Feature writer and columnist Sathnam Sanghera discussed the impact of British-Punjabi culture on his writing and being born to Punjabi parents in the West Midlands, in his amusing Lunchtime Keynote talk with Mark Kramer.
Sanghera comes from a non-literary family, he said. His father is illiterate and his family don’t read his writing despite being the main thing he writes about. He has to “triple check” his stories because when he asks his family for stories and information, they disagree with each other.
“People make things up to hide the pain and can completely contradict each other.”
He writes about his family but they don’t read it, the reverse of the problem of a white middle-class man, he said. “My family are not a literary family and they don’t read what I write, I had to teach myself how to do longform writing”, he added.
Sanghera finds the most effective journalism he reads is when the writer admits “There’s no such thing as the truth”, and tries to develop stories fully. He said: “I did ten years of journalism at FT and I never talked about myself.” He added: “So when I first started writing memoirs, I read about 30, I was looking for a model to steal!”
Sanghera emphasises having a reason for starting writing memoirs. He said: “You either have to have something new or interesting to say or you have to make a joke and entertain.”
Writing about your family is atypical in Punjabi culture, Sanghera said. He added: “In an Asian family, you don’t air your problems” and explained how his brother, who is all about image, questioned the way Sanghera shared memories and stories from his family.
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Additionally, writing in the West Midlands is interesting, he says. “The West Midlands is full of self-deprecating writers – no-one would ever gloat about Wolverhampton”, he joked.
But growing up in the West Midlands gave Sanghera lots of things to talk about. He guiltily admitted writing can be a “long, painful process” and each chapter of his recent novel had about 40 drafts.
Although his family are happy about being written about, Sanghera wishes he’d thought about what he was sharing about himself. He said: “I didn’t think enough about what I was revealing about myself, all those embarrassing stories about my teenage sex life and incompetence with girls in university – I didn’t need to share those.”
Ultimately, however, “There’s something intrinsically funny about British-Punjabi culture”, Sanghera said and he hopes to bring this across in his memoirs.
Words by Molly Dowrick