'Keep me out of your novels': Hanif Kureishi's sister has had enough
Hanif Kureishi has made a habit of attacking relatives in print – and his latest book is noexception. It's time to stop, says the novelist's outraged sister, Yasmin Kureishi
Tuesday 04 March 2008
So there is a new novel out by my brother called Something to Tell You. I was, of course, relieved to learn from a recent review that the central character's sister wasn't based on me, but appears to be another family member. There is quite a bevy of us now – my mother and father in The Buddha of Suburbia; Uncle Omar, portrayed as an alcoholic in a bedsit in My Beautiful Laundrette, then lauded in Hanif's memoir, My Ear at his Heart; an ex-girlfriend, Sally, who renamed his film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid as "Hanif Gets Paid, Sally gets Exploited". A semi-autobiographical novel, Intimacy (1998) centred around a man leaving his wife and kids for a younger woman. Tracey Scoffield, his ex-partner ("the wife") was not impressed. She stated that the book wasn't a novel: "You may as well call it a fish." There are probably many more...
And then there is me... Ouch! The sister, Paula, in the film The Mother (2003) – a particularly spiteful portrayal, via an amazingly insipid, two-dimensional character. Perhaps the viciousness is not on a par with that dished out in Hanif's novel Intimacy; however, in a singularly nasty twist, Scoffield was the producer of the BBC film, and must presumably must known darn well what she was doing – must have known that my life was out there being assassinated in the cause of "art". Her apparent collusion with Hanif was not a dignified move.
Anyhow, in celluloid, there was my life at the time up on screen: single parent, teacher, a son, feckless boyfriend (well, one or two, though none of them went for my mother, nor were they Daniel Craig, who played the part in the film). And there was the writing group, though I wouldn't give my brother the satisfaction of burning my writing, as Paula did in the film. It made excruciating viewing. It was like he'd swallowed some of my life, then spat it back out. I got the video from my mother when I heard what the storyline was – mother screws the daughter's boyfriend. I knew the daughter was me.
I watched The Mother on a portable television (the smaller the screen the better). I watched it in two parts, over two evenings. After part one, I thought it couldn't get worse, but it did. It was kind of freaky to me, that someone so successful should seemingly feel that threatened by me, that obsessed.
And now it is happening again, in the form of cheap jibes. Hanif said in an interview in The Telegraph recently, where I was referred to as "an aspiring writer": "But you can always rely on her for a letter to a newspaper. That's the extent of her writing ability." So here I am again being slagged off.
It seems rather ironic that Hanif's latest book should centre on psychoanalysis, because I'm afraid I've always been his emotional dustbin. And now (perhaps because he doesn't speak to me) he's using the media to play out his game of bullying and intimidation. He only does "hate" with me, always has, always will; even when we were speaking, it was always there festering, like some psychotic cocktail. I'm surprised he hasn't resolved those issues around sibling rivalry with his analyst. Think Dorothy Rowe's sister and sadly you have my brother. The psychologist says in her book about sibling rivalry, My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend: "All siblings in a position similar to mine, and there are a great number of us, find ourselves in a power struggle where we are in double jeopardy: first, the ordinary power struggle between two siblings; second, the undeserved revenge for something which we had been powerless to prevent." Put this together with my brother's access to the media, his ruthlessness and my powerlessness, and I'm in an awful position.
As for the "aspiring writer" tag, it's the first I've heard of it. It is hard to resist the allure of the Biro if you've been brought up by someone like my father. Hanif should know. His lure was potent. He was the father who sat me on his knee when I was four or five and read Oscar Wilde stories to me. For my birthday he used to give me novels by Jean Rhys, Balzac, Camus. He introduced me to RK Narayan, Thackeray, Rabindranath Tagore and Dickens... These are truly great gifts. And he never stopped encouraging me to write, though my resistance was often formidable.
I have written "stuff" from time to time. But I'm not aspiring – I write, sometimes, between looking after my three-year-old twins, nagging my 19-year-old, working as a teacher, doing the washing and so on. Perhaps I'm doing a bit more lately. And big brother doesn't like it. How pathetic. He isn't entitled to sole ownership of the Biro. Nor should he expect to be able to just trample over others like a greedy shopper at the first day of the sales, rifling though the gear for the best bargains to enhance his own image. I'm sorry, but that isn't art.
Oddly enough, my brother seems always to have loathed the idea of me writing. I remember a few years ago, after my father died, I'd won a competition for a play I wrote, and Hanif told me I should give up writing. I've always felt that he can't stand the thought that I might be any good, might be better than him.
Germaine Greer said recently: "It's getting harder and harder to be a real person. You used to have to die before assorted hacks started munching your remains and modelling a new version of you out of their own excreta." You don't even have to be famous these days.
I would have liked not to have written this, to be able to get on in my own way with my own life, but I know the insults, the remarks, will keep coming. I don't want to be seen as "good" in the preachy sense. I do believe that writers should be able to take from their experiences. But I don't think they should use their "art" to be malicious, or to settle scores, or to rewrite history without any regard for others. That is simply an abuse of privilege.
Hanif Kureishi's 'Something to Tell You', out on Thursday, is published by Faber and Faber, priced £16.99
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