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'...

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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition