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Why Gurnaik Johal's debut book We Move is like a playlist

The 24-year-old author Gurnaik Johal on his new book, the strength of the short story, and why it’s best to know as little about a writer as possible

A scene from Southall in west London
A scene from Southall in west London (Getty Images)

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The 17 stories in We Move, the debut collection of London-based author Gurnaik Johal, 24, demonstrate a deft touch. Affecting, visceral and spare, they are set in Southall—west London’s “Little Punjab”—and revolve around particular moments and relationships in their characters’ lives, illustrating larger issues of race, culture and history. The opening story, Arrival, which won the Galley Beggar Press’ annual Short Story Prize, is only five pages long but it manages to pack in larger ideas of love, relationships and fate, showing us the ways in which the lives of the immigrants connect. Johal, who graduated from The University of Manchester, works in children’s book publishing. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

The stories chronicle the journeys of multiple generations. Were you interested in exploring the connections between the lives of the predominant British-Punjabi community in Southall across time?

I was always writing about my local area in west London, and to do this in a realistic way meant writing about multiple generations of immigrants. In the writing process, I became increasingly interested in the history of anti-racism in Southall and found myself writing both historical and contemporary stories. Moving back and forward in time allowed me to stitch together an accurate portrait of the community.

Did these stories spring from your own familiarity with the landscape and populace of Southall? Did you wish to humanise the immigrant’s eternal struggle to fit in as they make a new life, after uprooting themselves from their places of origin, where they had put down roots, and which, in turn, had its roots deep in their imaginative affections?

Yes, and yes, in a way. But also, no! It’s easy to retrofit themes now, long after the book began, but in truth I wasn’t thinking about big ideas or politics in an active way when writing. I was simply following the stories to their natural ends and focusing on crafting sentences. It’s like a painter being more interested in brushstrokes than the whole canvas—it’s for the viewer and the reader to bring the big picture stuff to the work.

How did you arrive at the form, texture and pacing of these stories?

I think I have a maximalist approach to writing and a minimalist, practical approach to editing. My early drafts tend to have a lot of ambition and need to be brought down to reality in endless iterative rewrites. In the early stages of the process, I am an architect trying to throw out the rulebook—later on, I am an engineer, realising that certain aspects of a story won’t work if certain structures aren’t in place.

We Move: By Gurnaik Johal, Hachette India, 240 pages, Rs. 499.
We Move: By Gurnaik Johal, Hachette India, 240 pages, Rs. 499.

Thematically, the stories are dominated by familial relationships and bonds, offering an insight into the lives of Indian immigrants in London trying to cling to their cultures and traditions on foreign soil, and the bonds they form across borders. Did you wish to dwell on the intersections between cultures? How did you arrive at these stories and what were your reference points?

I started with one story and from it another grew and another, and they happened to be linked. I liken it to baking bread—from one batch of dough, you take your starter that feeds the next batch, and so on. A little discarded scrap from one story could serve as a starting point for the next, and so on. Many of them focus on family dynamics because of the wealth of plot-potential a family story can have. I am pretty much always writing in some way about love, and about memory, and I suppose the things you have pulled out here relate in different ways to those two things. But, again, I think big themes are more for the reader to bring than the writer to apply.

My reference points have always been wide-ranging: I am as interested in music, food and reality TV as I am in reading literature. It strikes me as a little incestuous when writers can only name other writers as inspirations. It’s important to me to widen the gene pool—to take inspiration from different forms.

There is a recurring sense of loss and loneliness, absence and disappearance, arrival and departure that runs through your stories. Does this have something to do with the generational sorrow of the people who had to move?

Things are lost and left behind when people move, sure, but also gained. It’s important to me that a story should have balance, that there are moments of joy to act as counterweights to any moments of sorrow. In the Chatpata stories, I write about the balance between sourness, spiciness and sweetness needed in cooking—that’s what I am trying to achieve in the stories in We Move.

These stories are peopled by characters with certain ambitions and aspirations; pursuing personal goals, they try to stay afloat or thrive. Do you see them as representing the dilemmas, defiance and despair of a particular class: the middle-class British-Punjabi diaspora struggling to make it in life?

The title We Move comes from a slang phrase which means to carry on regardless of the situation. It’s similar, in a way, to the Sikh phrase “chardi kala”, which I take to mean to stay optimistic regardless of your circumstances. I think it’s an energy that applies to a lot of the characters.

‘Chatpata: Kaam’, ‘Chatpata: Ahankar’ and ‘Chatpata: Moh’ are linked and may very well have been a novella. But instead of being arranged together, they appear in the collection between other stories. What determined the arrangement of the stories?

Chatpata was originally one long piece split into three chapters. A friend suggested separating the chapters into distinct stories across the book as a way of encouraging the reader to look for links between all the stories in the book. The collection is more like a playlist than an album and can be read in any order the reader likes—it’s not structured in a linear way (it jumps forward and back in time) but shaped more like a web, where each story is linked in different ways to another.

Gurnaik Johal 
Gurnaik Johal  (Aashfaria A Anwar)

What kind of relationship do you share with India? How interested are you in its current social and political developments?

I have been to India twice. My third visit was cancelled due to lockdown. I am very interested in social and political developments there, though in a way that’s distanced through me only accessing them through Western news.

The literary world is fond of labelling. How do you respond to the term “immigrant writer”? Do you think it shapes your writing in any way?

I am proud to be a second-generation immigrant and feel lucky to be able to access two cultures at once, even if that comes with the trade-off of not being able to claim comfortable ownership of either in their entirety. If people want to call me an immigrant writer, that’s fine, but I suppose that might limit readers’ perceptions of me before they come to the work. I often think the less we know about a writer beforehand, the better.

What do you find most fascinating about the short story form? Are there any contemporary authors/short story writers who have inspired you or influenced your work?

In terms of content, short stories are as wide-ranging as the novel. I think the short story collection form has a particular strength when it comes to portraying communities and places. Since old books like Winesburg, Ohio (by Sherwood Anderson, 1919) or Dubliners (by James Joyce, 1914), short story collections have been able to pinpoint a place in a way I don’t think a linear novel quite can. A community needs to be depicted in multiple perspectives. I think that’s what I was hoping to do with We Move.

What are you working on next?

I am writing a novel in seven parts about the ancient Saraswati river being brought back to life in modern-day India, and the water war that ensues. It follows seven distantly related characters from different Punjabi diasporas around the world—from Canada to Singapore, Mauritius to Kenya—and shows how their lives intersect and meander with the great engineering project of the river. It stretches as far back as the Saraswati and Indus Valley Civilisations and includes a thread of a love story inspired by Punjabi Qisse (the oral storytelling tradition). It feels right at this time to be spending my time writing eco-fiction.

Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology Of New Writing: Select Short Stories By Women Writers.

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