Hanif Kureishi Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hanif Kureishi 1954-

British dramatist, novelist, screenwriter, essayist, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Kureishi's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 64.

With the critical success of his screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette (1986), Hanif Kureishi emerged as a provocative young chronicler of xenophobia, sexuality, and urban adolescent angst in contemporary Britain. His multi-genre creations—including films, novels, short stories, and plays—are largely informed by his own experiences as an English-born Briton of Pakistani descent. Drawing attention to the problem of racial prejudice and cultural displacement among non-white Asians in modern England, Kureishi's darkly comic critiques of postcolonial British society illustrate the confluence and conflicts of ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and class. With London's hedonistic drug and music subculture as a recurring milieu, Kureishi's fiction and films are permeated with references to pop culture trends, fashions, movies, and music, as well as other literary and cultural markers. His multicultural perspective and casts of disparate, unconventional characters underscore the sociopolitical biases and personal ambiguities that shape one's identity in the modern Western world.

Biographical Information

Kureishi was born on December 5, 1954 (some sources say 1956), in the London suburb of Bromley. His Pakistani father, a clerk and political journalist, arrived in England from Pakistan to attend college, and subsequently met Kureishi's white, English mother. During the 1950s and 1960s, England received its first great influx of black and Asian immigrants, and at school Kureishi experienced a backlash of racism from some of the native English. As a teenager, he found an outlet for his emotions in fiction, writing four unpublished novels. He went on to study philosophy at King's College, London. As an apprentice in London theaters, Kureishi spent his time devising plays and, to supplement his income, writing pornography for magazines (under the pseudonym Antonia French). His first play, Soaking Up the Heat (1976), was produced at London's Theatre Upstairs, followed by The Mother Country (1980) at Riverside Studios, for which Kureishi received the Thames Television Playwright award. Kureishi was appointed a writer in residence at the Royal Court Theatre, which produced his play Borderline (1981). During a 1985 trip to Pakistan to visit relatives, Kureishi not only gained insight into Pakistani culture and the experiences of Pakistani immigrants, but also came to accept the English aspect of his identity. The following year My Beautiful Laundrette premiered. Directed by Stephen Frears, the movie was originally made for British television and later released for the theater. Kureishi received several major awards for his contribution, including a Best Screenplay Award from the New York Film Critics Circle and an Academy Award nomination. Kureishi and Frears continued their partnership with Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), before Kureishi took over the directorial duties himself to make London Kills Me (1991), a film based on his screenplay. In between these film productions, Kureishi published his first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), which received a Whitbread Book of the Year Award. He has since written two additional novels and two collections of short stories, and co-edited The Faber Book of Pop (1995).

Major Works

Kureishi's preoccupation with issues such as race, class, and sexuality pervade his plays, motion pictures, and fiction. For his early play Borderline, Kureishi conducted research in the Southall area of London, interviewing Indian and Pakistani immigrants. The drama looks at the situation of these immigrants in post-imperial Britain, examining the conflicts between both immigrants and the native population and immigrants and their Westernized children. The drama Outskirts (1981) focuses on the lives of two former school friends, Del and Bob. As teenagers, they assaulted an Asian immigrant, an incident that still haunts Del, who has since become a teacher. Bob is unemployed and his prejudices lead him toward the racist National Front. Kureishi's screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette is similar to a drama in its construction. The film's story explores cross-generational tensions within immigrant families, racial violence, and unemployment in Britain under the conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The film's protagonist, Omar, is the son of a Pakistani immigrant who was once a respected journalist in his home country but is now an unemployed alcoholic in Thatcherite Britain. Although his father wants him to attend college, Omar accepts a job with his capitalistic uncle Nasser, who has him take over a failing laundromat, or laundrette. Using stolen drug money to finance the project, Omar renovates the laundrette with the aid of Johnny, a punk who forsakes his friends for the work and love offered by Omar. In addition to its frank portrayal of homosexuality, the film also candidly depicts Nasser's adulterous relationship and the promiscuity of Nasser's independent-minded daughter. Kureishi's next screenplay, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, describes the events that occur after Rafi Rahman, a corrupt Pakistani political figure, arrives in London to live with his son, Sammy, an accountant who resides in the racially violent area of Brixton with his wife, Rosie, an English social worker. The author's third script, London Kills Me, considers the world of homelessness and drugs in late twentieth-century London through the experiences of Clint, a squatter who must find a pair of stylish shoes to get a job as a waiter. The script was subsequently published along with the screenplays for My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and introductory essays for each. Another screenplay, My Son the Fanatic (1997), was turned into a film by director Udayan Prasad. The film's story depicts the life of a Pakistani-immigrant cab driver whose son becomes attracted to Islamic fundamentalism. Kureishi's largely autobiographical first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, focuses on Karim Amir, the son of an Indian immigrant in Britain. Karim leaves the boredom of his school days in Kent to join the acting worlds of 1970s London and New York. Karim's father, a civil servant, exaggerates his Indian mannerisms when he takes on the role of spiritual leader in his neighborhood. Similarly, Karim invents an Indian past for himself to achieve success as an actor. The novel The Black Album (1995) takes its name from an album by American pop musician Prince, who titled his album in reference to the Beatles record known as “The White Album.” The story's protagonist, Shahid Hasan, a new student at a college in London, finds himself divided between the cultures represented by his black Muslim friends and his white liberal lover, a cultural-studies lecturer at the college. The novel Intimacy (1998), is narrated by Jay, a screenwriter who decides to leave his partner and children for another woman. Love in a Blue Time (1997), Kureishi's first collection of short stories, considers not only the author's usual concerns, such as the conflict between cultures, but also the effect of aging on ambition. With his second short-story collection, Midnight All Day (1999), Kureishi took up issues involving emotional relationships, as he did in Intimacy. Kureishi has also served as co-editor, with Jon Savage, of The Faber Book of Pop, an anthology of essays, reviews, and interviews that chronicles the evolution of pop music from the 1950s to present.

Critical Reception

Kureishi is well regarded for his perceptive examinations of race, class, and sexuality in postcolonial Britain. His award-winning screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette was both a critical and popular success, and established his international reputation. While Indian and Pakistani groups rebuked the film for its unflattering representation of their communities, critics lauded the movie for its unflinching portrayal of the lives of immigrants in London as well as for offering complex portraits of its characters. Kureishi's subsequent films, however, have not received the same level of recognition. Sammy and Rosie Get Laid was commended for its depiction of interracial relationships, but faulted for an overly ambitious combination of dramatic and political intentions. London Kills Me, Kureishi's directorial debut, was generally dismissed as a series of unfocused character studies and music montages. My Son the Fanatic, in contrast, received praise for its consideration of race relations and its presentation of the inner life of its cab-driver protagonist. Kureishi has received a similar mixed response to his novels and short stories. While appreciated for its multicultural perspective and satire, Kureishi's fiction has been faulted as superficially concerned with pop culture and gratuitous in its depictions of sexual debauchery and unredeeming nihilism. While some critics faulted The Buddha of Suburbia for its failure to treat its several controversial issues successfully, other reviewers commended the novel for its account of the young protagonist's experiences and its depiction of a racially mixed family. Kureishi did not fare as well, however, with the critics of his next two novels. The Black Album was found to be more like a play than a novel and deficient in its ambitious consideration of race and Muslim fundamentalism. The reaction to his overtly autobiographical novel Intimacy was even more hostile, with some critics accusing Kureishi of misogyny and even railing against him for abandoning his children during his real-life breakup. Other critics, however, regarded the novel as an elegant and complex study of love's disintegration. Although Kureishi's short-story collections have not created an impact comparable to his work in other genres, Love in a Blue Time received approval for its exploration of aging and Midnight All Day earned praise for its treatment of emotional ties. In contrast, his editorial contribution to The Faber Book of Pop met with unfavorable reaction, criticized by reviewers as being disorganized and overly long. While the critical and popular enthusiasm that surrounded the debut of My Beautiful Laundrette has yet to be duplicated by the author's other writings, Kureishi has consistently provided a unique perspective on the physical and emotional circumstances of individuals on the fringes of contemporary British society.