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Hanif Kureishi on the couch

Race, family and sexuality are the big themes of Hanif Kureishi's era-defining fiction – but he also stands accused of misogyny and exploitation. Unapologetic, he tells Johann Hari about psychoanalysis, fundamentalism, and losing his virginity

Monday 02 February 2009 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Hanif Kureishi is embarked on an experiment. "I am determined," he says with an expressionless stare, "to live without illusions. I want to look at reality straight. Without hiding. No more bullshit."

Ever since I read his first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, I have imagined Kureishi to be a living version of the novel's protagonist, Karim. He is a beautiful mixed-race boy from the suburbs, determined to dream and shag and saunter his way to the big city. But what, I always wondered, happens when the Buddha of Suburbia sags into late middle age? Where did Karim go? Over the years I had heard depressing rumours about Kureishi – that his story dissolved into the success-cliché of hard partying and hard drugs, and he ended up half-mad and suicidal and scribbling nasty novellas about his ex-wife.

When he walks into Café Rouge in Shepherd's Bush, those stories deflate with a small hiss. Here is a slim, short 54-year-old with a lingering, raddled handsomeness. At first glance, he looks like a vaguely trendy north London GP. He greets me with an emotionless voice – as if asking about my symptoms – and we sit in the corner and coolly order coffee.

And then the therapy session begins. He almost immediately announces his new mission to discard the illusions that clutter our minds – and his method is psychoanalysis. It is the subject of his new novel, Something To Tell You, and of his life. Three times a week, Kureishi lies on a couch and tries dispassionately to understand the workings of his subconscious. "It has stopped me doing things that are mad and stupid and self-destructive," he says. "You don't just lie there. It's not a narcissistic bath. It's quite violent. It's about how your sexuality and your aggression are destructive. Your dreams show you that. The rest is just surface."

At first, this commitment to a bonfire of illusions sounded, to me, like a conceit – a fancy self-dramatising illusion itself. But as we spoke for hours, he emptied his discarded delusions on to the table one by one, and dismantled them. He admits: yes, I was suicidal and paranoid. Yes, my "semi-broken" father hated me, even as he loved me and tried to make me into a replica of him. Yes, I hated my grandparents' Islam, with its Holy Book bearing "a threat on every page". Yes, I reacted to the Paki-bashing of my youth by internalising racism, and wishing my brown skin away. Yes, male sexuality is cold and dark and has nothing to do with love.

He says it all in an affectless voice, as if he is discussing how to fix a car engine. And yes, it is a voice without illusions.

I. "We all carry a body in our cargo"

You cannot interview Hanif Kureishi alone. He is always accompanied by the spectre of his father, Rafiushan Kureishi. "If you think the living are difficult to deal with, the dead can be worse," one of his characters says. His father pushes his way into Kureishi's conversation punctually, at least once every five minutes. "Yeah, I think about my dad every day. The whole time," he says. "I still want to be like him, and I still hope one day to coincide with him... Sometimes, I think I go to my desk only to obey my father."

Rafiushan washed up in the white English suburbs of the 1950s, determined to be a writer. It was his only way of overcoming "his sense of defeat" – yet he failed at it. He had been born in colonial Bombay into a wealthy family, and went to school with Zulfiqar Bhutto, who became Pakistan's prime minister and patriarch. But the family lost everything during partition and fled to the newly created Pakistan – so Rafiushan was scattered in his early twenties to the imperial mother-country. He never went home again. Instead, he toiled in "suburban semi-sleep" in south London, as Hanif puts it, working as a clerk at the Pakistani embassy, and writing novels every night that were never published.

"He seemed to be living his life in the negative, as though there was someone bad inside him," Hanif says. He transmitted his failed ambition to his son – but when his son succeeded, part of him was enraged and affronted. When Hanif first had a play performed at the Royal Court in his early twenties, his father sat in the back row, flicking V-signs. How did he feel? He won't say; he instead empathises with his father. "It was really difficult for him," Hanif says. "He came to Britain from India in his twenties and I think it traumatised him. He never saw his mother again. He found it very difficult to be in England, because if you were an Indian then, people on the whole thought you were inferior... My father was much patronised. He came from a very distinguished family, but he was seen as a Paki the whole time."

Their relationship was "riddled with Oedipus complexes", Hanif says now. His father was sick throughout Hanif's childhood, and he became terrified his rage would kill his father. "During most of my teenage years he was ill and weak and vulnerable. You couldn't really argue with him without thinking – my God, I'm going to kill him. What you want is a father who you can argue with. My sons and I" – he has three – "have huge fights, and it's good for us all. It's rather invigorating. We can have these huge fights and I'm there the next day. With my father, I was worried I would kill him with my strength or with my talent or intelligence or whatever. You wonder who is the parent and who is the child."

On his own 21st birthday, Hanif believed – for a time – that he came close to killing his father. He took out a girl he liked and finally had sex with her – while, at that exact moment, his father was having a heart attack. He became convinced the two were not a coincidence, and concluded: "I knew that wherever I went and whatever I did, he was, like God, always watching and condemning."

His death in 1991 didn't stop the condemnations. Kureishi likes the Ibsen line: "We carry a body in our cargo." I ask him what his father would make of him now, and his voice becomes varied in tone and louder for the first time in the interview. He smiles broadly. "He could still be alive. He'd be in his late eighties." But all he can name that his father would like is his grandchildren. "He would be very proud of my boys," he says. Returning to his expressionless stare, he says we are all "recovering children".

Hanif has often tried to write a short story about a man who, on his 50th birthday, goes into a pub and meets his father, who is also 50. They sit together as equals for the first time. But when Hanif tries to write it, the dialogue never comes. A dialogue between equals with his dad remains impossible, even in his imagination. His father is still standing over and above him, always superior, always angry.

II. Souls lost in translation

They started to burn Hanif Kureishi – and attack him with chisels – when he was 13 years old. He was one of a tiny number of mixed-race kids in the distant suburbs of south London, so at his school gangs of white kids would lock him in the metalwork shop and sear into his flesh, or shut him in the woodwork shop and stab at him. They called him a "Paki". "Had I stayed on," he says, "I might have been destroyed by racism."

He wasn't just marked on his skin; he was splintered within. "You walk down the street and people say to you all the time – where are you from? Yeah, but where are you really from? You sound like us, but you're not one of us, are you? Being attacked, being beaten up, being spat on – it happened the whole time. [I had a] girlfriend who said – you can't come round tonight, if my dad sees a fucking Paki sitting at the dining room table he'll do his fucking nut."

Kureishi was sunk in a dilemma faced by so many children of immigrants: second generation blues, where you don't belong in your father's country, but you aren't accepted in the country where you were born either. When he went to Pakistan, people laughed out loud when he said he was English – but they also said he would never belong with them. "One man said to me, 'We are Pakistanis, but you will always be a Paki.'"

Today, European Islamists are reacting to the same alienation. They are, Kureishi says, "souls lost in translation" – at home nowhere. So they seek to build a pure identity for themselves in a Puritan religious fanaticism based on Medina in the seventh century.

Kureishi reacted very differently. At first, he fantasised about eradicating the Asian part of himself. "From the start I wanted to deny my Pakistani self," he says. "I was ashamed. It was a curse and I wanted to be rid of it... [It was] a desire to be like other people. I thought – everywhere I go, people think: there's a Paki. They don't think: there's John Smith. There's a Paki."

His mother was white, so he lived on a racial fault-line where this was possible, for a while. He was sometimes accepted by white gangs as one of them. "My friends at school used to say to me, 'We're going out Paki-bashing tonight, do you want to come with us?' And I knew my dad would be walking home from work, and they might beat him up." They didn't see the contradiction? "No. They'd say, 'You're one of us.'" How did he feel? "I thought – what the hell's going on here?"

But as he dropped out of school and skidded around on the dole, Hanif began to deal with this dissonance by discarding his self-hate and turning to art. "I used my creativity to put together all these things I couldn't put together in the world. I wrote a screenplay [My Beautiful Laundrette] about a skinhead and a Pakistani boy running a launderette together, and they were in love. So you create a unity." At the same time, he began to be wooed by the best values of his mother's country. He became a "hippie socialist kid", he says, "obsessed with sexual freedom and novels and making social change. We thought all of us – black people and gay people and feminists – were part of the same fight."

Islamists react in the opposite way – with a fierce suppression of creativity and freedom. Kureishi discovered this for himself in the early 1990s, when most of us were living in the fiction of a friction-free future. His father had died, and for the first time in his life he began to go to mosque. "I felt that... I would lose touch with what was Muslim in me." His father had never been a believer: he was repelled by memories of being beaten for failing to rote-learn the Koran. "In place of a discarded Islam, he made a religion at home out of library books," Kureishi says. His prophets were Chekhov and Dostoevsky – but he had a vague cultural attachment to the symbols and rituals of Islam nonetheless. "It wasn't belief I was looking for. I already believed in culture and love as the only possible salvation. I think I was looking for solidarity."

Instead, he found "a cult of hate". He says: "The mosques in those days were extraordinary – you'd have these flamboyant preachers walking up and down making incredibly inflammatory speeches. I would hear the most rancid rants about women, gays, the West, liberalism." He was bemused to see the rich rhetoric of liberation end "on its knees, in prayer. Having started to look for itself, it finds itself... in the eighth century."

He would leave the mosque in revulsion, and head to the nearest pub to down pints and "remind myself I was actually in England". He wrote the first real imaginative exploration of English jihadis, The Black Album – a remarkable novel about the London attacks of 7 July 2005, published eight years before the bombs exploded. It follows a group of young Muslim men who prefigure Mohammad Sidique Khan.

They were reacting to the same doubt and divisions Kureishi felt – but with violent illusions. "Fundamentalism provides security," he says. "Everything has been decided. Truth has been agreed and nothing must change... They put a lot of effort into fashioning a retributive God to which to submit." They love the fierce rules and restrictions on their behaviour, because "constraint is a bulwark against a self that was always in danger of dissolving". They are gluing their warring selves together with hate.

If he was a young man today, would he be tempted by this philosophy of jihadi-hate? "Oh God, no. No way. The jihadis would create a society nobody wants to live in, where women are enslaved and gay people are killed. I saw what happened to my uncles in Pakistan. They were journalists and they were thrown in prison for criticising this stuff. No. I was a hippie kid. I was never tempted by that."

He believes the only answer to this hatred is a "tough liberalism" that defends it values more fiercely – against both racists and Islamists. "You respect people who are different, but how do you live with those who are so different they lock up their wives?" The morning we met, he saw a woman in a burqa in his son's playground. "I wouldn't allow that. If I was a teacher, I would say – fucking take it off. I want to see somebody's face when I'm talking to her... Behind closed doors, you can wear anything you want. You can be a transvestite or wear a Nazi uniform or anything you want. But you can't go into a school playground wearing a Nazi uniform, and you shouldn't go in something that symbolises oppression of other people."

But he is equally repulsed by his former friend Martin Amis's notorious comments mooting the mass punishment of Muslims. It was "a psychotic paranoid vision... It's a madness. You have to look at this full on, but not in a paranoid way."

In the same sparse classroom in 1930s Bombay – under the threat of the cane – Kureishi's father learnt to be a secular humanist, and Zulfiqar Bhutto learnt to build an Islamic nationalism that, in the end, led his daughter to support the Taliban. They sat together, and worlds apart.

The country Bhutto helped to build terrifies Kureishi today. "All bad things in the world originate in Pakistan, in my view," he says. "It's in such a vulnerable place, between China, India and Iran, drawn on the map by some Britisher who was running for the boat... The only hope is for Pakistan to rejoin India. It was a mistake, a terrible idea – but that's impossible now."

The only way to build an identity – for any of us – is, he says, "to keep talking. You don't ever reach a conclusion – but it's the conversation that matters. Only when you stop talking honestly about what goes on inside human beings [does] evil happen in the silence."

III. "So innocent"

"We were so innocent," he says, remembering how he came to be nominated for an Oscar for writing My Beautiful Laundrette. He was 29, living in a council flat in west London, and he'd been on the dole for years, writing plays for the Royal Court. "After I heard the news, I went down to Oxfam and got a DJ [dinner jacket] on, and I got the bus down to Gatwick and went off to the Oscars. I sat next to Bette Davis and Dustin Hoffman, and all the studios send flowers to your hotel room" – he is speaking almost breathlessly now – "and it's just amazing. And then at the end you go back and you end up at Gatwick and you get on a bus back to West Ken and you think, 'Oh. This is miserable.'"

Suddenly glistening with success, he found that "a lot of people hate you and envy you. And it really affects a lot of your friendships – particularly with people that you've known for a long time. And I wasn't prepared for that at all. You know, not everybody thinks, 'What a lucky man! You're talented – you've done well.' A lot of people think, 'You cunt. Who the fuck do you think you are? Why has that happened to you?' Bitterness and hatred is absolutely – it's really disturbing, actually. It happened to all of us: it happened to Daniel Day-Lewis [who starred in the film], particularly."

"So I spent years drifting around the city – just taking drugs, fucking about, you know," he says, "doing whatever I wanted, with no real, substantial connections to other people... And so you can really begin to think that you don't believe in anything, that you're nobody, you have no connection. What's the point of your life – your world? And I had that feeling a lot."

He began to take drugs full-time, "as though I were trying to kill something, or bring something in myself to life". Coke, LSD, Ecstasy. "You use drugs and sexuality as a cure for depression – you crash, then you use again, and it's a cycle of stupidity." He began to have intermittent insane thoughts, "thinking people have been sent in cars to kill me".

It seems strange to be discussing this so casually in Café Rouge. He doesn't stop his disclosures as the waitress puts coffee down in front of us; she looks at us oddly. I feel like I am standing over an operating table, slicing a man open, and taking out various internal organs, while the patient lies there awake, calmly commenting on his kidneys and intestines.

He believes it is psychoanalysis that saved him. In the world of PET scans and ever-more-detailed understanding of the brain, it's fashionable to see the talking cure as a crude, unscientific leftover from early 20th-century Vienna. Kureishi scoffs. "As though only something scientific could improve your state of mind! That would be like saying to somebody who had read a novel by Dostoevsky and says, 'This has changed my life and had a profound effect on me,' that their view is unscientific. It misses the point. Psychoanalysis is more like poetry. It's more like literature in its deepest sense: this is where we think about who we are. It's not a mathematical thing."

Yes. But in his sessions on the couch, does he ever feel like the Woody Allen character in Sleeper who wakes up after being cryogenically frozen and says: "Oh God! I've missed 200 years of therapy appointments. I would have been nearly cured by now."? He laughs, but then looks slightly cross. "Psychoanalysis has never said that it would make anybody happy – that would be the most fatuous claim... Most analysts now would say, 'You're entitled to your symptoms. You don't want to get out of bed and go to work? I don't blame you.'"

The narrator of Something To Tell You is a psychoanalyst diving into his own murderous past. I try to talk about it, but Kureishi's evangelism keeps breaking through. "Freud's is the only ideology of the 20th century that isn't coercive. It has no ambition to turn you into anything, whereas all the other ideologies have an ideal for what a man should be. It's like philosophy, in the sense that it would enable you to think about the ends of your life, not about the means."

This stocktaking of his subconscious can make him seem blunt to the point of cruelty. He hasn't spoken to his little sister Yasmin in more than 10 years. She began to tell the newspapers that she hated his descriptions of their family, and they were "wrong". She says she has always been his "emotional dustbin" and "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."

As I read this out to him, he says without showing any emotion at all: "No, I don't speak to my sister." Do you miss her? "No." Do you think you will never speak to her again? "I don't know. It doesn't bother me." Really? "No. I have lots of good friendships." Were they close when they were children? "The older ones don't really notice the younger ones. There's just these kids running around and you get on with your life, and later on the younger one says, 'God, I've hated you all my life, you bullied me,' and the older ones say, 'I didn't notice you at all.'"

I sense there is more here so I keep up a scatter-gun of questions about her, and eventually he sighs: "There are big losses and little losses in a life, and she is a little loss. It obviously bothers you more than it bothers me." This sounds aggressive in print, but in the flesh it was said observationally. "Psychoanalysis," he says, "might teach you that you have the right to ignore people who are close to you."

IV. "Aggression is what sex is about"

One of the strangest aspects of Kureishi's work is how readily – how bluntly – his characters are prepared to sever intimate relationships and toss away the corpse. In 1998, he wrote a novel called Intimacy about a man who is leaving his wife and children. Kureishi had just left his wife and children. His "fictional" narrator had a failed writer for a father, and was nominated for an Oscar in his twenties. The ex-wife is described as a nagging, boring bitch, and the Kureishi-proxy says dismissively: "There are some fucks for which a person would have their partner and children drown in a frozen sea."

He says he didn't intend the book as an attack on his ex-wife "at all", and for the first time in the interview, I don't believe him. Has she read the book? "I don't know. I'll ask her." Yet despite this evasion, the book is frighteningly honest. I think of it as prick-lit, a chilly new genre in which male sexuality is as barren and amoral as in the works of Andrea Dworkin – only this time it's told from the inside.

In Kureishi's work, male lust is almost always an ugly, destructive force. It is split off entirely from love, or even affection. In Something To Tell You, one character says: "Loving someone, or even liking them, has never brought the slightest improvement to sexual pleasure." Does he agree? He pauses. "It's a provocation, but it's a provocation in which there's much truth. It may be that aggression is what sex is about, and it adds to the experience if you're not concerned about the other person."

Perhaps this is why prostitutes recur so often in his writing. His father lost his virginity to a "whore", and believed they were "a great marital aid". So does his son have sex with prostitutes? He laughs at the question – not awkwardly, but freely. "I don't like to pay for it. I always feel that somehow they should pay me! My vanity is so great – or at least it used to be. I grew up in the Sixties. So it was just a free-for-all. And it was pleasure. What you want in the end is for the other person to want you. You want their desire."

One of his driving beliefs as a young man was in the great collective libidinal release of the sexual revolution. He thought that if sex was set free from convention and constriction, we would all be happier. "When I was a kid at school you couldn't see women's bodies. You never saw a pair of breasts, and in porn magazines, pubic hair was removed. I remember seeing porn and it was all depictions of nature – people frolicking under a tree. Now my sons looked on the net and they said, 'Look at that dad, what the fuck are they doing? Look at this one!"

Yet today he thinks he was wrong to preach the Tantra mantra. "I'm disillusioned about sex. If you look at The Buddha of Suburbia, an unrepressed world seems like a very cheerful prospect." But now it has happened, and "it's dehumanised people. It's like the repetitiveness of strippers: clothes on, clothes off, clothes on, clothes off." We have inaugurated a "Thatcherism of the soul" where, as he put it in Intimacy, "Love is a free market; browse and buy, pick and choose, rent and reject, as you like. There's no sexual and social security; everybody has to take care of themselves, or not."

He says sex is now "usually a way of just using other people. It can be deeply pleasurable to fuck somebody and not care who they are and what they are. If you grew up in the Fifties, as I did, then getting laid in that way seemed like a rebellion. It seemed very liberating. But then sexuality just became very instrumental in the Eighties and Nineties. You're just using other people to have a wank. And there's no relationship at all. And that seems just narcissistic and empty and worthless to me... In the 1950s, we repressed sex, and now we repress love. Today, if you look around you, it's human connection that's elusive."

V. Disillusioned?

When your illusions are gone – dismantled and dead on a psychoanalyst's chair – what do you have left? Kureishi leans forward. "Other people. The people you love. Your family. Your group. Your work."

This is our parting sentiment. For hours, he has told me you can be unillusioned without being disillusioned. He has said you can let your ugliest feelings speak freely without being conquered by them. He has said it in a persuasive monotone. But standing outside Café Rouge in the west London chill, I peer back through the window, at Kureishi with his spectral father hanging over him, and I wonder if it is true.

'Something To Tell You' is out now in paperback (Faber, £7.99)

To buy Hanif Kureishi's latest novel, Something To Tell You, click here.

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