Hanif Kureishi CBE (b. 1954) is a novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter, film-maker and, according to The Times (2008), one of ‘The 50 greatest British writers since 1945′. As a short story writer, he explores a heady range of subjects, including race and religion, love and sexuality, and the power of culture and the imagination.
Kureishi was born in Kent to an Indian father and an English mother. As the child of a mixed-race relationship, he grew up with a keen awareness of racism and ‘otherness’. His award-winning novel The Buddha of Suburbia opens with the now famous line, ‘My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.’
Kureishi attended Bromley Technical High School (where David Bowie had been a pupil previously). Later he read philosophy at King’s College, London, and in 1982 was appointed Writer in Residence at the Royal Court Theatre. In 1984, he wrote My Beautiful Laundrette, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay at a time when the young Kureishi was still living in council accommodation in London. He is now the author of over twenty major novels, story and essay collections, plays and screenplays, and his work has been translated into thirty-six languages. For his services to literature, he was made a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) and was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts des Lettres.
Alison MacLeod is the author of The Wave Theory of Angels (Penguin 2006) and Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (Penguin 2007). Her next novel is published by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin) in 2011. She is Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester (UK).
Alison MacLeod meets Hanif Kureishi in The Cafe Rouge in Shepherd’s Bush, London:
Alison MacLeod (weighing up the book): Hanif, your COLLECTED STORIES - all 700 pages – is, literally, a huge achievement. It’s been travelling with me in the last few weeks –
Hanif Kureishi: I hope I haven’t given you a hernia…
AM (laughing): I’m bearing up.… Okay, tell me, what attracts you, as a writer, to the short story form? What are its pleasures?
HK: What you want is a good idea. You’re lucky if you get a good idea. Sometimes a good idea just comes to you…
AM: And you trust the idea…
HK: On the whole. An idea is like a magnet. It attracts lots of other ideas to it. It’s just the beginning. One idea enables me to think about other things, so there are certain characters through whom I can think about that which I’m really trying to think about. But on the whole I don’t know what I’m thinking about until I start to try to think about it… I’m doing a new collection of stories at the moment: there’s a woman who’s ill in bed, and her friends come and sit with her, and they tell her stories each night, some of them funny, some of them sad, some of them horrifying, and some of them just entertaining… It’s a good opportunity for me to write in the short form.
AM: What’s difficult about it? What are the form’s constraints?
HK: Well, you can’t put too much in of course. But you spend all your time worrying about whether you’ve got the right amount in.
AM: You’ve written portraits of your father, for example, in different forms: in a memoir, in essay form, and in your novel THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA… What did fiction, in particular, allow you to get at, that perhaps the other forms didn’t?
HK: Well, there were lots of men in my family. My father came from a family of twelve, most of them boys, and when I was a kid I spent a lot of time hanging around with all these Pakistani men, who were drinking and watching soccer and talking and telling jokes… Most of them, very, very intelligent men; very educated men. So this was very impressive for a little kid — to be with all these guys. MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE and THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA, I guess, are full of uncles and fathers and tough guys and men of different sorts… And then becoming a father myself — to three sons — has made me think also about the difference between being a father and a son; about what sort of father one has to be now versus the sort of father my father was in the sixties, for instance…I think what I try to do in my writing, really, is to explore Britain in the post-war period, in the period I’ve grown up in.
I think what I try to do in my writing, really, is to explore Britain in the post-war period, in the period I’ve grown up in.
AM: I’ve misspelled ‘launderette’ for years, I realise, because of MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE! Why the misspelling?
HK (amused): I went to state school, didn’t I.
AM (laughing): At last, revelation… Okay, I’m curious: what for you, as a reader or as a writer, makes a really powerful short story? Is there a way, do you think, of describing that?
HK: Well… It depends on what you need at the time. I mean, when I was a kid I wanted to read ON THE ROAD because I could identify with those kids running away from home, basically — going across America. It’s probably not a story I would identify with now. It depends what you need. Books are a form of dialogue between you and the world, you and the author. The author speaks for you. When you read a book that you like, it’s as if the author has spoken the thoughts that you haven’t yet realised you’ve had.
AM: Your story ‘The Penis’ was inspired by ‘The Nose’. What took you to Gogol or to that story?
HK: I’d always read Gogol as a child. My father loved Russian literature, so we had a lot of Pushkin, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy in the house. That’s what my dad read. I remember reading DIARY OF A MADMAN and other stuff, just as a kid. It’s very, very funny and very dark.
AM: And your story ‘Lately’, of course, is based on Chekhov’s ‘The Duel’.
HK: That’s right. Well, my dad identified with the characters in Chekhov…
AM: In what way? Or how would you imagine he did?
HK: In the post-war period, the Pakistani upper middle class was gradually being decimated… really by extreme Islam, just as we know that the characters that Chekhov describes would soon be swept away by the Russian Revolution. So there’s a revolution coming in Pakistan… Eventually Pakistan will be over-run entirely by the Taliban, and that’s been happening, or been about to happen, for a long time. So you see there are these intellectuals wandering around for whom there’s really no use. And they want to go to Moscow: i.e., they want to get out but they can’t get out. They want to go to London or New York or Toronto but most of them can’t get out now. They’re too old. They haven’t got any money. So that sense of futility is an economic, social and political reality. I guess that’s why Dad, and later I, could see some use for Chekhovian characters.
AM: Like Chekhov, you absolutely dare to say what’s really on your characters’ minds. You’re remarkably honest in your work. Does that feel like a conscious gamble as you write or do you simply write as you see it?
HK: I write as I see it. I write down what I think. But what you’re doing is experimenting… experimenting in the sense of thinking, What if? What if I said that? What if I did that? So in that sense, writing is autobiographical. You’re describing a what-if? state of mind. Stories are thought experiments.
You’re describing a what-if state of mind. Stories are thought experiments.
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AM: Are there other short stories or story writers that have stayed with you or become a part of you?
HK: Um…Paul Bowles, the American writer. I like him; I like his writing. They’re very shocking stories. Wonderful stories. So clever, the way they work, the way they strike you — hit you — at the end. But of course there’s the whole American tradition of short stories, which I adore: Sherwood Anderson, Poe, Hemingway, Carver, all the way through… And obviously the French writers, Maupassant in particular.
…of course there’s the whole American tradition of short stories, which I adore…
AM: So you ‘fed’ yourself with stories, as a young writer?
HK: I did in those days. I read a lot. In the end though, you have to find your own way…
AM: You’ve written that ‘there are certain ideas, like certain people, that the writer will be drawn to’. Can we talk a little more about the ideas you’re drawn to?
HK: I guess when I say ‘ideas’, I mean characters, characters who would embody certain ideas. For instance, in the story ‘My Son the Fanatic’, which became a film of which I’m very proud, it was a way of showing a relationship between a father and son, but also something that might be happening in fundamentalism; something in the north of England; the growth of extreme religion among young people.
AM: And of course that was written in the mid-nineties, years before we could have imagined the July 7th bombings.
HK: I just knew some of those people… I’d been researching THE BLACK ALBUM — i.e., spending time with people I wouldn’t normally hang out with.
AM: Is that area — extreme religion — still a preoccupation?
HK: No, I’ve done it. Once I’ve written something, I’m no longer interested in it as a subject.
AM: You’ve shed that skin.
HK: Yes. I don’t have anything to say now about radical Islam. But other people of course have lots of things to say about it. I’m not an expert. I just knew some of those people at that time… I knew about something that was happening in a community of which I was a part.
AM: In your story ‘The Body’, the narrator at one point observes that ‘Urgency and contemporaneity make up for any amount of clumsiness, in literature as in love.’ How important are contemporary issues for you as a writer?
HK: Well, you know, I come from The Royal Court. Since 1956, since LOOK BACK IN ANGER, it was a theatre dedicated to exploring post-war Britain: the decline of the Empire, the decline of power, and what would happen to Britain… The fifties and sixties were really quite a grim period. It was over: Britain had been this huge power and now, what did it do? So… George Devine and the other directors at the Royal Court were committed to looking at class, to looking at sexuality, the place of women, etc., through good writing, and I’m still interested in that. My friend Stephen Frears, the director, he’s still looking at all that, too. The Royal Court was my real university… An education in sensibility.
AM: Recently you’ve written that ‘questions of race, immigration, identity, Islam – the whole range of issues which so preoccupy us these days – have been absent from the work of my white contemporaries, even as a new generation of British writers has developed…’ There are exceptions, but yes, I think that’s broadly true. Why do you think that’s the case?
HK: There are many more writers writing about race these days, but the whities have kept off the subject.
AM: Why do you think that is?
HK: They’re nervous about it; afraid of writing characters that they don’t understand.
AM: Because there’s a pressure on writers these days, isn’t there, not to be seen to be appropriating a culture or a voice that is different than one’s own. But potentially, that leaves us in quite a sterile place, doesn’t it.
HK: It does. Absolutely. People are very nervous — for whatever reason.
AM: Perhaps we’re all so aware, post the Rushdie Fatwa, that literature can cause fire-storms…
HK: Yes. That was one of the most significant post-war events — because it paralleled the rise of radical Islam and its new attitudes to liberal freedoms.
AM: In your essay collection THE WORD AND THE BOMB, you describe the imagination as ‘our most significant attribute’. Can you say a little more about that?
HK: I was thinking about it in terms of what radical Islam allows you to think… I mean, we don’t really run into much hard-core oppression or repression in Britain. You can more or less say and think what you like and, on the whole, no one gives a damn. But the Fatwa, and my experiences and my family’s experiences in Pakistan, and certainly the experiences of other artists and writers in Iran, Iraq, and my friend Hisham [Matar] in Libya — his father [political activist Jaballa Matar] has been in prison for 24 years in Libya — made you aware of how terrified the authorities are of the free imagination. Free speech — thinking beyond the boundaries — is terrifying for certain authorities. And it makes you aware of what an important faculty the imagination is; how we have to protect it, guard against its persecution. Living in Britain, in the sixties and seventies, that was something I didn’t have to think about. And then there was the Fatwa. And then there was Communism. One then began to re-think radical Islam. All are forms in which the imagination is certainly not welcome. You know… in Iran today. So we can’t take it for granted. We can’t take it for granted.
And it makes you aware of what an important faculty the imagination is; how we have to protect it, guard against its persecution.
AM: Tell me about your controversial story, ‘Weddings and Beheadings’. Where did that start?
HK: I was watching bits of those videos [of execution by beheading of hostages in Iraq] on television… I was… horrified and fascinated. And I wanted to know about that person who was pointing the camera. It occurred to me that there would be somebody THERE in the room at the same time doing that, behind the tripod. Suddenly the whole thing became human, familiar.
AM: Yes, and that point of view also allows you to come at the horror obliquely — which is probably the skill of all great story-telling. So in terms of the style, that distanced, ultra spare quality means the impact — when we realise what’s going on — is all the more powerful. It leaves the reader in a very uncomfortable place, as it should. In THE WORD AND THE BOMB, you write: ‘A few days after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, a film director friend said to me, ‘What do we do now? There’s no point to us. It’s all politics and survival. How do the artists go on?’ I didn’t know what to say; it had to be thought about.’ Have you thought about it?
HK: Yeah, we were doing a film called THE MOTHER, and we had a meeting in Soho to talk about it. And we all sat around that day and watched these events on TV, like everyone else that day. And we started talking about how you engage with these events. The last decade has been about thinking about that, actually.
AM: Do you ever think, it’s too big, it’s just too big.
HK: Well, the thing in anything is finding the angle: the guy holding the camera who you can’t see… I always try to find that focus…
AM: Much of your work is considered sexually explicit and has, at times, come under fire as a result. Is it sexually explicit in your view and is that okay? Or is the label ‘sexually explicit’ simply a crude tag for more complex aspects of human relationships you’re trying to explore?
I grew up in the fifties. By the sixties there were lots of ‘dirty books’. Henry Miller. Nabokov. Lawrence. It was the ‘Rise of the Dirty Book’.
HK: I grew up in the fifties. By the sixties there were lots of ‘dirty books’. Henry Miller. Nabokov. Lawrence. It was the ‘Rise of the Dirty Book’. And my Dad had all those books. I adore Henry Miller… Literature was carrying sexual freedom, and it was very important that literature exposed the limitations of what you were allowed to say. It’s extraordinary that a book like LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER should ever be banned. So I was part of a generation that saw sexual liberation — i.e., the right to speak about sexuality — as a big deal. And people were horrified about that stuff in books. Of course, now it doesn’t seem horrifying at all, but in those days, LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER was, you know, horrifying…
Literature was carrying sexual freedom…
AM: And similarly, you don’t, it seems to me, aim to titillate.
HK: I don’t think you can titillate people — much — with a book. It’s really about thinking about what sexuality means to people, the place it has in their life. And also the way society has changed through the sixties till now. You see, I grew up in the fifties — and now we have Jordan. What is the meaning of that? Has it made people’s lives better? etc., etc. How could you not want to think about all that if you’ve grown up in the period I have, from repression to sexual freedom or even sexual addiction or…how ever you want to describe it.
AM: Yes, those big issues seem to be preoccupations in your work. But your stories, like all good stories it seems to me, aren’t issue-based. It’s what make us complex, contradictory and human that matters: tenderness or intimacy or love or the failure of love.
HK: Yes, it is really love I’m interested in. I consider it to be love — more than sexuality. When I say ‘love’, I mean a strong attachment between two people — being fascinated, people nurturing each other, people caring for each other, people giving. Desire. What the French call ‘desire’.
AM: It seems that you have often drawn upon elements of your own life for your fiction, perhaps more overtly than many writers. Is that a risk you take and are resigned to take for the sake of the work?
HK: I think all writing’s probably autobiographical, just as all dreams are, but the relation between the story and the self is complicated, very complicated, just as the relation between the dream and the dreamer is complicated.
AM: Tell me about your writing day.
HK: A lot of days, I don’t do anything at all… Some days I do a lot.
AM: So you’re not a writer who says, ‘I must produce 200 words a day.’
HK: 200 words would be a lot. A good whack. It’s not really about quantity. It’s about whether you’ve had a good idea. That’s what you want. But mostly what I’m trying to do is earn a living. People forget that. People don’t talk about that enough. I mean, some writers, a few, are very, very rich and don’t have to think about it, but most writers are working writers trying to make a living to support their families, which is what I try and do. So you’re negotiating between writing this little short story for which you might earn £100 and writing a big movie in order to get paid so you can pay the school fees. It’s a very practical thing that I’m doing. How can I buy time to write this novel now? Well I might have to do that and that… So you’re always thinking in realities — and, as I say, I don’t think there’s enough said about that. Writing is a job for every writer I know. You have to work out how you’re going to make a living for the next 5 years…
Writing is a job for every writer I know. You have to work out how you’re going to make a living for the next 5 years…
I’m thinking about that all the time. You know, I have to pay my tax. I mean, Kafka didn’t have children; he certainly didn’t have children at private school. Or Beckett. Their circumstances were different. They could be pure artists. But I think the interface between art and the commercial world is very important. You are making stories that people want to read.
AM: When you dip into your COLLECTED STORIES, which stories give you pleasure now?
HK: I never think about it… But if someone says to me they liked that book of mine or that story, it cheers me up. You have to be grateful, accept their praise — thank God that, you know, someone liked something you’ve done. But mostly I’m thinking about the next thing. I still want to write. I’ve written a lot, but I still want to write, and what I’m doing today — what I was doing this morning, those new stories — is much more interesting to me than what I’ve done.
AM: You’ve just heard that the BBC is about to adapt 4 of your stories for television. Tell me a bit more about that. Which 4 stories?
HK: Um… I think ‘The Real Father’, ‘The Girl’, ‘A Terrible Story’ and, a new one, ‘The Arrangement’. It’s exciting. I’m really pleased. They’ll each be in a half-hour slot. Then they’ll show them together as a two-hour thing. And I think there’ll be different directors and different writers doing them.
AM: You’re not adapting them yourself?
HK: I might do one of them. .. I’m not going to do all of them. It’s really boring adapting your own work.
AM: Is there something about short stories — perhaps especially the single long story — that translates better to film than, say, the novel? I’m thinking, for example, about BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN or BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S… There’s something about a great novel — perhaps all that dedicated exploration of ‘consciousness’ and inner lives — that just can’t fit in a two-hour film. But short stories, like film, work more exclusively by ‘showing’ and by keeping things ‘in motion’.
HK: They work very well, don’t they? When you’re adapting a novel, you just spend ages cutting stuff out, as you say. Shall I take that out or that out? Will I miss that? If I take that bit out, will the thing collapse? You spend all your time ripping stuff out. You’re absolutely right about that.
AM: From the age of 14, you knew you wanted to write. There was a moment at school that was pivotal. Can you describe that moment?
HK: Yeah, it was a great moment — probably the most important moment of my life. I was sitting there in an English lesson, bored out of my mind, looking out the window — at other classrooms — not wanting to be there… And then it occurred to me that I could be a writer. And then — I can only describe it — a window opened. Or the door to the future opened. I suddenly could see a way out of the school, the suburbs, Bromley — a way out of my own family. It was like an epiphany. I suddenly saw.
I suddenly could see a way out of the school, the suburbs, Bromley — a way out of my own family. It was like an epiphany. I suddenly saw.
And then I went home and started to write much more seriously. I took it seriously — I wasn’t just a kid making up songs or writing stories, but someone who wanted to be a writer. It really focused my intelligence and my energy.
AM: At the same time, your father was writing a lot, outside his job in the civil service, trying to get published… Were his efforts an influence, do you think, or was your discovery independent of that?
HK: Well, Dad talked to me a lot about what he was reading… Obviously his books would be around the house, and he’d be sitting there in his chair, scribbling away, talking about what he was writing… I mean, he was very…um…isolated, apart from me. He had me. He’d talk to me about what he was doing. There was nobody else he could talk about his work to. So I became his sort of…companion. But I learned a lot. We’d talk about stories and character. We’d talk about the organisation of a story, etc. etc. So all the terms of a story became a part of my…psyche. You imbibe it all without even knowing you’re doing that.
AM: In your story ‘The Body’, the narrator — a writer — refers to ‘the terrors and inhibitions that seem to be involved in any attempt to be an artist.’ What do you feel is the most difficult thing when one is starting out as a writer or artist?
HK: Well, there are two things: 1) the difficulty of making work and 2) the difficulty of making a living. And then 3) the isolation — which a writing course probably helps you overcome…
AM: Because you find a community…
HK: Yeah. Otherwise, you think, I’m doing this alone. Nobody knows what I’m doing. They don’t care either. You’re writing in a vacuum — i.e., there’s no one else there to receive those thoughts while you work. And beyond those things, all the rest: finding a voice; finding a subject; developing your ideas; getting published. Then, later, keeping books in print; the next thing I’m going to write; making enough money…
AM: The terrors just go on!
HK: They do. And then, as it were, finding a new voice. You have a voice, and then you get bored with it. You need something else. You have to keep developing as an artist.
You have to keep developing as an artist.
AM: What do you think literary culture and the publishing industry is like today for new writers compared to the eighties when you were establishing yourself?
HK: I think it’s probably harder now — financially. I mean, the eighties was quite an extravagant period — because of the conglomerates. So suddenly publishers had access to money, and they became very competitive around novels. I mean, there would be auctions, and huge amounts of money would be given to writers who had written first novels, let’s say, that were really not very good. When you look back, you think, how was he paid £100 K for that? You know… It got very inflated — which was very good! Good for writers. It kept them alive… But in the end, it’s just a bubble. It collapses. In the end, what you earn has to be related to what you sell. There’s no point giving someone £100 K if they sell a thousand copies.
AM: So you don’t think, for example, that publishers should use blockbusters or celebrity biogs to subsidise new, daring literature that wouldn’t itself cut it in raw sales?
HK: Yeah, they should publish all that. I mean, they have to publish stuff that’s interesting.
AM: But many of those new, interesting novels will not earn back their advances…
HK: But they should be published. They have to be published — and editors will want to publish them because they’re interesting books. Yes — you have to publish Jordan’s novels because that will allow a publisher to publish someone else’s new, first novel. Writing, literary culture, is only kept alive by new voices.
AM: Final question: In THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA, the main character Karim, a new actor, is trying to create and develop a character for the play he is in. You describe it like this: ‘There were few jobs I relished as much as the invention of Changez/Tariq. With a beer and notebook on my desk, and concentrating for the first time since childhood on something that absorbed me, my thoughts raced; one idea pulled another behind it, like conjuror’s handkerchiefs. I uncovered notions, connections, initiatives I didn’t even know were present in my mind. I became more energetic and alive as I brushed in new colours and shades. I worked regularly and kept a journal; I saw that creation was an accretive process which couldn’t be hurried, and which involved patience and, primarily, love… This was worth doing, this had meaning, this added up the elements of my life.’
HK: Well, although Karim is an actor, it actually describes the process of being a writer… I still feel that. I sit at my desk. I’ll have a good idea and I’ll write a bit. Then I write another bit and another bit… And I think, this is a jolly good job. It’s very fulfilling, very satisfying…
AM: And in which way does the act of creation primarily involve love, as Karim says? That’s a notion that appears in your essays too.
HK: Well… the love of what you do: to be a writer, to be a painter, to be an actor, whatever it might be. So, to love your job… But also in the sense that you’re doing this for other people. You write a novel or a story; someone else reads it; they might like it. If they like it, it’s a gift. It’s a real engagement with the world that you offer: a novel, a play, a story, a movie… That’s your contribution. Somebody else might be a teacher or a doctor or a film director or a road sweeper — whatever. And this is your contribution: you make stories and you give them to other people.
And this is your contribution: you make stories and you give them to other people… It’s a form of love.
You think, what’s the value of my life? Is what I’m doing of any fucking use to anybody? There’s a man over there, he’s a dentist. There’s a man over there, making a pizza. There’s a man over there, sweeping the road. They’re all doing things… What’s my job? Well, I make stories and I give them to other people. It’s a good job, really. It’s a form of love.
AM: Hanif, thanks very much.
HK: Thank you, Alison.
Listen to Hanif Kureishi’s story Weddings and Beheadings.