Hanif Kureishi with Hirsh Sawhney
The world was introduced to Hanif Kureishi in 1985 when the film My Beautiful Laundrette debuted. The screenplay he wrote for it shed fresh light on class, race and sexuality in Thatcher’s London and was nominated for an Oscar. Unpretentious and exhilarating, his novel The Buddha of Suburbia infused English-language literature with the rhythms of popular culture and the stories of UK’s South Asian communities several years later. Kureishi next explored the proliferation of radical Islam in the UK before turning towards the fallout of middle age and the inner worlds of individuals. In My Ear at His Heart, a recent memoir, Kureishi adeptly meditates on the connections between family, writing and life. Regrettably, this honest and insightful book wasn’t printed in the United States, which is an alarming reflection on the state of our publishing world. I spoke with the writer at a café near his home in London.
Hirsh Sawhney (Rail): In your collection of essays Dreaming and Scheming, you asked: “Who would you write like if you were liberated from the necessity of being yourself?” Is the contemporary publishing world receptive to this type of writing?
Hanif Kureishi: I don’t really think about the commercial or publishing world or what other people want. I write for myself as I see fit. And I try and encourage writers when I’m teaching to work like that. There’s something about your own voice that has a sort of power.
Rail: Is the best writing from very private parts of our individuality?
Kureishi: Well, the best speaking, the best writing and the most authentic stuff is the stuff that’s most urgent. You meet someone on the street, grab them and say, “I really want to tell you something; it’s very important that you know this.” When I was very isolated in the suburbs because of race and my family and the fascism in the street and all the shit I was going through, it seemed very important that I said these things to other people, so they would know me and they would understand.
Rail: It seems like the family in your novel The Buddha of Suburbia dramatically differs from your actual family as depicted in My Ear at His Heart. How come?
Kureishi: As you read The Buddha, you think that these guys have a good time all the time. They take drugs, go to parties and have sex. Actually, I spent most of my time in my bedroom reading books, studying and listening to music. So when you make a story, you take the good parts and jam them together and hope that this would be of interest to other people. I think most novels, stories or essays are about moments of breakdown. Stuff starts to go wrong or crazy. To make a story, you need something dramatic. [But] the drama in my family was very slow. We’d stay at home and we were together and we’d love one another and watch TV together. That’s not a novel. So to make a novel, you throw a bomb in it. You say, “What would happen if…?” The autobiography thing is much more tenuous than you would think. The Buddha really began to work when I stopped writing about my real family and began to make up another family.
Rail: So a narrative must seduce.
Kureishi: That’s what you’re doing. I said I wasn’t particularly aware of an audience, but I’m aware that I’m making something for other people I guess. I’m not just telling somebody a dream.
Rail: I’m not sure I see that distinction.
Kureishi: Well it’s the difference between writing as therapy and writing as art. If I tell somebody a dream, it may relieve me to get it off my chest. But I’m not giving them an entertainment. Whereas a book is entertainment.
Rail: So a book that you produce for other people to read is art rather than therapy.
Kureishi: It is art in the sense that it’s a manufactured concept which I hope will appeal to other people. I don’t write it only in order to make myself feel better.
Rail: In your earlier work—the plays, My Beautiful Launderette, Buddha, Black Album—you were very concerned about what was going on here in England.
Kureishi: They’re books about race; they’re books about radical Islam; they’re books about what’s going on in this society. My childhood was to deal with being a Paki. I was a Paki; our family was the Paki Family. That had a profound affect on me. So my position in the world, as anybody’s position, is dictated by social circumstances.
Rail: In works like Intimacy or The Body you became much more concerned with the individual—psychology and aging. Why did you retreat from the Paki thing?
Kureishi: I couldn’t think of anything new to say about that. I was no longer a Paki—I was a writer. I was living in a different kind of world by then. And you have to find new subjects. If you’re a decent writer, you have to renew yourself over and over. You sarch around you, and you have other things to say. You’re not a Paki to your wife.
Rail: You write, “I needed to believe that knowing certain things about the self was curative.” Is writing a process of attaining knowledge about yourself?
Kureishi: I guess so. It’s very odd because when you feel disturbed or distressed, it’s as though you want to get to the source of it. And it’s as though you believe that when you get to the source of it, or express it, that you’ll be free in some way. When you’re a teenager or in your twenties, you begin to feel disturbed about stuff, and your relationships break down and fail in ways that you don’t understand. So you begin to look inside to find the source of the disturbance. You begin to write about this, and then you make a story out of it. Perhaps you feel some relief in knowing what the sources of the disturbance are. I guess all Western literature is an attempt to search the self. Who am I? What is inside of me? How did my parents make me? How much of myself is me and how much is them? These are the deepest questions and important questions, and they’re also curative. Somehow we believe self-knowledge—and this is the Socratic idea—is curative.
Rail: So then there is a certain amount of writing as therapy in your life. You allude to this in your essays.
Kureishi: I certainly write to understand what it is to be a son, what it is to be a father. What it is to live in a world where there is radical Islam. Whether this works as therapy I can’t answer. But certainly there’s the impulse to find out—to know the self, to know other people. I think this is a deep impulse, and it’s part of the creative impulse.
Rail: Why aren’t you sure if it works or not?
Kureishi: Well, if it works, you’d think that writers would be the most therapized—the most chilled people. But there’s no reason to think that Philip Roth is more chilled than he was 30 years ago.
Rail: Are you more chilled than you were 30 years ago?
Kureishi: I guess I may be (laughs). I wouldn’t know what I would be like otherwise. I might be an axe murderer.
Rail: Much of My Ear at His Heart deals with the parent-child relationship. Are we chained to our parental upbringing?
Kureishi: Well we are, but what’s interesting is the way in which we’re chained to our parental upbringing. My Ear at His Heart was an attempt to try and come to terms with my upbringing as a fifty year old. And you come to terms with it when you’re ten, when you’re twenty and when you’re forty in different ways. You continue to think about your parents—what they’ve done to you and what they haven’t done to you—over and over. It’s an endless process of revision and understanding. I thought when I wrote that book I would forget about my dad. And now Dad comes back in other ways all the time. We’re haunted by these relationships. I think what we need to do is to make a space in our heads in order to think about them. The writing represents the space where there isn’t just relationship—where there is time for contemplation, thought and meditation on your childhood.
Rail: Is celebrity a part of your life?
Kureishi: I have a bit of that, but not very much. It’d be a nightmare and really uncomfortable. One of the things that happened [in the ‘80s] was that corporations started to sell writers as celebrities. A writer should try and resist that. You don’t want to walk down the street and have people go, “look, there’s Hanif Kureishi.” You want to walk down the street and look at everybody else. So the less celebrity I have, the more I can see what’s going on without disturbance. I want to be an observer, as I was as a kid. If you’re a writer, your anonymity—your ability to look at the world without being looked at—is very important.
Rail: You wrote: “One feels jaded and played, out as well as fulfilled in certain ways…. No one should want, at fifty, that which they wanted at thirty. What does one really want to do?” Do you have a new set of goals?
Kureishi: I still want to write and there are other things that seem very important for me to say. I’m struggling to be a father to my kids and get them through their teenage years. There are pleasures—countries I want to visit. Things I want to think and say. [But] I feel jaded often. It takes a lot to turn me on—to get me going. I think having experience after a certain age—to find excitement, to find interest—you’ve really got to dig it out.
Rail: When did you start to feel jaded?
Kureishi: I guess in the last ten years. I think it’s when I stopped believing that I could be cured. I used to think, if I took a lot of cocaine or if I had enough sex—or if I did this or I did that—this would make me feel much better all the time. But when I stopped believing that, I realized that life will always be a struggle and quite difficult.
Rail: Visiting the home of an immigrant in this neighborhood, you write: “A prayer mat is next to his bed; he shows me his Koran and his Labour Party membership card…”
Kureishi: Oh Abdullah. I’m sure he’ll walk around here in a bit.
Rail: Abdullah decided to leave Labour when it “started bombing the Muslims.” Do you empathize with his decision to leave the party?
Kureishi: Yeah, I no longer vote Labour. In 1997, when Labour came to power, I think a lot of people in my generation thought that this was our turn. “Look at that guy, he’s our age, he likes rock and roll. He’s a liberal hippie leftie.” And there’s been a long process of deep disillusionment. I certainly feel like the war in Iraq is a disaster.
Rail: So when a Muslim guy in London says, “The UK is bombing Muslims, and I’m indignant about that,” you can see that.
Kureishi: I wouldn’t see it from a Muslim point of view. I would see it from the point of view of a very wealthy country bombing a lot of poor people into debt. And for no measurable benefit for them at all, as Bush and Blair seemed to acknowledge last night as they stared into the wasteland of the hopelessness that they’ve created. It’s very difficult, because I do identify with other Muslim people. Yet Islam is a religion I don’t accept. There’s much about Islam I really despise….
Rail: Are we talking about problems of Islam or problems of religion in general?
Kureishi: I would say the concept of truth is very dangerous. And the idea that the truth is contained in the Koran—being the word of God—is very dangerous. Subservience is very dangerous, because it stops thinking. There’s always a moral authority who’s greater than you, whose ideas oppress you. But I don’t think it’s only Islam that’s dangerous. All forms of religious omnipotence are. In that sense Marxism and Fascism are dangerous.
Rail: Ideologies being hijacked by politics?
Kureishi: Ideologies as politics….
Rail: Can secularism ever become a dogma?
Kureishi: Liberalism can. The story My Son the Fanatic is about that. It’s like Bush bombing Iraq and saying, “We’re bringing you democracy,” and you see thousands of bombs and people shooting at you. This is liberalism turned on its head. It’s insane. This is liberalism as fascism. The end of My Son the Fanatic was about these ironies. How systems of liberation turn into their opposite as we see with Marxism, Fascism, radical Islam—and liberalism too.