Hanif Kureishi

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Hanif Kureishi
Hanif Kureishi © Richard Grupenhoff (www.rowan.edu/elan/ communic/rtf.htm)

Article

The future is mixed

Born in London in 1954, Hanif Kureishi is one of the most important British authors, film-makers and thinkers of Asian British origin. In his film-scripts, novels and essays he confronts racism, identity, fringe and post-modern lifestyles.
“From the start I tried to deny my Pakistani self. I was ashamed. It was a curse and I wanted to be rid of it. I wanted to be like everyone else.” (“The Rainbow Sign”, in: “London Kills Me”, p. 4). So wrote Hanif Kureishi in his autobiographical notes “The Rainbow Sign”. But in the London suburb Bromley it was impossible for the son of a Pakistani and a white Englishwoman to avoid the ingrained racism of England in the 60s. A teacher at his school refused to call him Hanif, preferring Paki-Pete. Kureishi responded by calling the teacher only by his nickname, whereupon he was expelled. He even had a skinhead friend but first realised this only on being taken home with him once. Later he got to know his friend´s skinhead clique, then on learning that their pastime was to hunt down and beat up Pakistanis, he parted.

“I withdrew, from the park, from the lads, to a safer place within myself ... I was only waiting now to get away, to leave the London suburbs, to make another kind of life, somewhere else, with better people.” (ibid. p. 5) Young Kureishi began to listen to Pink Floyd and Cream and to write down the speeches of racist politicians like Enoch Powell, while hoping to leave the London suburb. He turned to US culture in reading works from the black homosexual James Baldwin and in discovering the Black Movement. On getting to know the Black Panthers, he took down the poster of the Rolling Stones in his room and put up pictures of the icons of the Panthers - Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Kureishi viewed Islam critically in the form in which it was represented in the USA through Elija Muhammad´s “Nation of Islam”. He distanced himself from its black separatism and racism, as did James Baldwin. “Baldwin, having suffered … was all anger and understanding. He was intelligence and love combined.” (ibid. p. 8) Hanif began writing: “Perhaps that is why I took to writing in the first place, to make strong feelings into weak feelings.” (ibid. p. 34)

His themes were his youth in racist England in the 60s, his parents, his friends, his obsessions and London, the city he was living in. His skinhead friend became the model for John in “My Beautiful Laundrette”, which also includes his father, as does “The Buddha of Suburbia”, or his film “London Kills Me” and so on.

With his script for Stephen Frears´ film “My Beautiful Laundrette”, which he wrote while staying with his family in Pakistan and adapting Brecht´s “Mother Courage” for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Kureishi did not make himself popular with everyone, though his script was nominated for an Oscar, and the film received rave reviews. The Pakistani community was offended at not being shown as victimised or preferably heroic, and Pakistani organisations accused him of portraying Pakistanis as queers and drug-dealers.

Indeed, already in the opening sequence, Kureishi shows that he is not disposed to follow the clichés of the humble victim and the noble savage. The oily Pakistani businessman Salim, with dear clothes and cheap manners, joins with two Jamaicans in having white squatters thrown out of a building which he has just auctioned off. Kureishi here fictionalised what he took to be social reality: “Our cities are full of Asian shops … Those Pakistanis, who have worked hard to establish businesses, now vote Tory and give their money to the Conservative Party.” (ibid. p. 28) They have managed to make the most of their opportunities, like Omar, Kureishi´s protagonist. He naively stumbles through his relatives´ conflicts between money-making, tradition, emancipation and the racist excesses of young white workers and also has to find his sexual identity. His true test is his relationship with his homosexual skinhead-friend John, who is running the laundrette. John in turn must decide between his pals and his lover.

This all sounds like social drama, but the film is kept in a light ironic tone: “We decided the film was to have gangster and thriller elements, since the gangster film is the form that corresponds most closely to the city, with its gangs and violence. And the film was to be an amusement, despite its references to racism, unemployment and Thatcherism. Irony is the modern mode, a way of commenting on bleakness and cruelty without falling into dourness and didacticism.” (“About My Beautiful Laundrette”, in: “London Kills Me”, p. 113)

Kureishi´s first novel “The Buddha of Suburbia” has the same light tone. Once more it is a naive protagonist Karim, who in the tradition of the trickster novel seeks his identity between the worlds of his Pakistani and English relatives, between tradition and London´s cultural scene, and between Jamila, his soul-mate and sexual partner for awhile, and Charlie, the son of his father´s girlfriend. The novel is set in the 70s, in the period between naive flower-power and punk.

”I´m Karim Admir, an Englishman, born and bred, almost”, is the start of the semi-autobiographical novel. Karim has the same dreams as the young Hanif, who had longed to leave suburbia for London, where there were “kids dressed in velvet cloaks who lived free lives; there were thousands of black people everywhere, so I wouldn´t feel exposed … there were shops selling all the records you could desire, there were parties where girls and boys you didn´t know took you upstairs; there were all the drugs you could use. You see, I didn´t ask much of life: this was the extent of my longing.” Kureishi´s protagonist gets all that and a lot more when his father Haroom moves in with his girlfriend Eva and they let Karim live with them.

By this time, Karim´s father, who is actually a clerk, has begun a career as a guru, and his son is unable to make out whether he is a charlatan or a cheat. From the time of finding out that his father has a girlfriend, Karim also takes an interest in her family, not least on account of Eva´s son Charlie, who is selfish and ravishing. Karim´s life swings between the Indian culture of his relatives on his father´s side and the English culture on his mother´s. To the former belong Uncle Anwar, the owner of a corner-shop, his wife Princess Jeeta and their daughter Jamila; and to the latter belong Uncle Ted and Aunt Jean “two normal unhappy alcoholics”.

With Eva´s help, Karim comes into contact with the smart London cultural intelligentsia whose subtle racism he finds bewildering, as he has so far known only the brutally open racism of suburbia. He becomes an actor and is given the role of Moogli in a version of “The Jungle Book”, less on account of his talent than on account of his forefathers. While touring America he meets Charlie, who has become a successful rock-star. Charlie tries to persuade him to stay by offering him everything which he once sought - sex, money and freedom - but Karim returns to London.

At the end of the book, Karim is in his early 20s and about to become rich and famous. He now has the role of the rebellious son of an Asiatic shop-owner in a television series. His mother has a new friend, and his father wants to marry Eva. Whereas his father is becoming worldly, Karim changes into a buddha. He sits in the middle of the city he loves among the folk he loves and meditates on the unpredictability of life. Maybe in future, he thinks, he could live more profoundly.

Many experiences and characters in Buddha are part of Kureishi´s own life. For some time it was a London society pastime to guess the real-life prototypes of the folk in the book. Charlie is modelled on the rock-singer Billy Idol, with whom Hanif went to school but whom he had not seen since he was 16. “Certainly the book is autobiographical in some ways,” he said to the New York Times (28 06 90) , “That´s so obvious. But the relationship between your own life and your writing is very complex. It´s hard to realise, yourself, how you´ve transformed part of yourself into the characters you create.”

Kureishi´s second novel, “The Black Album” (1995), is set in a time in which books are burnt and aubergines read, as he once said on a visit to Berlin. The tale centres on Shahid Hasan, who has just entered university and begun to associate with Islamic fundamentalists. Kureishi does not present him as the prey of evil-doers but rather suggests why someone may be attracted to fundamentalism.

Shahid comes from an Islamic family of the Pakistani upper-class, whose elitism leads them to despise the pious ways of their poorer countrymen. Nonetheless he is fascinated by the self-assurance of the leader of the Islamic student group in his college. “These days everyone was insisting on their identity, coming out as a man, woman, gay, black, Jew -- brandishing whichever features they could claim, as if without a tag they wouldn´t be human. Shahid, too, wanted to belong to his people.”

The fact that he finally hesitates is due to Deedee Osgood, his Cultural Studies professor, with whom he starts an affair. Shahid is a greedy Candide of London in the 90s, who has affairs like a chain-smoker cigarettes, changing from Turkish to Marlborough as luck will have it. It never occurs to him that his affair with a feministic professor wearing a mini-skirt and swallowing ecstasy is strange for an Islamic fundamentalist. As the Islamic students on his campus want to burn Salman Rushdie´s “Satanic Verses”, Shahid has to show his colours. Like all leading characters in Kureishi´s books and films, Shahid decides in favour of erotic adventure. “’Until it stops being fun,’ she said. ‘Until then,’ he said.”

In his collections of short stories – “Love in a Blue Time”, and “Midnight All Day”, as also in his third novel “Intimacy” - Kureishi probed into the bottom of man´s dilemma once it has stopped being fun. The ecstasy and brio of youth yielded to the doldrums. Though Kureishi remained preoccupied with youth and drugs in the film “London Kills Me” (1991), which he directed himself, yet from the mid-90s on he turned to folk whose youthful hopes on the fringe were wilting in their dry lives as husbands and fathers.

His characters became sad. ´´The problem was that at the back of Roy´s worldview lay the Rolling Stones, and the delinquent dream of his adolescence -- the idea that vigor and spirit existed in excess, authenticity and the romantic unleashed self,´´ Kureishi writes about Roy, the main figure of the title tale of “Love in a Blue Time”. The director of commercials is due to be a father and is stifled by domesticity and the loss of his old hopes. Kureishi´s heroes mostly seek redemption in love and sensuality still, which however fails to solve the problems of their adult lives.

Even Bill, Kureishi´s male lead in “D’accord, Baby” is due to be a father, but his pregnant wife is having an affair with another man. Cuckolded Bill plans to revenge himself on his rival by seducing the latter´s daughter, but instead their date offers him a disturbing glimpse of happiness: ”He had never kissed anyone for so long, until he forgot where he was, or who they both were, until there was nothing they wanted, and there was only the most satisfactory peace.” Nonetheless he unglues himself. The nameless divorced narrator of “Nightlife” finds comfort only in a midnight meeting with a mysterious stranger who never speaks with him. The silent, anonymous affair bugs him, but he remarks: “What does that matter? As long as there is desire there is a pulse; you are alive; what you want is to reach beyond yourself, into the world, finger by finger.” Verbal intercourse would only destroy the illusion of erotic redemption.

In the short story “My Son the Fanatic”, Kureishi returned to the themes of racism, conflicts between generations in Pakistani families of immigrants and to cultural misunderstandings and difficulties. It was filmed by Udayan Prasad in 1998. The Anglicised Pakistani father, who works as a taxi-driver and has a touching fondness for the swinging 60s is startled to hear that his son has joined a group of Islamic fundamentalists. While his son preaches to him about the true life, he himself begins a tender affair with an English prostitute, and the film moves lightly towards a catastrophe.

In “Intimacy”, Hanif Kureishi showed the agony of failed love. The short novel contains the memories and reflections of a middle-aged man, who is due to leave his girlfriend and his two sons in the morning. Before freeing him, Kureishi describes on 117 merciless pages the hate and fury, the distress and self-pity of a man who feels old but has not even lived his youth out, of a man in search of love and always afraid of missing it by being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The book records the last night he spends with his family, with his children, whom he passionately loves and whom he nonetheless flings angrily into bed and kicks in the nappy, on taking their impatience as a provocation. Jay describes his few tender hours with Susan, his partner. “She always comes come late, cooks supper, washes up and then asks what kinds of ice-cream he would prefer, while he would rather be making love with her on the floor. But it´s been weeks since we´ve fucked”.

The opposite is true of his affair with Nina, whom he met in a bar somewhere and whom has since seen every couple of weeks in his office. With her he feels as wholly happy as Bill in “D’Accord, Baby”, though for quite different reasons: “Suddenly I had the feeling that everything was as it should be and nothing could add to this happiness or contentment … It could only have been love.”

Kureishi lends him no insight into the reason why he has lost his love for Susan; he gives him no recipe for the preservation of love: “You can protect and encourage the most delicate gifts – love, affection, creativity, sexual desire, inspiration – but you cannot requisition them. You cannot will love, but only ask why you have put it aside for the time being.”

Many reviewers, especially the female ones, claimed that Intimacy offers no deep analysis of the failure of a marriage but rather the self-pitying lament of a man driven by lust, of a writer who has taken his worthiest tools with him on his flight from responsibility and towards more sex and literary accolades. Sayings of Jay´s like “she thinks that she´s a feminist but is only in a bad mood”, and offensive depictions like “fat, red weeping face” are attributed not to the male lead but to the male writer. After all, has Kureishi not left his girlfriend and their two children for the sake of a woman twenty years younger, with whom he now has a third child?

Kureishi answers for himself: “The central character of the book certainly feels cruel and behaves cruelly and couples do certainly behave very cruelly towards one another when they are in that position. I wanted to write a book that seemed to reproduce that.” (Observer, 25.2.2001) “I think they were furious because the subject is infuriating. I might be being disingenuous about that, but I do think the subject of leaving someone or of being left, of being abandoned and the cruelty and your dislike of them is very painful for everybody. I wrote a book that was intentionally horrible. I didn´t want to write a book that smoothes things over.” (ibid)

But the furore about Kureishi´s books has not died down. Women from his life have spoken out for themselves. His sister has accused him of sacrificing his family on the altar of his renown; his mother has called him callous, and Tracey Scoffield, his old flame, said scathingly: “No one seriously believes that the book is only fiction. It all shows how little responsibility he feels towards his children.”

He replied indirectly in the short story “That Was Then”, in which Natasha accuses her former boyfriend, Nick, of having made public their sexual and private relationship. The latter is revealed to the reader only at the end of the tale, as they sleep with each other again. That evening Nick will surely sit down to some writing once more, but will he be writing about their meeting? After all: “There are worlds and worlds and worlds inside you. But perhaps it wouldn’t mean anything to her.”

”That Was Then” is one of ten short tales in “Midnight All Day”(1999). They take place a year after the novelistic end of Intimacy and feature narcissistic men in middle age, nymphs reading Nietzsche, wives clinging to their hated husbands, and the disturbed children of parted partners. The implosion of love from “Intimacy” continues, and the ruins are depicted gloomily as in the surrealistic fable “The Penis”.

With “Gabriel’s Gift”, his newest novel (2001), Hanif Kureishi returns to the terrain of “The Buddha of Suburbia” and “Black Album” and also includes the theme of a marriage break-up, though this time from the son´s perspective. Refugees from these books also people the world of 15 year old Gabriel, who has to experience his break-up of his parents´ marriage. Gabriel is torn this way and that between them and tries to bring them together again to re-establish the paradise of his childhood.

His father Rex once played in Lester Jones´ band. When he is thrown out, Gabriel´s mother Christine says accusingly: “When you´re gone, Rex, we´ll know exactly what to do. Our souls will soar. You´re the ballast in our balloon, mate.” When she works as a waitress, she engages the au-pair girl Hannah. Rex and Lester Jones grow reconciled, and Jones, who is a star rather like David Bowie, recognises Gabriel´s affinity with him and sends him an original painting of himself, which Gabriel´s parents would be happy to appropriate, since it offers them a chance of escaping poverty. But for Gabriel it is an irreplaceable recognition of his talent, so is worth more to him than the state of his parents´ marriage. This moment of becoming independent is his salvation.

Gabriel´s Gift was actually meant to be a children´s book. David Bowie, who had contributed to “The Buddha of Suburbia”, had asked Kureishi to write a book which he would be able to illustrate, but in the course of work the book grew more suitable for grown-ups, and the David Bowie figure became part of the story. Kureishi can see the similarities with his earlier work: “It´s about fathers and sons, which is something that´s always interested me, and also about sons being perhaps more talented than their fathers. It´s about separation between mothers and fathers, which is always traumatic. It´s about people being able to change their lives.” (Observer, 25.2.2001)

In Gabriel´s Gift, Kureishi is again more conciliatory. He himself says: “I wanted to write a sweeter book. I enjoyed writing ´The Buddha of Suburbia´. The funny ones are always the most fun to do.”
Author: Ulrich Joßner 

Bio

Born on 05.12.54 in the London suburb Bromley, Hanif Kureishi experienced in his youth a lot of the racism and conflict about which he writes. He was the only Asian in his school and was even addressed disparagingly by one of the teachers as Paki-Pete. He was a victim of the beating up of Pakistanis by white youths, which increased in the 60s.

The son of a Pakistani father, who in his spare-time worked as a political editor, and an English mother, he early decided that he wanted to be a writer and wrote novels already as a teenager, though they remained unpublished. He studied philosophy at the University of London, paying his way by writing pornography under the pseudonym Antonia French.

He got into the world of theatre as an usher at the Royal Theatre in London, whose writer in residence he became in 1982. His first play, “Soaking up the Heat”, was performed in the London Theatre Upstairs in 1976. His second play “The Mother Country” won the Thames Television Playwright Award in 1980. His breakthrough to writing for the “big stage” came with “Borderline”, whose premiere was at the Royal Court Theatre in 1981. After this success, his play “Outskirts”, also from 1981, was performed by the London Royal Shakespeare company. With his adaptation of Brecht´s “Mother Courage” he conquered the London culture scene, which he later mocked in his first best-selling novel “The Buddha of Suburbia”: “They liked me because I was Indian, and lower-middle-class. That was chic. And I was pretty - then.” (NYT, 24.5.90)

While staying with his Pakistani relatives in Karachi in Pakistan in 1985, he wrote his film-script for “My Beautiful Laundrette”, which was then filmed by Stephen Frears. This comedy about the search for identity of a young Londoner of Asian origins and his desperate bid to rise into the English upper middle class was nominated for an Oscar and received the New York critics´ prize for the best film-script in 1987.

Even the sequel in 1988 – “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid” - brought Stephen Frears a big hit written once more by Kureishi. He was then trying, like many English intellectuals, playwrights and filmmakers, to find an answer to the mishmash of peoples on the British Isles and the test of Thatcherism. At that time Kureishi accused England of being a narrow-minded rat-hole in which corrupt businessmen in the suburbs give the tone (Spiegel, 04.07.88) After Frears had climbed the ladder of success to being a Hollywood director, Kureishi took over the role of director in 1991, for the first and last time, with “London Kills Me”.

A year earlier, his first autobiographically inspired novel “The Buddha of Suburbia” came out, in which he mocks the Pakistani British immigrant-culture, the pop underground and also the British cultural and theatrical scene. The book was awarded the Whitbread Prize and appeared as a four-part series on British television in 1993. Likewise his second novel, which appeared in 1995, “The Black Album” is about a man torn between two demanding worlds - the British in the West and the Islamic Pakistani in the East. The same year, together with the pop historian John Savage, he brought out an anthology “The Faber Book of Pop”.

In 1997 a collection of short stories, “Love in a Blue Tim”’, appeared, followed by his third novel “Intimacy” in 1998, as also his second collection of short stories “Midnight All Day”. From themes and motifs of the latest books, Patrice Chéreau put together the film “Intimacy”, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2001. Also the short story “My Son the Fanatic” was adapted in 1998 for a film. In 1999 his play “Sleep with Me” was performed at the Royal National Theatre, and in September 2001 his novel”‘Gabriel´s Gift” appeared.

Works

Something to tell you

Published Written,
2008
Faber & Faber: London

My Ear at his Heart: Reading my Father

Published Written,
2004
Memoir. Faber and Faber: London

When the Night Begins

Published Written,
2004
Screenplay. Faber and Faber: London

The Mother

Published Written,
2003
Screenplay. Faber and Faber: London

Dreaming and Scheming

Published Written,
2002
Essays. Faber and Faber: London

The Body

Published Written,
2002
Short stories. Faber and Faber: London

Gabriel’s Gift

Published Written,
2001
Novel. Faber und Faber: London

Sleep With Me

Film / TV,
1999

Midnight All Day

Published Written,
1999
Short stories. Faber and Faber: London

Intimacy

Published Written,
1998
Short stories. Faber and Faber: London

My Son the Fanatic

Film / TV,
1998

My Son the Fanatic

Published Written,
1997
Screenplay. Faber and Faber: London

Love in a Blue Time

Published Written,
1997
Short stories. Faber and Faber: London

Faber Book of Pop

Published Written,
1995
Essays. Faber and Faber: London

The Black Album

Published Written,
1995
Novel. Faber and Faber: London

The Buddha of Suburbia

Published Written,
1993

Mother Courage

Production / Performance,
1993
Play.

Outskirts and Other Plays

Published Written,
1992
Screenplays. Faber and Faber: London

London Kills Me

Film / TV,
1991
Director and Script

The Buddha of Suburbia

Published Written,
1990
Novel. Faber and Faber: London

Sammy and Rosie Get Laid

Published Written,
1988
Screenplay. Faber and Faber: London

My Beautiful Laundrette

Film / TV,
1985

Birds of Passage

Published Written,
1983
Screenplay. Amber Lane Press: Oxford

Borderline

Published Written,
1981
Screenplay. Methuen: London

Www

Homepage of the author