An Interview with Hanif Kureishi

Copyright: Sarah Lee

Hanif Kureishi is one of the most popular and acclaimed British writers today. His first play was produced at the Royal Court theatre when he was 22. He reached a new level of eminence when his screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette was nominated for an Academy Award and his novel The Buddha of Suburbia won a Whitbread First Novel Award. Since then he has written many critically acclaimed novels, short stories and screenplays including Intimacy (1998), The Mother (2003) and Something to Tell You (2008). In 2007 he was awarded a CBE in recognition for his services to literature and drama. Last month saw the publication of his Collected Short Stories.

Interview by Catherine Fildes

Have you been writing this morning?, I ask Kureishi as we sit down to the shrill French music playing in the background of his regular haunt – for interviews at least – Café Rouge. Yes – well – I’ve done a lot of fucking about, he replies. Our conversation is not lively at the start: he’s had his head in the essays of his students on the Creative Writing MA at Kingston University, and I’ve been nervously flipping through the 600 page-plus volume of his recently-published Collected Short Stories. He’s curt and I’m shy. Nonetheless we proceed and in the next hour cover topics from David Cameron to how writing can feel like a ‘waste of time’…

The Literateur: When I was reading some of your essays about how to discipline yourself to write, I found it quite similar to the way I have to discipline myself to do a PhD.

Hanif Kureishi: Well there are resistances aren’t there? Eventually you have to get on with it. Once you get on with it, it’s fun – I like the idea of it rather than the actual work though. When I have an idea for a story I find it much more exciting to have the idea than to have to write it down. Once I’ve had the idea, writing it down’s pretty boring.

TL: What about editing?

HK: That’s even worse.

TL: I wanted to ask about my own PhD topic, which is on ‘British Muslim’ literature – a very fashionable topic at the moment…

HK: Is it?

TL: Well, you must know…

HK: I don’t know very much about Muslims. I’m sure you know more about them than I do. I’ve written about some of the things that I heard about. A writer can steal stories from anyone, from anywhere.

TL: Yet I know you conducted research within the British Muslim community for The Black Album, visiting mosques and sitting with young Muslims whilst they were listening to the Friday khutba. Do you think the environment for Muslims is still the same?

HK: No, no. I mean, when I did that research, that was 1991-2. Obviously not: the turning point was 9/11. I think Muslims think of themselves differently. I mean, ‘Muslim’ was really associated in 1991 with the ‘Rushdie affair’ – that you were a Muslim meant that you were radical, that you saw Islam as a political ideology. Now someone would call themselves ‘Muslim’ in the sense that they have a certain attitude to God, and to their own history or tradition or background. So, what happened since, as it were, has helped Muslims to think about who they are and where they stand… the whole landscape is completely different. Radical Islam was originally a form of liberation, like colonialism really…

TL: Well, the Iranian revolution was definitely associated with Marxist ideals at least – whether it fulfilled those ideals was another matter…

HK: That’s right. That’s a good way of putting it.

TL: I was interested in the ideas of liberation and liberalism, and how they are both a part of Islamist ideology and Islamist reform movements, but then get distorted. I was re-reading The Black Album, which is really fascinating for my own research. At points in the novel, Islam does seem to be equated with liberalism from a materialist, late-capitalist culture, and at other points it is wholly opposed to it – so there are different ‘liberalisms’ within the novel…

HK: Liberalism can be a battering ram, or it can become a fortress: it might become a battering ram rather like Marxism itself, whereas in certain circumstances it can become a prison. You have to ask what these ideologies are being used for – that’s a more interesting question to ask than ‘what are they in themselves?’. That’s how I like to look at it. What is ideology for? How is it being used? Who is it being used by? And the most important question: when? Radical Islam as it was used in Iran wouldn’t be the same as radical Islam in London today, and it’s not the same as Islam in Leeds or Bradford today.

TL: Do you still feel angry after the Rushdie affair? A lot of writing – including The Black Album – was produced in response to the Muslim reaction.

HK: Do I still feel angry? I think it was a good opportunity for us to reflect on what writing was for, what books are for. We take it for granted that books are a jolly good thing and you should say whatever you want in them: now all of us have questioned our practices. What is respect? How far can you go? What can you say? What does it mean to use violent language against somebody else, etc. These are really important questions, and the Rushdie affair brought all that back, really brought it out. This was a worldwide controversy about a book, that most people hadn’t read, and even those who did read it were none-the-wiser. It was a fascinating time.

TL: I think it’s true that people decontextualise radical or extremist Islam even when they think they’re speaking about something very specific: it is to do with location as much as anything and what it’s reacting against. Things which seem to be liberations often turn into fundamentalisms but different fundamentalisms in different times and places. What I thought of The Black Album was that it was articulating something very specific about British Islam as reacting against Thatcherism. Whereas in Salman Rushdie’s writings or Nadeem Aslam’s writings there are very different kinds of fundamentalisms being exposed.

HK: I guess as a writer, I’m more interested in character than ideology. Or, I’d be interested in the way this person believes. For me, it isn’t about working out what I think, and then saying: ‘I believe in free speech in this way…’ Rather, what’s interesting is the argument, and how Islam or Marxism is used, and how it relates to someone’s life, under a political context. Keeping all of that going, and showing it. So the argument is to show the argument. In the end, what one believes as a liberalist or a fundamentalist is quite banal. They’re all truisms ultimately based on force. It’s the other stuff, the superstructure of things that I’m interested in.

TL: ‘My Son the Fanatic’ is a short story dealing with the same issues as The Black Album. I wondered about the form of the short story in relation to what you are saying: are they able to represent the psychology of a single character more neatly than a novel?

HK: The story – some of them are long and some of them are short. It’s not like a film. All films are between 1 ½ and 2 hours, so they’re quite formal – but a story can be any length. So it’s a more luxurious form for a writer – you start, and when the story’s finished you stop.

TL: Yes, well some of the new stories in the Collected Short Stories are very short…

HK: They were long when I started off, but then I spent the whole of my time editing: when you get to the end you think, it took me ages to do that, is that all it is?

TL: This reminds me of Raymond Carver – that kind of brutal editing – do you have an editor who will do this job for you?

HK: I wouldn’t allow it. I wouldn’t hand something over to somebody else. American editors are like writers. They really shorten the stuff. They’re co-writers, and you don’t really consider it to be your own piece in the end. I wouldn’t allow it now. I’m old enough to stand up to it. But when you’re thirty-one, and some editor’s attacking your work, it’s really hard.

TL: Has your relationship with editors and publishers then changed considerably? Do you have more bargaining power nowadays?

HK: Well, I wouldn’t with a film. With a film I’d be nobody: the producers and directors have a lot of power. But with a short story I can write what I like.

TL: Was it your decision to bring out the Collected Short Stories then?

HK: No, it was my editor’s. Basically what you have to do, if you’re a writer, is to repackage the stuff over again, just rebrand it, put it in a different cover, and then it gets re-reviewed and so on and so on… You’re trying to sell books so that you can make a living. And also it’s getting much harder, especially for younger writers. I was lucky, my career coincided with a boom. In the 1980s when you were a writer you could earn a lot of money. I really believe that’s over. People are going to start downloading stuff really cheaply. In the old days you’d buy a hard-jacket that cost £15. And now people can download stuff onto their phones and onto the iPad for a fiver. And soon they’ll find out, like my children do, how to download it all for free. My children download music all the time and they never pay for it, and it never occurs to them to go to the shops and buy a CD.

TL: You do start to wonder when the book will be completely outmoded…

HK: I didn’t say that. I think the book will remain moded. I just don’t think people will want to pay for it. A bit like the newspapers: it’s outrageous that the Sunday Times wants me to pay to read it. Why would you pay? There’s no need for it. I don’t think the book is outmoded, it’s just whether people will want to pay for it. But then, it’s the case that my children rarely read books…

TL: Do you think that will change as they grow up?

HK: They think it’s really nerdy. For them it’s shameful to be seen reading a book. I do think too much importance is attributed to reading books though. But on the other hand, that’s what I’ve wasted my life doing.

TL: Do you still feel that writing is a waste of time?

HK: Well, what would you prefer to do – if I had to choose between going for a bike ride with one of my sons, having lunch in the park, sitting around gossiping, then going home – that’s what I did with them yesterday – would I rather do that or sit in my room writing a book? I’d rather be with my sons. That seems a much more valuable and spontaneous life to live. What I mean is that I think people often fetishize books and reading. A kid who reads is a ‘good’ kid, i.e. he’s not noisy; but on the other hand you’re not interacting with other people, you’re interacting with a dead text. So I have lots of questions about all of this, interesting questions.

TL: I do think that the novel has been extolled as a symbol of ‘democracy’, and something which you can learn from and which will change your life. And I don’t think that’s true to the extent at which it’s been propagated.

HK: Yeah, but if you were living in a fascist or a communist or a radical Islamic state, which most people in this world have done, then the book would represent something very important, especially in Stalinist Russia, or in Pakistan today. The book would be a very liberating thing in that context.

TL: The novel has been extolled in the West also…

HK: It is a very liberating form, because people do speak, and they speak freely as they can from their unconscious…

TL: Do you find that with the ‘bigger’ forms like films and novels, that you can speak more freely, that there are multiple perspectives, or can you achieve that in an essay and short story as well?

HK: Probably not in an essay – an essay would be written from a single point of view. But yes, if you take a film like My Beautiful Laundrette: when it came out it was considered to be very radical. It wasn’t a big deal when it was shown in Soho, but everywhere else people were shocked by it. People came up to me and said: “I was thirteen years old when I saw that film, and afterwards I realised I was gay”. A lot of people.

TL: Do you see yourself as a spokesperson for multiculturalism?

HK: I like hybridity and I like mixing up, but I’m not a fan of multiculturalism anymore: I’ve become a Marxist in the last three days. I was a fan of multiculturalism when it was useful to have it, in the 1970s, and now we have it and I don’t think it’s very interesting. On the one hand it’s just festivals and food. And on the other hand it’s everybody being the same. The one thing that multiculturalism can’t deal with is the fact that some things are not compatible with one another. Multiculturalism creates a mush where everything’s nice, and I think that’s really oppressive.

TL: Another criticism of ‘multiculturalism’ was that it placed the emphasis on communities rather than individuals: whereas ‘cosmopolitanism’ proposed that you could pick and choose identities, that you could become individually hybrid, ‘multiculturalism’ tends to segregate people into groups…

HK: Segregate them and make them the same though, in their blandness. A bit like saying, ‘we’re all religious’. I only like religion when it’s really horrible, when it’s hateful – only then does it have any point. Look at what’s happened with the Catholic Church – it’ll soon be so regulated that Catholicism will become really bland – there won’t be any hatred left. It’ll be a bit like David Cameron: there’ll be no Tory hatred left, no fire in it. I mean I liked Thatcher because I hated her.

TL: I was thinking about the generational difference between us. My generation hasn’t had any experience of Thatcherism; we’ve grown up in a discursively ‘multicultural’ environment where racism isn’t as big a deal as it was in the 70s and 80s. Yet a lot of your characters have grown up in this period…

HK: And multiculturalism grew out of that… But now I think multiculturalism’s useless.

TL: So do you have any idea of what we should be moving towards?

HK: I think a class-based politics.

TL: Maybe the election will bring that to the fore…what did you think of the ITV debate between the three party leaders?

HK: I was pretty bored by it. I thought there should be a class war and an attack on the bankers, and also on the government that would have allowed this to happen – the government that is making the public repay a debt that the others have made – this seems to me to be grounds for revolution.

TL: Maybe we are in a more apathetic age, where it’s only the religious reformist movements that seem to have any angry spirit in them.

HK: I think we need a new Left, and a Left that needs to evolve – that will emerge and form new ideals – certainly focused on education, and housing, and health: it would be a radical attack on current government.

TL: You don’t think the Liberal Democrats could provide that?

HK: I’m probably going to vote Lib Dem; I’m not voting for Labour and I’m not voting for the Tories. Yet it’s a shame that this is an Obama moment and we don’t have anyone with radicalism or intelligence. I like Gordon Brown but I couldn’t forgive him for the Iraq War and I couldn’t forgive him for something worse: the liberation of the bankers who have ripped off the public. I don’t blame the bankers – if you leave your doors unlocked you can’t complain that a burglar has come into your house.

TL: A lot of critiques have discussed the cosmopolitanism in your writings: the ability to pick and choose your identity. And yet at the same time, when I was reading your short stories I was really struck by the materiality of them, the fact that you can’t escape the body. Are there limits to how cosmopolitan you can be?

HK: Yes, you can’t just pick up any identity: you have the parents you have, you have the country, the time and the class; and you can mess around with that. To get a new identity means giving up something, and you might have to give up quite a lot – you can’t just pick and choose, like buying a new coat or a new purse. It’s very limited. But then identities are very limited too, and that’s why I think that identity politics and multiculturalism are quite limited – to define people as ‘gay’, ‘woman’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Jew’ or whatever – these are very important labels for certain times and certain circumstances. But I think in the West now, these have rather worn out their welcome: you’re not only gay, you might also be a parent, you use the health service, you identify with other people who are unemployed. Identity is useful for some things at certain times and not for others. You do have to be flexible. On the other hand, as I say, you can’t just become anybody.

TL: And you’re moving towards an idea of identities as dialogic as well – the fact that you’re always articulating your identity to somebody.

HK: Yes, exactly. These things are only useful in terms of where the argument is, what it does and how it works. The place. And that’s why in a story you have lots of characters to speak to each other.

TL: The word ‘important’ seems to repeat itself extensively in the collection, as former ideals are revised or dropped, replaced by new desires or left blank. An especially interesting transition is between the ending of ‘Blue, Blue, Pictures of You’, where Laura admits that ‘she had only wanted a good time’ in her youth and now ‘wanted something important to do’, and the beginning of the next story, ‘My Son the Fanatic’, where Ali turns to Islamism in defiance against his upbringing because ‘there are more important things to be done’ in life. Would you agree that your stories are about the longing for, if not the realisation of, the ‘important’?

HK: These are real questions – the relation between hedonism and meaning, or between being selfish and being good. The value of what you do. Freud doesn’t talk about this but Jung writes about it a lot. When I’m looking after my son I don’t question what I’m doing – I’m just looking after this boy because it’s a good thing to do and it makes me a good father. If I’m writing a story, I may think: ‘do I need to write a story or shall I go down to the pub?’ These are questions that we have; it’s easy to drive out meaning. Meaning is often tenuous – you can create meaninglessness by the stupidity of the questions. The right way to live is something you work out for yourself all the time.

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