Exclusive: In conversation with Hanif Kureishi
...who's made a career of picking at the scabs of relationships
Even though his velvet trousers and shaggy hair days have given way to a perfectly groomed middle-aged respectability, there’s still a bristle about Hanif Kureishi — in the sneer, the swagger, the stare. By his own admission he’s a “bloody-minded fellow,” and would prefer to be clubbed on the “Genet” end of the artist’s scale along with the thieves, criminals and “bedlam boys”. Provocateur, challenger of ideas, trendsetter — Kureishi has always been a writer ahead of the curve. And while race, immigration, sexuality, fathers and sons, all continue to be central to his work, his latest collection of stories and essays, Love + Hate, registers a shift in paradigms. There’s a sense of arrival, of not having to blast away any doors, of a writer saying, “I’m in my own groove now, man. I’m just going to do what I do.”
When I meet him at his home in Shepherd’s Bush, London, Kureishi is dressed in a bright blue shirt with wide cuffs, slacks and canvas sneakers. There’s a reserve about him, but get him to laugh at something you say and he will burst into a clipped, enthusiastic chortle. Kureishi tells me he wanted to retire after he wrote his novel, The Last Word (2014). “I thought, that was it, I’m finished. I’m just going to sit around now. After three days of sitting around, you know, you get bored, and you start writing again. There’s nothing else to do. My kids have grown up and fucked off, Isabella [Kureishi’s girlfriend] is in Rome, so I write.” But he’s quick to establish that he’s still excited about being a writer. “Being a writer is not a permanent thing, you have to reaffirm it, you have to decide over and over again that you want to carry on.”
This kind of push-pull, love-hate paradox abounds in Kureishi’s universe. He has repeatedly slammed creative writing schools for being a waste of time, and yet he teaches creative writing at Kingston University. He calls the novel the central form and yet he admits he hasn’t read a novel in years. (“It’s either so bad it’s impossible to read, or it’s so good you feel ashamed and embarrassed, you think I could never do that, so I don’t really need the hassle. I’m glad people are reading, but I don’t see why I would have to do it.”) He extols the virtues of the theatre but would rather stay home and watch a Joan Crawford movie. And for all the magnitude of the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll image he has curated for himself, he has been an arduously disciplined writer, producing an impressive oeuvre that includes four plays, 10 novels, eight screenplays and six books of non fiction.
Many of the essays in Love + Hate explore this conundrum as to why “we are still people who love to hate”. In ‘A Theft: My Con Man’, Kureishi describes his experience of being robbed of his life savings by his accountant. It reads as an account of the seduction in hating. He becomes obsessed with the man who has stolen his money, phoning him every hour, stalking him, believing that he’ll come through in the end. It’s a hate so great that by some “mysterious alchemy,” it starts turning into love.
In ‘The Heart of Whiteness’, he writes about discovering ER Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love in the Bromley library as a young “mongrel” kid, battling skinheads, living in the shadow of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech; how that book contextualised the framework of race for him, and in fact, saved him. “The nexus of hate,” Kureishi says, is what puzzles and interests him. “The racism I grew up with mostly had to do with colonial superiority. Now it’s much more virulent and it’s to do with politics, in the sense that it’s to do with scaring people. You know — ‘all these Muslims are coming to Europe, and when they come it will be a Muslim State, and they’re breeding all the time, and there’ll be Sharia law,’ and all that crap. We live in that kind of cliché the whole time, which is sort of horrifying.”
The immigrant is as central a figure to Kureishi’s work as the city of London is. These two are forever twinned in his imagination. As the son of an Indian father and an English mother, Kureishi describes how getting out of the suburbs was a revelation, a way out. He started his career at the Royal Court Theatre, which in the ’70s, was very political and very left-wing. “There were lots of feminists, gay activists, Trotskyites, communists, and they’d say to you, ‘Is your play advancing the revolution, Hanif?’” When he reflects on that time he says, “I was lucky to be in that bubble when you could be a bohemian. You could be an artist. It’s incredible to me that I became an artist at all, that I became anybody. You know, I’m from the suburbs. I have no education, no class. Somehow I got through. It seems amazing.”
Many of his new essays dwell on the minefields between generations, the shift in authority between fathers and sons, and a new kind of paternalism. “I shared the same paradigm as my father,” Kureishi says. “My father would give me a book of short stories by Chekhov and I’d read it, and he’d talk to me about it. We lived in the same idea even though I loved Jimi Hendrix and he liked Duke Ellington.”
Kureishi has three sons, and admits that none of them have read a thing he’s written. “My children grew up in the 1990s… They’re kids who were brought up entirely on what I call the Electrics. They’ve never read a book. They spend their whole life watching Breaking Bad and playing games, but they’re not stupid kids. They’re consumers, perfect consumers, they’ll buy anything. There’s a big shopping centre nearby in Westfield, it’s their church, they love it. They and I don’t live in the same paradigm.”
Kafka, one of Kureishi’s foremost torchbearers, writes in his diary, “A man without a woman is no person.” How important have women been in his life? There’s a long pause. “Well, it’s the central thing. Who you desire, who you live with, the mothers of the children I have, my own mother. But there’s been a big change in the way in which you love. The way in which you love is becoming capitalistic. People come and go.” Kureishi trails off into another paradox that fascinates him: the reasons why people leave each other. “I’m interested in that, particularly when I wrote Intimacy . It seemed to me that the way in which you left somebody was more interesting than the way in which you found somebody, because that’s banal — you fancied them, you fell in love, blah blah blah. But leaving somebody is much more traumatic. And my children, I presume, will have to leave a lot of people in their lives.”
Kureishi has received a fair amount of flak for writing too close to the bone. When he published the semi-autobiographical The Buddha Of Suburbia (1990), his sister accused him of selling their family “down the line,” and presumably Intimacy, about a man about to leave his family, was not a fun read for the woman Kureishi abandoned. When I ask Kureishi what he makes of the publishing trend of ‘reality fiction’, he says, “I don’t think the truth is interesting in itself. What you’re interested in is the vision of the artist. When I watch a movie by Hitchcock, he’s not telling me what he did yesterday. He’s made this into a highly contrived, highly dramatic structure, which is beautiful. Obviously, we all use elements of our life, but we go to some trouble to try and make it sexy for somebody else. That treatment is art. I would never say that I do autobiographical fiction because I go through huge fucking trouble to make sure that this is a story that somebody else is going to enjoy, and me going to that trouble is what the art is.”
Love + Hate: Stories And Essays (Faber) is out this month