It's such a basic point. The dominant narrative of my lifetime is that brown people and black people came in uninvited, with no connection to Britain. We all know that there are centuries long relationships between brown and black people in Britain. And so I hope that's the main point. I want people to understand.
Empireland is an adult version of Stolen History: The Truth about the British Empire and how it shaped us. How has the writing journey of Empireland shaped your own identity?
I think it's made me realise that the British Empire explains so much about my identity. I didn't realise, I mean, I'm a Sikh. The British created a lot of the Sikh identity, the sheer numbers of people who were Sikhs. The British had a large role in that. I discovered recently that I studied English literature at university. That was a subject that existed in India, before it existed in Britain, and they imported it back. The multiculturalism of my hometown, the racism of my hometown which is Wolverhampton. A lot of that goes straight back to the Empire and museums or wealth, politics, the royal family. There's so much in our news every day that this history can explain.
What are your top 3 landmarks, and why?
I mean, places that really say a lot about the empire in Britain. One is a Harewood house, which is a stately home in Yorkshire. We have a famous black actor in Britain called David Harewood, his surname comes from the Harewood family who made their fortune in Barbados from using slave labour to produce sugar. They made an absolute fortune. Harewood house is a testament to that, and Lord Harewood is related to the royal family. If you visit Harewood house today, you will find photos of David Harewood. It is an interesting place to visit because you'll see how the conversation is changing.
Secondly, I'd say go and look at the statue of Lord Clive, in Whitehall. Clive of India, he's in my book, was the man who arguably, resulted in Britain establishing an empire in India. That statue was put away after his death. Lord Clive was really unpopular in his own lifetime, he ended up killing himself, because he was so overcome with the crimes he committed, a quote from Samuel Johnson. I think there's an idea that criticism of these people is already happening now. But actually, a lot of these people were criticised at the time by British people.
And actually, the third thing is just right next to the Lord Clive statue, the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, but actually it was once the India office, and it's full of statues celebrating empire and imperialism, but you don't have to go inside, because you could just look at the reliefs on the outside celebrating the British Empire. The way Africa is depicted the way India is depicted, is different to how the British people are depicted. I would say, quite racist, but this is an office where we still establish our relationship with the rest of the world. And I think we should think about it, because I think it still affects our psyche.
What are you currently reading?
I'm reading a lot of books by Empire because I'm writing a sequel to Empireland, but I guess I've just read William Boyd's The romantic, which is a beautiful novel actually set in the days of empires about one man who works as a soldier in the East India Company ends up in North America as part of colonialism there. It is a great book and it shows you how history can be written in a really accessible way. Another book I'm reading is by Elizabeth Day Friendaholic: Confessions of a Friendship Addict. Very entertaining.
About the author
Sathnam Sanghera was born to Punjabi immigrant parents in Wolverhampton in 1976. He entered the education system unable to speak English but went on to graduate from Christ's College, Cambridge, with a first class degree in English Language and Literature. He has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards twice, for his memoir The Boy With The Topknot and his novel Marriage Material. Empireland has been longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. He lives in London.