Family at war
Emotions are running high in the Kureishi household over novelist Hanif's depiction of his parents. David Lister sorts out the facts from the friction
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Friday 08 May 1998
Salman Rushdie once wrote how he "had the feeling of growing up in quite a philistine house ... my father bought a library, he went out and bought someone else's". Au contraire, responded his baffled sister Sameen, telling the writer Ian Hamilton, in a new collection of essays, that their father "was in his field a very learned man. People would come to him as an authority." Then there is Shine pianist David Helfgott, chronicling in the Oscar- winning film how he was abused and terrorised by his father. Surely some mistake, chirped up his sister indignantly. Their late father lived on in her memory as a kind and doting parent.
And yesterday came the biggest celebrity sibling fall-out yet. It followed an interview in the Guardian with novelist and filmmaker Hanif Kureishi. His new book Intimacy, just like his acclaimed former novel and TV adaptation The Buddha Of Suburbia, is loosely based on his own life. No. Correction. They are loosely based on his account of his own life. He told the interviewer how he had lived in a two-up, two-down in the London borough of Bromley with his younger sister Yasmin, their parents and, not infrequently, grandfather, too, whom he describes as "cloth cap, working-class". Ah, he sighs, "When you are older and you go back, you think 'How did we ever live here?'"
Quite easily. And quite happily, retorts his sister. In a letter to the same paper yesterday, she delivers a full-frontal invective against her famous older brother. Even by the standards of family rows, this turns out to be strong stuff. Hanif, she implies - no, she states - has falsified their family history to make (yet more) money. She writes: "Does being famous mean you can devalue those around you and rewrite history for even more personal gain? In the article written about my brother, he has sold his family down the line ... We lived in a pleasant semi, down a quiet cul- de-sac in Bromley. My grandfather was not a "cloth cap, working-class" person. He owned three shops locally and he was a kind, warm man."
Auberon Waugh, editor of The Literary Review, yesterday suggested that Yasmin had failed to develop the prerequisite of being a novelist's sibling, an extremely thick skin. But there is more to the Hanif/Yasmin falling out than damaged sensitivities. It is a perfect illustration of how the one group of people not prepared to mark the distinction between fiction and biography can be the novelist's own family. It is also an illustration of how celebrities can skillfully employ language to make their past life sound more fashionable, more interesting, more tortured, and how that version of history can hurt their family.
Hanif told the Guardian that his mother had a little job "as they were called at that time", working in a shoe factory, frustrated by her dependence on her husband. Not so, says Yasmin: "My mother never worked in a shoe factory [there are no shoe factories in Bromley]. She had several part- time jobs in the beginning, one of which was working for about three months in Russell and Bromley to help pay my school fees, as I went to a ballet school. My mother, after she left school, went to art college until the age of 21; she is an intelligent, articulate and not uncultured person. I am deeply saddened that it should come to this because I have felt so proud of Hanif and his achievements and have followed his success closely."
But Yasmin's real anger, it is clear, is about her brother's recollections of their father. She movingly declares: "The memory of my father I hold very dear and I will do anything in my power to ensure that it is not fabricated for the entertainment of the public or for Hanif's profit, and that the feelings of my mother and I are not hurt more than they have been already."
But examining Hanif's original interview, this cri de coeur from Yasmin appears a little bewildering. Hanif does not damn the memory of his father. On the contrary, he recalls how his father encouraged him to be a writer. The interviewer notes how Hanif will only speak of his father in the most courteous and loving way. "For me in particular," says Hanif, "he was very devoted." That, interestingly, was a sentence that really stung Yasmin. She retorts: "He certainly wasn't 'particularly devoted to him'. He loved us all equally." Did Hanif stop to think when praising his father by boasting of a uniquely close relationship that his sister might be jealous of that claim?
Yasmin goes on to reveal the pain The Buddha of Suburbia caused to her father, who died five years ago. "He felt that Hanif had robbed him of his dignity and he didn't speak to Hanif for about a year. The description of my father at the end of his life as a 'bitter man' is grossly and cruelly exaggerated. My father led a full and active life. He had his grandson, whom he adored, he had me close by and we used to talk for hours in the garden about writing and life."
Actually, Hanif at no point describes his father as "bitter". True, he paints a picture of his father as a frustrated man. But The Buddha Of Suburbia's hippyish father figure, who leaves the family home to run off with the exciting Eva, is clearly unlike Kureishi's own father. One could argue that Kureishi is partly using the novel to explore the concept of a father following his desire and not accepting compromise.
Kureishi's new novel, Intimacy, is indeed about a man who does follow his desires and leaves his family, as Hanif has in real life. But to hold a novelist to account for literary explorations of philosophical concepts seems wrong. Yet that is the crucial point here. The novelist's family understandably cannot always make the imaginative leap from a character loosely based on a beloved parent to a fictional character used to explore ideas. Hanif Kureishi has failed to realise that his novels like his exaggerated reminiscences for publicity purposes can hurt his family.
Rarely has someone expressed that profound hurt as directly and poignantly as Kureishi's sister Yasmin. And if Hanif Kureishi feels today that these are family matters that should remain private, he will not miss the irony that it was he who repeatedly made them public.
A novel, a film, an interview, a chat show reminiscence: they all impinge on the family who shared that life. Yasmin Kureishi has answered back. Henceforth, writers will be more likely to think of their sisters before sounding off.
A slice of life
From 'The Buddha of Suburbia'
First published in 1990, the novel tells the story of an adolescent boy, dismayed by the departure of his father who leaves his family to run off with another woman
DAD HAD been in Britain since 1950 - over 20 years - and for fifteen of those years he'd lived in the south London suburbs. Yet still he stumbled around the place like an Indian just off the boat, and asked questions like, "Is Dover in Kent..?"
But his naivete made people protective, and women were drawn by his innocence. They wanted to wrap their arms around him or something, so lost and boyish did he look at times.
Not that this was entirely uncontrived, or unexploited. When I was small and the two of us sat in Lyon's Cornerhouse drinking milkshakes, he'd send me like a messenger pigeon to women at other tables and have me announce, "My daddy wants to give you a kiss."
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