HANIF KUREISHI: Talking love, racism and middle age with the bad boy of English literature

Writer Hanif Kureishi speaks at a Q&A during the 6th International Rome Film Festival in this file photo dated Nov. 2, 2011 in Rome, Italy. Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

CATHY GALVIN
THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH

“Love,” says Hanif Kureishi, “is the only game in town.”

We meet in the unpretentious cafe near his west London home where he likes to watch the world go by. He’s serious, open, but with a hint of shyness; his eyes look away as he answers questions. Perhaps it’s his age (he’s 58 this month); perhaps it’s the result of regular therapy sessions; perhaps it’s the inevitable culmination of a body of work – novels, short stories and essays, plays and screenplays – that extends from the Eighties to today. Whatever it is, all conversational roads lead to passion.

Of course, Kureishi, who is handsome, and delivers his points emphatically, with a deadpan expression, has never really shied away from the subject of relationships. This is the writer who once shocked us with a homosexual kiss between a Pakistani and a white skinhead in the Oscar-nominated film “My Beautiful Laundrette” and depicted an emerging multicultural Britain that was raw, druggy and promiscuous in his novel, “The Buddha of Suburbia.”

But he is now convinced it’s love, not sex, that has the power to change perceptions.

Those early works skewered racism in much the way that class prejudice was exposed by a generation of “angry young men” writers like John Osborne in the Fifties. “The Buddha of Suburbia” in particular seeped into popular consciousness as the risque, must-watch TV series of 1993, capturing all the tensions and energy of Thatcherite Britain. Sex was used as a vehicle for exploring broader freedoms.

“Now sex has become cheapened,” says Kureishi. “Sexual acts are turned into popular literature like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ You can find sex anytime, anywhere if you want – it’s not difficult, but having a real relationship with someone that is profound and significant and life-changing is far more dangerous than an act of copulation.”

Danger interests Kureishi.

In the past he’s been castigated for stripping the sexual act of tenderness, and for ruthlessly exploiting the lives of those close to him for his work.
Intimate dialogues between characters are often shockingly cold.

“People don’t really speak like that,” he shrugs. “It’s about finding a vehicle for ideas.”

Kureishi, who has a CBE for services to literature, and once said a writer should be a terrorist and not a masseur, can appear aloof. When I ask if he laughs much, he snaps back, “I don’t want to waste my time laughing.”

Yet there’s a playfulness within this, evident too in the black humour of his writing, and his genuine fascination with other people’s lives.

His seriousness is balanced by sociability. Some of his friends – Stephen Frears, Lord Matthew Evans – are influential. Others not remotely so. They meet to gossip.

“I love the papers and I love rubbish. Anna Karenina is just a story about a woman falling in love with a bloke who is not her husband. It’s gossip, rubbish – on the other hand, it’s the deepest story there could be about social transgression, about love, betrayal, duty, children. Gossip about Jimmy Savile is also about abuse, authority, power, voices, democracy, freedom.”

In middle age, he’s still restless. Why?

‘Limit on time now’

“There is a limit on time now. The clock is really ticking and you need to f—ing get on with it. When you get to middle age, the circumstances just get difficult but despite that you have to grasp some happiness and that might seem very selfish.”

It’s a theme played out in his latest film, “Le Weekend,” starring Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent, which is being shot in Paris. In it, a couple in their sixties return to the city for the first time since their honeymoon, to try to mend their failing marriage.

“It’s about the most important things in the world. Who we love, what they mean to us and how we talk about the past,” he says. Has writing it allowed him to rehearse concerns close to his own heart? “Yes. What does one want at this age… how should we love? These questions don’t go away.”

Kureishi’s early work was rooted in a desire for political change: Left-wing, feminist and anti-racist. He grew up in the suburbs of Bromley, the son of a Pakistani father and English mother and was aware of being “a lost boy, an Asian kid living in a white area in a white time in Britain”.

Screenwriter Hanif Kureishi. Mark Mainz/Getty Images for AFI

Talking about racism as a concept is easy for him: it’s far harder to discuss its personal impacts. His strong voice falters: “I remember when I first went to school, I must have been four or five years old… it’s very choking. In a sense those wounds never heal and nor should they. It was just the usual remarks and then you go home to Mum and you say, why are they talking to me like that. It’s really working out the consequences of that and what they mean. It takes a long time.”

Today, he says, Britain has changed and deals with racism well. It struck him just how much on a recent visit to Germany: “People there say to you, are you really English? And you think, what the f— are you talking about, how dare you talk to me like that? No one here asks you questions like that anymore. I realised in the Seventies that these ideas were wrong and they had to change. It wasn’t me who had to change.”

Confronting persecution is also explored in a powerful new short story, This Door Is Shut – written, Kureishi says, “in shock,” following a recent return to Pakistan after 20 years at the invitation of the British Council. He describes his central character, Farhana, as an amalgam of people he’s met and himself. She flees Pakistan for Paris following the murder of her husband, a leading military figure, by the Taliban. The story exposes the terror of contemporary life in Karachi: the fear on the streets, the destructive decadence behind closed doors and the casual abuse of the weak.
The protagonist’s son has a penchant for raping young servant girls and sending them off for abortions and at one point, arranges for his servants to be tortured.

On his visit to Karachi, Kureishi was appalled to be given a bodyguard: “It’s a wild place and most people on the street are armed or have security.” There are few of his relatives left there now, he says, “just the old and those who couldn’t get away.” The cousins he played with as a child are mostly educated professionals who did escape: “The corporation is now their state, their home – the international floating class.”

The change struck him deeply: “I remembered being in Karachi in the Eighties and the liberalism my family lived under then was much under threat,” he says. “Now it’s completely gone. There are no Jews, Christians or Hindus. There are no Chinese restaurants. It has a terrible dead fascist atmosphere.

“In the Eighties you used to see women walking around in summer dresses, going to cafes. Now, all the women are heavily covered and not only because they are religious but for fear of being picked up by men. It’s a very frightened place. No one would live there out of choice.”
Does he understand what’s causing this moral vacuum? “It’s not a moral vacuum. It’s too much morality – the morality of the Taliban and the religious Right. It’s a morality that makes an immorality. I have a friend who was in a hospital where 12-year-old girls were giving birth because they had been married off to older men. It’s deeply shocking.”

‘Battles haven’t been won’

Some of his concern is closer to home: “I think feminism really let women down in most of the Third World countries. In the West it became very complacent… women and their hair and their handbags and their jobs and their kids but they gave up on real solidarity and notions of equality. We replaced equality with multiculturalism.”

Is he angry with Western women? “The struggle isn’t over. That’s what I am saying. The battles haven’t been won.”

Six years before 9/11, Kureishi had already begun exploring the rise of Islamic extremism in this country, in his novel (and subsequent play) The Black Album. Set in 1989 – the year that the fatwa was declared against his friend and hero Salman Rushdie – it depicts a young, British-born Pakistani being torn apart by his two identities.

“You can buy my books in Pakistan but you still can’t buy Rushdie,” he comments now. Then came Kureishi’s short stories and films My Son The Fanatic and Weddings and Beheadings, the latter about a fictional Iraqi film-maker forced to document hostage decapitations. Yet he says he’s never felt under threat himself.

A scene from My Beautiful Laundrette, directed by Stephen Frears and written by Hanif Kureishi. Submitted photo

“I’m irrelevant. All over the world there are writers and artists who are being suppressed, who are in prison. Here we’re in a bubble.”

His heroine in This Door Is Shut wants to believe that good people can improve their lives, even against the odds. Does he believe this?

“There are emotional beliefs I guess, the belief that you are capable of love, or capable of being loved. When you get older, when your physical virtues break down, the possibility of love increases.”

Is that how he sees his life?

“It seems to me that that has to be the basis of anybody’s life – to seek to make relationships with other people, yes.”

Kureishi’s struggles with relationships have been well-documented. His 1998 novella, Intimacy, distilled the savagely cold musings of a middle-aged writer preparing to abandon his wife and children. It was published as his partnership with Tracey Scoffield, the mother of his twin boys, Sachin and Carlo – who are now studying philosophy at university – fell apart, and attracted widespread hostility for its seeming betrayal of marital secrets.

He is estranged from his sister Yasmin, who has accused him of misrepresenting their family in his fiction “for the entertainment of the public or for Hanif’s profit.”

He doesn’t discuss his current relationship with Monique Proudlove, with whom he has a 15-year-old son, Kier.

But at the core of his life, as described in his memoir, My Ear at His Heart, is Kureishi’s relationship with his father, Rafiushan, who died in 1991.

The Kureishis had been rich and influential, fleeing from India to Pakistan following partition. His father settled in Kent, working as a clerk, struggling and failing to become a writer. He speaks less about his mother, Audrey.

“Mum’s a much more liberating figure in my life than my father. She thought we should leave home and have sex and live freely… a human view of how people should live, whereas my father didn’t want us to leave home. He’d given up a past to come to Britain and once he was here, he didn’t want to lose his family and sit in Bromley on his own.”

‘Failed artists’

He describes both parents as “failed artists” – his mother gave up her ambitions to be a painter when she married – but admits it was his father’s failure, in particular, “that was very painful in the family. We saw a man really struggling who carried on doing something, and a man who punished himself, so it was a double message.”

This failure at times spilt over into jealousy – Kureishi even had to endure his father flicking v-signs at him as he sat watching his son’s first play at the Royal Court. What radiates in conversation, however, is a profound love between father and son.

“The way you think about your parents and their meaning to you changes all the time. It’s not a monument, it’s not done… memory is a river. He was a very needy dad. He was always a stranger in England in a way I never was. I’m very fond of my dad. Still am.”

The narrator of his novel, Something To Tell You, is a psychoanalyst, and therapy is very much part of Kureishi’s routine.

“It’s a space where, once or twice a week, I can have very involved conversations about things that really matter to me – life, family, ambition, work, sexuality, children.”

What have been the most painful – and helpful – elements of therapy for him?

“They’re the same thing. The speaking is the most difficult thing in therapy and it’s the most liberating thing.”
Kureishi clearly adores his three sons, and at one point he tells me he would be ashamed if he failed in his duty as a father. So has he ever felt shame?

“It’s a very good indicator, like anger. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”

And does psychotherapy help him deal with it?
“It’s the realisation that you are going to have to live in the future,” he says. “You can’t spend your life beating yourself up for something that happened yesterday. You die if you don’t follow your desire.”

There are, however, some things that can’t be spoken. I ask whether there’s anything in his own life he would want to change. There is a drawn-out pause. “Yes. Lots of things. But I’m not going to tell you what they are.”

Hanif Kureishi’s story, ‘This Door is Shut’, appears in ‘Red: The Waterstones Anthology,’ available from www.waterstones.com

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