The Buddha of Suburbia

The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) is a bestselling novel by the British writer Hanif Kureishi. Its main protagonist is a bisexual British Asian youth called Karim Amir, who describes himself in the opening lines as ‘an Englishman born and bred, almost, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories’.

The location is largely multicultural London in the 1970s, though some chapters are set in New York. The novel falls into the literary tradition of the bildungsroman in that it explores the personal development of its protagonist, in this case in relation to issues of ethnic, cultural and sexual identity.

Structurally, the novel is divided into the sections ‘In the Suburbs’ and ‘In the City’. The broad narrative concerns Karim’s escape from the former to work in theatre in the latter, much as Kureishi had done earlier in his career (though Karim works as an actor). In parallel, Karim’s father Haroon moves away from his first wife and children to become an instructor of Buddhist principles to his suburban neighbours. Through Karim’s eyes we see a city of racism, alienation, punk, sexual experimentation, reactionary suburbanites, hippies and middle-class thespians.

Describing the motivation behind the novel, Kureishi has written:

I felt that the period I'd lived through – the 1960s and 70s – was ready to be examined in terms of race, sex, fashion, drugs and music…I wrote [Buddha of Suburbia] at a time when society hadn't shifted, hadn't started to see itself as multicultural, so a character like Karim, who was both English and of Indian descent, would be marginalised, placeless.

The Buddha of Suburbia won the Whitbread Award for a first novel, and, in 1993, was adapted into a television series with a soundtrack by David Bowie, who had also attended Kureishi’s school in Bromley.

The novel had a profound effect on the following generation of British novelists; Zadie Smith remembered that ‘There was one copy going round our school like contraband. I read it in one sitting in the playground and missed all my classes. I'd never read a book about anyone remotely like me before’.

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