Hanif Kureishi is stressed. He is in the middle of promoting his new book of collected essays and fiction What Happened? and at the time of this interview, overseeing a brand new theatre adaptation of his much-loved classic My Beautiful Laundrette which includes two brand new songs by The Pet Shop Boys, written for the play. It toured the north of Britain in 2019 to great acclaim and is hopefully coming to London in the summer of 2020.
When I arrive he is doing his son’s washing for him, [all three of his son’s live within walking distance of his house] He has no idea why his son has brought his laundry to the house, but he does it without question. I gently suggest that perhaps he shouldn’t put his son’s rather nice shirts in the dryer…
“Why, will they shrink?”
He puts them in the dryer anyway
Kureishi has been writing since he was fourteen, and now at sixty five, he has no signs of slowing down. He seems to publish a book every eighteen months or so. His writing schedule does not change. Up at 6:30am every morning to sit at his desk for a couple of hours, then he continues his day as he sees fit. He did ‘retire’ briefly but that lasted an entire day before he found himself bored out of his mind. His brain seems to be continually working overtime, there are stories to be told every day, characters to explore, and experiences to submerge himself in. Kureishi likes to talk in person rather than email, [or over ‘a cup of tea and have a gossip’ as he calls it] and the topics are far ranging and eclectic. He gets distracted easily and I have spent a previous interview following him around his kitchen, recording device in hand, and on this particular day he gets up mid interview to open the back door for the next door neighbours cat, who seems to want to come in for a nose about
“He’s like Nigel Farage, he doesn’t know whether he wants in or out”
He is obviously referring to Farage’s leadership bids. Brexit and racism are topics that are firmly on the table for discussion, Kureishi’s childhood was overshadowed by Enoch Powell and violent racism, the kind of racism that seems to raising it’s very ugly head again, the racists never disappeared, but seem to be getting very brave again in the current climate. These are disturbing times indeed…..
TF: One of my favourite lines from your new book is in the introduction, ‘we are what disturbs us and we return repeatedly to it, with some hope of mastery at last saying the unsayable turning accidents into stories.‘ Why do you keep returning to that which disturbs you?
When I first started to write, when I was a teenager and then in my twenties the thing that most disturbed me in my life was to do with race, and what that meant. It was to do with my father’s journey to the UK, marriage to my white mother, being mixed race, me and my sister growing up in the 60s with Enoch Powell. It was pointed out to me that this was a really interesting perspective to see the world from and that people on the whole weren’t writing about that particular perspective, and this was a new thing in the UK. It was to do with the end of the empire, the beginning of immigration, the things we know about Enoch Powel, the National Front and so on. You turn something that’s really bothered you into words and stories for other people, and you suddenly realise that this thing that was really painful is actually a place to think from and to look at with experience, you make characters tell stories, hence My Beautiful Laundrette and the Buddha Of Suburbia.
The Black Album however was continually in my mind and it wouldn’t go away and I didn’t know what to do about it. I saw it as material to think through, topics that were to do with politics, to do with the end of the empire, to do with Britain, so it became personal to me, my dad, my mum, my family, my family in Pakistan and in India, and this was somewhere I could see clearly from. Then you’ve got to try and work out how to make all this material into stories. It’s all floating around in bits and pieces, it’s like throwing a puzzle on to the floor, and you’ve got to get all of these pieces into a shape. That’s the hard bit, that’s what imagination is for. That’s what takes a long time to figure out, how to organise whatever you think the material might be, main character, stories, you can see it in the Buddha Of Suburbia, it’s a bit chaotic as a novel, you can see me trying to think how I’ve got Jimi Hendrix, race, my dad, velvet trousers, LSD, acting, all in this one story. How do I hold it all together? That’s how you learn how to structure and organise material into a much more formal process.
TF: In your essay ‘Where is Everybody,” it is set in Rome among a majority of white faces – it seems this theme can be discussed in relation to many places across Europe.
Well most of the immigrants I see in Italy are African, most of them are quite recent arrivals, and most of them are walking around the streets pushing shopping trolleys containing their worldly possessions. It’s not an integrated society, you don’t have Sajid Javid or the Mayor of London or even politicians like Priti Patel. They don’t have that kind of integration yet, Britain is much more advanced in that sense, much more self conscious and it’s done a good job despite the many issues we are aware of. Italy has changed a lot but they’re very nervous about talking about race in places like that, very much more defensive about it. Italy didn’t have an empire, they had a few colonial outbursts, but they don’t really have a sense of empire, remember Britain was connected to India for the first 200 years, with usually the upper classes. The Italians are the nicest people in the world, they’re really warm people, really decent people and the food is really good, but it’s basically a far right country in terms of its government. Of course the same things are happening in Germany, and right across eastern Europe. We live in this little multi-cultural bubble in London, but outside it’s terrifying and they blame immigrants everywhere for everything. So for anybody like me who’s been invited in, I’m also on the outside as well. So you are in a difficult position but you are also in a unique position, to be able to see things from another point of view, you don’t belong anywhere which I like, not belonging anywhere, it’s the best way to be.
TF: Why does that appeal?
Because I grew up like that, I’m used to it and it’s a good place to belong and eventually I became a writer, I like that, it suits me, that’s who I am, that’s my identity, so I don’t think about it now. The best thing about identity is not thinking about it, not worrying about who you are or what your writing for or what you are doing it for, and that’s a good position to be in, I don’t write about race so much now, I don’t really know so much about it
TF: Do you not? In what respect?
Well in the terms of It [racism] doesn’t really happen to me anymore.
TF: How about your sons? Have they experienced anything because they’re mixed race themselves?
Not really, they’ve never had anything like that, they grew up in multi-cultural London the last twenty years, they went to multi-cultural schools and they’re not really dark skinned, so it doesn’t happen to them. In a way they missed out.
TF: How so?
Because as I said, you get a special perspective on things. You know what its liked to be objectified. Also white people want you to be grateful. They say listen you’ve done really well in our country, look at you, the Queen gave you a CBE, you should be so grateful for the opportunities you’ve received here, you get a lot of that. Which my sons have never had to endure.
TF: That’s what the excellent The Good Immigrant [edited by Nikesh Shukla] book was about. People come to live in this country, perhaps as a first generation immigrant, [their children second generation immigrants] and it seems so long as you’re a “good immigrant” a great sportsperson or a good baker, you are acceptable as an immigrant, as long as your successful and you do things our [Britain’s] way…
Yeah that makes you a bit uncomfortable because you feel like you’re getting through on really false pretences. They don’t like ‘the other’ but they’ll make an exception for you because they think you are alright, so you’re always in these difficult positions, which are to do with identification.
TF: You have always explored many different types of personal dynamics in your work, even those which are considered controversial. The Mother and Venus being just two examples. There is no ‘vaseline on the camera lens’ with you, no rose tinted spectacles and I think sometimes that is why people found your work quite confronting when in fact if they delved a bit deeper they’d see it’s more complex than that.
Yes that really interests me. The complexity. During my film called My Son The Fanatic, which deals with some fairly controversial topics at the time, I worked with Harvey Weinstein. The thing about Weinstein for instance was that he enjoyed people suffering. He wanted to frighten people, he wanted you to be frightened of him. He was really abusive to me and he called me a c**t on several occasions. He bought the film and refused to release in the US for quite a long time because he wanted me to recut it, change the title, do this and do that and then reshoot it. He wanted to make it more palatable for audiences. I refused. He was really abusive. Basically he wanted you to be terrified of him, whether you’re a man or a woman, for women it was worse in other ways of course, but he just wanted you to be scared of him.
TF: When you want to instil fear in people that says alot about your personality…
Something to do with his history there I think, something to do with the camps in some way, some terrible regurgitation of some horrible history of people being very very frightened, living out some awful scenario to do with the history of the 20th century. I don’t know everything about it, but it looked like that way to me. That kind of power is still a case in the media, I don’t mean necessarily individuals always bullying people but the system also bullies you. That’s what I’m talking about with the “Me Too” movement, you really have to go much further in terms of breaking down the systems of power and the individual agency.
TF: In the story Birdy Num Num you talk about the films of the sixties that you loved, then rejected because of racist caricatures, but how they bought you back round to find a connection with your father again.
Well you try and forget these people, these caricatures, they’re nothing to you, they are so far removed from you. But then they actually come back like an item in a dream. It comes right back into the middle of your world and haunts you. And it seemed to me to be the unconscious ideas of films like The Party and The Millionairess, I don’t know if the film makers ever thought about that. These characters are out there somewhere, the ‘other’ that people are so frightened of, then they come back into your world and you’ve got to take responsibility because they cause chaos and that’s quite an interesting idea. Certainly with the idea of the war on terror, foreign wars, it doesn’t matter where because then one day someone comes and blows up something in the centre of your town, and you realise that it has consequences that you can’t just push it to one side. So there’s more in those films of the sixties then they knew they were putting in. When I looked at those films again, they weren’t only just stupid racist caricatures, they were more complex. Sidney Poitier was the first black man to kiss a white woman on screen as far as I know. That was a big deal. In those days that was a horror for people, difficult to remember quite how horrified people were when they saw a black man or woman and a white woman kissing, people were genuinely horrified by the idea of all that.
TF: Finally I wanted to ask you about The Billionaire Comes To Supper, one of my other favourites from the book. You have said that the story is not actually about The Billionaire as a character, but the effect he has on the other characters and their relationships in the story.
I like that story because it’s about how the desire for money can corrupt you. You suddenly meet someone and you think ‘why haven’t I got that?’ and then you start going into spiralled thoughts about who you could be if you had all that money and you become resentful and envious. And with good reason, let’s say people have a flat down there in Brooke Green, which is an affluent area, and then suddenly they’re chucked out because of gentrification, and they have to move to a place that they don’t like. These are middle class people and they are really furious their world has changed and that really interested me. It didn’t seem to be just about envy, this is about political displacement and what’s happened to this city that people can’t live in anymore. But who can live here? Billionaires, multi millionaires, foreigners with money, people with big bank accounts. So it became not only about envy but political exclusion it’s not just about wanting to win the lottery as well. That story was an opportunity to think about real issues and also about the fantasy of what it would be like if I were rich? If I were what would I do?
TF: In the next 10 years where do you think London will be? The prices can’t continue to soar, will young people continue to live with their parents, is that going to change the whole country’s economics? If you can’t afford to even flat share with people, those communities we previously made aren’t going to be there anymore.
There’s just going to be kids with rich parents. In the 70’s London was a wild town, we could look for more or less anything. It was a wild time, it’s not like that now. The answer is there’s got to be a political solution, we’ve got to do something otherwise the whole of London will become a sort of gated community with a few rich people living there with their servants.
TF: If you think about it that way, how are people supposed to connect to others and make their own family unit [traditional or otherwise] or any other kind of independent unit/ relationship if people can’t afford to move on or out?
It’s a good question but it’s really an issue of whether capitalism can deliver anything to anybody anymore, you and me, certainly we grew up in a time when capitalism everyday gave you something new, we didn’t have a washing machine, we didn’t have a fridge, we didn’t have central heating, we didn’t even have a f**king bathroom, and then gradually we got all those things and thought capitalism was a great idea. My kids don’t like capitalism because it doesn’t give them anything. it’s not working for them anymore so they’re turning to the left. So if Boris Johnson, wants to make an argument for people voting for him or capitalism, the question really is what’s it going to do for them, that’s what they want to know. And why shouldn’t we try another system that actually gives you better health care, where you get better houses built. My kids also are in debt, £50,000 each, literally they’ve got debts 50 f**king grand each because they went to university and it’s unbelievable.
TF: How are they ever going to pay that off?
They’re never going to pay that off. How can they? Why would you do that to young people, so they’ve got debts, nowhere to live and no jobs, really so why would they not support the left? That seems to be the important question.
Photo courtesy of Keir Kureishi.
What Happened? is available now, published by Faber & Faber. The Good Immigrant is also available and available in all good bookshops.