Hanif Kureishi: 'We're all mixed-race now
Immigration, Islamism, multi-culturalism – as his new collected stories attests, the hottest topics of the day have long been the bedrock of Hanif Kureishi’s fiction. Just don't get him started on the joys of 'Big Brother'...
Sunday 28 February 2010
Hanif Kureishi is, by some accounts, a hard man to interview. In the days before our meeting, any number of people insist that the author of My Beautiful Laundrette, The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album is cantankerous, sarcastic and prone to lengthy lacunae in the middle of conversation. This portrait is corroborated by some of those closest to Kureishi: his sister and more than one ex-partner have complained of literary parasitism, that their lives have been exploited in the service of Kureishi's art. It is a charge that he doesn't exactly refute: "If [your writing] doesn't upset your family, you must be doing it wrong."
Perhaps the problem is that no one got him on to the subject of Celebrity Big Brother. This not only sparks his enthusiasm, it proves that Kureishi speaks like he writes – an entertaining mix of irreverent humour, personal revelation and social critique. So a relatively grave discussion about "the psychotic exhibitionism of our time" (or "the age of Jordan") triggers a lengthy dissection of the recent reality series.
"My missus says Jordan chooses really nice men then destroys them. It seems a good way to pass the time. The cage-fighter [Alex Reid] is a nice bloke – thick, but nice. Unlike Vinnie [Jones]. He was quite hardcore – a naughty, tough daddy. I think Vinnie had an evil edge. People were afraid of him."
Of equal interest was Stephen Baldwin's perpetual Christian sermonising. "He was really far out. We don't get hardcore evangelicals over here, so you are either very impressed by the authenticity and religious devotion or you think he is absolutely delusional, which in my opinion he probably was."
In typical fashion, this light-hearted meditation leads to more considered contemplation – about the force of fundamentalist Islam. "It's odd that we would be shocked by people believing things with so much fervency or conviction. We sit around and chat. They will die for things. You wouldn't die for Tony Blair." Kureishi pauses. "Maybe for Jack Straw."
We talk at a regular haunt of the writer's, the Café Rouge near Kureishi's west London home. Now 55, middle age suits him, lending a certain louche grandeur, a touch of elegantly wasted charm. "My heart always leaps a bit at the words 'lingerie model'," he confesses during a digression about the travails of John Terry.
With a scarf knotted rakishly around his neck, Kureishi looks every inch the successful and content man of letters. Not that he always sounds like one. "I've been thinking a lot lately," he announces, "about what a waste of time it is." The "it" in question is writing, something that is both a blessing and a curse.
"You sort of rebel when you sit down [to write]. You feel anger and boredom and the stupidity of what you are doing. It's like my dad's making me go to work, or my kids asking, 'Who invented homework?' Then you quieten down and become interested. You realise you do it because you want to. It is the waste of time that makes it possible."
Kureishi's latest time-waster is Collected Stories. At 670 pages, it offers a condensed review of his career, comprising three previous collections (Love in a Blue Time, Midnight All Day and The Body) alongside eight new or newish stories. Given that he is evidently still breathing and hard at work (he is also adapting Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger for the cinema), I ask whether the idea of a Collected Stories is slightly strange.
"It rather put me off," Kureishi agrees. "It sounds as though I was dead. As soon as I saw it, I wrote some new [stories] straight after – two or three pages each. As you get older, you want economy. I don't want to start writing now and maybe publish in five years. Salman [Rushdie] does that. I can't bear it. I want to say it, throw it away and write something else."
This new burst of creativity broke something of a barren spell that followed Kureishi's 2008 novel, Something to Tell You. The drought was severe enough for him to wonder whether he had become jaded with writing full-stop. "I thought that for ages; then I realised the book I was working on simply wasn't very good. Every day I went to my desk, bored out of my mind. I had a set of characters; they did stuff. Eventually I saw it was hopeless and started again. I've rather perked up since then."
The result is an impressively varied selection of stories about family and the credit crisis ("The Decline of the West"), nightmares and violence ("The Dogs"), parents, time and ageing ("Long Ago Yesterday"). There is a tender tale of middle-aged schadenfreude ("The Terrible Story") and the blackest of black comedies ("Weddings and Beheadings"). A radio-play adaptation of the latter, a deceptively cheerful portrayal of a cameraman forced to film decapitations, was effectively censored by the BBC, in Kureishi's mind, in 2007. "[Radio 4] refused to broadcast it after the cameraman Alan Johnston was caught in Gaza. Really nice bloke. I met him recently. The BBC was worried he was going to be beheaded and handled the situation in a typically cack-handed way – 'If you knew what we know.' Blair always says that. 'If you knew what I know, you would fucking invade Iraq, Iran, North Korea, South Korea... everywhere.'"
I ask about the older stories – characteristically heady brews of sex, race, politics, art and the pleasurable derangement of the senses. Kureishi claims to have forgotten most of them ever existed. He certainly hasn't re-read them. "I would be horrified that I had wasted my time or been stupid. Or that there was something in them that was really good that I couldn't do now."
What he does remember is the urgency to become a writer. Growing up in Bromley in the 1960s, surrounded by racist teachers, skinheads and the National Front, it was his means to self-expression and political empowerment. "Being a writer was a counter-force to people saying I was a half-caste, a Paki, a mongrel. It was a real thing in the world, an identity. I needed to call myself a writer back then because they were calling me a fucking Paki." He pauses. "We are all mixed-race now – me, Obama, Tiger Woods, Lewis Hamilton."
Kureishi says he was fortunate that the themes which distinguished his seminal works – race, immigration, Islam and multi-culturalism – have so profoundly defined 21st-century global culture. "You are lucky if you hit it for five years. I suddenly saw that the story of my father, a Muslim man coming to Britain, was not only his story, it was the story of the West. It was gold dust. No one else was writing about it, and people didn't welcome it. 'This is very good, Hanif, but do they have to be Indian in a cornershop?'"
Twenty years after The Buddha of Suburbia helped change the landscape of British fiction, and society, Kureishi continues to have plenty to say. He is certainly still politically engaged and enraged. "My dad's family always thought that power rendered white people unsophisticated. Look at the stupidity of invading Iraq. Every Muslim would think that was hilarious stupidity. It has destroyed American power in the world. They aren't going to invade anywhere else now. The Iranians aren't afraid of them. The Koreans aren't afraid. How stupid was that strategically, let alone morally? They have, as it were, shot their bolt."
He can still be wild, albeit after a more domestic fashion. "I still experiment with drugs," he says, before offering an ode to Ritalin. "You can work for ages, clean your house... anything. You can't believe they give it to children. You are as high as a kite, completely smashed. I took two Ritalin pills the other day, and ran around Tesco dancing."
Yet his imagination is more controlled and efficient now, shaped by his family (he is married with a son, and has twins from a previous relationship) and the challenges of growing older. "My kids aren't alienated. Older people are alienated. The whole world is built to satisfy teenagers. My children aren't bored, they've got too much to do: they do their homework, they're on the phone, on Facebook, watching TV, listening to their iPod. We were sitting at the bus shelter, bored."
Age does carry its fair share of terrors, of which death is a central part – "I think about it every day. If you are intelligent, after the age of 45, you would think about it all the time" – but there are compensations too, in life and art alike. "I was in the kitchen this morning," he says, "and I thought, 'I'm really glad I have been a writer because I can just take it easy.' I have done 30 years. I don't have to get up and make myself into a writer. I would rather be with the kids than write, any day. I can do whatever I fucking like."
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