Interview with Hanif Kureishi

Hanif Kureishi explores suburbia, pop-culture, race and the fluidity of identity in relation to some of his most famous literary works. Shot at his house in south London and at the British Library, the film offers rare glimpses into Kureishi’s archive, allowing viewers to examine manuscript drafts of My Beautiful Laundrette, The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album.

So, I was interested in the fact that literature and the cinema and the theatre told stories about people who hadn’t turned up before, in stories. And so when I did My Beautiful Laundrette it was a similar kind of revolution you might say, that these people hadn’t been portrayed before. You had never seen Asian characters really, on the telly or in literature. And so one of the things that you can do as a writer is bring in new news, you know. These people are here too. This country is changing, and hello, you know, that’s how creativity develops, by people opening the door to new voices.

And around that time there were a lot of teacup empire films, like The Raj Quartet, or A Passage to India that David Lean had made. People under Thatcherism were really fascinated by the master race, you know, they were the whites under colonialism having a really good time and the Indians were rushing around making their tea, you know, and, and making curry for them. But actually, you know, the reality was much more like My Beautiful Laundrette. And so, that’s what artists, if you’re lucky, you can do that. It’s new at the time.

Caption: What do you remember about attitudes to race in the 1960s and 70s

Yeah, there was a lot of casual racism that we faced. So the racism of Britain, I mean, Britain’s never been a fascist country, and has never had a real fascist party, so it’s mostly casual. People gobbing on you and smacking you about racism, and, and the racism, let’s say, of exclusion, or the racism of superiority, that the Brits, certainly after the war, still had those Empire attitudes, and they thought they were the master race, and they looked down on Indians and thought you were inferior and uneducated and, basically, born to be their servants.

But it’s really interesting to be at the, if you can survive it, to be on the receiving end of it actually. Because it’s very shocking to suddenly find yourself the victim of other people’s attitudes. And in a sense that made me want to be a writer, to, as it were, wiggle out of being in that, being shoved into that hole, into that position, I guess. But at the time, certainly in the suburbs, it was very, very traumatic for me and very, very oppressive. Really horrific. And I thought, the only way out of this is to try and be an artist, otherwise, I’ll just disappear.

Caption: Are you interested in reinvention and the idea of identity as fluid?

Well I grew up at a time when the idea of having a sort of fixed identity was beginning to decline. If you grew up in the Fifties and early Sixties, there was the idea that, you know, you got married at a relatively young age, you had your kids, you got your house, you did your job, and then you retired. You didn’t suddenly become a transvestite halfway through, you know. You really were destined to be that person in the Civil Service, indeed as my father was.

And then in the Sixties of course with the idea of social mobility, and then the idea of dressing up, and of more clothes, of being a pop star, of changing your hair, of wearing a different jacket, or wearing velvet trousers, you became, you know, a signifier for other people of difference, as they put it. And obviously Bowie was very important to that, but also pop was very important. I mean I was fascinated by the performance of pop, acting up, dressing up. And you can see that in The Buddha of Suburbia.

I mean you can be so oppressed by your identity. So if you are, as it were, a Paki for other people, then you are always their victim. You know, you are always, as it were, fixed by their language, by their words. So, it’s partly to escape other people’s idea of who you are, that you might, I don’t know, become a hippy, or you might decide that you are, that your masculinity is of that sort rather than that sort, or you might become gay, or whatever. And particularly if you’re a victim of other people’s words.

Caption: What interested you about the idea of suburbia in Buddha?

Well I wanted to write about the neighbours, the street, what you wore, the furniture you had. It was really, I grew up at the beginning of consumerism, you know, when people started, you’d spend a lot of time thinking about carpets, and, everything became sort of, disposable, and, it was really the consumer revolution, and you’d buy stuff and chuck it away. So we in the suburbs were the guinea pigs of, of consumerism.

It’s not the dullness of the place I think that bothers me really; it’s the idea that, the expectations of, of those who surrounded us, and, you know, you might say it was quite difficult to be involved in culture. And that’s partly to do with, partly to do with class. I mean being lower middle class you might say, everybody around you, their world was much narrower you couldn’t dream very high. You know, if you’re lucky you might move to Beckenham, which was considered to be the local apogee of, of class . So, I’m quite interested in the limitations, and how, if you’re lucky, you can overcome them. Those days, you know, people really believed in, in social mobility. So when I went to the Royal Court when I was eighteen, it was amazing to me to meet people who spent their whole lives working as actors, or as writers or as directors or movie directors or whatever, because I had never met anybody who spent their whole life doing culture. Culture seemed so extraordinary and so, outside of our experience, that the people who did it seemed to me to be like, sort of, all of them are geniuses.

Caption: After overcoming the limitations of suburbia, what does Karim decide to do?

Well, he’s had a big trip, Karim. He’s come from the suburbs, and at the end I think he goes to New York with Charlie, and they start to become quite disillusioned. And really that’s a picture of the Sixties as it turned into the Seventies, as it turned into punk, it all turned from, you know, people smoking dope to people taking heroin by the end of the Seventies. Dying in hotel rooms in New York. The idea that you can just have pleasure pleasure pleasure, the hedonistic idea of escaping from the sort of, Victorianism of, of Britain at the beginning of the Sixties, by the Seventies the hedonism has become rather tiresome. It was a party, but of course parties have to end, and it becomes, decadent and cruel and empty.

This is really the beginning, by the end of The Buddha, of neoliberalism, of the idea of constant consumption, and the sort of, Thatcherite-Reagan idea that you have to go shopping, of compulsive enjoyment, you know. So, we really move from the period of prohibition, you know, you can only have sex if you’re married and under certain circumstances and blah blah blah and all of that; by the end people are exhausted with the horror of having to have a good time all the time. And that was really the story of that period.

Caption: Is Jamila is at the political centre of the novel Buddha of Suburbia?

Jamila’s a really interesting figure, because, I mean she’s much more serious than him. He’s much more like me in some sense, and she also has my seriousness too. I mean she’s quite serious about her politics. And her father wants her to have an arranged marriage. It’s really much rougher for her. And she becomes a feminist. But there was something really important about it, that people were really doing serious stuff. They really wanted to find new ways to live. You know, could you live with three people? Could you experiment with your sexuality? Could you bring up children in a new way? And certainly the feminists, the women were doing that.

Caption: How did you come to write My Beautiful Laundrette?

So I was thinking about my childhood, about growing up with kids who were, or what became, skinheads, represented in the film by the working-class actor Daniel Day-Lewis. And I had had an uncle who had taken me around laundrettes, because, I think he thought the writing business was probably not going to work out, although I had been working in the theatre for quite a long time by then. This is the early Eighties.

So I had the laundrette stuff. I had some friends who were kind of, semi-gangsters I guess. I had the skinheads. I had, really the Thatcherite theme really of, of, enterprise, of, of setting up your own businesses. And also of course, the white working class who were sort of, represented by the skinhead and his gang, Genghis and Moose and so on, who were sort of, excluded I guess, or beginning to be excluded and would later be represented by people like Nigel Farage, because they were really on the margins.

Caption: What circumstances led to your writing The Black Album?

Well I’d been very interested in, as indeed many people have, the fatwa against my pal Salman Rushdie. But so interested in it that I started to research these kids in the Nineties who got involved in it. And out of my research at the mosque, at the colleges, actually not, just down the road from here, not far from here, and then going to the East End, and, et cetera, et cetera, hanging around with those kids, I developed The Black Album and later the story of My Son the Fanatic and later of course the movie My Son the Fanatic.

But in those days, even after the fatwa the people were not particularly interested in fundamentalism as a thing; they just thought the fatwa was a sort of one-off, they didn’t realise it was the beginning of a worldwide revolutionary movement. But I just wanted to talk to these kids, who were like me and not like me. I mean they were mixed race kids mostly, like me, a Muslim background, who had grown up in the West, and suddenly they were on their knees and they were pedalling a version of religion that we had never seen before. And now it had turned up in, in London, and it turned up in the mosques and the colleges. And at the same time I had become very interested in ecstasy and dance culture and, and the new music, because I had always been interested in music and drugs, and fashion.

So they slammed together in The Black Album, where I posited a kid, Shahid I think his name is, who was, is interested in both, and really likes fundamentalism because it, as it were, comes out of his family. They’re Muslim kids, like him, come from a Muslim background, and they believe in stuff, and they’re busy and have values. And the other stuff seems quite decadent, the West is going really decadent, mostly fascinated by shopping, by Madonna, by drugs. They’re just fascinated by narcotics and, and synthetics and consumerism and plastic rubbish.

And suddenly he finds an ideology that really stands for something that he thinks is, important I guess, that there are real values here. But of course these values are, come at a cost you might say, of a certain idea of, of women, of what literature should do, of morality and, and so on. So he’s hypnotised by it and he’s torn about by it.

Caption: What choice does Shahid make?

At the end of the book, Shahid … It was quite hard for me to write, because, you have to find a way through. And he gives up his friendships, as you say, he betrays them, which is a really important betrayal. He betrays the ideology for pleasure, for love. And he sees that these are really important values. But by then, and obviously now, it’s really hard for the West to justify itself. What are the values that we actually stand for? Is it just shopping and fucking? You know, as Mark Ravenhill put it rather well. What actually are our values, you know? Do we just want to go shopping? Do we have anything? This democracy, what does it actually mean, this free speech, what does it actually mean? This equality, this feminism, you know, what does it actually mean, what are these values for us? Or are they really just, a bit of icing, you know, and the rest is basically, just capitalism, making money for, for people who, and creating a super-rich elite class that we have now created?

Caption: What is the legacy of the fight against authority that took place in the 1960s and ‘70s?

It’s interesting how we got rid of authority in the Sixties and broke it all down, then it comes back with a swing in the Nineties with fundamentalism, that really introduces the most virulent form of authority that we have had for a long time, actually, an absolutism that has really been absent from the social realm you might say. So, that was really interesting to me, because, in the Sixties and Seventies we spent, you know, decades smashing everything up, breaking everything down, and getting rid of all that obsolete, hopeless authority, then it swings back in this terrible new form, what Freud calls the return of the repressed, with a new form of, you might say, neo-fascistic religion. And it’s very shocking, because nobody expected that. We thought we’d got rid of that form of old-fashioned paternalistic authority, and it comes back with a, with a bang as you might say.

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