Hanif Kureishi has been named one of the top 100 British writers since 1945. He has never been shy in dealing with contemporary topics avoided by mainstream literature, like the interracial gay relationships in My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha of Suburbia, along with the seduction by a grandmother of her daughter’s boyfriend in The Mother. But he says he only writes about that which interests him. His new collection of short stories and essays is ‘What Happened’.
In the introduction to your new book, ‘What Happened’, you talk about returning to what disturbs us, “saying the unsayable” to turn accidents into stories. Do you constantly go back to ‘that which has disturbed you’ or is that a subconscious thing?
It’s both. When I first started to write, the thing that most disturbed me in my life was to do with race, and what that meant. It was to do with my father’s journey to the UK, his marriage to my white British mother and, being mixed race, me and my sister growing up in the 60s. It was pointed out to me that this was an interesting perspective and that people on the whole weren’t writing about that. This was a new thing in the UK to do with the end of the Empire, the beginning of immigration, the things you know about Enoch Powell, the National Front. So what you do is turn something that’s really bothered you into words and stories for other people. You suddenly realise that this thing that was really painful is a place to think from and to look at experience, hence My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha Of Suburbia – the early stuff.
On the theme of that which disturbs you, in your current book ‘What Happened’, one of your essays ‘Where is Everybody’, is set in Rome, among a majority of white faces. You write, ‘I wouldn’t want my sons to have to survive in Rome, I wouldn’t want my boys to be in here Rome at the moment’. I wondered what about the current climate now disturbs you? Perhaps even more than before….
I’m glad you picked up on that because my mother in law thought that I was being critical of Rome and of course she’s a grand Italian women. But in some places, particularly in Italy, there’s only white people. They think that this is the whole world. You think, well, I’m the only person of colour here? Where is everybody else? Why am I here? What’s my place in all this? They don’t notice that. They’re very nice people. You go to very nice dinners and so on. You realise you’re living with a colonial elite. I feel a bit odd about that.
London is relatively a much more mixed town. I mean Italy is not like that at all, you never see a black person on television, no-no-no, they don’t have any sense of trying to create a new society that we have here (in the UK) and certainly in France. Also, they look down on what they call Muslims. Someone said to me the other day we have a real Muslim problem here in France, and I said we Muslims have got a real problem with the French, mate. That double perspective is interesting but people don’t understand that.
When I read ‘Birdy Num Num’ you seemed as if you were going almost a full circle in your identity. Reconsidering roles that were rejected as inherently racist and coming back around to those films with Peter Sellers – particularly ‘The Millionaires’ and relating them back to your father. Somehow, in connecting the dots again, there was a connection with your father.
My parents really loved those films, particularly the first one, The Millionaires. Sellers played a caricature, obviously, but all actors are caricatures in one way or other. And The Party was a complex film, about an Indian creating a bit of your heritage that you’re trying to forget, this colonial land far, far away. This Indian comes back into the middle of your world and causes chaos.
It’s a beautiful idea of how colonialism works. You try and forget these people – they’re nobody to you, they’re far away. But then they come back, like an item in a dream. They haunt you. That seemed to me to be the unconscious idea of the film. He’s out there and then he comes back and then you’ve got to take responsibility. That’s quite interesting, thinking of the idea of the war of terror. There are foreign wars, but it doesn’t matter, it’s all ‘over there’. Then one day someone comes and blows up something in the centre of your town. Here are the consequences that you can’t just push to one side. So there’s more in those films then they knew they were putting. When I looked at them again, I saw they weren’t just stupid, racist caricatures, they were more complex.
One of my favourite essays from the book, ‘If Their Lips Weren’t Sealed By Fear’ is on Antigone. In this Me Too era, I found some interesting observations. Antigone obviously could be considered a feminist of her time – but you write, “she ain’t no sister”. She had taken on male characteristics to get where she wanted to be, but then she had no children, so would it be different if she had children? I’m not sure. However, it’s an interesting point that you can be a feminist, support the feminist movement but don’t necessarily support other women.
She’s toxic, isn’t she?
She’s so great because you can’t put her anywhere. I mean, she ain’t no sister. She said I’m not doing this, but she doesn’t form a group who also aren’t doing this in solidarity with other people. She’s just a fantastic, great, great, toxic pain in the arse. Can you imagine if you met her what a pain in the arse she’d be she’d make you crazy! But she is someone who absolutely sticks by their desire, their principle. That’s both admirable and totally stubborn, infuriating. It isn’t in her own interest. She keeps on doing it despite not being in her interest. I like the double-ness of that.
You can be complex, and you can be a feminist, but you don’t have to be a perfect feminist, whether you’re male or female. I think history has always expected women to be a certain way. When you’re not, you’re kind of pulled through the ringer. This, I think, has happened to Antigone , because she follows her own path and does exactly what she wants with no care for anyone else.
With men and women, we’re in a transitional phase, look at the TV show Succession. I love Brian Cox. It’s interesting isn’t it? The old man 19th century patriarch has returned. You know he’s an old time patriarch. It’s the end of patriarchy and now we’re idealising the old man because patriarchy has been replaced by Amazon, the corporation. Things are worse, much worse because there’s no one there, in a sense. It’s Facebook, it’s corporate, there’s no individual that you can relate to….. it’s basically the whole corporate system sitting on your face.
Feminism hasn’t gone far enough. Women want equality, but they haven’t taken over the power. They’ve changed the conversations but they still haven’t really attacked the power structures that we live in.
Resist at the start! I mean, the whole point about feminism isn’t to take one man out and put a woman in there. It’s to change the whole system in some other way. And the system is neo-liberalist capitalism. So we’ve really got to start shifting the balance of power. Seems to me that’s what Corbyn and his manifesto seems to be doing. Good luck with that. So I think with ‘She Said He Said,’ it is a story of this transition. Men and women are going to have new conversations and that seems to me to be a great opportunity – the men listen to the women.
When I read ‘She Said He Said’ all I could think was why the hell is he trying to seduce her now – after all those years? I wanted to give him a slap because he’s drunk and there was no backstory to that and I didn’t understand, I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to, but it irritated me….
I don’t understand either, it’s an aggressive attack, like testing the limits. A man saying what he can and can’t do now. Everything has changed since Harvey Weinstein.
I think this is an interesting time to think about what women want from us men, what they want from themselves. Let’s listen to that. It’s a great opportunity for men to be different, for women to be different, for new kinds of relationships to emerge. My mum was a housewife, and everyone in her neighbourhood, the men went to work and the women were the housewives. That was the binary division. Now we’re in a mess and it’s a good mess, the women are making demands and the men are put to change. Harvey Weinstein enjoyed people suffering. He wanted to frighten people. I knew him and he wanted you to be frightened of him.
He worked on one of my films. He was abusive to me, called me a ‘cunt’ on several occasions. It was the film called My Son The Fanatic. He bought it and refused to release in the US for a long time because he wanted me to recut it, change the title, do this and do that and reshoot it. He was really abusive. Basically, he wanted you to be frightened of him, whether you’re a man or a woman (for women, it was worse in other ways).
When you want to instill fear in people like that it says something about your personality.
Something to do with his history there I think, something to do with the camps in some way, some terrible regurgitation of some horrible history of people being very, very frightened, living out some awful scenario to do with the history of the 20th century. I don’t know about but it looked like that to me. That kind of power is still a case in the media. The system bullies you. And that’s what I’m talking about with the Me Too movement. You have to go much further in terms of breaking down the systems of power and individual agency.
In ‘The Widow’, a dominant woman of 45 has consensual sex with a 21 year old. Again, it was a woman taking, doing what she wanted. That story was originally published only in the Italian version of Love and Hate. If it was set in the current climate, would it be considered an aggressive move?
Well, there is aggression in sex, there has to be, for it to be fun at all. There’s perversion in sex, and there’s dynamics of up and down. There is you might say a chance of some emotional violence in sex, it’s a dirty business …or it can be.
That’s only a version of sex, there are many others….
A 21 year old guy might have an affair with a 50 year old woman or a 60 year old woman or whatever. The idea that automatically that age makes any difference is really crass. We aren’t trying to be irritant, what we are trying to do is create and allow relationships that are interesting to both sides, an affair for both sides.
What we’re tackling now is power, not age. She may be 45 but the relationship may be fair or equal in all kinds of way. Who knows you’ll have to ask the people involved and they can ask themselves that they’re adults. I think we need to be wary that political correctness doesn’t stop us from allowing relationships that are enjoyable to the people involved. The whole point with the Me Too movement is to think about structures of power, structures of power in terms of corporations in terms of governments and in terms of our minds. And it’s power rather than age that’s the important thing here, people can enjoy each other in all kind of ways. But we mustn’t also leave out that sex is a form of pervertative.
Is it, though?
I think it is. There are all kinds of weird stuff within sex that makes it enjoyable. It’s to do with power, domination and pain. Freud pointed out that all our sexuality isn’t some natural, beautiful coming together of 2 people that just like each other.
I think we have to consider that there isn’t a common denominator for everyone. It’s so complex, how you view yourself throughout the years. Your body and sexuality change from when you’re 18 to when you’re in your 40s to when your in your 60s.
Yes, it does. That’s interesting for a writer, what you’ve just said. Clearly, your sexuality at 18 certainly isn’t the same. I’m nearly 70 now. It changes and it develops but mostly it develops in terms with other people. What you do with them it doesn’t develop on its own. Other people teach you stuff and you teach them stuff and together you do stuff and make something new. For me, the most important thing its mutuality.
And that’s a thing that’s not really spoken about, the aging process, that metamorphosis and how we deal with it.
Aging for me, as a writer, is very interesting. In my novel The Nothing I write about that in detail. The protagonist is dying and going through a metamorphosis at the end of his life in that sense. And I write about getting older in The Mother too of course.
Exactly. The Mother is magnificent, it’s a very uncomfortable watch but it makes sense in the end. You can have different kinds relationships with people, there are so many different kinds of love. Particularly as you get older. Many people don’t realise that men go through the menopause as well.
Have I had mine? Have I had it, or am I on the other side?
You’re probably on the other side, Hanif.
Hanif Kureishi was talking to Lisa Jenkins. His new book, What Happened, is out now, published by Faber.
Main photo by Kier Kureishi.
Follow Lisa on Twitter @lisaannejenkins and Hanif @Hanifkureishi.