HANIF KUREISHI has always seemed to court controversy. From his first screenplay, the Oscar-winning "My Beautiful Laundrette" (1985), which featured gay sex, drug-dealers posing as Mullahs and dodgy Pakistani businessmen, Mr Kureishi began offering a rather different immigrant's narrative. Like a post-colonial Philip Roth, his semi-autobiographical novels and screenplays revealed something harsher and raunchier about growing up in London in the 1970s and '80s. The son of a Pakistani father and an English mother, his early works were as angry as they were incisive, quick to explode cultural stereotypes. His first novel, “The Buddha of Suburbia” (1990), about a mixed-race teenager who is desperate to escape his suburban life in South London, is credited with bringing the stories of British Asians and non-whites into the mainstream (with plenty of sex and filthy language). Now taught in some schools, the book has also generated some public friction with his father. With his novel “The Black Album” in 1995, Mr Kureishi presciently explored the growing discontent and radicalism of some young British Muslims. In 2008 the queen named him a Commander of the British Empire.
Mr Kureishi's favoured themes of race, class, sexuality and religion all inform the pieces compiled in “Collected Essays”, released by Faber & Faber in Britain earlier this year. Dating from 1980, these essays (most of them previously published and unrevised, unfortunately) tackle politics, cultural changes and the role of the writer and reveal Mr Kureishi's knack for argument. They show his ability to be both provocative and convincing.
Mr Kureishi spoke to More Intelligent Life about these essays, his thoughts on David Cameron and why it’s racist to not attack a religion.
What does a good essay do for the reader?
An essay isn’t a work of non-fiction, it isn’t journalism as such. It’s written to inspire, provoke and ultimately to give pleasure to the reader. Essays differ from fiction, in that you don’t distribute yourself amongst your characters. There is one single full-on point of view.
You say you don’t read many novels anymore. Why?
I write more as I get older, and I’m more committed to writing. I’ve got three kids now. I also read stuff that seems to me to be more serious, I suppose. I’m interested in psychiatry, psychology, psychoanalysis, philosophy and politics—I’d much rather read about that than a novel, although I am a big fan of fiction and storytelling.
What is it that attracts you to writing about suburban life?
The suburbs I came from are lower-middle class. Writing about the ordinary, writing about the boring, is really important. You take the most ordinary boring person, and you find the most fascinating story. David Lynch made films about it. I think it’s the mind of the artist that illuminates the subject.
In your essays, you write about the Tories in the 1980s. What’s your opinion of the Big Society?
Well, I think the idea of the “Big Society” is a terrible, stupid, empty failure of an idea. Everyone really knows what it means: that people will be doing for free, what people are being paid to do at the moment. [David] Cameron is a ridiculous politician; he’s a sort of pale imitation and a parody of Thatcher. He’s attacking the poor while handing over vast amounts of money to the bankers. He doesn’t even have her grandiose integrity. As Marx said, history is repeated as farce.
What are your own political beliefs?
I don’t really know what my political beliefs are, but I know what I hate. I like to be critical, and I like to argue and to take a position. The process of writing keeps the arguments alive. It’s when the arguments die that there is fascism.
Do you think the politics of radicalism that you talk about in your essays is making a revival?
There is a real rebellion in the young, certainly in the Muslim world. You might say that the revolutions that the West had in the 1960s, were reproduced in the former communist blocks in 1989, and are now manifesting throughout the Muslim world. I think in the West it’s much more difficult to see where that rebellion will come from, and who it will be directed against. There is much more confusion because there isn’t a united opposition anymore, there isn’t really one block to fight against.
Do you think it is racist to attack the Islamic religion?
I come from a Muslim family; I come from a Muslim country: Pakistan. I’m well aware of how dangerous religions like Islam can be. It’s ridiculous to think it’s racist to attack a religion. In fact, it’s racist not to attack a religion. These are systems of power, huge political forces of the world—you have to speak back against it, otherwise you exist in an authoritarian system. Look at the way these societies have attacked and tortured intellectuals in the past, in places like Iran, Egypt and Libya. The West has continued to patronise them and refuse to attack them. A very robust exchange is extremely important.
In your book you talk about your father feeling jealous of your success as a writer. Did this damage your relationship with him?
The relationship between fathers and sons is always very competitive. I’m jealous of my kids too. As you get tired and get older, you see these kids having a great life, you think: fuck them. You’re furious. This is part of the difficulty of the relationship. Thinking about how much you hate your own children as much as you love them, and how much they hate you sometimes, and why all these things are intertwined is a crucial part of parenting. My Dad was very annoyed at my success, which he thought was undeserved compared to his own genius and brilliance. It was very smart of me to not take any notice of that and carry on working and allow him to live with his own failure, which was very difficult for him.
Did you find it difficult to become a writer?
It’s very difficult at the beginning, because you don’t really know who you are, and you don’t know if you are going to become the writer that you want to be. Until you are established, you think: am I a writer? Or am I someone who is pretending to be a writer? It was bloody hard work getting there, but it’s fantastic to have done it.
Picture credit: Sarah Lee