How hard was it to write the book?
My memoir, The Boy With The Topknot, was really emotionally difficult because I was dealing with hard things in my family. My novel was technically difficult because I wasn’t a novelist and it's quite hard to make stuff up. Empireland was an intellectual challenge. The empire covered 500 years of history and one-quarter of the planet, and it was a million different things to a billion different people. It's hard to get your head around it because it is just incredibly complicated. Writing the chapter on economics alone took me months. I had the book read by five historians and five subject-matter experts; even after that I was terrified there were going to be mistakes. It’s only now I’m beginning to hope I haven’t made any. I suppose it’s a kind of imposter syndrome, substantiated by the fact it’s generally only white men of a certain age who write about the British empire. There’s a kind of silent view that if you’re brown you’re incapable of being neutral.
Where do you think that view comes from?
One of the many reasons why the British empire is such a controversial subject is that millions of brown people in this country come from a heritage of colonised people, so it's incredibly emotional. Empire is a sort of industrial oven for hot potatoes. It contains all of the contentious issues in the world (race, nationalism, misogyny) and there’s traditionally only been one way of talking about it. On TV, for example, a white man of 50 or 60 gets off a train in India and starts telling the viewer exactly what happened there. For me, writing this book, I was emotional about empire because of my background, but then I had the double challenge of not really knowing anything about the subject.
Why do you think Brits in general struggle to get to grips with empire?
Well, first of all, empire mainly happened outside Britain, so we've never had to confront what we did in the way, say, the French did after World War Two. It’s been very easy to distance ourselves from it. Secondly, as I said before, it’s a really complicated history covering a long time and a large surface area. It's much easier to see ourselves as the clear winner of World War Two, which has a clear beginning, a clear end and a clear morality. With empire, all of those things are unclear. Writing the book, I discovered that a lot of documentation related to colonialism was destroyed in the 20th century; families that made money from India and from slavery went out of their way to conceal the sources of their wealth. Finally, empire is just really painful. I’m British and I want to think the best things about my country. Realising that we were racially violent, that there were sometimes genocidal massacres, that we transported 3m people from Africa across the Atlantic during slavery, and that lots of modern racism comes from empire are really difficult things to confront. It’s a lot easier to think about something else.
Has the book changed the way you look at your own life?
I guess it’s been like therapy. I’ve had therapy for quite a few years and what that’s done for me is helped me identify my patterns of behaviour and my patterns of response, so when I do things now, I can recognise the patterns and hopefully stop the dysfunction. I think that’s what I’ve done now with my understanding of my home nation. I’ve sat with it on a couch for a very long time, so I can now see its faults and also see things it’s really good at. I can spot patterns of behaviour in our politics and our culture that are imperial, and I think I understand them better. This hasn’t me dislike my home any more; it’s just made me appreciate the complexity.
What’s your advice to anyone looking to understand that complexity themselves?
Read my book! There are also writers out there who deal with empire very practically, just presenting you with what happened. William Dalrymple is one of the best on India. His new book on the East India Company, The Anarchy, will give you a real sense of what colonialism was. Some of the historians I probably disagree with – Jan Morris, Niall Ferguson and Jeremy Paxman – can be nostalgic about empire, but they also don’t flinch from describing the racism, the genocide and the massacres, and they’re worth reading.