James Idema (review date 29 April 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 787
SOURCE: “Getting by on Charm: A Young Anglo-Indian in 1970s London,” in Chicago Tribune Books, April 29, 1990, p. 6.
[In the following review, Idema describes The Buddha of Suburbia as a “polemical novel … whose trenchant views on racial injustice and class antagonisms impart outrage. …”]
This crowded, picaresque first novel about the adventures of a young Anglo-Indian in the mean streets of London during the 1970s, where “the spirit of the age among the people I knew manifested itself as general drift and idleness,” may put you in mind of the movies My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, because Hanif Kureishi, author of The Buddha of Suburbia, is also the author of their screenplays. But even without that knowledge, The Buddha of Suburbia would seem stunningly cinematographic. Scenes leap from the page, as this, in a West Kensington punk rock club:
(A)t the front of the place, near the stage, there were about thirty kids in ripped black clothes. And the clothes were full of safety pins. Their hair was uniformly black, and cut short, seriously short, or if long it was spiky and rigid, sticking up and out and sideways, like a handful of needles, rather than hanging down. A hurricane would not have dislodged those styles. The girls were in rubber and leather and wore skin-tight skirts and holed black stockings, with white face-slap and bright red lipstick. They snarled and bit people. …
In that scene, Karim Amir, the hero and narrator, and his friend Charlie are exploring London low life soon after Karim, with his English mother and Indian father, have moved to the city from the suburbs, a move that begins Karim’s true coming of age.
“The city blew the windows of my brain wide open,” he says. “But being in a place so bright, fast and brilliant made you vertiginous with possibility. … I felt directionless and lost in the crowd.”
Lost he might be, even feckless in the way he has shunned education and other conventional advantages people like his parents placed before nice suburban sons. But Karim is an ebullient and resourceful adventurer, hungry for experience and true to a code that compels him to try anything—especially anything sexual, because “plain prurience,” as he disarmingly concedes, informs much of his activity.
Karim gets by, to a large extent, on charm; and his principal mentor, ironically, is his father, who despairs of his son’s dissolute ways. As Karim recalls: “Dad taught me to flirt with everyone I met, girls and boys alike, and I began to see charm, rather than courtesy or honesty, or even decency, as the primary social grace.”
A master of charm himself, Dad is a smallish, somewhat pudgy but handsome Indian—the Buddha of the title—the kind of man whose natural naivete makes people protective. Women, particularly, want to wrap their arms around him, “so lost and boyish he looked at times.”
And his innocence, says his son, was not entirely uncontrived. A civil service clerk, Dad came from Bombay to the South London suburbs 20 years ago, but he still manages to be baffled, immigrant-like, by bus routes. Dad’s life, and the lives of everyone around him, changes dramatically when he starts instructing groups in Oriental philosophy—“guru gigs,” his son calls these sessions—and falls in love with one of his disciples. Eva is beautiful, exotic, with bohemian views and tastes and warmly sympathetic to Karim, the callow adventurer. But she is also the woman who steals his father, breaks up their home. And what about poor Mum?
Dad dominates the first half of the novel. Whether dispensing parental advice—a mixed bag of middle-class piety and street sense—presiding over adoring followers or struggling to resolve his own paradoxes, he is one of the more engaging characters in recent fiction. His mystical observations, in which truth is glimpsed amid the charlatanry, are a special delight. When he virtually disappears in the novel’s second half, one misses him.
But The Buddha of Suburbia has a cast of appealing co-stars, supporting actors and bit players. Long-suffering Mum turns out to be a survivor, with more patience and good sense than all the rest. Eva’s son, Charlie, nearly drives young Karim crazy with his magnetic sexuality. And Auntie Jeeta—who works in a corner grocery but was a princess back home—brings magic to her role.
The Buddha of Suburbia has a compelling plot, sympathetic characters and a winning style, and it brims with observations on music, theater, religion, drugs and sex in pre-Margaret Thatcher England. And it’s a polemical novel as well, one whose trenchant views on racial injustice and class antagonisms impart outrage as they divert and entertain.
Ross Clark (review date 12 May 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 289
SOURCE: “A Dead Teenage Genius and Others,” in The Spectator, May 12, 1990, pp. 38-9.
[In the following negative review of The Buddha of Suburbia, Clark describes Kureishi as “a man with a sense of adventure that extends little further than experimentation in metropolitan sex and drugs.”]
After writing one homosexual screenplay, My Beautiful Launderette, and one heterosexual screenplay, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, it was a fair guess that Hanif Kureishi was going to turn the hero of his first novel into a raving bisexual. Mr Kureishi is a man with a sense of adventure that extends little further than experimentation in metropolitan sex and drugs. He recently gained fame as the Radio Four guest who unthinkingly announced that he found the Great London Poll Tax Riot ‘terrific’—if it was so ‘terrific’ then how come all the broken glass had been swept up by Sunday afternoon, 24 hours later? There is only one explanation: that Mr Kureishi is a half-hearted adventurer who rather appreciates his middle-class home.
His character, Karim Amir, is no different, and whiles his way through a 1970s South London adolescence, taking drugs and grabbing the genitals of his father’s girlfriend’s son Charlie. At one point Karim appears to be a great Who fan, but Mr Kureishi, the man who has brought Hackney writing to Chislehurst, is talking not so much about his generation as his degeneration. There may well be a certain squalid realism about it all, but it appears that Mr Kureishi has entirely overlooked the first rule as regards squalor: that while one may tolerate one’s own one is firmly repelled by other peoples’. The rule applies to reading about it every bit as much as to seeing and smelling it.
Richard Eder (review date 3 June 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1256
SOURCE: “E Pluribus England,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 3, 1990, pp. 3, 10.
[In the following review of The Buddha of Suburbia, Eder commends Kureishi's Third World perspective, although finds weakness in the later sections of the novel.]
“My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.”
It is a start worthy of Dickens; one of those bagpipe sentences whose skirl heralds the book to come, and whose bumpy drone nourishes it as it goes along. The Buddha of Suburbia is London subverted—notice that “almost”—by reality.
There is London as idea: St. Paul’s, sweet Thames, the Changing of the Guard, the National Theater, helmeted bobbies, bowler hats, bespoke tailoring, Big Ben, Bow bells, Pearly Queens and the lot. And there is London of those who came, in one way or another, because of the first London; and who put a mosque at Regents Park; kohl, dall, funny smells and funny accents in Southall; and Caribbean markets and unemployed anger in Brixton.
Hanif Kureishi, author of the film My Beautiful Laundrette again shows us England and her Third World, this time in a novel. He writes of Indian shopkeepers, punk groupies with spiked green hair, grandmothers in saris and their granddaughters hooked on Germaine Greer, soccer hoodlums, lords’ sons in Italian shoes and no socks, and avant-garde art snobs with private incomes. He weaves together a London that is terminally fragmented; he writes about traditional Londoners and the people they take account of only when they take the wrong bus.
The weaving is done through the wonderfully observant and comically desperate voice of Karim, son of an Indian father and an Anglo mother. They live in a dingy south London suburb and float between worlds. But it is Kureishi’s point that the worlds themselves are floating.
Dad, as Karim calls him, is a minor government employee, and miserable at it. But it is not his real life. He is a flowery Bombay cock-of-the-walk: warm, impulsive and flirtatious. When Karim was 3 and 4, Dad would take him to tearooms and dispatch him to ladies at nearby tables with the message: “My daddy wants to give you a kiss.” Later, he draws on his heritage to practice yoga and give courses in Eastern mysticism.
Dad is a big hit with the local middle class, particularly with Eva, who is brassy, arty and shrewd, and steals Dad from his family. Karim is torn. He goes with his father to Eva’s séances in turquoise flared trousers, see-through shirt, scarlet vest with gold stitching, high-heeled blue boots and a headband—a mixture of Indian and hip—but he weeps at the news that Dad is leaving. Dad weeps too, and covers him with kisses. The weeping and kissing are done in public; tropical disturbances at a south London bus stop. Dad is trying to go to Eva’s; he has to ask Karim for the right bus.
Karim knows all the buses. He is solidly in with the matted-hair rock ‘n’ roll set at his school; he listens to pop stars on his radio, and he has the right moves. But he floats too. He is bisexual—in a novel about blurred identity, even sex is blurred—and makes love both to Charlie, Eva’s beautiful, rock-musician son, and to Helen, whose father has a hairy back and hates “blacks.”
He also makes regular love with Jamila, his best friend. She has done drugs and sex since puberty; she is utterly liberated and politically aware; her idols are Greer, Malcolm X and Kate Millett. But her father, Anwar, is on a hunger strike because she refuses to marry a husband whom his family in Bombay has picked out for her.
Floating worlds. The Indians are trying to cope with being English. The English have lost any real identity of their own. Dad, the suburban Buddha, is a big hit; he even converts Karim’s chauvinist Uncle Ted, whose hobby is football rioting.
Eva will move to central London and get in with the art crowd. She will take Dad with her; his guru work will go out of demand, but he will remain as cheerfully full of himself as ever. Jamila will marry Changez, her bespoke husband, but she will not sleep with him.
Karim will get a theater job playing Mowgli in “The Jungle Book.” He will move up to a fashionable avant-garde group, working up a character based on his Indian relatives. It will feel like exploitation, but it will lead to a high-paying TV job; and by that time, having been exploited, sexually and otherwise, by his up-market English associates, he won’t much care.
Kureishi’s story turns thin and cartoonish in its later sections, when Karim is dealing head-on with the snobby London set. Other English writers, from Waugh on, have told us everything possible about its hollowness and decay. Kureishi’s pages on the decadent New York entertainment scene—Charlie has become a punk-rock star—are equally thin and brittle. But the portrait of Karim’s inner struggle, and that of his family and friends, is richly comic and quite a bit more.
There is Changez, for example, Jamila’s imported husband. We first see him as “the man walking towards England.” He is a one-man foreign country right in the middle of Heathrow Airport: tubby, bald, carrying two rotting suitcases and full of illusions about a fine marriage and a fine English future. They will be punctured, one by one.
Changez is hopeless at working; he falls asleep in his father-in-law’s store. Jamila treats him with the utmost severity, making him sleep on the couch while she sits in the bedroom doing her political studies. Eventually she moves them both to a commune, where she takes lovers of both sexes.
Changez yearns continually, but with immense dignity. With one deformed arm and no looks, he is lordly nonetheless. He is a god exiled into hard times, but he never doubts himself. And he delivers a splendid speech of outrage in Jamila’s anarchist, vegetarian, free-love (but not for him) commune:
All you here in this house, you good types, talk of the prejudice against this Yid and that black burglar bastard, this Paki and that poor woman. … But what about ugly bastards? What about us? What about our rights to be kissed?
In his account of his countrymen making their way in England, Kureishi tells us more about England, perhaps, than he does when he attempts a direct portrait. It is in the lovely deflections of his highly colored, life-asserting Indians that we see the social hollows and pallors of their hosts. Karim’s south London schoolmates, and the aimless husbands and wives who flock to Dad’s Buddha sessions, are as floating and unplaced in Thatcherite England as the immigrants are.
In an odd way, The Buddha of Suburbia is a counterpart to Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Both books show the Western city pressed upon by a non-white Third World. Wolfe’s book, clever but cold, shows us simply what it is like to be pressed. Kureishi’s witty and exhilarating novel—despite its awkward and disappointing second half—shows us what it is like to be that Third World.
We see the people in the streets, subways and little shops from whom we tend to avert our eyes, or at least our sympathy. In averting them, we become less visible to ourselves. We could use a few Kureishis over here.
Félix Jiménez (review date 9 July 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1385
SOURCE: “Gland Illusion,” in The Nation, July 9, 1990, pp. 63-4.
[In the following review of The Buddha of Suburbia, Jiménez finds shortcomings in the novel's empty hedonism and unconvincing resolution.]
Karim Amir is squeezing a favorite penis (not his own) to Pink Floyd’s “Ummagumma.” He’s 17. In order to squeeze so, he’s forgone a dreaded chess club meeting and gone out with his father, Haroon, for a karmic night around town. Karim is no Janis Ian inventing lovers on the phone. As he will tell you, he’s from suburbia, South London, and going somewhere—to the real London, the asterisk, the inevitable tour of duty, and then, who knows? He’ll follow his dreams with an unquenchable sense of erection. Karim, you know, is the master of ocular desires, just as his Pop is the Buddha of Suburbia, addicted to yoga and Lu Po and Lao Tzu and lusty nights.
Hanif Kureishi (yes, My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) has crowded into less than 300 pages what might be called a novel but is rather a constant, furious, streaming 1970s circle-jerk that takes in Pakistanis, Indians, Englishmen and Americans as well. The initial cast of characters includes Charlie (Karim’s squeezing partner and a rock-superstar wannabe) and Charlie’s mother, Eva Kay, who doubles as Haroon’s lover. Both couples make love in the first seventeen pages—Haroon and Eva on a public bench, Karim and Charlie in a bed—and then father and son go back home, complicitous, to poor old Mum, Margaret, who won’t sleep with a man “stinking of sick and puking all night.”
That’s South London in this novel, a place where flesh is king and Buddha: Everybody yields and everybody knows. The day after the opening trysts, Karim finds his mother’s sketchbook, a kind of minimalist diary where everything is summarily recorded. She knows. She even knows about Eva’s most intimate secret (her one-breasted chest) and has detachedly inked her view of it for posterity, along with her husband’s tragic, paunchy figure:
Standing next to him, slightly taller, was Eva, also naked, complete with one large breast. They were holding hands like frightened children, and faced us without vanity or embellishment, as if to say: This is all that we are, these are our bodies. They looked like John Lennon and Yoko Ono. How could Mum be so objective?
But objectivity, it seems, leads to dead-end streets in South London, where only the pragmatic and the adulterous prevail. By the end of part one, “In the Suburbs,” the marriage has crumbled, Haroon and Eva continue with their carnal rampage and mystical entertaining (nights spent discussing the secrets of Confucianism, Sufism, all isms, with friends) and poor Margaret is left to her soap-opera self. “You both left me,” she pines to Karim as he prepares to follow Charlie to London.
Part two, “In the City,” picks up three years later, when Karim is 20 and planted in London, with Dad and Eva and a few desires: “parties where girls and boys you didn’t know took you upstairs and fucked you … all the drugs you could use. You see, I didn’t ask much of life; this was the extent of my longing. But at least my goals were clear and I knew what I wanted.” One-track mind? Well, the problem with the novel is not Karim’s unbearable fascination with phallic phantoms but the fact that he’s been listening to Cat Stevens too much. Although musical references pop up throughout the book—everything from Nat King Cole to the Rolling Stones to Pete Townshend—the only song that really comes to one’s mind is Stevens’s syrupy “Father and Son”: Look at me, I am old but I’m happy. Karim’s politics are every bit as suburban as his father’s, he just punks it out differently. When Haroon—a k a Daddio, God or Harry—ends his marriage, wanders around and stays up late, Karim takes notes. He’ll surely repeat the feat, make it better, less boring. And he won’t wait for his middle-age crisis. Karim becomes the artsy sexual samurai his world seems to be waiting for. Ever eager, against his better judgment, he discovers the cheap thrills of possession (“I was being kissed a lot lately: I needed the affection, I can tell you,” he tells us); and in awe of Charlie’s musical triumphs with his Mustn’t Grumble band, Karim tries his hand at acting, which is what he has done all his life, more or less. Then the novel becomes a tad more philosophical, if you will. Karim has all the reasons for his likes and dislikes but, alas, can’t quite thread them together. Actually, he admits he’s fallen in love with Charlie because, like his father, he insists on standing apart. “I liked the power that they had and the attention they received. I liked the way people admired and indulged them.” By then, he’s a lost case.
The heightened sense of wanderlust that drowns Karim is reminiscent of—if not totally akin to—that of Sammy and Rosie, the successful, oversexed protagonists of the bittersweet Kureishi film that bears their names. But here, as opposed to the author’s screenplay heroes, Karim, Charlie and the gang seem to be transacting in silence against their worst primary fear: boredom. Nothing, not even society’s decay and possible demise, is more atrocious to these characters than a moment without excitement.
This is where Kureishi parts ways with his literary influences—particularly the Salman Rushdie of Shame and Midnight’s Children—whose social concerns he has abandoned in search of a more yuppified style. Kureishi’s characters do not seduce with ideas, as does Saleem Sinai of Midnight’s Children; they seduce with seduction, crassly and harshly, as they fiercely explore the empty possibilities of the dominant leisure class. When they think, they wander; when they don’t, they lust.
Our redefined Oedipus doesn’t really do much. Kureishi has given Karim such a narrow, albeit real, scope of interests that the only thing he can do is follow his travails and quote his friends: Louise Lawrence the onetime masseuse (who discovered socialism “in a forest of pricks and pond of semen,” realizing that “nothing human was alien to me”), Richard (who “talked about wanting to fuck only black men”) and Eleanor (who “worked with a woman performance artist who persuaded her to extract the texts of poems—‘Cows’ teeth like snowdrops bite the garlic grass’—from her vagina before reading them”). Naturally, Karim is taken by Eleanor for a while. He needs her exoticism, still believes he’s nothing without a hot, adventuresome, experienced nobody by his side.
Aimlessness and glands rule the novel so powerfully that near the end, when Kureishi strives to make sense of the whole indulgent mess, the only possible recourse is the tried-and-true device of a sojourn abroad, return ticket included. Karim the actor has finally made it to New York—he’d said he would—where he meets Charlie the superstar again, and they move together to the East Village. Charlie has turned into a joyless, materialistic pig; Karim has fits of depression and self-hatred. He’s nothing but Successful Charlie’s mental yardstick: “I was a full-length mirror, but a mirror that could remember.” He does—the good times, the illusions, the corners he turned in search of Charlie, the heartbreak and the accumulation of events both senseless and sensual. What’s left? Predictably, the return to London, Pop’s marriage proposal to Eva, a new beginning. The end.
Funny, but Kureishi is an intelligent writer—all too intelligent—to end the book with such nirvanistic complacency after a nonstop wandering hell. Something somewhere tells us that there’s a sequel to the novel, which has already been optioned off for a movie. Then again, we could join with Karim in singing The Smiths’ ode to nothingness: Sixteen, clumsy and shy / I went to London and. … Or perhaps we should remember Eva’s lament at the beginning of the novel: “The cruellest thing you can do to Kerouac is reread him at 38.” I felt a bit cruel reading Kureishi at 30.
Tariq Rahman (review date Spring 1991)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490
SOURCE: A review of The Buddha of Suburbia, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, p. 370.
[In the following mixed review, Rahman finds The Buddha of Suburbia “somewhat tedious to read,” but commends the author's realistic portrayal of the characters' “blighted lives.”]
Hanif Kureishi is well known for such compassionate plays on race relations as Birds of Passage (1983) and My Beautiful Laundrette (1986). The Buddha of Suburbia is his first novel, and though it features Asians living in England, it does not focus upon race relations except in passing. The main theme now is the confusion of values and loyalties in the mind of the protagonist, who is an adolescent boy when the novel begins. The boy, Karim Amir, who is also the narrator, is the product of a mixed marriage. The father is a Pakistani and the mother an English woman. The novel opens with the father moving away from his stay-at-home wife into the circle of fashionable people who ask him to teach them the mystic arts. At last he moves in with Eva, a beautiful woman, while Karim develops a frustrated carnal relationship with her equally good-looking son Charlie. The point seems to be the illicitness of both these relationships from the point of view of that set of moral values that favor the stability of human relationships in the form of the family and marriage. The novel ends with no resolution either in these relationships or in those of other characters, such as the Indian man Changez and his wife Jamila. Jamila never allows her husband to have intercourse with her and even has a child by a boyfriend, because her husband had been chosen for her by her father in accordance with Indian tradition.
Although the novel’s conclusion is consistent with the open-ended approach in fiction found in much modernist literature, there is a central dilemma here. It appears that Kureishi condemns the lack of consensus of values that leads to chaos in relationships. There is an aspect of his mind which hankers for stability and a life shared with others. The narrator suffers much when his father leaves his mother, and Changez’s suffering is all too apparent. It appears that if one is selfish and cruel, one can succeed as Charlie does. However, only the consequences of anarchic individualism are condemned; the philosophy itself is endorsed. Kureishi, like his narrator, also defends the freedom of the individual that has led to this barren wasteland. This is a philosophical flaw in the novel and one which becomes apparent as the novel ends.
The Buddha of Suburbia is somewhat tedious to read, since the lives it deals with are petty and the novelist has not been able to resolve the conflict of values in his own mind. However, it does present with great realism the blighted lives of young people caught in the chaos of changing values and is valuable from that point of view.
Jonathan Romney (review date 13 December 1991)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1233
SOURCE: “The Sound of Silence,” in New Statesman & Society, December 13, 1991, pp. 30-1.
[In the following negative review, Romney asserts that London Kills Me “falls because it has precious little to say about characters who have precious little to say.”]
Hanif Kureishi’s London Kills Me is not a pop film as such, although you might expect it to be. The published script is accompanied by a eulogy to the Beatles, in which Kureishi is at pains to stress pop’s status as “the richest cultural form in postwar Britain”, and to locate writing in relation to that form: “It is pop that has spoken of ordinary experience with far more precision, real knowledge and wit than, say, British fiction of the equivalent period. And you can’t dance to fiction.”
With impressively recherché soundtrack credits and a grittily streetwise array of non-haircuts, you would expect the film—set among the drug dealing gangs of Notting Hill’s squatlands—to be a full-blooded attempt to tackle 1990s British youth culture. But it may be that Kureishi is more comfortable with a neatly historical phenomenon such as the Beatles than with the relatively uncontainable stuff that Charlie Gillett has compiled for the soundtrack—French, Moroccan and Pakistani music, House, reggae, and assorted dance hybrids.
The selection should induce cultural vertigo, but on screen it doesn’t. The film opens with its gormless pusher hero, Clint, striding through Notting Hill to the sound of local anarcho-funksters Renegade Soundwave, and the first thing that hits you is: it just isn’t loud enough. Certainly not loud enough to live up to the script: “The street is busy, colourful and mixed. Music comes from various cafés and shops. There is music on the street constantly.” Later, Clint attends a party where, the script says, he finds “Music. Dope. Dancing. Everything you’d expect.”
This may well be the sloppiest script direction ever written, but you do, indeed, get everything you’d expect in this regulation party scene—except a sense of music dominating and shaping the world. This is a London in which you would never run the least risk of deafness. Early on, teenage entrepreneur Muffdiver professes a passion for Hendrix and House, but at no other time do any characters (except Clint’s Elvis-impersonator stepfather) show any sign of caring about music one way or another.
This is a bizarre oversight. After all, in his introductory essay, Kureishi refers to the young dealer who inspired the film as living in an atmosphere of “the new music—Hip-Hop, House, Acid Jazz”. You can understand him not wanting to overstate the case—he could have ended up making Aceeeid! The Movie three years too late—but here is a film in which music barely impinges on the characters’ lives. Don’t these wasted stragglers have a yen for speed metal? Shouldn’t there be an REM or Wonder Stuff LP knocking around somewhere?
This is not just quibbling about cultural accuracy. The film is drowning in silence. Gillett admits to being surprised that the music didn’t end up louder or more prominent, especially since Kureishi had spoken to him approvingly of Scorsese’s dynamically strident GoodFellas. The original intention, says Gillett, was to catch a specific sense of place—“a juxtaposition of musics that is peculiar to London”—and to build the soundtrack up from “the kind of stuff you think you’ve heard but not actually what you’ve heard”. In an article that accompanies the script, he says: “When I visit a city for the first time, I love the collage of music that comes at me from all sides, from shop doorways, market stalls, car radios and open windows.” And the music he has chosen is appropriate to the sense of an off-the-cuff subculture that thrives on chance hearings of remixed, fragmented, sampled sounds.
However, Kureishi was concerned to maintain the primacy of the dialogue, something Gillett admits he disagreed with—“It’s a grumble I have about English films in general. In American films, you’re often groping to hear anything at all—it’s all part of making you feel it’s a reality. The English thing is part of a theatrical tradition.”
Certainly, by foregrounding the dialogue Kureishi lets his Royal Court roots show. But it’s a missed opportunity, because the battle for a new cinematic language is going to be fought increasingly on the terrain of music.
To say this is not just to acknowledge the ever-closer collusion between Hollywood and the music industry, which knows that a film is better value when it can shift a few Doors CDs, and that you get more mileage out of Hammer when his new single is really a trailer for The Addams Family. There is also the fact that music radio is now so dominant that any film with an urban setting has to take that music on its own terms, or be accused of selective deafness. There have been some superb uses of music this year in the new black realist cinema—Ice Cube’s nihilistic raps encapsulating the mood of South Central LA in Boyz N the Hood; the pointed dialogue of rap and salsa in Hangin’ with the Homeboys. And Spike Lee set a pattern by effectively building Do the Right Thing around a relentless barrage of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”: migraine as social weapon.
Another version of this sense of the city as sonic collage was Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, which started with a duet between David Byrne and Celia Cruz, ended with a reggae “Wild Thing”, and took in all cultural points in between. This bore no relation to the sort of music you might ever genuinely hear in America—but it was a utopian projection of what you conceivably might hear, if you were prepared to listen.
Because music is so discreet in Kureishi’s film, his characters exist in a cultural silence, their language, clothes and aspirations signifying nothing. A denser musical context would have given them life. Instead, they remain inarticulate nerds in ill-fitting clothes. The act of disguising yourself as a Goth, as Muffdiver finally does, becomes a culturally arbitrary gesture.
London Kills Me makes you appreciate the thoroughness of Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels, another film that misfired this year for a debutant feature-maker. Julien’s film was sold largely on its music, and its aim was to jog the recognition cells with something very specific. The argument was that the year 1977 in pop culture was not, as history had it, exclusively white, punk and heterosexual, but also black, soul, and gay. Hence, the seventies soul canon—Roy Ayers, Blackbyrds, Funkadelic—played off against X-Ray Spex and the token punk-approved reggae anthem “Police and Thieves”. The effect may have been hackneyed, but at least you knew where and when you were. And the constant radio activity gave the film one thing indispensable to conveying the urban scene—a sense of cacophony.
London Kills Me should not have to stand or fall on the soundtrack. Mainly, it falls because it has precious little to say about characters who have precious little to say. But if Kureishi had allowed the music to say this little for them, he might even have ended up with something that film has every possibility of being—fiction you can dance to.
Reed Way Dasenbrock (review date Autumn 1992)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581
SOURCE: A review of London Kills Me, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 4, Autumn, 1992, p. 724.
[Below, Dasenbrock gives a mixed assessment of London Kills Me and Kureishi's writing in general.]
London Kills Me is a collection of three screenplays and four essays by one of the most visible young “Black British” writers, Hanif Kureishi. These include the screenplays of the two well-known films Kureishi wrote for Stephen Frears, My Beautiful Laundrette and Rosie and Sammy Get Laid, as well as the screenplay of the new film Kureishi directed himself which gives the volume its title. Each screenplay is introduced by a related essay, and I found I learned more about Kureishi and his work from the essays than from the screenplays, since the essays comment on the films and the process by which they were made, whereas the screenplays provide little more than a pale outline of the films they led to.
“The Rainbow Sign,” the essay framing My Beautiful Laundrette, is of particular interest, as it recounts Kureishi’s first trip to Pakistan. Kureishi in Pakistan sounds a good deal like V. S. Naipaul (to make a comparison that would probably please neither writer), finding there a vicious combination of servility toward Western culture and troglodytic calls for a return to Islamic purity. It is in Pakistan that Kureishi realizes his British identity, but he returns to Britain only to see once again how he is still perceived by the English as “other,” as a “Paki.” What marks his difference from Naipaul is the England he returns to, for in place of Naipaul’s bucolic Wiltshire garden, Kureishi lives in and depicts a squalid if never dull inner-city London of upward and downward mobility, of crime, sex, and drugs, of racial minorities and intense racial hatreds.
This London is a real place that demands the chronicler it finds in Kureishi’s essays and films, yet the question I have always brought to his work is a question that London Kills Me still does not answer. What kind of chronicler is Kureishi of this material? What kind of an investment does he have in it? He quotes an aunt writing him about My Beautiful Laundrette: “Why oh why do you have to promote the widely held view of the British that all evil stems from Pakistani immigrants?” His response is that of the realist, seeing his aunt as demanding “useful lies and cheering fictions: the writer as public relations officer, as hired liar.” Yet this seems rather an incomplete response to his aunt’s point: she is asking him to reflect on the effect of what he writes, to think about how it affects the world in which she lives. Moreover, even if he is telling the truth about his material, it remains the case that he has chosen this “truth” over another by virtue of his choice of subject matter.
The question of why Kureishi’s chosen world is entirely one of drugs, violence, and aimless lives remains, as does the more pressing one of why his images of Asians in Britain are so generally hostile, conforming—as his aunt suggests—to the very racist clichés he ostensibly opposes. Kureishi is a talented writer full of promise, but he will not come into his own as an artist until he realizes that the choice of subject matter is only a very small part of writing; it is the treatment of that subject matter which is ultimately much more important.
James Saynor (review date 3 March 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 908
SOURCE: “Mirrorshades,” in New Statesman & Society, March 3, 1995, pp. 40-1.
[In the following review, Saynor offers tempered praise for The Black Album, finding shortcomings in Kureishi's lack of vision.]
According to Milan Kundera, “human life is bounded by two chasms: fanaticism on one side, absolute scepticism on the other”. For Hanif Kureishi, though, these giant goal-markers can be surprisingly close together. The protagonist of The Black Album, Kureishi’s second novel, is partly an insolent cynic, in common with most of the author’s young male heroes. But he’s also partly in thrall to hardline Islam—just at the moment when The Satanic Verses becomes, literally, a burning issue.
Like its predecessor, The Buddha of Suburbia, the novel is a comic and profane portrait of the artist as a young gun, set amid the clamour of semi-bankrupt, pseudo-progressive cultures on the streets of a clapped-out London. Shahid Hasan, born in Sevenoaks to a family of estate agents from Pakistan, is ephebic, self-effacing and highly corruptible. He wants to be a writer, and reveres the Great Art of the West, but finds little of this at the dilapidated London college where he takes a trashy humanities course.
Here, the postmodernistic whoring that passes for much of modern intellectual life is advanced by Andrew Brownlow, a former Cambridge Marxist who is unable to cope with the fall of the Berlin Wall and thinks that the Rushdie fatwah “has a strange legitimacy”; and by Deedee Osgood, Brownlow’s estranged wife, whose free-range approach to cultural studies takes in Madonna’s hairstyles, the history of funk, and little else of merit.
Shahid starts an athletic affair with Deedee, but she’s none too pleased with the outlook of some of his mates. These oblates of the Ayatollah are led by Brother Riaz, a law student from Lahore with a yen for Paul Smith shirts and a tone of voice “like a cross between J B Priestley and Zia Al Haq”. Riaz’ aide and enforcer of Islamic propriety is Chad, an ex-junkie who used to be known as Trevor Buss.
Ten years on from 1979, the end point of The Buddha of Suburbia, young British Asians are no longer as keen on assimilation into white British society as was Karim Amir, Buddha’s. Shahid can see through the casuistry of white “officer-class” leftists like Brownlow; he realises that British racism is endemic; and he reacts forcefully against the decultured Asianness of his family—who are My Beautiful Laundrette materialists wrapping themselves in the Union Jack and old copies of the Reader’s Digest.
So he’s torn between throwing in his lot with Riaz and Chad, who publicly barbecue The Satanic Verses after finding a message from Allah inscribed inside a mystic aubergine, and devoting himself to the English liberal Deedee, who sets the police on the fundamentalists and tells Shahid: it’s me or the eggplant. And, in an even more forsaken way, as he drops E with Deedee on the emergent rave scene, he’s torn between his yearning to pace himself against Lorca or Turgenev, and against the easier consumptions of an era when “culture” is no longer synonymous with “learning”, but with “fun”, “lifestyle” and “self-assertion”.
Having spent 200 pages laying bare these contradictions, and training his guttersnipish wit on all corners of left and multicultural politics, Kureishi’s solution to Shahid’s dilemmas smacks, inevitably, of evasion and conservatism. Shahid ends up longing for “order and proportion” in his life—in much the same woolly way that Karim, having been dragged through bohemia backwards in The Buddha of Suburbia, decides that he needs to “locate myself and learn what the heart is”. The suburban values of moderation, monogamy and Famous Books triumph over the inner-city ones of transgression and monomania.
Kureishi’s second novel lacks the chronological sweep and discipline of his first, but it’s a reasonable consolidation of that earlier success—funny, truculent and lubricious, as Shahid veers between innocence and knowledge, commitment and indecision, as the comedy demands. The author seems more attuned to the 18th-century English picaresque and to the style of 20th-century raconteurs like Kingsley Amis than to any literary idiom closer to the international cutting edge. (Shahid likes Midnight’s Children, but it does give him a pain in the head.)
As usual, Kureishi’s fiercest scorn is reserved for the pretensions of the Asian petit bourgeoisie, an attitude of his that smacks of old-fashioned English snobbery. It’s not as if Kureishi’s semi-autobiographical protagonists don’t spend half the time striking poses themselves, amid tiresome roll-calls of what’s cool, like a “list” novel for Time Out readers. But London itself is as well-drawn as it has ever been in his scripts and prose—mendicant, fearful and sheathed in desire.
Kureishi is ultimately, like anyone else, just a liberal humanist with a record collection and an unrealistic belief in everlasting love, although he’s embarrassed about you knowing of this simple idealism. He’s also our sharpest chronicler of the acute Balkanisation of British culture since the 1970s. But at this stage of his writing career, he can’t decide what he thinks about this national unravelling. To borrow a phrase once used by Martin Amis of Steven Spielberg, he is more of mirror than a lamp. Like the louche young Asian on the cover of The Black Album, he perhaps needs to start by taking off those ridiculous reflector shades.
David Horspool (review date 11 March 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832
SOURCE: “A Passion of a Vegetable Fashion,” in The Spectator, March 11, 1995, p. 33.
[In the following review, Horspool offers an unfavorable assessment of The Black Album, citing Kureishi's “talent for caricature” as weak.]
Shahid, the young hero of Hanif Kureishi’s second novel, spends most of his time trying to make his mind up. But the oddest choice he has to face is between his lecturer-lover and a sacred aubergine, which has been written on by Allah (‘it’s me or the enchanted eggplant’, as she puts it).
Kureishi, the author of The Buddha of Suburbia and three screenplays, can apparently put anything (like the morality of playing Mowgli in an adaptation of The Jungle Book, or running a laundrette) in its religious, cultural and political context. It is no accident that ‘aubergine’ is one of the few words that the local Labour council leader, a shameless vote-grabber who ingratiates himself with as many ‘communities’ as possible, knows the Hindi for: ‘Brinjal, I believe it’s called. I could murder an Indian, couldn’t you, lads?’ And when Shahid confesses sheepishly to his girlfriend about having been to see the ‘manifestation’ of the vegetable, he defends himself with the exclamation (a sequitur in his mind, if not immediately in the leader’s) that
We’re third-class citizens, even lower than the white working class. … Papa thought it would stop, that we’d be accepted here as English. We haven’t been!
Set in an unrecognisably derelict Kilburn at the time of the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the fatwah, The Black Album is, like The Buddha of Suburbia, about a young man’s attempts to fit in, to place himself racially, socially and intellectually.
Shahid carries out his quest pretty much in these explicit terms, categorising himself as if he were his own sociological case-study, a tendency which Kureishi has laughed at before in others, but which he seems not to mind falling into himself.
Shahid’s first malign influence is Riaz, an older. Pakistani-born fellow student who has moved from Leeds (and whose accent consequently sounds like a ‘cross between J. B. Priestley and Zia Al Haq’). Riaz is recognisable—to us, at least—as the stereotype of a dangerous fundamentalist; intelligent, manipulative and persuasive, he has turned helping out his community into a potentially violent crusade. When Shahid begins at college, he is lonely, away from his comfortable Sevenoaks home for the first time; at school, he has suffered racial abuse, and the strength and security of Islam appeals to him, so it may not seem surprising that he falls in with Riaz’s crowd. But Riaz is such an obvious maniac (a man for whom the fatwah is ‘the least I would do to him’) that Kureishi’s use of him to represent the religious alternative to secular life seems unbalanced. And for all his insecurity, Shahid, like most students, is fairly keen on the secular life. He is passionate about pop music (the book’s title is the name of a ‘bootleg’ Prince record), alcohol, drugs and sex. Why should he be sucked in by people who believe modern living is ‘crazy slavery’?
The other influence on Shahid is Deedee, also a caricature, a trendy cultural studies lecturer who is sexually liberated and knows where all the best raves are. Shahid and Deedee fall in love and he sets about running through a ‘backlog’ of years of sexual fantasies with her. The relationship is stretched from both sides, however, by Deedee’s contempt for Riaz, and by Shahid’s intuition that he is being patronised by his lecturer:
He didn’t always appreciate being played Madonna or George Clinton in class … as if it were somehow more him than Fathers and Sons.
The novel plays out Shahid’s choosing, between Riaz and Deedee, religious solidarity and sexual freedom, between reading books and reading aubergines. Other ingredients are tossed into the pot: Shahid’s flash brother Chili, who acquires a cocaine habit and a slippery friend, Strapper, who gives off an ‘unmistakable atmosphere of wrongdoing, deceit and criminality’. These two pop in and out of the story, increasing the chaos and tension as the novel progresses. An IRA bombing campaign is described in terms which give the impression of British society teetering on the brink of ruin, but the idea is dropped too quickly to have an impact. Perhaps this is because it does not suit the tone of the novel, which lies in a peculiar limbo between black comedy and serious social criticism.
Kureishi’s observational qualities are undone by his weakness for extremes. The decline of Chili from BMW-driving yuppie to gibbering addict is symptomatically exaggerated. For all its humour and its attempts to address the mixed problem of race and class which Shahid, an English-born Pakistani travel-agent’s son, encapsulates, The Black Album is sabotaged by Hanif Kureishi’s talent for caricature. We don’t care enough because these people aren’t real.
Liz Thomson (review date 12 May 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 878
SOURCE: “Low Fidelity,” in New Statesman & Society, May 12, 1995, p. 37.
[In the following review of The Faber Book of Pop, Thomson claims, “there is gold here, but also much that doesn't glitter at all.”]
Rave novelist Irvine Welsh is reportedly unhappy at his acceptance by the literati. Hanif Kureishi would surely applaud it—indeed, would see it as inevitable. For he regards pop journalism in all its myriad forms as part of the literary continuum. In his introduction to The Faber Book of Pop. Kureishi dismisses Tom Wolfe’s 1989 “literary manifesto for the new social novel”, declaring pop journalism, biography, the “non-fiction novel” and “personal journalism” to be the late-20th century equivalent of Zola and Balzac. “It is absurd”, he writes, “to think that anyone today could write like Dickens … Pop may have rejected a certain notion of literature … but its progress was accompanied from the beginning by literary comment.”
We must assume that he does not mean “literary” in its literal sense. After all, the acres of comment from British tabloids and the weekly music press that have attended pop from its raucous birth (just after the last war: a debateable point) can scarcely be so aggrandised. Anyway, Kureishi—whom we can presumably hold responsible for the chunks of fiction from the likes of Wolfe, Keith Waterhouse, Colin MacInnes and Anthony Burgess—goes on to clarify the book’s raison d’être: “We have tried to give a sense of the range and variety of pop writing; perhaps to present—if sketchily—the alternative history of our time told from the standpoint of popular music.”
Tried—but, arguably, failed. For a start, the book is curiously balanced, or rather unbalanced. Pop’s first 40 years (in this book, from 1942–80) are chronicled in 530 pages, the last 15 in 280. Yet the pace of change—musical, technological, sociological—and the level of innovation was surely highest in the 1960s and the early 1970s. Second, the collection has a British bias for which each editor’s preamble does not prepare us. Third, there is little attempt to chronicle pop’s “big moments” (Sgt Pepper, Woodstock) or tributaries of the mainstream: blues per se; old or new country; the folk revival that ushered in Dylan, Baez; or the 1970s slide into MoR with Bread, the Carpenters, the Eagles, all of whose easy-listening style provides part of the explanation for 1976 and all that.
Fourth, and most crucially, there is a lack of intellectual rigour. Too many pieces add little to our knowledge and understanding of the past four decades. The curious, the whimsical have their place, for they are part of the pop process; but so too should the analytical disciplines to which pop has been subjected.
With a few notable exceptions (Simon Frith, Dick Hebdige, Richard Hoggart) they do not. The purpose of such a collection should surely be to rescue pop from the weight of tabloid journalism that has so often swamped discussion. The pieces that stand out here are by commentators working outside the pop arena: Paul Johnson (in NS) castigating William Deedes for his praise of the Fab Four, and warning of “The menace of Beatlism”; Times editor William Rees-Mogg defending Mick Jagger in “Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?”; Angela Carter and Biba’s founder Barbara Hulanicki on style; Joan Didion on the Doors. Maureen Cleave’s piece “How Does a Beatle live?” is celebrated for its “We’re bigger than Jesus” remarks but, writing as a friend, she offers an amusing insight into mid-1960s life with the Lennons.
Each in their own way, Donald McCullin, Derek Jarman, Hunter S Thompson, Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer and Lou Reed (on pop president Vaclav Havel) make for compulsive reading. Mick Watt’s 1972 interview with Bowie has earned its place, but do we really need two pieces on Iggy Pop, two on Nirvana and two on the Sex Pistols when Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys, Phil Spector and Carole King are unrepresented?
And why have two editors who would doubtless consider themselves “new men” devoted so little space to pieces by or about women? Where’s Lilian Roxon, Ellen Willis or, closer to home (and probably cheaper), Penny Valentine, for many years a mainstay of the music press?
There is gold here, but also much that doesn’t glitter at all. At 800 pages, the book is too long. Given its inordinate length, Kureishi and Savage should have stepped out from behind their personal preferences to offer a more inclusive take on their subject. Alternatively, they should have better defined their terms. On a practical note, it is surely better to place dates and attributions at the beginning of each piece (though Clinton Heylin’s desultory Penguin Book of Rock and Roll Writing didn’t properly attribute anywhere). Neither would the odd footnote or bracketed insert have gone amiss.
Pop lore and literature is indeed a rich vein and, like all good writing, it can describe and analyse, amuse, infuriate and stimulate, throwing new light on our shared past. But the best of it is rarely represented here: there is little to compare to Balzac or Zola. The Faber Book of Pop could be a guided tour through postwar history. Instead, it is a long ramble on a road without signposts.
Michael Bywater (review date 13 May 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1479
SOURCE: “Never Mind the Width, Feel the Lack of Quality,” in The Spectator, May 13, 1995, pp. 44-5.
[In the following review, Bywater offers a negative assessment of pop music and The Faber Book of Pop.]
Those who can’t, no longer teach, but go into journalism, where the great thing is to natter and scratch like hens. Scratch, scratch, scratch. That’s why journalists love the pop industry: plenty of surface. Scratch it away and, look!, more surface, and it changes every day. Pop is surface all the way down. The musical toolbag contains only surface instruments—rhythmic thud, punch, whine and whop—and the emotions, too, are superficial: easily dissembled, easily aroused. Sometimes pop musicians kill themselves to notify their fans that their emotions are genuine. It is the apotheosis of superficiality.
The surface detail is fascinating. It’s hypnotic. You can go on writing it down for ever. Some of them do. If you can describe enough things, if you can describe everything, then people might think that you’ve got the picture. People might think you’re in the groove. You might get laid.
Tom Wolfe was one who described everything. But he was being smart, like Stockhausen. Stockhausen did his plunking, his yowling, and so did his imitators and disciples. But what Stockhausen was showing us, like a Swiss horologist who ends his apprenticeship by making a watch using only tools he has himself made, was the gathering of his implements. Lesser lights could only make the tools, not the watch itself.
And so Tom Wolfe went on to write The Bonfire of the Vanities, while so many of the others went on missing the point. They were describing the pattern-on-pattern, beagle-collar shirts, the hip-slung, cock-thrusting flared tweed trousers, the stack-heel boots, the drugs, the booze, the thumb-on-snout cool way to smoke, the rasp, the jet, the lights, the streets, the roadies, babes, fans and mamas … and they were missing the point: most of what they were writing about was bad.
Not just the pitifully constrained, foursquare, three-chord music, not just the stumbling, inarticulate lyrics, nor the drooling suckers in the crowd, the money-men smelling of burnt rubber, the parched, bug-eyed hangers-on, the talcumed therapists, the lizardy suppliers … they were easy pickings. But so few questioned the scorched, manipulative stupidity of the whole nasty enterprise. It wouldn’t have been cool. Pop was basically fine. It was, like, the suits … it was them who spoiled everything. Otherwise? Hey—Arcadia, man. Yeah. Right.
We won’t be wanting the Frank Zappa quote. You know it already: the one about journalism being written by people who can’t write, for people who can’t read. He might have added that they were writing, on the whole, about people with the musical imagination of lice, working in a global industry which has somehow reduced humanity’s greatest achievement—a near-universal language of pure transcendence—into a knuckle-dragging sub-pidgin of grunts and snarls, capable of fully expressing only the more pointless forms of violence and the more brutal forms of sex.
And, of course, jumping up and down.
The decline has been absolute, and spectacularly rapid. It’s hard to see what else mid-Nineties pop can divest itself of while still claiming to be music. Structure, development, harmonic subtlety, rhythmic eloquence, the palette of timbre, the shading of dynamics: all these have gone, and we are left with a sort of bad-tempered shouting to a frenetic pulse. Pop has become truly infantile.
You might say that it doesn’t matter, that it’s harmless, that those of us who find in pop a powerful impetus to despair are fogeys, killjoys, old farts who would be better off running rugby football. But it does matter. It matters because one of the great civilising forces of mankind is the ability to make subtle distinctions between shades of feeling. That subtlety lies at the root of empathy, which in turn is the foundation of genuine civility.
Pop music—‘pop’ as popular, not as cheap, commercial, transient and disposable, the definition the book’s editors appear to rejoice in—was, not so long ago, less than a lifetime, remarkably subtle. Emotional precision was almost demanded of it.
The words crept up on you, announcing their emotions shyly, as they held on to the coat-tail of the tune. When I am near you … After I'm gone … Here we are, out of cigarettes … Every time we say goodbye I die a little, with that little caesura between ‘I’ and ‘die,’ just as you might find a catch in your voice if you said such a thing to someone.
This subtlety not only articulates the emotions of the listeners, but, in its turn, tunes the listeners’ emotional palate more precisely … and, it is not too fanciful to suggest, their spiritual palate, too. If Bach is the sound of God thinking, then perhaps Gershwin is, at least, the sound of St Anthony of Padua whistling as he works.
And the sound of gangsta rap? of the fragmenting sub-colonies of … ‘full-throttle techno terror’? No matter how street-smart the words, the musical effect is the sound of a face being punched. It is MacMusic, fast sound, empty calories. People are being fed spleenburgers and told that’s what food is like.
It has become politically incorrect to say that the ‘music’ industry is … poisoning the minds of the young. Rock journalists, poor slaves of fashion that they are, are caught in a fearful trap. Skating on the surface, they can never keep up. They resort to being clever about MacMusic because they are scared of not being young any more; but their very cleverness marks them as elderly. Nothing could be less cool than writing for The Modern Review. But they try. The try to be in there, commenting, interpreting, but never judging, not really.
And they are, in a way, right. The pop pushers are not poisoning, but starving their consumers. The poor punters are hungry for fish, but are given … what? Stones. Small rocks. Harsh, dense, inanimate, but let’s not flog it to death. The truth is that rock or pop or rap or techno or whatever we are supposed to call it right now, today, is not really about music at all. It’s about clothes, drugs, attitude. It’s a territorial marker. That’s always been part of it. Now it’s most of it. The music has gone into an endless, numbing, 140 beat-per-minute loop. Suck the beat. Suck the beat. Suck the beat.
I met a rap performer not so long ago who told me he revered Palestrina. ‘How can you do the stuff you do?’ I asked. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘how the hell can you type? I mean, you ever heard typing?’ ‘But it’s not music,’ I said. ‘Neither is what I do,’ he said. ‘It’s a way of getting a pretty good living out of a lot of middle-class white kids who want to annoy Mummy and Daddy.’
And the working-class kids? The book’s most disturbing piece is by one Simon Reynolds, writing in something called The Wire, about something called ’Ardkore. He says:
The proletarian culture of consolation has become a culture of concussion: hence amnesiac/anaesthetic slang terms for a desirable state of oblivion like ‘sledged,’ ‘mashed up,’ ‘cabbaged,’ ‘monged;’ hence song titles like ‘Blackout’ and ‘Hypnoblast’.
That’s where the music has gone. For those of us who have stood, uncool, appalled, on the sidelines, The Faber Book of Pop is a chronicle of despair, a guidebook to the inferno. It begins with a thousand teenage bobby-soxers squealing over Frank Sinatra and ends with the smashed, drugged, urban warfare of ’Ardkore. In half a century we decline from Humphrey Lyttelton’s skilful horn to the sampled, computerised repetitive in-your-face violence spawned by pale, flat-eyed sulphate abusers hunched over their samplers in manky Toxteth bedrooms.
But this … stuff, this un-music, witless drivel, smashed, debauched imbecility, is being sold. It is being pushed. It is inseparable from the decay on which it feeds: crudity, stupidity, brutality, inarticulacy, the short fuse, the crunched face, the snatched fuck, the solipsism, the hopelessness. Saying that, I sound like an old fart, I sound like the people I hate, I sound like someone who can’t dance, is no fun, who isn’t getting laid. But it is. It is. And people are getting rich on it. They always have. And most of them have always been the people whom, in a civilised world, you wouldn’t want to be rich. You’d want them to be poor. Elsewhere. Their justification is always: ‘But that’s what the kids want.’ Is it? Is it really? Or is it just what they are being given? In our post-Newtonian universe, where sex means death, has the music of the spheres, too, degenerated into cacophony?
The Economist (review date 15 July 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495
The Economist (review date 15 July 1995)
SOURCE: “Talking 'bout My Generation,” in The Economist, July 15, 1995, p. 67.
[In the following review, the critic discusses the portrayal of pop music in The Faber Book of Pop.]
Pop music “is the wonder of post-war British and American culture”, says Hanif Kureishi in The Faber Book of Pop. It is not as bold a claim as it seems. The development of pop music (broadly defined) into a global phenomenon is a cause for wonder. It is now almost impossible to avoid, hard as some try. It has infiltrated everything from films and television to the shopping mall, the airport, the corporate PR promo and the political rally. The same sounds can be heard everywhere. Madonna is arguably as well known a global product as Coca-Cola.
The success of pop music in becoming the music of the masses is not what this book is really about, however. To Mr Kureishi and his co-editor, Jon Savage, the history of pop music is the story of a war between a vibrant “low culture” and a dying “high culture”, of Wham! versus Wagner. For them, the most crucial battles were fought in the 1950s and 1960s, when teenagers made music (and lived lives) that challenged the repressive mores (and melodies) of their elders. They regard the industrialisation of pop music in recent years with some regret, and think it suggests that the best days of pop may be over.
Accordingly, most of the best pieces in this rich collection of reportage, biography, essays and fiction are from that period. There is Malcolm X’s description of how he learnt to dance (“my long-suppressed African instincts broke through, and loose”); Noel Coward’s sniffy diary comment after meeting the Beatles (“bad-mannered little shits”); Tom Wolfe’s vivid description of the LSD-enhanced Trips Festival; and the elegant plea in The Times after the conviction of Mick Jagger on a drugs charge: “Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?”
The tone and quality of the writing after 1980 is far more analytical (often pretentiously so) than descriptive, with a weary, wistful, end-of-an-era feel. This mood peaks, predictably, in essays on the bizarre marriage of Michael Jackson and Lisa-Marie Presley (daughter of Elvis) and on the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (“his commitment to contradiction got him in the end”).
The book has little positive to say about the future of pop music. Yet technology and education mean that more people are able to produce and disseminate music, and of a greater range and quality, than ever before—and Courtney Love (Mr Cobain’s widow) is pioneering pop music on the Internet. The best may be yet to come. Messrs Kureishi and Savage doubt it, claiming pop music peaked in the 1960s. As it happens, that is when they were teenagers. Perhaps it is the fate of every generation as it ages to believe that today’s tunes and lyrics are no match for those of its youth.
Beverly Fields (review date 22 October 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 889
SOURCE: “Literature vs. Piety on the Streets of London,” in Chicago Tribune Books, October 22, 1995, p. 5.
[In the following review, Fields offers tempered praise for The Black Album, which she considers less well-written than The Buddha of Suburbia.]
Hanif Kureishi has said of his new novel, The Black Album, that it is the first expression, in fiction, of support for Salman Rushdie, whose career as a writer is literally a matter of life and death. Kureishi has set his novel in 1989, the year of the fatwa, the death sentence imposed on Rushdie by the Iranian theocracy as his punishment for having written what it considers—in the face of all contrary literate opinion—a blasphemous book: The Satanic Verses.
The Satanic Verses is never named as the book that provides the pivot for the turning point in this narrative and in the development of the novel’s chief character, but by the time a gang of Islamic fundamentalists holds it up to be burned, its entity is unmistakeable.
Hanif Kureishi, who has turned out the screenplays for My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, as well as an admirable first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, undertakes in The Black Album a grimmer and more rebellious narrative of outsider life in London. The novel trashes the verbal and sexual pieties of society, and reveres literature and the right of artists to create it how they will.
Kureishi has also served as co-editor of a massive anthology of comment and reportage on the subject of pop music (The Faber Book of Pop), so it is no surprise that The Black Album takes its title from Prince’s recording, itself named in sassy response to the Beatles’ “The White Album.” The narrative proceeds in an ambience of street life, drugs, threat and violence, and uninhibited sexuality. Pop music is pervasive, and Prince is the idol of the novel’s characters because he is “half black and half white, half man and half woman, half size, feminine but macho.”
The quality of blackness in the novel, like the black canvases of some contemporary painting, is seen to contain many shadings invisible to the “white” characters, who use the word “black” as an all-purpose term of scorn that includes Indian, Pakistani, all colors that are not “white.”
Kureishi has centered his narrative on the trials of Shahid Hasan, a young man born in the Kentish countryside and newly arrived in London. Shahid is enrolled in a third-rate college where the students seem beyond hope but where the seductive young lecturer, Deedee Osgood, inspires in him all the hope he can handle.
Drawn to sex and drugs and with a passion for literature, Shahid finds in Deedee a thrilling source of all three. Still, he wonders about her teaching: “She and other postmodern types encouraged their students to study anything that took their interest, from Madonna’s hair to a history of the leather jacket.”
Shahid and Deedee enjoy a postmodern version of the common romantic teacher-student fantasy. Their intimacy is described in considerable detail, and its final episode is, you might say, a doubly colorful spectacle.
But Shahid is also a poet, and as the novel progresses, the moral force of his love of literature is tested. It wins twice, first against the money values of his flashy brother, Chili, who regards the Hollywood films Once Upon a Time in America, Scarface and The Godfather as “career documentaries,” and then against a truly formidable antagonist.
In this second test, Shahid realizes bit by bit that the apparently scholarly writer of verse, the rather mysterious figure Riaz, whom he has admired, is a sham poet and a rigid demagogue commanding a battalion of hangers-on in their fight to recruit adherents to their fundamentalist brand of Islam.
Events are brought to a crisis when Riaz’s gang hoist up a book and rant against its blasphemy. It is at this point that we remember Shahid’s remark, early in the narrative, that he admired Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children, a detail that helps to identify the threatened book as The Satanic Verses.
As Shahid looks on, the book is set afire, and in a nice touch its leaves are said to detach themselves and flutter over the neighborhood. The unholy bonfire is too much for Shahid, ashamed that he has been tempted by the group’s easy answers to hard questions, and he throws off in a fury whatever influence Riaz has had over him.
In this novel, as in The Buddha of Suburbia, Kureishi has presented an old and durable plot—the education of a young person into the world of experience—but here he has given it the sounds and images of a strobe-lit rock concert.
One wonders, though, if The Black Album was written faster. Kureishi’s exquisite ear for intonation and for the slightly skewed cliche (“You’ll be laughing on the other side of your neck”) seems if not turned off then perhaps less receptive in the second book. The splendid comedy of the first is thinned down and the writing in general lacks the earlier book’s fluency.
Take it for all in all, however, Kureishi has written a heartfelt and interesting defense of pleasure versus piety and of literature against its censors. He is a courageous writer.
Dennis Drabelle (review date 12 November 1995)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 834
SOURCE: “Loves and Zealots,” in Washington Post Book World, November 12, 1995, p. 8.
[In the following review, Drabelle offers a positive assessment of The Black Album, although he notes weakness in its “creaky structure.”]
The title of Hanif Kureishi’s speedy second novel, which takes place in London just after the fatwa has come down against Salman Rushdie (1989), refers to a work by the Artist Still Happily Known as Prince. Shahid Hasan, the Pakistani-English protagonist, is a Prince fan, dope fan, sex fan, anything but college fan, though his primary occupation is supposed to be studying.
Contrary to stereotype, Shahid comes from money. When his brother, Chili, married the redoubtable Zulma, “their wedding video, longer than The Godfather. (both parts), became essential viewing all over Karachi and even in Peshawar.” Contemptuous of the decrepit state of English manhood, Chili keeps muttering about “the brown man’s burden.” But Chili is in no shape to shoulder a burden—a womanizing dealer and addict, he darts from club to club, chasing, scoring and wisecracking.
Shahid, meanwhile, drifts. He loves women, great 19th-century novels and, he soon discovers, the drug ecstasy. But he lacks fiber and longs for the irascibility that comes with owning a well-defined self. “Papa and Chili had taught Shahid the uses of a temper,” Kureishi writes; “it had been something he wanted to cultivate, but as yet didn’t come easily to him.” Shahid’s dilemma, upon which the novel turns, is whether to throw his lot in with some incendiary British-Muslim activists or to lose himself in a budding affair with one of his teachers, the libidinously heroic Deedee Osgood.
Shahid fell in with the activists after meeting Riaz, their third-rate ayatollah, who lives in the apartment next door. Riaz and his acolytes, especially the loudmouthed Chad, exert the appeal of directedness and certitude, both of which Shahid has a yen for. Deedee, on the other hand, exerts the appeal of flesh and zest, as witness this bit of dialogue that comes after she asks him to tell a story:
“‘Oh, something romantic and dirty.’ She shut her eyes. ‘I will visualize it as you tell. Tonight I can see around corners.’”
Non-zealot readers, who by definition are drawn to what Shahid’s late father would have dismissed as “booky stuff,” will have little trouble guessing Shahid’s choice. In fact—and this is the novel’s main weakness—the radicals are such a callow collection of poseurs that, however long the reckless Shahid takes to make up his mind, it’s hardly a contest. Far be it from me to manufacture arguments in favor of censorship and book-burning, but I can feel the heavy weight of Kureishi’s hand on this cause-justifying speech by Riaz:
We are discussing here the free and unbridled imagination of men who live apart from the people … And these corrupt, disrespectful natures, wallowing in their own juices, must be caged as if they were dangerous carnivores … After all … if a character comes into your house and spits out that your mother and sister are whores, wouldn’t you chuck him from your door and do bad things to him? Very bad things? … And isn’t this what such books do?
Much better is Shahid’s paraphrase of a sermon he heard Riaz preach on the knotty topic of love and commitment:
Without a fixed morality, without a framework in which love could flourish—given by God and established by society—love was impossible. Otherwise, people merely rented one another for a period. In this faithless interlude they hoped to obtain pleasure and distraction; they even hoped to discover something which would complete them. And if they didn’t soon receive it, they threw the person over and moved on. And on.
Now there’s an engaging moral issue, elegantly phrased and well worth a grapple. But as the novel’s last page makes clear, Shahid and Deedee never engage it.
All the same, The Black Album has plenty of wit and momentum to compensate for its stacked deck. Kureishi, author of one previous novel and the screenplays for My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and London Kills Me, writes marvelously quirky dialogue, laced with unexpected images and word choices. Deedee in particular gets loads of good lines. After Shahid falls in with one of her schemes, she says, “That’s nice. I love ‘yes.’ It’s practically the most interesting word of all, don’t you think? Like a hinge opening a door outward: Yes, yes, yes.” Riaz’s one moment of verbal grandeur comes when he describes his beleaguered self as “flaked fully out.”
Then, too, Shahid is an appealing fellow—a Muslim homme moyen sensual—and the action trips so smoothly from mansion to student digs to squatter’s hovel that you can scarcely avoid being sucked into it along with him. Despite its creaky structure, The Black Album is worth reading for its wit, narrative momentum and verbal virtuosity.
Bruce King (review date Spring 1996)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 566
SOURCE: A review of The Black Album, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 405-6.
[In the following review, King offers a favorable assessment of The Black Album, but finds that it is weakened by Kureishi's tendency toward triteness.]
Hanif Kureishi’s latest portrait of post-swinging London is set in 1989, the year of the publication of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The liberations of the sixties, the ideologies of the seventies, massive immigration, and Thatcherite economics have resulted in acid raves, slavish followers of any anti-Western slogan, universities in which no one reads, sex without love, disappointed feminists, increasing unemployment, angry minorities, angry white men, the collapse of liberal culture—you name it and it is likely to be here. This is an update of Waugh’s Decline and Fall, but without understatement or consistent irony. It is also “The Second Coming,” but as warning. Things have fallen apart, the best lack conviction, there is social, emotional, and intellectual anarchy, while fanatics demanding unthinking obedience gain followers among the angry and disillusioned. An appropriate novel for the last decade of the century?
Shahid Hasan is a “black British” victim of the latest trends and caught between being second-generation British and those, skinheads and Muslims, who consider him Pakistani. His father thought himself finished with Asia and Islam, but a boom-bust everyone-for-himself economy, working-class resentment, postcolonial theorists, and the expedient multiculturalism of some Labour Party politicians have destroyed any national consensus. Shahid attends a college staffed by poorly qualified teachers, mostly disillusioned sixties radicals, for whom the brighter students write about the cultural significance of Prince recordings while the others take drugs or burn books. Shahid is caught between the fading but well-practiced attractions of Deedee Osgood—a college lecturer who teaches him many new pleasures, ranging from designer drugs to masturbation and voyeurism while cross-dressing—and Riaz, leader of a group of Islamic fundamentalist toughs who claim that any free thought or individuality leads to Western decadence, inaction, lack of respect for and betrayal of the Third World, especially Islam.
In an analogy to The Satanic Verses, Shahid rewrites some of Riaz’s poems and is forced to flee for his life with Deedee, who, having tried to discuss Rushdie’s book in her class, is hiding from Riaz’s gang. But Kureishi is too much a fan of popular culture, and knows contemporary British taste too well, to allow an unhappy ending. A now-televised Riaz moves from book-burning and violence toward mainstream ethnic politics, while Deedee and Shahid are invited to a private party after a Prince concert.
Kureishi is a witty, knowing satirist with a sense of what is newsworthy and characteristic, but he can be trite. If the tone and structure feel mishandled and unfixed, that results from the rapidly shifting, Ecstasy-influenced, high-speed hallucinatory style which the novel imitates. It is easy to criticize The Black Album as all surface, but it is a good read; simplifications are common to satire, and once you get beyond the fashions—Fred Perry and Paul Smith shirts, Chrissie Hynde singing “Stop Your Sobbing”—you see that Kureishi has well chosen The Satanic Verses as an intellectual, artistic, and moral test. The Black Album is a plea for the superiority of real literature, skepticism, and, yes, even England, in contrast to those who regard them with scorn as the products of elitism, the Enlightenment, and racist imperialism.
John Bowen (review date 6 December 1996)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681
SOURCE: “White Men Behaving Badly,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 6, 1996, p. 28.
[In the following excerpt, Bowen offers an unfavorable assessment of The Faber Book of Pop.]
The culture of rock music is a notoriously excessive affair. Anthologies are one way of capturing some of its monstrosity, and in these two fat collections, culled from a half-century or so of writing about rock and pop, we encounter, among other things, Elvis’s 19,000 drug prescriptions in two and a half years, Ike Turner’s thirteen wives (and innumerable affairs and one-night stands), and countless trashed hotel rooms and wrecked lives, to say nothing of such curiosities as Lou Reed’s interview with President Havel and the peculiar charms of Dahlia the Dog Act. Dylan Jones’s Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, orthodox to a fault, starts with Elvis and ends with Blur and Oasis; the more ambitious and eclectic Faber Book of Pop begins with the future Malcolm X learning the “lindy hop” and “the kangaroo” in a dance-hall in Boston in 1942, and ends with Andrew O’Hagan’s moving 1994 account of Temazepam injectors on a Glasgow housing estate. …
Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage, the editors of The Faber Book of Pop, are interested in everything to do with pop culture—clothes, sexuality, dancing, politics—and they give plenty of space to its female, gay and black contributors. In what is so often a world of cliques and exclusions, they have a cheeringly broad view of pop; they have trawled autobiographies and novels (but no plays or films) as well as obscure fanzines, poetry collections and record-sleeve notes to make up the more than 150 pieces of their collection. The book has a nicely catholic range of contributors—we find Bob Dylan cuddling up to Noël Coward, William Rees-Mogg sitting alongside Angela Carter and Derek Jarman putting on “My Beatles Hat” at the very moment Paul Johnson is warning of “The Menace of Beatlism”. This generosity is paid for by a certain lack of shape. In what is not, alas, a parody of Raymond Williams’s Keywords, Savage’s introduction “word-surfs” the meanings of “pop”, leaping from “popular music” via “popping the question”, the sound of a pistol-shot and the pawn-shop (as in “Pop goes the Weasel”), to “Pop” as the name of the Eton College elite.
The articles are distinctly uneven in quality, and too often the book seems like one of those unfortunate triple albums from the 1970s, meandering, eclectic and inconsequential, with endless unrelated solos and no structure. Even the titles that the editors inflict on the book’s chapters (“Red, humming neon”, “Shadows of boredom”) give it the unmistakable air of the adolescent synthesizer player. The charitable populism of the book extends to too many trivial pieces from such sources as Picture Post, Hello! and the Sun.
If it were a rock album, Jones’s would be, as the homage to The Who in the title suggests, professional and competent in a swaggering sort of way, whereas Kureishi and Savage resemble rather one of those “All-Night Party” records with some good tracks and rather too many fillers. They represent Chuck Berry, for example, by a maundering piece of autobiography, incomprehensible even by rock-star standards. Jones, cruelly but compellingly, gives us an account of his conviction for installing television cameras in the toilet bowls of the women’s lavatories at his country club. It is striking in both books how impoverished the descriptions of the music are. Barbara Hulanicki in the Faber Book remembers in loving detail the colours, shapes and fabrics that made the Biba boutique what it was, and George Melly can make you momentarily yearn for the beads and flares of the first Summer of Love; but almost no one tries to do the same for the music. Indeed, the best writing often has very little to do with it, as in Nick Kent’s chilling account of Sid Vicious attempting murder for a pair of motorcycle boots, or when Charles Shaar Murray captures Little Jimmy Osmond for eternity looking like “a small constipated toad on methedrine”.
Sean O'Brien (review date 28 March 1997)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 808
SOURCE: “Eighties Vanities,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 28, 1997, p. 20.
[In the following review of Love in a Blue Time, O'Brien commends Kureishi's perspective and observations, but finds shortcomings in his underdeveloped plots and characters.]
Love in a Blue Time is described by its publishers as concerned with “the difficult, serious business of love—and hate”, but it might be more accurate to say that the book’s main subjects are underachievement, distraction and the afterlife of youth. Love, for which sex appears a synonym, is an arena in which these conditions are indulged and suffered. Two brief stories, “We’re Not Jews” and “My Son the Fanatic”, relate personal dilemmas to the larger contexts of race and religion, and achieve a choked, baffled power; but the pull of the book is towards the exhaustion, laziness and panic of private life as Kureishi conceives it for the newly middle-aged members of his preferred class.
His characters are film-makers, script-writers, photographers, artistic wannabes and their variously dissatisfied womenfolk—people who, in their own increasingly vague terms, have not quite made it. Their lives are the Reluctant Reader’s version of the Hampstead novel. One character begins reading Proust, not because it is interesting but because to finish will confer a belated virtue. When another accepts the gift of a framed photograph of Doris Lessing, we learn that “she never finished any book, the satisfaction was too diffuse”. The competition offered by drugs and drink is overwhelming. The here and now is defined by the near-past, the 1980s, a decade “when men and women with energy and ruthlessness but without much ability or persistence excelled”. What counted, thinks Roy, the hero of the title-story, was a kind of mediocre vigour packaged by style magazines:
Knowledge, tradition, decency and the lip-service paid to equality; socialist holiness, talk of “principle”, student clothes, feminist absurdities … such pieties were trampled with a Nietzschean pitilessness. It was galvanizing.
Roy, on the brink of clinching a film deal, is astonished—amusingly, for the reader—to find himself tarred with the same brush by the producer as his wastrel poly-abusing friend, a “failure artist” of a heroic stripe. Shouldn’t Roy’s grasp of the Zeitgeist, and his new and equally unremarkable regret, spare him? But the debts are being called in.
Kureishi’s perspective is long enough for him to see analogies for these late-model attitudes in the 1960s. A photograph of Keith Richards on a basement wall is more than a tribute to a guitarist. It represents a revolt whose only object is self-assertion—not much help for the over-thirties. The treatment of sex, in particular, dispenses with any notion of male enlightenment. Trying with timid cunning to get his wife into bed, Roy has more in common with a character from Kingsley Amis than he might care to think. “At the same time, the smug and selfish Howard” (“television writer and well-known tosspot”) in “With Your Tongue down My Throat” is on to a winner.
You could see the men fleeing when they saw the deep needy well that is Ma crying out to be filled with their love. And this monster kid with green hair glaring at them. Howard’s too selfish and arrogant to be frightened of [Ma’s] demands. He just ignores them.
While there is much to admire in Kureishi’s ability to combine the observation of vanity, stupidity and (less often) desperation with an almost cruel narrative momentum, after a time, the collection of stories threatens to assume the vacant gleam of the lives his characters dream for themselves. The book’s sexual nihilism in particular seems slightly indulgent, and the female characters such as Roy’s wife, Clara, or the desiccated seaside dopehead, Lisa (in “Lately”), are male shorthand for menacing female strength and irritating female weakness, there to make up the numbers in what are always boys’ games.
“Lately” has the legs to become a novella—it has a place, intriguing inhabitants, a mood and a crisis—but it tidies itself away too soon and rather mechanically. It does, however, contain one of the book’s defining exchanges, when Karen, even more feeble than Lisa, remarks: “I’d like to read books. Except I don’t know where to start. People who read too much are snobby, though.” In her way, Karen understands perfectly the effects of her times. Her view demands a response, but she is certainly not going to get it from Lisa.
Kureishi closes the collection with something quite different, the allegorical comedy “The Flies,” a laboured tale of decay and delusion. It seems positioned to sum up the book, but it goes on too long—like the 1980s themselves, some might say. Love in a Blue Time has much to commend it, but it also shows the strain of producing the dreaded third album.
Donald Weber (review date Spring 1997)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6583
SOURCE: “‘No Secrets Were Safe from Me’: Situating Hanif Kureishi,” in Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 119-35.
[In the following essay, Weber examines aspects of ethnicity, cultural identity, and literary practice in Kureishi's fiction and films, particularly in relation to American ethnic writers such as Jewish-American author Philip Roth.]
I want to begin this essay, which seeks to situate the contemporary Pakistani-British novelist/filmmaker Hanif Kureishi in relation to American ethnic expression, with two striking, provocative exchanges. The first is by the distinguished socialist scholar (and editor of the important journal Race and Class), A. Sivanandan, in response to the cosmic questions, posed by Quintin Hoare and Malcolme Imrie, “Do you feel you are in a kind of exile? Where are you at home?” The second is drawn from Kureishi’s recent satirical novel, The Black Album (1995), during a tense moment when the question of “home,” the issue of “belonging,” is engaged by Riaz, the charismatic, Islamic student leader, and Shahid, Kureishi’s young, wickedly honest—and wickedly sarcastic—hero, torn between the appeal of religious orthodoxy and the claims of personal imagination (along with, as always in Kureishi, the urges of an unbridled libido). Listen, first, to Dr. Sivanandan:
I am at home in myself; and myself is all these experiences, cultures, value-systems that I have gone through. I don’t consider myself an exile because I would have to ask myself then what am I exiled from. I may be in the literal sense exiled from my country, but today , at the end of the twentieth century, when all boundaries are breaking down, we should be looking not to roots in some place but to resources within ourselves for our understanding of our place in society, our place in a particular country, our place in culture. For me to feel truly “an exile” would be to be exiled from the struggles of the black and Third World peoples I know so well and from whom I come. And the struggle is where I am, the struggle is here and now. … I am not exiled from that. I may not be in the vortex of those struggles but I am involved in them. And therefore I do not understand the question of exile. I do not understand the question of domicile. The heart is where the battle is.1
The second exchange occurs between Shahid and Riaz as they discuss the best ways that Shahid, as an aspiring writer, might help the evangelical “cause” by exposing “this matter of blasphemy to the national newspapers”—Kureishi’s allusion is to the controversy which erupted in the wake of his friend and mentor Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the social-political-aesthetic-religious debate which provides the context for The Black Album. “‘Isn’t this the work you should be doing for your people?’” Riaz asks Shahid; “‘Do you think someone should abandon the others to whom he belongs?’” The ensuing dialogue highlights The Black Album’s core subject:
Shahid: This matter of belonging, brother. I wish I understood it. Do you, for instance, like living in England?
Riaz: This will never be my home. … I will never entirely understand it. And you?
Shahid: It suits me. There’s no where else I will feel more comfortable.2
“I do not understand the question of exile.” “This matter of belonging, brother. I wish I understood it.” Each perplexed declaration unmasks, in very different ways, the limitations of what we might call the current discourse of identity politics: to a radical intellectual like Sivanandan, organically connected, through history, with “his people” in the struggle, the question of feeling at “home,” the individual’s relation to his “roots,” is always silly, an indulgence, for personal affections for the (merely) local only distract us from a necessary, clear-eyed focus on the work of revolution, always in progress. For Kureishi’s would-be religious pilgrim, the notion of “belonging”—either to a sect or, perhaps, to any form of human solidarity—also appears mysterious; after all, Shahid is a young man who, after experiencing an epiphany while watching a production of Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba (a play Shahid discovers to be really about Pakistani family life) “never los[es] his appetite for the compelling [Western?] exhilaration” (85) or the pleasures afforded by the unfettered imagination.3 Even while praying—or trying to pray—in the mosque, Shahid summons Beethoven, humming “Ode to Joy” in his head, as an appropriate private celebration of the “awe and wonder” he feels in the midst of religious observance. But during this reverential moment Shahid is giving thanks not to Allah, but rather to what Kureishi describes as “the substantiality of the world, the fact of existence, the inexplicable phenomenon of life, art, humor, and love” (102)—Shahid’s—and no doubt Kureishi’s—own blessed sacraments.
Dr. Sivanandan would, we might expect, be troubled with the implicit bourgeois self-indulgence expressive of Shahid’s “right-on” lifestyle; in fact, Sivanandan elsewhere anticipates the stringent (left) political critique of Kureishi (as voiced by, say, bell hooks, a critic who remains vexed by Sammy and Rosie Get Laid’s “stylish nihilism,”4) in his tough-minded assessment of the “New Timers” [post-New Left British intellectuals] and of “identity politics” in general: “The self that New Timers make so much play about is a small, selfish, inward-looking self that finds pride in lifestyle, exuberance in consumption and commitment in pleasure—and then elevates them all into a politics of this and that, positioning itself this way and that way (with every position a politics and every politics a position).”5 Sivanandan’s exasperation with recent British cultural politics—and, it would seem, most post-modern discourse/theorizing in general—recalls a wicked line from Kureishi’s 1981 play Borderline: “The worst thing about being on the left,” a character observes, “is the other people you’ve got on your side.”6
I do not wish, in this essay, to enter the ongoing internal debates within the British Left. (Still, I detect in Sivanandan’s lament echoes of the now dying out “culture wars” in the U.S.; yet in our case it is both the cultural Right and representatives from the “old New Left”—like Todd Gitlin—whose arguments against identity politics begin to coalesce, sounding similar.) I do, however, want to explore the issues of “home,” “homelands,” and “belonging”; of deterritorialization, migration, and borders; of ethnicity, critical [or “double”] consciousness, and the cultural work of ethnic expression. I want to examine these key words and ideas in the writings of selected modern and contemporary American “ethnic” authors in order to provide a genealogy of the “new” ethnicity, or “ethnoscapes”—as theorized by scholars like Stuart Hall, Homi Bhabha, and Paul Gilroy. And along the way I want to relocate—really, re-situate—a figure like Hanif Kureishi from his familiar location as a cultural worker in a zone of “black British” expression and place him instead within an alternate literary-political-comedic matrix of “hyphenated” cultural expression, a position perhaps best represented for my purposes by a figure like Philip Roth.
I invoke the example of Kureishi, not to diminish his achievement, which I believe to be important and substantial, but rather to try to complicate current discussions of ethnicity and literary practice: What happens if we re-imagine Kureishi as, say, a Jewish American author despite himself? What if Kureishi’s Bromley—his middle-class hometown suburb of London—becomes recognizable as an ethnic nest similar to Roth’s mythic, home of the immigrant fathers, Newark, New Jersey?7 And what if, unlike Dr. Sivanandan, the committed revolutionary, oblivious to personal locale (“the question of domicile”), too engaged to worry about the deformations of exile, who finds his “identity,” his “homeland,” in collective struggle, we find Hanif Kureishi, the hyphenated, “British-Pakistani” author—even with his glorious rage and keen satiric eye—utterly at home in London, comfortable in his diasporic condition—the way, say, that the “Roth” character in Deception feels about New York.8 “‘There’s nothing more fashionable than outsiders’” (185), a knowing, hip, wise-ass Shahid explains to a baffled Riaz. Kureishi, in this respect, exemplifies what historian David Hollinger has recently termed, building on the early twentieth-century anti-nativist cultural critic Randolph Bourne, “rooted cosmopolitanism,” coined in Hollinger’s brief for a new vision of “postethnic America, beyond multiculturalism”—an America beyond the narrow politics of local identities, an America no longer riven by separatist claims over turf.9
By proposing such perverse but suggestive correspondences between cultural workers like Kureishi and Roth, I am not forgetting the important contrasting histories of British and American immigration; nor do I wish to ignore the complex structural differences between African American and black British subject formations—Paul Gilroy’s work has been crucial in this regard. There is no equivalent in British cultural history to the national debate about “Americanization” in the early twentieth century. Only by the 1950s, in light of large migrations of peoples from the Caribbean and Southern India, do questions of “amalgamation” and difference begin to be addressed. Indeed, now studies resembling American academic sociology of ethnicity and community—both in methodological and intellectual assumptions—are beginning to appear.10
In U.S. ethnic literary history, the major writers, especially in the 1930s, explored in rich and profound ways the various tensions and contradictions between the often inhospitable host culture and local immigrant worlds the artists had, organically, emerged from. “America, a nation of immigrants,” writes Salman Rushdie in Imaginary Homelands, “has created great literature out of the phenomenon of cultural transplantation, out of examining the ways in which people cope with the new world.”11 These ways of coping, and the attendant contradictions which flowed from the strains of adjustment—or, more often, resistance—were often registered at the level of language itself. Think, in this respect, of the mangled street Yinglish vs. the lyrical translated Yiddish made famous in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934). Indeed, before the “border” became fashionable as a mode of cultural analysis, early immigrant fiction in the U.S. took as its subject these liminal zones of contact; the “alien” subject encountered the new world as a bizarre/bazaar carnival of voices—like the rich babel of multicultural tongues the young boy David overhears at the end of Call It Sleep: swirling thrusts of fractured English that made Henry James, in his anxious nativist desire for linguistic purity, squirm, and (perhaps) flee to England in terror. Such subversive dissonances, we might say, eventually displaced James from his homeland: both spatially, from New York, and aesthetically, at the level of speechways and language.
In the end, David’s search for a kind of urban salvation (he learns, among other things, how to negotiate life in the city) enables Roth to undermine religious orthodoxy, to overcome the wrathful power of fathers, and (like Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus) to discover the liberating powers of imagination. [Kureishi’s Shahid has far outpaced David on this score as well as on matters erotic—no terrifying images of “petzels” and “knishes” for Kureishi’s sexually adventurous heroes of late twentieth-century, swinging London.] For Roth himself, however, the achievement of Call It Sleep, as is well known, proved fatal for his own art. As he has explained on many occasions, his virtual silence for almost sixty years stemmed from his felt alienation from the very sources of his literary imagination: the world of the Lower East Side, and Jewish American life in general. Displaced—we now would call it “deterritorialized”—from his external homeland, Roth could not, it seems, invent an alternate creative landscape within the self; he could not find, either through politics or through art, an hospitable, heimisch place for his imagination.
Like Roth’s David, the young Paul in Pietro Di Donato’s great novel Christ in Concrete (1939) seeks, after the death of his father (impaled and buried in concrete, a horrific sacrifice to the new world god of “Job”), salvation in the new world; but Paul only hears in reply to his supplications before the unfeeling guardians of the dominant culture “the correct American voices,” the “passionless soaped tongues that conquered with grammatic clean-cut” of official state-speak—a language that denies the family’s request for monetary assistance as it generates self-hatred: “‘Oh God above,’” Paul cries out in despair and bewilderment, “‘what world and country are we in? We didn’t mean to be wrong.’”12
“British don’t make me feel at home,” a second-generation Asian declares in a recent oral history of immigration; Di Donato’s Italian Americans would surely recognize this lament.13 In Di Donato’s utterly bleak vision, the family finds itself unhoused in the new world, its diaspora condition temporarily softened only by ritual—through the “fiesta,” with its re-enactment of collective memory via foodways.14 Still, neither ritual celebration nor the salve of nostalgia can easily overcome abject disillusionment, or the cultural self-hatred precipitated by racism. In the end, in an act of heretical defiance, Paul breaks with the faith of his fathers (virtually killing his pious mother Annunziata) and rejects the empty (because unfulfilled) redemptive Christian vision of life after death. “‘I want justice here! I want happiness here! I want life here!’” he cries out, on the threshold of what we would call political consciousness.15 Thus Di Donato, like Roth, takes his hero to the edge—the border—of social, political, and religious demystification; yet his unhoused, outsider status remains unexplored beyond this youthful stage of rebellion.
Both Henry Roth and Di Donato exemplify what I take Rushdie to mean by his invitation, voiced in “Imaginary Homelands” (1982), that “Indian writers in England” compose fictions about “the phenomenon of migration, displacement, life in a minority group.”16 Certainly the young Kureishi took Rushdie’s summons to heart in his early work Borderline. In the “Author’s Note” to that play Kureishi—age 27—speaks, despite an initial wariness about the subject matter, of “Asian immigrants I know and the way in which they have adapted to life in Britain. And I thought of their children and what their lives are like here; the ways in which some of them are beginning to organise; and the ways in which other young Asians have attempted to slough off their origins.”17
As I have tried to outline briefly here, this “matter” of adaptation, the strain of sloughing off, forms the core subject of much ethnic expression in America. Notably, it forms the overarching theme in the early fiction of the young Philip Roth, who got into deep trouble with the guardians of Jewish middle-class culture in the late fifties for writing stories felt to be informing on the Jews, exposing sensitive aspects of Jewish life before the judging eyes of WASP society (“A shanda for the goyim,” in the familiar Yinglish expression). Kureishi knows all about the charges of betrayal and infidelity first hand; Pakistani groups in the U.S. protested outside theaters screening My Beautiful Laundrette; and in harsh tones that recall Roth’s well-known feud with insider culture, Kureishi reveals that his Aunt scolded her nephew for his “complete lack of loyalty, integrity, and compassion.” [Identical charges were hurled by the literary and religious rabbis against Roth in the fifties.] Of course, Kureishi got even with his Aunt, shamelessly naming one of the lesbian agitators in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid in her honor.18
Kureishi reports all this, including his sharing what might be called his “subculture” plight with Roth himself (then married to Claire Bloom, one of the stars of Sammy and Rosie) in “Some Time with Stephen,” the rich chronicle of the writing and filming of Sammy and Rosie almost ten years ago. But in my view Kureishi’s resemblances to Roth go much deeper than a shared run-in with the policing efforts of embarrassed assimilated Jews in New York or worried Pakistani emigrants in London. What links Kureishi to Roth is the younger writer’s relentless comic-ironic disposition, his fiercely-held need to labor against all forms of orthodoxy, and his “post-modern” belief in the self as fluid, uncontained, always in the process of becoming. “There had to be innumerable ways of being in the world” (285), Shahid comes to realize at the end of The Black Album.
I recognize, of course, that the key, self-admitted influences on Kureishi are the James Baldwin of the prophetic The Fire Next Time (1963), as inscribed in Kureishi’s powerful personal narrative, “The Rainbow Sign” (1986), and popular culture in general (Kureishi recently co-edited the Faber Book of Pop). I would, to be sure, agree: Kureishi draws on Baldwin, as (less explicitly) do British theorists of the “new ethnicity,” for Baldwin’s powerfully destabilizing vision of “whiteness” as an authorizing political presence in the world. Baldwin, as historian David Roediger shows in Towards the Abolition of Whiteness (1994), is perhaps the major theoretical precursor in the current work to deconstruct “whiteness as ideology” in the formation of the working class in the U.S. Stuart Hall’s recent formulation of a “new ethnicity” seeking to overturn “hegemonic conceptions of ‘Englishness’” is deeply indebted to Baldwin’s vision. Thus “ethnicity” as deployed in British cultural studies proves enabling as a mode of social critique for those marginally displaced—it opposes static, authorizing nationalisms and posits the fluid, hybrid, migrant border position as the site where the “new ethnicity” can expose, through “narratives of redemption and emancipation” (Paul Gilroy’s phrase), all forms of cultural and political absolutism.19 Again, I do not wish to diminish Kureishi’s status as a political figure (or as a “black writer,” as Stuart Hall describes him in “New Ethnicities”)20 who, in the spirit of Baldwin, demands that “it is the British who have to make these adjustments”; that “there must be a fresh way of seeing Britain … and a new way of being British.”21 But in the case of Hanif Kureishi the overriding desire, the overarching need, is to overturn the smug pieties, the rapacious zeal, and the sad provincialities of cultural insiderism—behaviors and beliefs nurtured in the comedy and pain of ethnic striving, native to the familiar territory of “Americanization,” as well as its emergent British equivalent (can we begin to speak of the ordeal of “becoming” British, of “Britishization”?).
In this respect Kureishi is, more or less, a novelist/filmmaker of the comedy of ethnic-immigrant manners (“‘Me, I’m just a middle-class writer,’” he confessed once in an interview)22 whose liminal position betwixt and between British and Pakistani worlds enables him to see through each with dangerous clarity. And like his friend Philip Roth, Kureishi needs the challenge, the infuriating spur of uninterrogated religious and cultural pieties.23 Speaking a year ago about his soon-to-be published new novel, Kureishi described its donée: “There were all these blokes who wanted to kill this friend of mine, and I wanted to know why, so I went and found them … Islam is rather like Thatcherism. It’s an intoxicating force to test yourself against.”24 The telling phrase to my mind is “test yourself against”: the “ethnic” artist-outsider needs his “culture-grievances” (a nice term, borrowed from Philip Roth’s description of how his own work is energized)25 to enrage him to speech, to his provocative art; and the literary-political aim of “hyphenated” art is (always) opposition. At the same time, the imaginative energies unleashed by culture-grievances are often directed, by the “insider,” against his own “people.” The “work you should be doing for your people” (to recall Riaz’s question to Shahid) is implicitly answered by Kureishi, as it continues to be answered by Roth, as the work of analysis, of expose, of critique [“Little things trickle through when I see the country dreaming out loud,” Roth remarks about his encounter with England]—as an expression of “the loyal opposition.”26 Such “loyalty” always results in charges of ethnic betrayal and cultural self-hatred: the social and political costs which inevitably come with the territory of alienation.
Roth has explored this artistic-generational-political-ethnic dilemma since he launched the Zuckerman novels eighteen years ago with The Ghost Writer (1979) [Kureishi registers the shock of recognition in reading The Ghost Writer during the filming of Sammy and Rosie]. But it is in his “novelist’s autobiography” The Facts (1988), in the insightful voice of the novelist’s alter ago Nathan Zuckerman, that Roth most evocatively names those internal and external forces which drive a figure like Kureishi: “the things that wear you down are also the things that nurture your talent.” This is Roth’s dirty little secret. The writer “needing that battle, that attack, that kick, needing that wound, your source of invigorating anger, the energizer for the defiance”27—this self-description might also explain Kureishi’s instinctive impulse to take on the poison of both Thatcherism and Islam; this complex, divided stance also marks Kureishi’s complicated relation to the displaced world of the (Pakistani) fathers—the latent, charged subject of most of his literary output.
“The Great Immigration,” Frank Kermode reports, interviewing Kureishi in 1990, is according to Kureishi “our great unexplored subject.”28 For his part, Kureishi has attempted to represent that huge canvas (including the idea for a script on the epic of immigration for the BBC) in virtually all his work, both in fiction and on film. In general, the immigrant fathers in Kureishi are limned as a comical cohort; unlike the raging, bent, scalding portrait of the immigrant father Albert in Call It Sleep or the haunting figure of the martyred Geremio in Christ in Concrete, the Pakistani elders in Kureishi tend to preside over their new worlds from bed, reaping the material benefits of England while recuperating old world ways: Shahid’s father in The Black Album (like Omar’s uncle Nasser in Laundrette) “lay there [in bed] like a pasha, with a pile of comics on his bedside table. The ‘center of operations’ he called it.” “It was,” Kureishi’s narrator observes (about the gendered separation of spheres in the house) “as if they were living in Karachi” (61). In contrast, Omar’s father seems immobilized in bed, disillusioned by political despair and new world [i.e., British] barbarism. Kureishi, however, doesn’t explore his implicitly host culture-challenging story; rather, he is occupied by the romance between Johnny and Omar, and the utopian world of love and playfulness they create within the neon lights of the laundrette—even though Omar adopts capitalistic enterprising strategies to fulfill his dream of success. Perhaps the most poignant imaging of immigrant fathers in Kureishi is the figure of Amjad in the play Borderline, whose disembodied voice of sadness and regret speaks, on tape from the grave, of the hurts of British history; Amjad wishes that his daughter (“She has become English”) will repatriate with her new husband back to Pakistan.29 But the most potentially interesting father is the complex figure of Rafi in Sammy and Rosie, lost and bewildered in the old England of his nostalgia and the new England of looming urban apocalypse. Again, Kureishi, it seems to me, doesn’t explore this tormented, politically-tainted, yet ambiguous figure fully enough. Why, for example, do Rafi and the street revolutionary Danny bond immediately? What are the social and psychological costs of political displacement and familial longing?
The answer may, in part, be that Kureishi is more interested in social satire than political analysis, more absorbed by the fashionable allure of the world beyond Bromley—despite the wicked satire of the trendy, liberated couple Sammy and Rosie—than in demystifying the allure itself. “Look,” Zuckerman says to Roth, talking straight, “this place you come from does not produce artists so much as it produces dentists and accountants”30—or travel agents, as is the case for Shahid in The Black Album. His “ethnic” dilemma involves rejecting both the middle-class world of the family business—unlike Michael Corleone, another immigrant son who discovers his “descent” relation to family and its business—and the “brotherhood” of Islam.31 In the end, Shahid rejects both deadly bourgeois lifestyle and fanatic anti-intellectualism in the name of the capacious, fluid, playful imagination:
He had to find some sense in his recent experiences; he wanted to know and understand. How could anyone confine themselves to one system or creed? Why should they feel they had to? There was no fixed self; surely our several selves melted and mutated daily? There had to be innumerable ways of being in the world. He would spread himself out, in his work and in love, following his curiosity.
To be sure, neither David in Call It Sleep, blissful in overcoming the wrathful father, nor Paul in Christ in Concrete, bent by blasphemous rejection of his religious patrimony, appears to have arrived at what the cultural critic Homi Bhabha calls the “empowering condition of hybridity”; nor does either immigrant son seem to be at a transitional threshold of “an interstitial future, that emerges in-between the claims of the past and the needs of the present.”32 But in the end I wonder if any of Kureishi’s characters/subjects do, either. At one point Shahid does receive an intimation of such an empowering positionality: “Lost in a room of broken mirrors, with jagged reflections backing into eternity, he felt numb. His instinct was to escape, to seek out someone to talk to” (157).33 And at the end of The Black Album Shahid seeks out his professor-theorist lover Deedee with whom he indeed escapes, to the restoring sea, worrying only about lunch, looking forward to the upcoming Prince concert back in London (the novel’s title comes from an unreleased Prince album), following his curiosity, “until it stops being fun” (287). “He didn’t have to think about anything,” Kureishi tells us, of his hero’s fluid status. But I wonder, again, about the couple’s apolitics of pure appetite, to re-voice the crux of bell hooks’s critique, implicit in the novel’s final, self-absorbed, closing vision. In the end, I do not find realized in Kureishi the example of enabling hybridity and the fluid politics of location as I do, say, in Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989), a novel which also takes as its subject our “innumerable ways of being in the world.” Indeed, Mukherjee’s porous, borderline vision of the self, of the figure of Jasmine “shuttl[ing] between identities,” richly images her heroine as pure potentiality itself: “adventure, risk, transformation.”34
In the end, it may be that Kureishi’s embrace of his liminal status, the creative empowerment made available by his shifting position as a writer “caught between two cultures, ideologies, colours … English and not English; middle-class but classless; outsider insider,” will, inevitably, compel him to resist both the politics of ethnic insiderism (the British-Pakistani community of London should not expect Kureishi to soften, let alone apologize for, his biting satire any time soon) and the Left critique expressed by Sivanandan and Hobsbawn (Kureishi is not likely, that is, to relinquish the imaginative freedom and subversive curiosity of the artist to join the collective struggle). Like his spiritual mentors and literary examples Philip Roth and Rushdie, Kureishi will continue to provoke, to re-invent the self, above all to resist/struggle against all forms of literary and political orthodoxy.35
It remains to be seen, however, whether an exciting contemporary writer like Kureishi will move beyond the comedy of aspiring middle-class Pakistani manners in the new world of England and the wicked send-ups of fashionable London academics. I, for one, will continue to follow his already remarkable career. Yet his work to date remains, in my view, more helpfully situated as a striking variation on American “ethnic” writers, especially Philip Roth, than as an example of “black British” expression.36 As an “outsider insider,” Kureishi will always be dangerously funny, always ready to expose, in the tradition of overturning, unhinged ethnic humor that a figure like Roth (and with him, Lenny Bruce and the early Woody Allen) inherits, and represents. Together with his wise-ass alter ego, Karim Amir in The Buddha of Suburbia (“My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost”37), Hanif Kureishi offers, unabashedly, his creative motto: “No secrets were safe from me” (20).
A. Sivanandan, Communities of Resistance: Writings on Black Struggles for Socialism (London: Verso, 1990), p. 16.
Hanif Kureishi, The Black Album (New York: Scribner, 1995), p. 185. Subsequent citations given parenthetically in the text.
In an earlier interview Kureishi reflected on this (for him) key issue, with particular relevance for The Black Album. “The Immigrant is the characteristic figure of the 20th century. Your country must be a place where you feel comfortable. I feel things in England are mine, are part of what made me. It’s not the same as being patriotic. Is there a word for feeling a strong attachment to a place you know to be yours that’s not jingoistic?” Marcia Pally, “Kureishi Like a Fox,” Film Comment 22 (Sept. 1986), p. 53.
bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1990), pp. 155–163.
Sivanandan, “All that Melts into Air is Solid: The Hokum of the New Times,” in Communities of Resistance, p. 49. For a discussion of the New Timers’ cultural and political positions as well as the critical reaction to their “moment” see Stuart Hall, “The Meaning of New Times,” and Angela McRobbie, “Looking Back at New Times and Its Critics,” both in David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, eds., Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 223–37; pp. 238–61.
Hanif Kureishi, Borderline (London: Methuen, 1981), p. 32. Most recently, Eric Hobsbawm has joined what appears to be a backlash in British intellectual life against identity politics. Echoing Sivanandan, Hobsbawm worries that “Men and women look for groups to which they can belong, certainly and forever, in a world which all else is moving and shifting, in which nothing else is certain.” Hobsbawm, “Identity Politics and the Left,” New Left Review #217 (May/June 1996), p. 40. In many ways Hobsbawm articulates Kureishi’s continuing themes.
Kureishi himself invites such a comparison, for there are scattered throughout his various interviews and essays direct references to his affection for Roth. See Hanif Kureishi, London Kills Me: Three Screenplays and Four Essays (New York: Penguin, 1992), pp. 122; 150. Michael Gorra links Kureishi and Roth in his review of My Beautiful Laundrette and the Rainbow Sign. See Gorra, “He Could Never Be Like Everyone Else,” New York Times Book Review (May 4, 1986), p. 26: “Mr. Kureishi’s presentation of Pakistani businessmen has some of the same satiric vigor and sting that characterized the early Philip Roth in his treatments of American Jews.”
“Roth” absolutely loves his return to the Jewish world of New York City. Explaining to his lover why he fled London, “Roth” explains: “‘I understand something. I take long walks in New York, and every once in a while I stop and find I’m smiling. I hear myself saying aloud, Home.’” Philip Roth, Deception (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 204.
There is a huge literature emerging in the wake of the “culture wars” in the U.S. For positions that try to challenge reigning multicultural perspectives see David A. Hollinger, Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (New York: Basic Books, 1995) and Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (New York: Holt, 1995).
An example of this mode of scholarship is Tariq Modood, Sharon Beishon and Satnam Virdee, Changing Ethnic Identities (London: Policy Studies Institute, 1994).
Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981–1991 (London: Granta Books, 1991), p. 20.
Pietro Di Donato, Christ in Concrete , (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), p. 169; p. 170.
Changing Ethnic Identities, p. 100.
Although it’s a small touch, recall, in this respect, how the older Indian women in Bhaji on the Beach  carry their own stash of seasonings whenever they eat out. The bland “British” fried potatoes always need “old world” spicing up. Thus portable spices function as a potent mode of social criticism in that film, as does the discourse of foodways in much “ethnic” expression in general. On this discourse in Kureishi’s and other texts see Uma Narayan, “Eating Cultures: Incorporation, Identity, and Indian Food,” Social Identities 1 (1995), pp. 63–86 (pp. 70–71 on Kureishi).
Di Donato, Christ in Concrete, p. 296. For the most recent reading of Di Donato see Fred L. Gardaphe, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1996).
Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, p. 20.
Kureishi, Borderline, p. 4.
Kureishi, London Kills Me, pp. 121–22.
Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities” (1989), in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, p. 447; Paul Gilroy, Small Acts (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1993), p. 108.
Hall, “New Ethnicities,” p. 449.
Kureishi, London Kills Me, p. 36.
Ameena Meer, “Interview with Kureishi,” Interview 20 (April, 1990), p. 140. About The Buddha of Suburbia Kureishi observed, “The book was supposed to offend people” (p. 140).
“Kureishi,” observes Tom Dewe Mathews, “has turned his fluid identity to his own advantage. In his writing he can convey both sides of the racial and class divide. But success has made it that much harder for him to stay in touch with the sources that provoke his imagination. But this ‘cheeky chappie,’ as one friend calls him, thrives on challenges.” Tom Dewe Mathews, “Metropolitan Lines,” The Observer (Nov. 17, 1991), p. 73. Speaking in the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema during the filming of Sammy and Rosie, Kureishi mentions the encouragement he had received from Roth, stating, “Roth m’a ete d’un grand soutien” [Roth has given/been a great support to me]. T. Jousse and N. Saada, “Le Cinema de Tous Les Metissages: Entretien avec Hanif Kureishi,” Cahiers du Cinema #406 (April, 1988), p. 11.
Fernanda Eberstadt, “Rebel, Rebel,” The New Yorker (Aug 21 & 28, 1995), p. 119.
Philip Roth, “The Art of Fiction LXXXIV,” Paris Review #93 (1984), p. 238. Roth continues: “A writer needs his poisons. The antidote to his poisons is often a book.” The context for these observations is Roth’s reflections about living in America versus England.
I borrow the phrase “the loyal opposition” from the title of Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky’s forthcoming study of Philip Roth and Woody Allen. The phrase itself comes from Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980).
Philip Roth, The Facts (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1988), p. 184; p. 174. Emphasis in the original.
Frank Kermode, “Voice of the Almost English,” The Guardian (April 10, 1990), p. 42. In the same piece Kermode invites Kureishi to read Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant—he too senses Kureishi’s deep affinities with Jewish American literature. On this issue of the potential affinities between Kureishi (along with British-Indian writing in general) and Jewish American literature, James Woods’s characterization of Rushdie’s style, in his recent review of The Moor’s Last Sigh—“Indian writing in English has tended to enjoy the grind of the high against the low, particularly the swoop from high culture to lowly brand name” [James Woods, “Salaam Bombay!” The New Republic (March 18, 1996), p. 39]—directly recalls Irving Howe’s famous definition of a distinctive “Jewish American” prose style, described in the Introduction to Howe, ed., Jewish American Stories (New York: NAL, 1977), pp. 1–17. Woods’s analysis, by the way, also re-voices the standard way of explaining the satiric-parodic strategies of Woody Allen.
Kureishi, Borderline, p. 42.
Roth, The Facts, p. 168.
In this respect, Shahid’s older brother Chili represents the implied “sub-text” of The Black Album, the analogy between Jewish immigrants and the first-generation Pakistanis. Chili—who loves watching The Godfather movies as well as Once Upon a Time in America (an epic about Jewish gangsters in America)—wishes that his father had emigrated instead to America, passing through Ellis Island; indeed, Chili feels that “he could be someone in America” (63). More explicitly, Kureishi has Chili (who is something of a “tough Jew”—“a Jew with force,” as Roth terms it in Deception —saving his brother’s ass at the end of the novel) speak of “our people, the Pakis, in their dirty shops, surly, humorless” as “the new Jews, everyone hates them” (212). The point is that Chili dreams the American immigrant success myth as an alternate imaginary homeland to his sense of local (British) despair; only in America does he feel he can fulfill his dreams of greatness.
Homi K. Bhabha, “How Newness Enters the World: Postmodern Space, Postcolonial Times and the Trials of Cultural Translation,” in Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 219.
Perhaps I hallucinate, but I am reminded by this passage of a key image from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)—Oedipa watching herself in an infinitely regressing hall of mirrors. My association to Pynchon is, however, ironic, in light of Kureishi’s tough thoughts on Pynchon, offered to Kermode, concerning the post-modern experiment of Vineland: “a lot of hard work went into it but ‘at the centre of it it’s not all that interesting.’” Kermode, “Voice of the Almost English,” p. 42. Kureishi’s disrespect for Pynchon, I would suggest, complicates his literary-cultural genealogy to the 1960s (a genealogy Kureishi is often linked to). Isn’t Oedipa at the threshold (a la Bhabha) of some interstitial future? Doesn’t popular culture, especially rock ’n roll, empower and inspire Pynchon?
Bharati Mukherjee, Jasmine (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1989), p. 70; p. 214. “In India,” Mukherjee has observed, “you can’t be a free spirit or reinvent your identity because your name gives you away. That’s why America, with its opportunity to change names and cancel one’s past and make up a new history or try out different roles, is so attractive to the character in my novel, Jasmine, and to myself.” Mukherjee, quoted in Norma Libman, “Beyond Calcutta,” Chicago Tribune (June 2, 1991), sec. 6, p. 3. Britain may have become a “comfortable” place for Kureishi, but it doesn’t seem—as yet—to invite the potentialities of mythic self-reinvention described by Mukherjee. Chili’s love affair with American pop culture suggests the self-transforming agency of America that attracts Mukherjee.
By claiming such a mythic potential for Jasmine, I am implicitly entering a political-aesthetic debate about the novel that can only be sketched briefly here. “Jasmine,” concludes Michael Gorra in his review, “stands as one of the most suggestive novels we have about what it is to become an American.” “Call It Exile, Call It Immigration,” New York Times Book Review (Sept. 10, 1989), p. 9. [Gorra’s title of course recalls Henry Roth, one of Mukherjee’s self-admitted literary antecedents.] By contrast, Sangeeta Ray argues that Jasmine, problematically, “celebrates a neoimperial space” where “becoming American demands a rejection of both community and a politics of collectivity, and a validation of the official bourgeois authorization of America as the supreme melting pot.” Sangeeta Ray, “Rethinking Migrancy: Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Identity in Jasmine and The Buddha of Suburbia,” in Reading the Shape of the World: Toward an International Cultural Studies ed. Henry Schwarz and Richard Dienst (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), p. 193. In Ray’s reading, Kureishi’s novel demonstrates “the achievements of progressive individualism” (p. 197). For her own part, Mukherjee has acknowledged the influence of Bernard Malamud (along with Isaac Babel, Conrad, and Chekhov) for her fiction: “I view myself as an American author in the tradition of other American authors whose ancestors arrived at Ellis Island.” Alison B. Carb, “An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee,” The Massachusetts Review 29 (1988), p. 650.
This telling description of Kureishi is taken from an anonymous profile, “The Radical Guru of Leafy Suburbs,” The Observer (Nov. 14, 1994), p. 25. Few critics/reviewers of Kureishi have noted the embedded critique of identity politics and multiculturalism latent in his work, especially in assorted interviews.
In this respect, when Stuart Hall, who greatly admires My Beautiful Laundrette, describes the tone of the “bold and adventurous” Sammy and Rosie as “overdriven by an almost uncontrollable, cool anger” (“New Ethnicities,” p. 449), he is noting the “Roth-like” energies of impudence and turbulence I have tried to assign to Kureishi.
Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia (New York: Penguin, 1990), p. 3.
Ra Page (review date 10 May 1997)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588
SOURCE: “Into the Blue,” in The Spectator, May 10, 1997, pp. 36-7.
[In the following review, Page offers a generally positive assessment of Love in a Blue Time, but finds shortcomings in Kureishi's tendency toward caricature.]
As any closet romantic will tell you, falling out of love can be an even grander experience than falling into it, as well as, of course, a more permanent one. The revelations of disenchantment and ways of surviving it form the basis of Hanif Kureishi’s latest outing—a collection of bawdy and often indulgent short stories. The opening tale, ‘In the Blue’, sets the tone with the betrayals of a 22-year-old, by now perfunctory, friendship between Roy and Jimmy. Once soul-mates in their adolescence, they have drifted diametrically under Thatcherism, selling out and dropping out, respectively. From the treacheries of friendship, the book goes on to cover a wide spectrum of infidelity and love-loss, with characters incapable of communing and equally ill-disposed to living alone.
Kureishi avoids melodrama, by lodging the blame for each break-up at personal despondency, rather than the caprice of the fairer sex. ‘Self-hate stories’ would be a more appropriate label for them than ‘love stories’, being awash with sub-aspirant careerists—from a TV advert director dreaming of his first feature, to a rootless Asian father trying to write novels in a language that eludes him. These are men sliding off the back-end of youth, nervously entering their forties with stalled ambitions and no alternative sources of pride. As Kureishi puts it, the gears of their lives have become disengaged from the mechanisms that drove them forward.
References are made, overtly and stylistically, to Chekhov, Proust and Fellini, among others, but they only really work when highlighting the gulf between his characters’ ambitions and their realities:
Roy thought often of how a man might feel had he made, for instance, La Dolce Vita, not to speak of 8[frac12]. What insulating spirit this would give him, during breakfast, or waiting to see his doctor about a worrying complaint!
Kureishi’s fascination with professional failure as a cause of isolation extends to the intrinsic shortcomings of his own craft. In ‘With Your Tongue down My Throat’, a predatory writer steals the narrative voice of a half-Asian girl to explore her fluid sense of identity, before finally admitting the theft. The richly inventive teenage repertoire—the quality of the ventriloquism—only goes to accentuate the ultimate failure of his writing, the solipsism of the single voice. In ‘Nightlight’, language itself is distrusted and love can only be rediscovered silently, anonymously and in the dark. ‘Words come out bent,’ the born-again lover soliloquises, ‘but who can bend a kiss?’
Of course there’s still plenty here for the Kureishi devotee; several stories reprise themes of racial pessimism and generational conflict, and his descriptions of the drug high-life are as compelling and jocular as ever. ‘The Tale of a Turd’, for example, compresses an addict’s life-story and love-story into the existential moment of trying to flush an unsinkable stool in his in-law’s bathroom. A drug-laced cocktail of paranoia and hallucination forces him to take desperate measures, introducing readers to the concept of the ‘turd-bird’.
After the woeful laxity of The Black Album, it is a relief to see Kureishi addressing less fashionable themes, attempting to chronicle his age rather than the age. But he still occasionally feels compelled to contemporise ‘the ebb of love’, and whenever he associates the emotional hangover of middle-age with the economic hangover of the Nineties, Zeitgeist caricatures abound.
David L. Ulin (review date 28 December 1997)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1077
SOURCE: “Hanif Kureishi Makes an Excursion into Short Fiction,” in Chicago Tribune Books, December 28, 1997, p. 3.
[In the following review, Ulin offers an overall unfavorable assessment of Love in a Blue Time, despite “the success of some pieces.”]
Since the mid-1980s, Hanif Kureishi has chronicled the life of modern London in a variety of media, alternating among fiction, screenplays and stage plays with apparent ease. First recognized for his film My Beautiful Laundrette, in which the dual specters of British racism and homophobia were given a very human—and, at times, unsettlingly personal—face, Kureishi writes about a society transformed by post-colonialism, where the established order has yielded to something both uncertain and absurd. From Pakistani immigrants and suburban racists to ’60s refugees looking for one last, evanescent high, his characters tread the line between tragedy and comedy, occupying a murky middle territory where the disturbing and the ridiculous coincide.
Kureishi’s new book, Love in a Blue Time, represents a bit of a departure, not least because it is his first excursion into the short fiction form. Featuring 10 stories, some previously published in Granta, The New Yorker and the London Review of Books, it functions, at its best, with a documentary sharpness, recording the peculiar tensions, the clashes between traditional lifestyles and the hodgepodge mix of urban multicultures, that have always fueled Kureishi’s work. At the same time, several pieces introduce a new element to the author’s vision, an older, more wistful perspective on the world. One recurring theme is how age humbles us; throughout the collection, Kureishi writes about people forced to confront the slow but steady dissipation of their dreams. As he suggests of one protagonist, “It was beginning to dawn on him that if he was going to do anything worthwhile at his age, he had to be serious in a new way. And yet when he considered his ambitions, which he no longer mentioned to anyone—to travel overland to Burma while reading Proust, and other, more ‘internal’ things—he felt a surge of shame, as if it was immature and obscene to harbour such hopes, as if, in some ways, it was already too late.”
Nowhere is this sensibility more pronounced than in Kureishi’s opening effort, “In a Blue Time,” a novella-length narrative that examines the tension between necessity and desire. The story of Roy, who “made music videos and commercials, and directed episodes of soap operas,” “In a Blue Time” is a saga of quiet desperation, where adulthood, with its compromises and commitments, only serves as a reminder of what has passed us by. Certainly, Roy is indicative of this; although he seems to have everything he wants—a new house, a baby on the way and the chance to direct a feature film—he finds no solace in it, and when his old friend Jimmy arrives on the scene, his carefully constructed persona quickly comes undone. Jimmy is a quintessential contemporary figure, an aging rebel for whom irresponsibility still signals nonconformity, and his influence over Roy becomes a perfect metaphor for the conflicts at the heart of this work. “The problem,” Kureishi writes, “was that at the back of Roy’s world-view lay the Rolling Stones, and the delinquent dream of his adolescence—the idea that vigour and spirit existed in excess, authenticity and the romantic unleashed self: a bourgeois idea that was strictly anti-bourgeois.”
It’s gratifying to see a writer explicate these polarities, especially in the current cultural climate, where words like “bourgeois” and “delinquent” often sound uncomfortably out-of-date. And, in fact, Kureishi keeps coming back to such notions, especially in the two other long stories that, along with “In a Blue Time,” operate as de facto anchors for the book. “With Your Tongue down My Throat” transfers Roy’s disaffection, his restlessness, to Nina, a teenage girl who shares a London council flat with her British mother while her father cuts business deals from his lavish home in Pakistan. Only when she visits him does Nina find a whisper of belonging, although hardly in a manner he approves or expects. “Lately”, plays out a similar dynamic in the drama of a couple whose relationship breaks apart, then comes back together, amid the sullen languor of an English seaside town. Not all of this material is effective; “Lately,” in particular, has significant problems, relying on stilted scenes and dialogue, and characters who seem motivated less by organic intention than by the necessities of plot. Still, Kureishi’s willingness to set these pieces within a broader social framework gives them a breadth, a texture, by which they may be enlarged.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for this book’s shorter writings, which, for the most part, reflect the failings of a story like “Lately,” without sharing its ambition or range. “The Flies,” for instance, takes from both Hitchcock and Kafka to describe what happens when the entire city of London falls prey to a surreal infestation. Although the story is clearly intended as allegory, its premise is so ill-conceived and murky that it’s impossible to figure out what, exactly, it’s an allegory for. Even “D’Accord, Baby,” in which a man repays his wife’s infidelity by seducing her lover’s daughter, has little urgency or narrative movement, its situation static, unresolved. Only in “My Son the Fanatic” does Kureishi approach the focus of his longer work, as a London cabbie must contend with his son’s turn toward Islamic fundamentalism, a development that causes a rift between them that, in all likelihood, will never be made right.
In the end, the issue may be that, despite the success of some pieces, short fiction is not Kureishi’s form. It’s hardly surprising, for many novelists have difficulty adjusting to a smaller canvas. With Love in a Blue Time, the feeling is especially prevalent because Kureishi’s ideas have always required space to find their shape. His novel The Buddha of Suburbia doesn’t fully coalesce until well into the narrative, and his other writing, too, relies on serendipity, an improvisational looseness that lets him integrate the most unexpected developments and still have them make sense. Certainly, Love in a Blue Time has an element of this, and in its finest moments, we get a vivid sense of the author breaking new ground. Too often, though, these stories just seem aimless, as if even Kureishi doesn’t know where they should go.
Kenneth C. Kaleta (essay date 1998)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6246
SOURCE: “Kureishi's Storytelling: Liquid Windows,” in Hanif Kureishi: Postcolonial Storyteller, University of Texas Press, 1998, pp. 240-57.
[In the following essay, Kaleta provides an overview of the central themes, social and cultural concerns, and artistic techniques in Kureishi's fiction and films.]
Popular response to Kureishi has not yet moved beyond initially reacting to his work with hyphenated cultural descriptors. After more than a decade, however, critical response to Kureishi appears to be moving toward an expanded perspective. He neither accepts nor acknowledges making cultural descriptors into literary criticism. Kureishi has not only survived his Anglo-Asian labeling, he has made use of the reputation it helped create. This is, indeed, one of his achievements—that he has not allowed his work to be confined to the mold that had been defined for it either by popular perception or by critics; instead, he has achieved critical recognition of his perspective as a new English perspective, and thereby he has demanded recognition of today’s new national hybrid identities.
Kureishi keeps his distance. He creates a complicated fictional universe in which mutability is inevitable. Incidents are blatantly biased in racial, sexual, cultural, political, and gender-related ways. But they are defined by the way in which they occur, by each character’s response to them. As to whether he identifies the cause of the brutal fate of his characters, however, a critic of Kureishi’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid bemoaned nearly ten years ago, “You can’t tell: the movie-makers seem to think they’re just looking at the passing parade.”1 He avoids both old stereotypical and trendy revisionist motivation for his characters. He presents them and their stories with affection and without reverence. Fundamentally, Hanif Kureishi is a storyteller. That is, he is devoted not to promoting politics, propaganda, or popularity, but to “telling my story, writing the truth, to entertainment.” He continues, “Obviously, entertainment in art must include instruction.”
But he refuses to require manipulation of his characters’ reality and thus continues to irritate his detractors. This refusal has remained characteristic of his work, and has been evident in his work, including the screenplay of London Kills Me, which he directed himself, and in his plays, screenplays, novels, and short stories; in all of these, the sole responsibility for that ambiguity is his. Pointedly, the absence of plot resolution, which results from his refusal to pass judgment and from his fascination with life’s passing parade, continues to be an element of his writing that some critics find infuriating. This approach led to his television adaptation of The Buddha of Suburbia being damned by the critics, one of whom wrote, “in keeping with the drama’s disparate approach to storytelling, there’s no conventional plot resolution.”2
His comic fiction satirizes politics, culture, art, media, and other contemporary issues. References and allusions thus often demand knowledge of current and historical events or a familiarity with literary classics. Kureishi further expands the range of his comic material by juxtaposing comic events with serious ones; that is, some fictional incidents become funny by their context. Still other material is drawn from humor’s lowest level: the sexual reference, the preposterous slapstick antic, the punchline joke.
While maintaining a distance from his narrative, the author nonetheless envisions it from a specific character’s eyes. Many of his characters relate their world flamboyantly. In “With Your Tongue down My Throat,” for example, the storyteller blatantly plays a trick on his readers to underscore the divisions among realities, stories, and perceptions. He draws attention to the artfulness of his creation. Here he flaunts, through first overtly identifying, and then changing, his first-person narrator, the fact that any story is a fiction framed by its point of view. Irony further separates characters’ subjective visions of their worlds from the world Kureishi creates around them. In The Buddha of Suburbia, his first-person narrator spends as much time qualifying his remarks, questioning his perceptions, and contradicting himself as he does telling the story. Karim Amir seeks to make a place in the theatrical London that he sees and also takes his place in the novel’s London that Kureishi writes.
As they do in his first-person narratives, contradictions also underlie Kureishi’s third-person stories. In The Black Album, for example, he writes about the violent conflict between religious fundamentalism and western society. The conflict between religion and politics is paramount to the novel, but issues of race, exile, immigration, and generation expand the story of Shahid’s search for identity. In “My Son the Fanatic,” too, revisionism and assimilation collide. Like his second novel, this short story and its film adaptation portray today’s paradoxical demand to maintain individualism yet be integrated into society.
Stories widen to include incidents other than those of simple plot exposition, running several narrative lines. For Kureishi, therefore, ending a story does not conclude it. My Beautiful Laundrette ends, for example, with the ambitious Omar gaining a business and bed partner. The Asian entrepreneur playfully splashes his beautiful white lover as the film draws to a close, but Omar never finds a solution to the homophobia or to the cultural or racial prejudice he endures outside the laundrette’s window. In the final shots of Kureishi’s next film, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, the London riots, racial prejudice, and police brutality, as well as Sammy and Rosie’s marriage, are left unresolved. Both Clint Eastwood in London Kills Me and Karim Amir in The Buddha of Suburbia and its television adaptation are last seen in London restaurants, having been successful in their efforts to gain status. Awash in the Puritan ethic, Clint finds a niche announcing today’s sun-dried tomatoes and gorgonzola specials to trendy diners whom Kureishi would later describe as flaunting “more pony tails than at Ascot.” But Clint finds no happy ending. Nor does becoming a TV soap-opera star fulfill the needs that, according to Kureishi, underlie Karim’s melancholy. Karim is last seen as his youthful innocence, like his decade of raunchy freedom, is submerged in the conservative, racist policies of Margaret Thatcher’s England. In “My Son the Fanatic,” Parvez avoids Fundamentalist threats as, drink in hand, he listens to music in the house now deserted by his wife and son, and is immersed in his adulterous affair with a white prostitute. As he juggles plot incidents, Kureishi balances elements in his stories, which contain both the comic and the tragic, the appealing and the unappealing, the just and the unfounded, leaving resolution of a story too close to call.
In his novels and his film writing, therefore, he creates an ensemble of characters in overlapping narratives. Because Kureishi rejects the labeling of his characters as heroes or villains, they both propel and frustrate the ambiguous action of his stories. “I don’t think that I think in that way,” he says in reference to this characteristic. “I start off writing characters, … and then I play with them. I allow them to move into different directions. So the idea of heroes or antiheroes, I don’t see things in that way at all … I don’t make judgments about my characters.” He includes threads in his plots that wind through different patterns of integration as they continue to spin. In his short stories, in which the form limits the number of plot incidents, the characters themselves evidence contradictory weaknesses and strengths. In his longer works, the contradictions in the narratives come not to resolution but to a nexus.
Grafted contradictions are the corollaries of his contemporary culture. Refusing to arrange his stories to prove a point or make a case, Kureishi presents the complications of contemporary social and human paradoxes with honesty—even with relish. Thus, the suburban seventies families of The Buddha of Suburbia flounder in the middle-class superficiality of their times; the eighties characters of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid deal with establishing an urban society in the gentrified next decade; and in contemporary England of the nineties, the assimilated Asian taxi driver of “My Son the Fanatic” beats his son for having adopted the radical position of returning to their ancient religious traditions.
Frequent pop-culture references are made: rock tunes blare; fashion and fashion trends are catalogued throughout; and popular restaurants in London’s West End color the fiction. Classic Hollywood films such as The Wizard of Oz and the cult classic Performance are alluded to; lost-generation elite F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are mentioned; aristocrats Lord and Lady (“Dickie” and Edwina) Mountbatten appear—though, of course, in Kureishi, the term “majesty” indicates rock ‘n’ roll, not traditional monarchy. Thus, it is (the formerly named) Prince, member of rock royalty, and not the last viceroy, who comes nearest to being the hyphenated-everything hero in Kureishi’s fiction. Elvis, however, remains the king.
Contradictions abound. Community both bonds and segregates. Individualism is sought in our urban society, but the city neighborhood becomes the fin-de-siècle family. The author borrows from actual historical events, such as Bill Grundy’s London chat-show interview of the Sex Pistols in the seventies and the fatwa on author Salman Rushdie in the eighties, to give his fiction the trappings of the real world. He arranges real street names, names pubs, and identifies public transportation tube lines in London to create his otherwise fictional setting.
Historical reality becomes a device in the fiction. Kureishi understands the importance of incidents not as factual record but as reflections of social, cultural, and historical attitudes. Commenting on this aspect of Kureishi’s work, Kevin Loader, who produced the television adaptation of The Buddha of Suburbia, says, “You’ve read [Kureishi’s essay ‘Eight Arms to Hold You’]. That is a brilliant piece of work. Music is very important to understand what is going on. But of course Hanif is not merely writing about music. Kureishi doesn’t get enough credit for understanding British culture as shrewdly as he does.”3
The inclusion of his previous fiction in his later work to enhance setting also becomes important in the storytelling. Fictional characters Karim Amir and Charlie Hero, both from The Buddha of Suburbia, turn up as referents in his next novel, The Black Album. As London restaurants Le Caprice and Alastair Little are mentioned to support the recognizable urban tone of this novel, so too Charlie Hero, The Buddha of Suburbia’s rock star, is incorporated in the fictional universe of the novel in the following passage: “Shops were selling T-shirts, cheap jewelry, belts, bags, wispy Indian-print scarves. Ex-students with pink mohicans and filthy dogs stood at small street-stalls selling bundles of incense and bootlegs of The Dead, Charlie Hero, Sex Pistols.” And in another passage, fictional actor Karim Amir is named as one of Zulma and Chili’s celebrated London set: “The two of them went to dinner with … film producers like Ishmail Merchant and fashionable actors like Karim Amir, with whom [Zulma] was photographed by the Daily Mail.”
Historical reality is by no means Kureishi’s interest, as Kureishi is not a historian. History is simply used to give credence to his fictional universe, the specificity of such material enhancing his fictional world. This sense of historical reality is a classic comic convention. The storyteller explains his process:
[The Black Album] happens to be based about a real event, so then is The Buddha of Suburbia set in a real time with real clothes and real history as well. That doesn’t mean that I was somehow writing a book about the affairs of Satanic Verses. I want to avoid this being seen as a book about the burning of Satanic Verses as much as I want to avoid Buddha being seen as a book about David Bowie. I write fiction, stories about someone somewhere, fiction, not history books.
As our world has expanded into a global society, so, ironically, the search for identity and individualism by every group or member of this society has become more pressing. Complicating this worldwide phenomenon, continuing gentrification has made some members of urban society grasp more tenaciously at their traditions. Progress has gone hand in hand with decay. Poverty, drug use, violence, and crime are rampant in our modern world. It is this urban paradox that Kureishi’s audience has assimilated, and Kureishi continues to draw from the events/legends that make up contemporary experience. London has become the fiction’s ironic microcosm of a global community, divided and overlapping. Thus Kureishi does not merely set stories in London; he creates stories about his London.
More recently, violence is frequently and graphically portrayed. Thus, the existence of violence is at the foundation of Kureishi’s stories. From the racially motivated attack in the play Outskirts to the fundamentalist riots in My Son the Fanatic, violence plays a cardinal role in the urban society that he creates. The message is that violence happens and is assimilated; it is inescapable. Kureishi explains:
I don’t find violence interesting or eternal or in any way particular … There is so much unemployment … there is so much despair. People use racism as their excuse, don’t they? They say, “You Pakis are taking our jobs!” “You Pakis are taking our houses!” They are unable to understand where that poverty is really coming from. If you live in London’s East End, and there are little skinheads and tough lads around on the street beating up people, racial attacks in the East End wouldn’t be surprising. They are inevitable.
In his use of violence, Kureishi employs his ironic sense of humor to stylistically underplay it, and thus more frighteningly to mirror the indifference of today’s brutal society. Violence in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, for example, is counterpointed with a sense of the ridiculous inconsistency that daily violence plays as part of our world. This makes violence, consequently, the staged subject of a coffee-table book of photographs. Despot Rafi writes a postcard to his friends in Pakistan in which he flaunts urban violence, and inspects with disgust the home-made weapons Sammy nonchalantly uses to protect his city home from attack. Sammy refuses to cancel a party simply because his guest of honor is a torturer, and curses Rosie’s liberal tolerance of city violence as the rightful expression of social unrest when it includes trashing his car. The third-world tyrant quietly hangs himself in his son’s London flat as Rosie and a group of enlightened Englishwomen chat about women’s rights in an adjoining room.
At root, violence in Kureishi is the province of both sexes, every race, and all ages. It is the subject of treatises and discussions by educators, aging hippies, and limousine liberals, as well as the recourse of Fundamentalists, students, and street gangs. And violence flares up without reason or consistency. It is terroristic, ill-directed, and random. It is often the law of the streets and as often the conduct of families. In My Beautiful Laundrette, Uncle Nasser’s old-country wife uses her black magic to raise welts on the stomach of her husband’s white mistress, Johnny throws an old black artist’s possessions after him onto the street to “unscrew” his flat, and white toughs beat up the “Paki-loving” white Johnny while Salim stands in his posh western flat crushing his bare foot into the face of his Pakistani nephew.
Incongruity intensifies the impact of the violence. It also gives the violence its contemporary context. The violence appears without introduction, exposition, or explanation, Kureishi relying on his audience’s cognizance of our violent world just as he relies on its recognition of musical or cinematic references. He simply includes the daily barbarism which is part of our society. His stories relate violence as matter-of-factly as it is treated in the pasteurized, programmed bloodletting on the nightly TV news. Violence is utterly in the open, without any excuse and without any pretense of reason.
He ends his narratives without having rationalized the violence. Characters are spectators to violent events; sometimes they even take part in the violent events, but because of the framing of the stories, as well as their humor, distance is still maintained. The charming Rafi tells us quite matter-of-factly in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid that until a man commits murder he is a virgin. The Black Album’s Shahid rides the tube during the Victoria station tube bombing, a random act of terrorism that is a media event as the body-bag count of innocent commuters mounts. A bookshop disaster results in the senseless maiming of youthful zealots, who firebomb themselves—“film at eleven.”
Kureishi laces his stories with music, sex, and drugs among the yuppies, buppies, immigrants, fundamentalists, feminists, racists, idealists, terrorists, and families who are his characters. Cruelty, integrity, and hilarity commingle in his fictional incidents. An Anglo-Asian author in London, Kureishi has known racial prejudice from both sides and has also distinguished himself in both communities. He is sufficiently well grounded in literary traditions to be able successfully to break from them. His is the perspective of the increasingly vocal new nationalist. And it is his hyphenated perspective, both in its similarities to and its differences from his readers’ perspectives, that is essential—and unique—to his storytelling.
He respects stories and understands their place in and importance to culture. He knows storytelling in its literary context, and his fiction continues the literary tradition of England, building on the conventions that have come before it and writing in traditional genres; his humor, too, has a foundation in English storytelling. But to brand him as an English comic writer distorts his aesthetic. His social criticism has a similar foundation, but the incidents that he criticizes are new and, like his sense of humor, more mutable and more flamboyant. In terms of his hybrid stance, however, Hanif Kureishi is unprecedented in English letters, although his style has evolved out of the tradition. He is a postcolonial storyteller—he redefines English national identities. That is, his storytelling remains traditional but is unique. The language is quicksilver; the point of view is objective and observational; the vehicle is humor and tragedy; the images are new and renewed images from film, history, and legend; mass media and rock ‘n’ roll swirl throughout his global storytelling.
Kureishi’s Anglo-Asian point of view is new in its own right. He is at a crossroads of contemporary attitudes that is unique, a place where controversial writing now manages to affront restrictive conservatives and politically correct liberals alike. But he will not be boxed in and he refuses to have his perspective defined by anybody else’s changing terms. He tells stories for all people and for all times at a time when fundamentalism, modernism, anticolonialism, and revisionism collide and hamper artistic expression from every side.
His writing criticizes both conservatism and liberalism. In “My Son the Fanatic,” Parvez is a hard-working pimp; his son is an idealistic terrorist. Throughout his fiction, Kureishi takes on the intellectual community, the liberal press, restrictive censorship, and contemporary media overkill. Riaz is a book burner with integrity, while Bronlow is a liberal without guts. Rafi, a torturer permitted to walk freely about London, indicts the political right, while Rosie’s treatise on kissing, with its pseudo-intellectual, trendy sexual jargon, lambastes the feminist left.
It is its place in the English literary tradition that gives Kureishi’s writing resonance. His is artful fiction. It is permeated with satiric, political commentary, reminiscent of earlier English writers who assaulted the hypocrisy of the landed gentry, the affectations of London’s middle class, and the brutality of the city’s street society. Traditionally, social criticism has been balanced by comedy to temper the realism or to relieve the tragedy of the stories, and this is the case, too, with Kureishi, whose writing also has context in art. When London Kills Me’s Clint turns to poetic rhythm and meter to describe his pastoral initiation into English society, Kureishi expands the satire. Juxtaposing his character’s lyric language with the brutality of the street crime and drug dealing of his homeless life in Notting Hill, Kureishi ridicules social as well as artistic conventions, writing from a distinctly contemporary hybrid awareness of contradictions. Thus Kureishi’s writing grafts the disdain and nostalgia of a racial outsider onto his comedies of English manners, to which racism, immigration, exile, dream, and prejudice are inherent.
Suburban-bad-boy-turned-literary-lion, Kureishi is himself a character of our century. Literature, comprising created fictions, is therefore a major element in his stories; for example, a literary track runs throughout The Black Album, whose defense of the storyteller is a proclamation about the necessity of storytelling in a society. Kureishi argues for the importance of art in our global society, and art is often a subject of his stories as well. Likewise, the reality of drama and the ridiculous superficiality of the world of theater collide in The Buddha of Suburbia.
Consequently, in both his description and his composition, Kureishi, as a man of our times, is film-conscious. Not only do movies figure in his fictional world, he also employs film stylistics to create his prose images. The actions of the pairs of lovers at the grand opening ceremony in My Beautiful Laundrette are cross-cut, a cinematic editing device. Whether as action, imagery, stylistic, referent, or subject, cinema is an element of Kureishi’s aesthetic. He not only writes for the cinema, he writes of and from the cinema as well.
Pop music is also significant in the stories. Kureishi is a storyteller from the electronic generation—the age of computer and virtual reality, and music of that generation is central to his expression. Rock songs, as well as the biographies and legends of rock stars, are resonant. In his second novel, The Black Album, the fictional music of the first novel’s Charlie Hero becomes a reality, while acquiring tickets to a Prince concert becomes a coda bringing the book to its thematic (and musical) conclusion. Kureishi is writing from, for, and of a musically conscious generation, and music thus has a place in Kureishi’s fictional world, just as music figures in the perspective of the author:
I listen to music while I’m writing. Like this morning I was listening to it. My whole life has been taken up with music in a way. Many of my friends are musicians in bands. In school being in a band was our dream. The previous generation, it was the cinema. It was a great means of escape. Cinema was the dream. For me it was pop music.
In the response to his fiction, there has been almost universal recognition that it is not an accurate depiction of history, but, rather, that it is the fictionalized evocation of pop history—of fashions, trends, cinema, and music. Kureishi embraces the almost-telegraphic power of pop conventions and stylistics—cinema and rock music—to create vivid contemporary images in his fiction. This fictionalizing has prompted the universal audience identification. As is clear from the response of its critics and the production team, for example, veterans of London in the seventies have found The Buddha of Suburbia to be an accurate evocation of that listless decade. Critics who had grown up neither in that decade nor in London, on the other hand, have viewed this story as a nostalgic return to an interesting time in history. Actor Steven Mackintosh, who played Charlie Hero, described its international attraction as follows:
The seventies return has become quite serious. There’s a wildness to the seventies; the seventies were so crazy over here. The music’s going backwards to disco. Also to David Bowie. That’s why it was such a good move to get [Bowie] interested in doing Buddha’s music. I think Buddha is funny and that would work in America as it did here. On the other hand, this whole aspect of racism involved in Buddha is national—but white people and Asian people would be very interesting to watch in America because that’s not really what’s going on [there].
[Buddha’s] just taken bits from the seventies, only the parts we like the best. Really it’s new colors; all those things are mixed in a new way. But Bowie and the music—everyone knows that.4
Music intensified the decade’s appeal, for both those who knew the era firsthand and those who didn’t recognize its music. The music is part of seventies experience today, regardless of the experience of the listeners at the chronological time of the music’s release. Thus the music evokes not historic recognition, but rather a strong romantic response from all ages to The Buddha of Suburbia, as Mackintosh acknowledges:
It wasn’t my childhood, and yet somehow I feel like it was mine. I think I would have been very happy being a teenager in the seventies. It’s a whole era of music and stuff that I’m still very much into it. I’m too young to have enjoyed that period and that time. But to me it’s still the era in music that I can very much relate to—the Stones and Pink Floyd and David Bowie. It’s just such an amazing period. I feel very comfortable with it. I feel very at home with it … Also there’s so much around. There’s so much television footage and so many books to be read about that whole period.5
Today, as has been the case ever since the postwar era, music is the art form that most easily transfers across national and economic borders. Even more than cinema, music has become the most accessible cultural entity, and has provided the most important divisions—not by country, culture, or philosophy, but by generation.
This, according to The New Yorker critic James Wolcott, is the draw of stories such as The Buddha of Suburbia: “To those who lived through the seventies, … Buddha [is] saying: ‘Remember how great it was when you could get stoned and laid without a lot of hassle?’ To younger folk in the audience … [it is] saying: ‘look at what you’ve missed—this is the fun you’ll never have.’ Feel bad, everybody!”6
In our century, the dreams, expectations, fantasies, and fears of our global society appear to be increasingly expressed in the world of pop art: print, film, and music. Kureishi recognizes that the collective illusions from pop art contradict the individual delusions of twentieth-century urban life. It is this realization of the contradictions in the two worlds that provides the nexus for Kureishi’s stories and his place in the storytelling tradition.
He further recognizes the power of today’s mass communication in dreammaking. He ridicules the culture scene. Sometimes his artistic observations provoke harmless laughter, as with the nude performance art at the gallery opening in London Kills Me, a trendy show that Muffdiver and Clint disrupt in their quest for champagne. Sometimes Kureishi employs pop-art references for outlandish satire, as in the search by The Black Album’s aging hippie Bronlow for a recording of the Beatles’ Hey Jude, as the soundtrack to accompany his depression.
Other times the questioning about art as a pop placebo is more biting and provocative. Bronlow’s ex-wife Deedee is satirized for teaching a reading, or more accurately, nonreading, college syllabus in The Black Album. Kureishi questions here the racial, class, and educational implications of today’s college faculties’ lemming-like rush to throw aside traditional study for the new, multicultural, nontraditional “found” art. In other darker pop-culture references, an innocent black woman’s murder becomes merely a news event, an urban incident, while urban rioting is reduced to a suitable subject for a black-and-white photo collection in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.
Contemporary pop hysteria is perhaps most broadly satirized in The Black Album’s eggplant upon which life’s answers may be found, as the vegetable travels from today’s human-interest story to tomorrow’s refuse. Certainly, pop art is most stingingly sent up in the theatrical escapades of Karim Amir: The group rehearsals, mini-encounters, strangling political correctness, and artiness of it all are preposterously climaxed when Karim finds himself to be not an actor of color, but merely the object of several colleagues’ basest sexual desires—simultaneously.
My Son the Fanatic’s Parvez is enterprising and degenerate and his son is insurrectionist and zealous because offhanded nihilism and fundamentalist fervor fuel their disposable society. Yet unlike previous artists who were determined to organize experience under the guidelines of religious or political dogma, Hanif Kureishi’s hybridity prompts him, as a storyteller, to accept societal contradictions as his aesthetic dogma. Thus fanatic, infidel, and holy man are friends, lovers, and family in his fiction.
His storytelling suggests the dilemma of the disillusioned sons and daughters of immigrants who have pursued Hollywood’s cinematic quest for Elsewhere. Whereas hundreds of years of dreaming spawned storytelling traditions, it has only taken one hundred years of motion-picture technology to unleash this electronic aesthetic.
As a storyteller, Kureishi builds on traditions of pictorial art. Techniques were developed in the last century to separate simple replication from the composition and stylistics of pictorial art. The invention of the camera propelled this new visual consciousness. Kureishi further portrays these possibilities in his storytelling. His storytelling becomes most understandable, therefore, in the context of the artistic overlap between literal and pictorial storytelling—that is, in the context of the movie image, comprising moving pictures with sound. This century’s artistic invention—the movies—has become its most powerful medium.
Audience reaction to the classics of cinematic history boldly illuminates the quintessential paradox found in Kureishi’s cinematic perspective. Viewing Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Double Indemnity (1944), audiences have relished the over-the-top portrayals, the quotable dialogue, and the outrageousness of the artwork as much as—and because—they have revered the story’s abiding truths. Thus, Kureishi’s stories evidence a contemporary mixing of cultures and a blending of aesthetics that is our reality.
The storytelling is inherently artful—that is, like the movies, it is aware of its pacing, rhythm, and movement. Kureishi’s stories don’t stop for the audience to catch up. Trivia and reverence commingle. Reporting ugly racism and flaunting graphic physicality, the storytelling is, in turn, uninvolving, mesmerizing, static, brilliant, repulsive, and sophomoric. Weaned on the excesses of our media culture, the storyteller simultaneously respects and ridicules the icons of pop. The audience is expected to be in the know and to get these inside references. Artificiality becomes a real element of the storytelling.
As a storyteller of our times, Kureishi is often engaged in several different forums of expression. Essentially involved with contemporary technology both as subject and method, this amused, terrified, and unimpressed storyteller of today notes—artistically and artfully—the inevitable. This storyteller is not inclined to fashion a reality for his purposes; rather, he offers a hybrid storytelling of today’s myriad realities.
The inclusion, not merely the acceptance, of contradictory elements defines a dynamic storytelling that incorporates the gross and the beautiful, the arcane and the vulgar. Mixing without blending the tragic, pathetic, and comic, Kureishi’s stories catalog the pop-culture images of television, film, music, literature, news, and hype. They are conscious of art, and redefine the elements of storytelling.
Thus, whether they are prose, drama, TV scripts, or film plays, Kureishi’s postcolonial stories exhibit the following discernible traits:
Objectivity is essential to the heroless narratives; the inevitability of disillusionment marks today’s disposable society; moral and cultural opposites commingle; and the gross and the beautiful are in tandem.
The marginal characters are off-center; the stories present the displaced, and, more particularly, the racially, economically, and sexually disenfranchised; humor—bold, sad, relentless, and merciless—often pervades the fictional world.
Art games abound; art and the artist are often the subject; a consciousness of storytelling as a process and as a tradition underlies the narratives; while pop culture is a constant term of reference, the stories are elitist in their irreverence and demand recognition of the historical, literary, cinematic, and musical references.
Audience, character, and narrator are spectators; the stories remain unresolved and are brought to an artistic conclusion without an attempt to bring them to a philosophical resolution; contradictions are integral in subject and presentation.
The storyteller is often in it, it seems, for the fun of the unexpected or the thrill of the unacceptable. So is Kureishi serious? Is he sincere? Or is he tongue in cheek? He is all of these. He flaunts his dry humor in staccato delivery. He laces his deviant, competitive, calculating, marginal heroes with hilarious and endearing qualities. The off-center world of the disenfranchised often looks more appealing in his unresolved endings than the conventional success his characters have so bravely sought.
Although racism, revisionism, liberalism, political paranoia, and fundamentalism share Kureishi’s fictional universe with cross-dressing, gritty language, homoeroticism, urban crime, moral decay, and regionally distinct blow jobs, he roots today’s sensitivity to multicultural traditions in a recognition of the contradictions of pluralism. His honesty separates his stories from mere nostalgia and camp: He respects the humanity of his characters as he accurately presents their qualities and shortcomings. Kureishi also uses historical periods strategically in his comic storytelling; in fact, he expands his use of history and fashion into biting social commentary. In his artistic universe the collision between history and art results in a merger and Kureishi never loses sight of the fiction of his creation—in fact, he stresses its artfulness. This is both how Hanif Kureishi sees his world and how he tells his stories.
His stories glorify urban street culture and vilify yesterday’s rationales. His is a worldwide immigrant audience whose members—like many of the characters in Kureishi’s stories—have had the luxury of being able to reject their parents’ dreams and life’s work. The stories portray a dream born of disillusionment and make social commentary as immediate, inconstant, and disposable as today’s mass communications.
Kureishi is English—both traditionally English and newly English. He is a hybrid Englishman, a Pakistani-Briton. As such, he belongs to a group comprising the new citizens of England who, in many ways, cling more tenaciously to nationalism, even while condemning it. These second- and third-generation immigrants are aware that while the identity they seek to protect may be no more than an unfamiliar memory, the identity they seek to reject is an unpalatable illusion.
Kureishi’s fiction is darkly comic. It laughs bitterly at situations shown simply as the brutal status quo, but, at the same time, it laughs defensively at the idealistic yearnings to make them otherwise. His fictional world is a post—politically correct world, an intellectual universe where no group, gender, color, or belief is either despicable or praiseworthy, but where all of them are laughable. He confronts the prejudice, cruelty, and failures of his time without emotional solace.
As a contemporary storyteller—one who willingly, and perhaps necessarily, writes as a cinematic new-world dreammaker—Kureishi has evolved from the Hollywood writers of the thirties who lived in monetary exile, like Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Waugh. In Kureishi, fiction and film have become mutually generative—dream is now tied to the grand illusion of the movies, as evidence of the powerful reality that the movies have achieved in art. Kureishi has evolved into a multimedia raconteur of the dreams of today’s global community. His perspective is born of cinema, the international language that has promised the impossible to most of the world. It is trendy and cosmopolitan, aware of the differences between cultures, yet desperately seeking the security of community.
Kureishi’s evolution of perspective includes risks, but he has also taken some faltering steps toward polishing his innovative, fancy footwork. A reviewer of London Kills Me acknowledged the new perspective from which Kureishi tells his stories while criticizing director Kureishi for losing his author’s perspective, commenting that he “might even have ended up with something that film has every possibility of being—fiction you can dance to.”7
Hanif Kureishi tells richly textured stories. His style is melodic. His subject matter is the blatantly irreconcilable. His vocabulary rings with four-letter words, poetry, doo-da patter, and literary allusions. Even if he is militant about an issue, he knows as well that his militancy is preposterous. Ribald anecdotes metamorphose from hilarity into philosophical musing.
He writes without hesitation in a global culture of coexisting contradictions. His window onto the world gives him insight and space for reflection. He understands immigration and exile. He knows prejudice and celebrity. He writes from a rich context of literary, cinematic, and theatrical traditions. Kureishi’s strong sense of his own hybrid perspective is his identity. He uses art neither as a therapeutic means of finding his identity nor as a means of asserting his identity by politicizing. It is because he is so definitely a storyteller that he is able to write so defiantly about the world he sees.
As he continues to create, his craft continues to evolve. Literary tradition gives him resonance. Honesty in storytelling gives him his vocation. His hybrid aesthetic gives him his goal. Hanif Kureishi sees his world in jump cuts and rapid tracking shots, writes with poetic rhythm, and composes life in language.
“Number Crunching,” Time Out, 24 November-5 December 1993.
Loader, personal interview.
Mackintosh, personal interview.
Wolcott, “A Time to Boogie.”
Romney, “The Sound of Silence.”
Bruce King (review date Spring 1998)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567
SOURCE: A review of Love in a Blue Time, in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 2, Spring, 1998, pp. 371-2.
[In the following review, King gives a favorable assessment of Love in a Blue Time.]
Written over the past decade, the six short stories of Love in a Blue Time, all republished from magazines, are a pleasant surprise. Their conciseness compresses desire, indulgence, and subsequent frustrations into a few dreamlike yet highly colloquial pages. Everything appears to happen at once, in the present, with no time for reflection. An effective technique is the sudden, unannounced, unprepared shift into the mind of someone on drugs or having sex, or into the midst of a likely disaster. Before you have had time to say “Watch it” as the temptation comes into sight, the scene moves far ahead, without even the warning of time passing or an obvious jump-cut. The effect is druglike, not so much the strung-out psychedelia of the 1960s as more a speeded-up version of the amusing but self-destructive drug-taking found in writing of the 1980s, where snorting was part of glittering success and led rapidly to disaster.
The title story “Love in a Blue Time” epitomizes the 1980s. A now well-off rebel trying to break out from advertising into serious filmmaking and from one-night stands to marriage and fatherhood almost throws everything away in a swift return to debauchery once he meets a former admired companion in excess. There is no return to youth; the financial and creative fruits of work are quickly jeopardized.
Behind this and other stories is the fear of stasis and repetition, especially in and through marriage. There is an excellent short story here, “The Files,” in which the classical Greek tale becomes a Kafkaesque parable of settling down to domesticity and a bourgeois marriage, including such typical attempts at escape as adultery. Nothing prevents the flies, the loss of love, the lifelong emotional and financial struggle to overcome the loss of irresponsible youthful pleasure. Love cannot last more than eighteen months before the partners start to hate each other and themselves.
Collectively the ten stories reveal the moralist, the Voltairean common sense, that is increasingly part of Kureishi’s vision. A romantic conscious of the intensity of desire and suspicious of inhibitions, he is aware of the destructiveness of indulgence and of the petty, aimless lives of those who live without working and get by hustling or on government support. If Kureishi’s filmscripts criticize Thatcherite England, there is much here to support a Thatcherite view of youth, drug, and radical culture.
Those seeking the latest debates about Black, Multicultural or Islamic England will need look elsewhere. Whereas the film My Son the Fanatic was hostile to Islamic fundamentalism, which was portrayed as dangerously violent and intolerant, in the short-story version the message is almost the opposite. A long-settled immigrant father eventually loses his temper with his fundamentalist son in a conflict between generations that questions the father’s own secular liberal tolerance. The author’s wish for a rapid ironic turn at the end of the story possibly has much to do with the meaning. “With Your Tongue down My Throat” is more complicated. A hypocritical, dictatorial Pakistan elite is unfavorably contrasted to an impoverished, sluttish, drug-taking England. There is a cultural and political choice, but the story is too rich in events, characters, and ironies to be limited to such concerns.
Walter Kirn (review date 15 March 1999)
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SOURCE: “Diet Fiction,” in New York, March 15, 1999, pp. 59-60.
[In the following review, Kirn finds that Intimacy achieves only a “handsome tedium.”]
Size matters in fiction, but so does lack of size. Everything else being equal, fat novels tend to be perceived as serious, very thin ones as more honest, more real. Writers address these age-old expectations by filling their big books with philosophy and cramming their little ones with feeling. Lately, it’s the massive efforts that have gotten more attention, but that may be changing. Witness two new miniatures published by the same company, Scribners, and promoted for their supposed authenticity. Sized to fit on a key chain and packaged to resemble tiny fashion accessories, one book is said on its jacket to be “searing,” the other “wrenching.” Appearances deceive, though.
The searing novel is Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy, whose title is both immodest and modest at once, in the slickest contemporary style. The title is a good guide to what’s inside: a cold little slice of marital agony set in media-savvy upscale London, where passionless unions are hardly news, particularly among the rich and educated. From movies such as Sunday Bloody Sunday and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, we already know the story, if not the characters and 90 percent of the terse, inhibited dialogue. All is disconnect and fractured silence, the atonal music of never-meeting minds. The tone is stinging and contemptuous, the atmosphere one of bloodless luxury, the moral that there can be no moral. Indeed, what allows the novel to be so short is that its immaculate familiarity and total dependence on received ideas relieves it of the traditional obligations to make a world, draw characters, stimulate expectations, and cast a mood. With the tricky business of creation taken care of by his predecessors, Kureishi is free to concentrate on compression.
Intimacy is nothing if not elegant. The story inhabits a suspended moment between a momentous personal decision and its inevitable execution, announcing its ending the moment it begins. The narrator, Jay, a self-hating screenwriter whose job is to turn classic literature into pap (do fictional screenwriters ever do otherwise?), has decided to leave his wife the following morning. This won’t be hard because she’s such a pill. Susan, a yuppie neat freak who works in publishing (another big no-exit career in fiction), is given not a single attribute that anyone would want to stick around for, making Jay’s decision to split the marriage about as interesting as the reflex to spit out a mouthful of curdled milk. Harder for Jay will be leaving his children, whom he claims to love and adore, despite the fact that the book’s domestic vignettes are tinged with such ennui and boredom that neither the kids nor Jay’s alleged feelings for them are anything more than narrative postulates meant to provide a jumping-off point for Jay’s woolly meditations on abandonment.
The result is a paradoxical entity: a very short novel that still feels hugely padded. Proceeding by means of portentous interjections between longer descriptive passages (“In the morning I will be gone”; “I am kicking over the traces”; “Tomorrow I will do something that will damage and scar them”), Intimacy aspires to a terrifying, fatalistic flatness, but what it achieves is just handsome tedium. The pages are riddled with epigrams and axioms that spring fully formed from Jay’s tortured, literate mind and sound like karaoke Shaw: “Patience is a virtue only in children and the imprisoned.” “I figured that doing nothing was sometimes the best way of doing something.” The case Jay makes for sex and self-expression over a life of impotence and duty is treated like revolutionary though: instead of seventies Fear of Flying kitsch, and when, after more than 100 pages of sterile dialectics, he finally flies the coop, we wonder what took him so long.
Minna Proctor (review date 19 April 1999)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1629
SOURCE: “Buddha Leaves Suburbia,” in The Nation, April 19, 1999, pp. 38-40.
[Below, Proctor reviews Kureishi's career up to Intimacy.]
If you adored Catherine Texier’s Breakup last year, fell to the floor gushing sympathetic tears for the abandoned raconteur and raised your fists with indignant empathy over the cruelty of love’s death, then you’ll probably be just as content to steer clear of Intimacy, Hanif Kureishi’s fourth work of fiction. If, however, you found Texier’s blitzkrieg of grief indulgent, if you wearied by page ten of the unnuanced voice of victimization, if you wondered when it stopped taking two to tango, “if you, too, have known love and loss” (as Fay Weldon said of Breakup) but took the intellectual path out of it, befriended your defense mechanisms, uncomfortably celebrated the idealistic possibility of finding love … again, thought it all fascinating at some level, then Intimacy may be for you.
A successful, middle-aged writer walks out on his common-law wife (and former editor) and two young sons, moves in with a younger woman who plays in a rock band, and writes a novella about it. This is Intimacy—billed as fiction, though the similarities to the author’s own life cast a spurious shadow over the claim. Intimacy is a falling-out-of-love book, according to Kureishi “an examination of family, duty, passion, and how we reconcile these things.” This otherwise noble pitch didn’t keep the shadow of self-reference from dogging the book’s publication last spring in the author’s native England. It led to such a violent onslaught of negative publicity that the former enfant terrible of London was driven into a much-publicized retreat from public life, inadvertently mirroring the exile of his friend Salman Rushdie. Except the fatwa over Kureishi’s head is benign and dramatizes the abiding Western preoccupation with the personal (as applied to celebrity) and the haphazard search for values in a secular world through diffuse notions of familial obligation and middle-class love. As Jay, the narrator of Intimacy, explains, “It is the men who must go. They are blamed for it, as I will be. I understand the necessity of blame—the idea that someone could, had they the will, courage or sense of duty, have behaved otherwise. There must, somewhere, be deliberate moral infringement rather than anarchy, to preserve the idea of justice and of meaning in the world.”
Kureishi first appeared on the scene in 1985 with the screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette, one of the first great films in what morphed into the phenomenon of independent cinema. My Beautiful Laundrette infringed on middle-class morality by putting forth issues of sexuality, class, racism and familial obligation simultaneously. His first and second novels, The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album, likewise confronted a spectrum of coming-of-age quandaries—religion, fundamentalism, career, academe, love and ethnic identity. Triumphs of the roman à clef genre, both books maintained a peculiarly delicate balance of Oedipal crisis, positioning society rather than the father as the specter to be reckoned with, keeping Kureishi (in good English tradition) more outwardly than inwardly focused. That focus is subtly perpetuated in Intimacy, keeping it from being the self-absorbed nightmare that its subject might promise.
Kureishi is a kingpin of the unacknowledged art of the biographical tease—giving just enough to suggest a narrative doppelgänger but not enough to drown readers with a sense of mundane memoir. His 1997 story collection about loveless relationships, Love in a Blue Time, was inexplicably hateful—its pleasure retrieved primarily through Kureishi’s ever-lucid and elegant literary style. It smacked throughout of midlife crisis but lingered in allegory and never quite fessed up. Now Kureishi has grown older, rounder, patronly, bourgeois, as have his dopplegängers. Jay laments: “Velvet curtains, soft cheese, compelling work and boys who can run full-tilt—it isn’t enough. And if it isn’t, it isn’t.”
The panning of Kureishi—not just his book—by London’s champagne-socialist intelligentsia represented an embarrassing knee-jerk conflation of author and text, text and life. Female reviewers in particular loathed this book, taking Kureishi to task for his immaturity, his inability to commit, for walking out on his children: “Anyone with even a scrap of rectitude could not fail to find Intimacy a repugnant little book. … such callousness verges on the psychotic” (Observer); “At its core, Intimacy reads like pure pathology; the rage and boredom and cruelty of a man who has fallen out of love” (Guardian); “Feminist critics will have a field day with its misogyny” (Observer). Kureishi exacerbated the conflation of life and literature by giving an interview to the Sunday Guardian in which he transposed details of his own life, making himself out to have come from a more lower-class background than he actually did—perhaps in pursuit of the authenticity that “suffering” provides, or perhaps simply to blur the topical lines between persona and person just a little more. His claims were publicly rebutted by his sister in a letter to the Guardian that opened with the question, “Does being famous mean you can devalue those around you and rewrite history for even more personal gain?” Such rhetoric fueled the larger questions surrounding a book that quite brazenly attempts to make art of dirty laundry.
Dirty laundry or not, art it is. Critics, as critics will do, plucked the devilish moments of Kureishi’s book from their context, and in so doing denied the delicate complexity those moments occupy. Don’t be misled by its veneer of straight, simple language; Intimacy works off irony, not misogyny. And irony is one of the few literary devices left in our self-referential literary landscape. Jay runs away from what he has in pursuit of something greater: “Tonight my predominant emotion is fear of the future. At least, one might say, it is better to fear things than be bored by them, and life without love is a long boredom. I may be afraid but I am not cynical.” In its course, Intimacy and its author offer up their innuendoed bellies to the reader—an uncommon act of vulnerability. “I will pursue my feelings like a detective, looking for clues to the crime, writing as I read myself within. I want an absolute honesty that doesn’t merely involve saying how awful one is.”
In defense of honesty, we are privy to Jay’s often ruthlessly negative depiction of Susan, the soon-to-be ex. Such narration can be read simplistically as an expression of misogyny, but it is more properly a dramatization of that sadly familiar defense mechanism that demonizes the object of rejection to make leave-taking less painful and justify an otherwise morally dubious action. The narrator’s tumult over his own tenuous justifications sears the surface of the story, almost palpable in its desperation. Consider this exchange between Jay and Susan:
“I can’t imagine what you have to think about,” she says. Then she laughs. “You didn’t eat much. Your trousers are baggy. They’re always falling down. You look like a builder.”
“Sorry? Don’t say sorry. You sound pathetic.”
Susan is an impossible nag in these moments, a one-dimensional monster, a patent fabrication. This is not the characterization of a real person but rather a display of the construction of resentment. Deceptively blasé in tone, the emotion lies in what’s not explicit, the juxtaposition of discordant sentiments and tortured ironic distance: “My younger son, his nose in my wrist as we walked in the street last week, said, ‘Daddy, you smell of you.’ ‘Cheerio, I must be going.’”
Intimacy is a journey through conflict: “How do I like to write? With a soft pencil and a hard dick—not the other way round.” This comment (often disparagingly cited by critics) is not simply macho posturing or even self-mockery but rather a callow admission of opposing potencies. The obligations of man: duty to family and society, weakness in the face of desire, phallocentrism and homage paid to it. The demands of craft: the self-investigation, the drudgery and isolation, the idealism that drives it. As an expression of sexuality (for there is much of that here, too), Jay’s is an embarrassing admission of creative and physiological onanism. Is the writer then so self-sustaining? And isn’t it only in the most intimate of circumstances that men admit that the wealth of their own minds makes them hard?
Relationships end. It’s bitter and sad. We have all been touched by it, nursed friends through it, heard endless narratives about it, wrought our own endless narratives. It’s a quintessentially human story—and potentially deathly boring. For my money, it’s infinitely less interesting to be handed grief on a platter than it is to speculate on the conflagrations of negotiating that grief. “Nothing is as fascinating as love, unfortunately,” Jay ruminates. Glued to the page and brimming with traces of common experience, we have to agree. The pain revealed in the interstices between hatred, love, fealty and duty constitutes entree into a higher level of intimacy that, finally, has little to do with our voyeurism and everything to do with our participation in life itself.
Few books are so saturated with the sense of compulsion to tell a story in elaborate detail. Kureishi gives voice to the lucubrations of the splendors and depths of the mind (to paraphrase Jay) and their unflagging appeal to expression through the written word—that unforgiving medium Kureishi both controls and lets control him, in a dynamic not unlike a love affair. That we end up feeling sorry for no one, sensing that everyone may actually be better off someday, whether the characters seem to deserve it or not, is Kureishi’s promise: a tale of hope for the future, for love.
Peter Rainer (review date 12 July 1999)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311
SOURCE: “Buddy Flicks,” in New York, July 12, 1999, pp. 49-50.
[In the following review, Rainer gives a brief plot summary of My Son the Fanatic.]
Parvez (Om Puri), the middle-aged Pakistani cabdriver in the marvelous My Son the Fanatic, moved to the industrial north of England 25 years ago with his wife, Minoo (Gopi Desai), and, against the evidence of his eyes, still sees his adopted country as a fabled and pleasant place. He’s a naïf who has internalized the rewards of Empire far more than have the native English. When his only child, Farid (Akbar Kurtha), who still lives at home, drops his white fiancée, forsakes his possessions, and becomes an Islamic fundamentalist, Parvez is stung by this renunciation of his own dream; at first he thinks the boy must be on drugs.
Hanif Kureishi, who wrote the screenplay based on his New Yorker short story, doesn’t frame this conflict as a generational grudge match. It’s more like an upside-down father-son love story in which the usual sides are reversed: The father is much more liberal than the son. Kureishi, with the director Udayan Prasad, understands the allures of orthodoxy, the way it can focus rage. And yet when Farid brings a Muslim priest and his followers to live in their home, and Minoo is quietly shut off from the dining room to eat alone, the consequences of that orthodoxy seem unutterably sad. Parvez is dumbstruck by his son’s fanaticism and begins to confide in Bettina (Rachel Griffiths), a prostitute he’s been ferrying around on assignations. The relationship that develops between them is so acutely observed that what might seem odd instead seems inevitable—Bettina shares Parvez’s despairing, triumphal sense of what their lives could be like. Bewildered by what their country has become, they are the true inheritors of England’s dashed glories.
Stanley Kauffmann (review date 9 August 1999)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504
SOURCE: “A Daughter, a Father,” in The New Republic, August 9, 1999, p. 30.
[In the following review, Kauffmann examines Parvez, the central character of My Son the Fanatic.]
Belatedly, a welcome to My Son the Fanatic (Miramax). It was written by Hanif Kureishi, author of My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and was directed by Udayan Prasad, Indian-born but raised in England, whose second feature it is. I’ve not seen his first, Brothers in Trouble, but Om Puri, who was in it, plays the leading role in the new picture.
Here Puri is Parvez, Pakistani-born, who has spent twenty-five years as a taxi driver in the northern English city of Bradford. The story opens with a party to toast the engagement of Parvez’s son Farid and the daughter of a very English police inspector. Parvez is delighted; the inspector is not. The engagement doesn’t last, and Farid makes his way, mostly off-screen, from this attempt at assimilation to fierce Islamic fundamentalism. This journey takes place so consistently off-screen that the film’s title is a misnomer. Farid does become a fanatic, in his father’s eyes, but it is a secondary matter: his father is the protagonist of the story.
An important part of Parvez’s business is hooker transport. He carries hookers to and from their dates, he makes hooker recommendations to visiting businessmen, and, apparently like other drivers, considers all this to be simply part of his job. He becomes friendly with the women, especially with Bettina (played by Rachel Griffiths, the Hilary of Hilary and Jackie). She gets to know something of Parvez’s open spirit and concern for his son. In time she falls in love with Parvez, as he does with her. Their affair becomes more than another fictional sob about a hooker’s one true love because of the generosity in both performances. Underlying their happiness in each other is fear—about the future—plus the sense that each has earned this love and must have it while it is possible. The affair becomes known to both Parvez’s wife and son, and of course affects them. The story ends with determination more than resolution.
The film plumbs some depths in societal relations (including a few sharp anti-Jewish cracks by Pakistanis), but it centers on Parvez, on interior turbulence in him. A quarter-century ago he uprooted himself for the sake of his family, and now more uprootings loom. Puri, highly esteemed in Indian film and theater, has immediate unforced power, warmth, and the gift of evoking sympathy without asking for it. Bettina’s response to Parvez is thus all the more understandable—and dangerous. Griffiths gives us both the heat and the despair. Also present is Stellan Skarsgard, the Swedish actor who has rocketed into English-language films (Breaking the Waves, Good Will Hunting, etc.). Here he is a German business visitor, but, whatever he is, continues to mystify me. How does a director distinguish between Skarsgard and the grips and electricians on the set?
Hanif Kureishi with Colin MacCabe (interview date Autumn 1999)
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SOURCE: “Hanif Kureishi on London,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 3, Autumn, 1999, pp. 37-56.
[In the following interview, Kureishi discusses racial and cultural issues in contemporary London, his background and experiences in London, and the creative processes behind his fiction and films.]
[MacCabe:] Good evening, I’m Colin MacCabe, Chairman of the London Consortium, which, together with the Architectural Association, has organised this conference on London as a post-colonial city, to which Hanif Kureishi’s season of films and particularly tonight’s conversation are a curtain-raiser. Kureishi’s work has almost all been set in London and is, arguably, the most significant body of work which investigates, interrogates and celebrates the realities of post-colonial London.
Hanif, I’d like to start the evening by asking you very simply how, as a Londoner born and bred, you see the capital?
[Kureishi:] I was born, actually, in the suburbs, in a place called Bromley. And for us the important place, really, was the river. And when you got on the train and you crossed the river, at that moment there was an incredible sense that you were entering another kind of world. And being in the suburbs, we could get to London quite easily on the train—about fifteen or twenty minutes—but it was a big jump. And the suburbs were completely white where I lived, and obviously the lifestyles and the kind of people were very similar.
And so, for me, London became a kind of inferno of pleasure and madness. Particularly as when I first became aware of it it was the sixties. And I had an uncle who had a flat on the King’s Road. And so I would go up to the King’s Road and just see these incredible people, and the shops, and all of that. And just think, and think; you know, I just want to be here with these people. And then, at the end of the day, you’d have to go home and it was rather disappointing.
So London was always a place that I imagined. And I think that all the places that I write about—the Bradford of My Son the Fanatic, or I’ve written a play which is set in the country, at the moment—I mean, in a sense, they’re all in my head—in the writer’s head—they’re imaginary places. Whenever I write about a place, I don’t think ‘Would this happen in it?’ I make this place up and whatever I want can happen in it.
So, you know, my London isn’t going to be like anybody else’s London. It’s a playground, it’s a place where I can imagine, where I can play.
It was also a place where you went to university. Did you play there?
Yeah, I did, actually. I went to university over the road, across the river. And I’d sit in the bar, looking across to the National Theatre and to here, thinking, ‘I want to be over there’. And also, being in university in London really isn’t being at university. Because, at the end of the day, everybody goes out into London, into the city. And you’d go off and do things, and I’d work at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it wasn’t a bit like being on a campus.
And I suppose I loved the theatre and I worked in the theatre in the evenings. I suppose London for me was culture. I just wanted to be in a place that wasn’t like Bromley, where you could talk about plays.
When I went to the Royal Court for the first time, the people there were arguing passionately; say, particularly, I remember, about Tom Stoppard, who they hated at the Royal Court and whose name you couldn’t mention without being considered to be, you know, suburban. And I said, you know, I’d seen the Tom Stoppard play and I’d quite liked it. And people looked at you in horror. But I wanted to be in a place where people were involved in making culture—where they were shocked that you liked Stoppard.
In Sammy and Rosie,there’s a great emphasis on the kind of weight of the historical past and what happens when the realities of the historical past are denied. But the historical past at issue in that film is India, Pakistan, etcetera. Do you feel London’s cultural past, or historical past, as a real presence for you?
I think when I was a kid, actually, I was very aware of growing up, after the war. Because my uncles, being Indians, had fought in the war. And obviously my grandparents had been in the war. And my mother, who was a child, had stayed in London during the war.
And Bromley where I lived had been badly bombed. So I was very aware of that kind of devastation. And then the pleasures of the sixties seemed to me to almost come directly out of that, actually. Particularly the Beatles. You know, John Lennon was obsessed with war. And then one day I realised he was obsessed with the Second World War. It wasn’t necessarily the Vietnam War. The Second World War had had a big impact on us. And had created a new kind of Britain that was involved in pleasure. That had come out of the devastation of the war.
You worked at the Royal Court and had various plays put on there. But your first film, My Beautiful Laundrette seemed to come out of nowhere. Where did it come from?
Well, I had an uncle who had a launderette. People sometimes like to think that the launderette in the film is a symbol. And it did, I suppose, become a symbol of some sort. But it wasn’t a symbol originally. My uncle had these launderettes.
And he was a Pakistani entrepreneur and he would take me around these launderettes when I was starting to write. And he would say, ‘You know, you should run one of these, because they’re the future’. ‘Everyone’s got dirty clothes, they’re going to want them to be washed. Why don’t you think about doing this?’
And then we’d go around them, and I never actually came to run one myself, but he would explain to me the difficulties. There was a Chinese restaurant near one of his launderettes, and they used to go and do their prawns in the drying drum, you know. And he’d explain the problems of this and I was very amused and interested.
And so it sort of came out of that. And it also came out of all the skinhead stuff that I grew up with. When I was at school, you were a hippie, or you were a rocker, or you were a skinhead. And a lot of the boys that I’d actually grown up with, since I was four or five, became skinheads. And I remember the shock of that. I remember one guy, who was a very good friend of mine, coming to my house, and he had cropped hair and he had braces. And he was just standing there, and he was completely different and it was very shocking.
And so the Daniel Day Lewis character kind of came out of all those boys. And the fact that me, being a young Asian kid, I knew these kids. I grew up with them, they were a part of me. And the gang that would hang around the launderette and so on. I mean, that was like all those boys.
And I had another uncle who was an alcoholic. And so there was a lot of experience that went into all of that. And it all just got crammed in. There was a lot of it. There was a lot to say. And the experience of coming to England.
And then I’d been to Pakistan as well, and I’d seen my uncles in Pakistan. I had some sense of the past. And of what it was like for them, coming to England. And actually they were rather wealthy in India and Pakistan, and they’d come to England. And then being just thought of as ‘Pakis’. And these are rather proud, middle-aged, strong men, and suddenly, you know, they were being chased down the streets by boys I’d been to school with.
And so all of that, somehow, coalesced in my head to make this film.
I was going to ask you, I mean, that’s very interesting, as it were, from you. But it’s difficult to imagine, today, anybody commissioning, or indeed making a film as unorthodox in its narrative line, as well as being as brave on the kind of social issues. How did it happen? Did David Rose come to you and ask you to write a film?
Well, they were liberal. And they needed an Asian, and I was the Asian, you know. I was the Asian that they knew. There’s always an Asian that they know, they ring up. And now it’s Mira. And I say to Mira, they always ring you up, don’t they, because you’re the one. And you’re a girl, as well, so you’re double-loved by the liberals.
It was partly that, and that’s a good thing, too. I mean, I remember before that, going to the BBC and going to other places with ideas. And then people saying to me, ‘Nobody is interested in Asians. We can’t do a film about Asian people’. You know, Asian people were not seen as part of Britain. So the idea that you do a film about Asian people and have Asian characters … I mean, it’s completely changed now. You’d have to remember how odd that was then. Now, Asian people read the News all the time. In fact it seems as if it’s only Asian people reading the News. But in those days, there was no representation of Asian people at all on television. So I couldn’t get my stuff done.
And so when Channel 4 started, it was an opening and it was brave, and it was more or less the first time.
And how did you team up with Frears on one hand, and Sarah Radcliffe and Tim Bevan, on the other? Looking back, it’s an incredible conjunction of talents.
Yes. Well, I’d seen Stephen Frears’s work on TV. And David Rose had found another director for My Beautiful Laundrette, who I didn’t like, really, and I thought I’ve got to do this myself.
And so I got Stephen’s number and I found his address and I went around to his house with the script. And he thought I was Farukh Dhondy, at first. And he kept saying to me, ‘And how are things at Channel 4?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I don’t know, I’ve just written this film’, you know. And he’s saying, ‘Well, what’s it like in the offices?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I don’t really know’.
And then once we cleared that up, it was all right. And he had been making pop videos for Tim Bevan. And he said, ‘Oh, there’s this young kid, he’s only about twenty-five. He should do it. He’s really good. We just need to do it with young people and it’s got to be really lively and full of energy’. And he agreed to do it. And many of the actors I’d known, like Rita Wolf who plays the girl. And she brought all her friends.
In those days, there weren’t many other Asian actors, so whoever turned up was in it. Years later, when we did the Buddha of Suburbia, there were dozens of very good Asian actors, but in those days there were very few. And Saeed Jaffrey was the leading British Asian actor. And he had to be in it. And other people turned up. And whoever turned up was sort of in it.
But it was made very cheaply. It was made very quickly. Stephen Frears insisted on shooting it on 16mm. And insisted that it wouldn’t be released in the cinema, because he said both Channel 4 and the BBC can’t make films; they make television films and you shouldn’t put them in the cinema. This is his theory and probably quite interesting and probably right in some ways.
And so it was shot with great freedom and, you know, there wasn’t a lot of pressure and a lot of money involved. And most of the actors were aristocrats.
Daniel Day-Lewis, you know, people said to him on the set, ‘What does your dad do?’ And he’d say, ‘Poet Laureate’. But it had a great spirit to it.
You then went on to Sammy and Rosie with the same team. But you took a much broader canvas, which dealt with the effects of colonial history and the regimes that were established by national liberation struggles. In retrospect, do you feel happy with the extraordinary mix of elements in the film?
I don’t know, I haven’t seen it. I don’t have to see any of them again. I don’t know. That film was much more a sort of agitprop film, I suppose, in the sense that I’d worked in the theatre before. And if there were riots down the road, then you’d put on a play about it. And I thought, well, why can’t we make a film about it? You know, there was a shooting of Cherie Grose in Brixton, and there were riots and all that. And I thought, well, let’s put that in the film. Let’s do it. And so it was much more spontaneous. It didn’t come out of the experience that My Beautiful Laundrette had come out of. It made, I suppose, the characters in that film, to me, much richer than the characters in Sammy and Rosie.
But I was also fascinated by the idea that one of my uncles had come from Pakistan to England, and he hadn’t been for years. And he came to in those riots. And he was a very sedate, middle-aged man. And the streets were on fire, and every time he turned on the telly there were riots and so on. And he said, ‘I can’t believe this is England’. You know, ‘I’ve worshipped England’. You know, ‘England occupied my country for years. And now the place is burning down.’
And I was very interested in his reaction. He’s actually a Kapoor character, kind of wandering around, amazed by the fact that everything is on fire around him. And he actually came to then, I suppose, from being shocked by this country that he’d seen as being this great imperial power, kind of burning down.
You then directed London Kills Me, which was given a very poor critical reception. I myself thought it a very acute description of London in the early nineties. What are your feelings about it now?
I haven’t seen it and I don’t know. I mean, I am aware that I am not a film director. I know that I’m a writer and that I’ve written for a long time and I’ve got some idea how to do it.
When I was sitting on the set of London Kills Me I did feel at times, I don’t have any experience and I don’t know where to go. And they’d say to me, ‘What do you want, Guv?’ And I’d think, I just don’t know.
And I could see at that moment that I wasn’t a film director and I wasn’t in control of my material. I felt rather ashamed of that. But I did feel that I wanted to write about something that I’d noticed in London, which was a new sort of under-class, I suppose, of kids involved with drugs. Particularly the new drugs; the dance music, house music, ecstasy and all of that. And lots of kids running around and dealing, mostly to the middle class. And that interested me. And it didn’t seem to me that that had been written about or shown in films or whatever.
Later on, it was done, probably much better. Trainspotting, obviously, was a film that I thought was very good. But the fact that drugs seemed to me to be almost central to our culture, in that every town, every city and every kid, you know, was involved in some way in drugs, and this was not represented in our film culture at all, it seemed to me to be odd. So I did want to write about that somehow. And I don’t think I quite got a hold of it, but I thought it was worth writing about and dealing with.
Was Buddha of Suburbia your first attempt at a novel?
I’d written novels all through my teenage years. I’ve written actually three or four novels, complete novels, which were really early versions of The Buddha. About being at school, about race, about being called a ‘Paki’, about having an Indian father and an English mother. And the youth culture—dressing up, drugs, parties and all of that.
But also, I remember Rushdie saying to me this really cutting thing. ‘We take you seriously as a writer, Hanif’, he said, ‘but you only write screenplays.’ And I remember being really hurt by this, and provoked by it. And I thought, well, I’ll write a novel then, and then I’ll be a proper writer; that somehow that’s what being a proper writer was. Perhaps it is, in the sense that what you write then goes to the reader unmediated: there are no actors, directors, or anybody else involved.
So I wanted to try and do that. But I also wanted to write something that was big and which dealt with the internal life of the people in the story. And something that I entirely controlled myself. I mean, doing films is a mad business. And things happen on the set all the time that you can’t control. And there’s a lot of other people involved. And this is a great pleasure, but also can be very annoying, because what you imagined in your head doesn’t actually get quite to the screen. Other things get to the screen, sometimes, which are better. But it’s not always quite what you had in mind.
But when you write prose, obviously it’s much more precise. And so, after being stung by this remark of Rushdie’s, then I wrote The Buddha.
And I had money as well, for the first time; after Sammy and Rosie and My Beautiful Laundrette I had what they call a two-year window. The Laundrette had made money in the US.
So you wrote it for an unmediated relationship to the audience. But then it was adapted, and adapted for television. Could you take us through that process?
Well, yes. The BBC wanted to do it, and I thought the BBC were exactly the right people to do it, because they do the costume dramas. And The Buddha, really it’s a costume drama. All the clothes and furniture and the wallpaper and the carpets are brilliant, you know. As my mum said, ‘Oh, it’s just like being at home, isn’t it?’, when she watched it. And that’s true. And the BBC are very good at all that kind of detail. And so I wanted them to do it. Also the BBC give you a long time. It would be four hours long. You can really stretch out and sort of enjoy all the details of it. And I worked with a very good director who I’d known before at the Royal Court: Roger Michel, who I really like.
What were the problems of dramatising the novel?
It’s very hard to change a first-person novel into a screenplay, because you lose all the stuff that’s inside his head. So he’s thinking all this stuff, but you’ve got this bloke just sitting there, you know. And then what do you do? Do you do a voice-over? And we thought for a long time of doing a voice-over, but then thought that was a rather feeble response.
So we tried to make it as dramatic as we could, mostly making it dramatic through the other characters and the velocity of the story. And I was very pleased with it. And I thought the actor who played Karim, Levine Andrews, who had been in London Kills Me, was very good.
You’ve reached a stage where your last film was set in Bradford, and you’ve just told me that the play that you’re rehearsing at the moment, next door, at the National Theatre, is set in Gloucestershire. How would you describe that move? I mean, everything’s been in London. Now you’ve suddenly moved out. Why is that?
Well, I suppose I used to think that somehow you had to write about what you knew. And I set this film in Bradford, but, to be honest, I’ve never been to Bradford really. I’ve been there for a few weeks and written something about it. But I didn’t know it very well. And then I thought, well I don’t really care. I mean, it’s not really Bradford, it’s in my mind.
And they never say it’s Bradford. And I needed an enclosed community, and I was fascinated—had become fascinated after the Rushdie fatwa—by fundamentalism. And the arguments between the generations of Asians. The young Asian kids being more fundamentalist, I suppose, than the quasi-liberal parents.
And I wanted to do a film that was an argument film. This father and the son debating about fundamentalism. And it seemed to me that that was an important subject. And that’s what the BBC was there for. You know, to present kind of public service arguments, as it were.
I tried to make it an entertaining film, but I wanted it to be a serious film about what went on. I suppose I saw it as a sort of ‘Play for Today’. And actually the BBC came to me and said we’re going to do more plays for today—we’re going to make twenty-four of them. In fact, they made one, which was My Son the Fanatic. But that idea of serious drama, about important issues, all that heavy stuff, was something that I happened to believe in.
But why couldn’t you have set that in London?
Because in London, in the Asian community, it’s not so tight. You don’t get the same concentration. In Bradford and Halifax, the hills are around, it’s reasonably enclosed. It’s tight. They argue amongst themselves. What people think and feel and do and say, it really matters and reverberates.
So if a taxi driver has an affair with a prostitute, it’s a big thing in the community. In London, it didn’t seem to have the same kind of force.
What do you think about the current academic vogue of post-colonialism?
Well, it’s quite clear to me that our societies have changed enormously since I was a kid and since the war. Britain, and obviously the whole of Europe, has completely changed, and you can see it with the Stephen Lawrence case. You know, it’s right at the centre of our debate about what kind of country do we want to live in. What kind of England is this going to be?
And it seemed to me, also, when I was growing up, the stories of immigration were very interesting. My father’s experience of coming to England during the war, and being a ‘Paki’, or being an Indian. You know, the differences between being a ‘Paki’ and being an Indian. You know, Indian was a rather aristocratic term.
There were Indians in Billy Bunter, I remember. Whereas when you were called a ‘Paki’, you were really scum. And seeing England from the bottom, from below, in that way—as a victim—was very interesting to me, and also very affecting, I could see, from my father’s point of view. Because he came to England and saw England as the great Rome, you know—as a great cultural centre. This was the centre of the world. You came here and you expected the English … even though they were imperialist … but, you know, it was cultured, it was a great democracy. It was the leading place, or, as my father put it, ‘the tip-top place’ … and then you were a ‘Paki’.
And so all these changes and all these ideas just seemed to me to be fascinating stories that needed to be told. But obviously, when somebody comes from outside, there are also questions about the middle. I mean, if an Indian walks into a room, then you have to ask the question about what it is to be an Englishman. Who is English? What does being English mean? Who am I, as an Englishman, you know. And what happens if you’re Welsh, or Scottish, or Irish, whatever.
So the whole question about what it is to be on this little island, on the edge of Europe, is up in the air. And so it seems to me that colonialism hasn’t come to an end, you know. We’re still thinking about it. Colonialism has entered all our heads, it’s part of our minds. And we have to think about it when we think about what kind of country we want to live in.
(Note. From now on the questions come from the audience.)
[Audience:] Do you still think of London as a playground? And is it fun, or is it alienating?
Well, when it stops being fun, I remember what it was like in the suburbs, which was worse. That’s because the point of the suburbs is that they don’t change. And that’s very nice from a certain point of view. And people’s lives go on the same. But when I went back to the suburbs recently to see my mom, it was exactly the same.
And funnily enough, my children, who are five, they went next door and they were playing outside this woman’s house and they were making a noise. And the woman ran to the window and started banging on the window, shouting, ‘Go away!’ And this really amazed me, because she’d done that to me when I was a kid.
And it was exactly the same woman, wearing the same slippers.
And obviously, London isn’t like that. It’s continuously being renewed. And you never feel stuck in the same way. You always feel that somebody is going to walk in through the door and change everything. So there’s a sense of possibility in London, always. That was something that I always wanted.
How did studying philosophy at university affect your writing?
I don’t know. It was the only education I had really. I didn’t have any education at school. I went to a very bad school, a very violent school, actually, where all the skinheads became policemen.
When I was thinking about the Stephen Lawrence case, I thought, I remember being at school; and all the most violent and the most unpleasant children became policemen.
So I didn’t really have any education there, and so I went to King’s, over the road, and I did have an education. And people there were interested in ideas. And I read, you know, all the stuff … Plato and Aristotle, the stuff that you would never read ever again. And it made me think seriously and I read properly. And I like to think that it made my mind more rigorous, and I like to think that it made me more critical of the things that I see and read. You know—that I have some kind of critical intelligence, I suppose. Trained to a certain extent, that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t been there.
I don’t think it’s affected my writing in any way. And that was the idea. I mean, I read philosophy rather than English, because I didn’t want it to affect me. I wanted to do something that was outside. I didn’t want to read all that criticism. Because I felt that would have been stultifying to me as a writer.
So, in a way, reading philosophy kept me away—in an important way—from something that I thought would have made me claustrophobic.
What did pop music mean to you at school?
Yes. Well, I suppose, pop for us, for me, that was the first sort of common culture that I was ever aware of. You would go to school and you would talk about what the Beatles were doing, or the Rolling Stones had said, and what the Who were doing, and so on. It was the first time I’d ever been aware that culture was something that you could exchange between people. You know, that we would talk about this together.
And exchange records and all of that. And also, it was a way out for us. I mean, those boys weren’t working in a bank. If you’d come from the suburbs, you were fodder for the insurance companies, for banks. You know, you’d go in and you’d see the Careers master, and he looked at me and he said, you know, Customs and Excise.
And that’s it. And then you walk out again. And that was me. I was going to be in Customs and Excise. You know. I had imagined going through suitcases. Whenever I pass through an airport, I imagine it could be me holding up that shirt.
Pop was so weird and rebellious and strange and individual. And it was just completely liberating for us. And so I obviously was always fascinated by pop, but also by writing about pop. I was often more interested in the writing than I was in the music, to be honest.
But particularly American writing. People like Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, Kerouac and so on. And who seem to me to be introducing subjects into writing, into literature, that hadn’t been there before. I mean, for us, when I was growing up, literature was very grand, you know. It was a bit of a cheek to think that you could be a writer. I mean, Graham Greene, a writer who was very good, but he was a very grand man, you know. And he’d been to public school. And to think that you could be a writer too seemed a bit of a cheek. So American writing and American pop seemed to me to be a way, you know, to see yourself as a writer.
What do you think of Goodness Gracious Me?
Well, I sort of recognised the people and I could see what they were trying to do. I don’t know. I just think it’s very important that we develop as actors and directors and writers, and that there are more and more of us in the media. We need to develop a greater sense of what other communities are like in this country.
But I am interested and I do like seriousness, and I wish that, you know, Channel 4 and the BBC would make more films about odder, more unusual and more interesting parts of this country. I mean, all that’s fine, but it’s not going to be everything. There was a time when My Beautiful Laundrette was the only kind of film. And all the Asian people would come up to me and say, you know, ‘You’ve got to say this’ and ‘You’ve got to say that’ and ‘Why are they gay?’ and ‘Why do they take drugs?’ and ‘Why do they do this?’ … you know. And you think, well, there’s only one film. There should be thousands of films, because there are as many versions in the Asian community as there are in any other community.
And I just think we need more of it. But I think that doing an Asian project is still like doing an Asian project. The BBC think they’ve done their Asian project. You know. You do really get a sense, somehow, that there’s a kind of quota system. You know, that you’ve got to have so many Caribbeans, so many Asians, so many Chinese. And that’s it. They’ve done that, and then they get on with doing what they really like, which is, you know, Jane Austen.
And I find that really depressing. Because in a sense we’re still, in that sense, marginalised, even when we’re on the telly.
It’s quite an interesting question, quite a hard one. I don’t know. And we have to force our way through.
But it’s interesting that the director of Elizabeth and also the director of Hilary and Jackie, they’re both Asian directors, but they’re not necessarily doing Asian films. And I think that’s quite interesting and probably quite positive, too.
The central character in The Buddha of Suburbia is bisexual. Does that relate to the theme of London as a melting pot?
I don’t know, really. I don’t know. I don’t think it was to show it as a melting pot, no. It was really to show that, I suppose, one emerges out of childhood bisexual. But when you’re a kid, you feel so erotically attached to both men and women, boys and girls around you. And your sexuality is so undifferentiated then, you know. I mean, I went to a boys’ school. And the sexuality … I mean, it was hot there. It was just taken for granted that these boys all lived in the same kind of atmosphere, you know. It was steamy.
And that stayed with me for a long time. Girls were very far away. Girls were what you wanted but, you know, you went down the road, to stand outside the girls’ school, but you couldn’t get in there. And you lived with boys. And so you did live in these two worlds.
Bisexuality is always something I’ve taken for granted, actually. It’s only later that, as it were, I got differentiated out and knew what it was that I really wanted.
Bowie and pop were a big influence. Bowie went to the same school as I did, ten years before. And you know, dressing up and being girlish was part of English pop. And you can see it with the Rolling Stones. As Mick Jagger said, you know, every Englishman can’t wait to get into a dress.
An English pantomime. So it did seem to me that being a girl was part of being a boy in some way. And I was rather surprised when it was called bisexuality.
I thought it was just the ambiguity that somehow we all inhabited.
Is your writing about Gloucestershire and Bradford a kind of recolonisation of Britain?
I don’t know how to answer that question. I can only say that I write about the things that interest me. And they interest me for reasons that I don’t understand.
And I just follow my instincts, as a writer, where they go. And so, there isn’t any thought involved in what one might rationalise later on, about what one does. But I just follow … you know. I had to set My Son the Fanatic in Bradford, because that just seemed like the right place where these two men could have this argument that interested me. And I wanted to write about these two men arguing. One who was a liberal and one who was a fundamentalist. So it took me to Bradford, and I set it there. I can’t say that there was any other kind of conscious attempt to do anything.
I’m writing a play now, which is coming on, which is set in the English countryside, and it’s got French windows. And it’s set in an English country house. And all the characters are white and English. And they’re sort of trotting around in this beautiful house. And that amuses me very much, as an Indian, writing about that. And taking this form and messing about with it.
And them all going to the country for the weekend. It’s sort of like Noël Coward, you know. And that seems hilarious to me, but I don’t know why it’s interesting and I don’t know why I want to do it. It’s instinctive.
[MacCabe:] I think you’ve just said ‘Yes’ to that question.
Have I? But I suppose I want to look for things that are odd or dramatic. Or that seem to me to be a kind of clash and in which there’s something energetic and lively for me to write about.
[Audience:] Do you represent Asian culture as a separate culture or as part of the process in which all cultures are mixed together?
Well, I can only say both. I mean, when I was growing up, my uncles and my cousins and my family, they would speak in Punjabi or they would speak in Urdu. But they would also speak in English at the same time. So you would have English sentences and then suddenly, they’d speak in Punjabi. Or they’d be, I don’t know, talking about Pakistani politics and then they’d be talking about Somerset Maugham. And they’d be talking about cricket, which would involve talking about England and Pakistan. So it was already all mixed up in my head anyway.
And then you’d come to England and it gets even more mixed up. And my father married an English woman, who came from a lower-middle-class background. And you get more of that.
And so, obviously, as Asian people, you want to keep a hold of what’s Asian about you, but of course that evolves too. It doesn’t stay the same. The Asian culture that my father knew isn’t the same as what Talvin Singh, who is a young Punjabi kid, would be interested in.
So the whole thing is evolving, all at the same time, all at once, and mixing up. And it’s all that that’s interesting to me … the separation and this mixture. You know. And in this separation, there’s mixture too. And that’s why fundamentalism is interesting. Because, to me, it’s an attempt to create a purity. It’s to say we’re not really living in England at all. We’re going to keep everything that’s English, everything that’s capitalist, everything that’s white, everything that’s corrupt, it’s going to be outside. And everything that’s good and pure and Islamic, you know, it’s going to be in here, with these people.
And you can see that mixing, you know, was terrifying, just as racists find mixing terrifying. But of course it’s inevitable.
[Audience:] How do you influence this process?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t be able to say. I’m not sure that it’s made any difference at all. I can’t say that. But when I was a young man, I was very aware. I was very, very isolated in the suburbs and I would be gobbed on and beaten up and so on. And I would go home and I would think, I can’t believe that people don’t know about this. Actually, I lived quite close to where Stephen Lawrence was killed, and I couldn’t believe that, in a sense, it was still exactly the fucking same, you know. But I can understand it.
And I wanted to write, I suppose, because I wanted to bring people’s attention to the fact that, you know, you were chased down the streets by skinheads. And the police would abuse you. Though, in fact, to be honest, the police abused everybody. It wasn’t that they only abused the black people. It seems to me that they are vile to the white people as well, most of the time. That’s another point.
So I did want to bring people’s attention, I suppose, to race and racism. It was odd to me, because, you know, all the kids, all the skinheads, their parents had just fought against fascism in the war. And I found that rather shocking, as well; that you’d go around people’s houses and they’d say, ‘Well, we’re with Enoch’, and you’d think, ‘Well, you’ve just fought against fucking Hitler’. You know. Why embrace it in this other way?
So I just want to bring people’s attention to it. But I do feel that it’s very difficult to be a proper writer and to bring people’s attention to things I don’t think that they really mix, and I would keep them apart. And there were times when I wanted to be a propagandist, I suppose, as a writer. And I could see that that corrupted the writing in some way.
[Audience:] Will there ever be a comfortable accommodation between the British Muslims and the rest of the society, given there are now one million Muslims, and most of them are not fundamentalists?
Well, you would have to say it would depend on the kind of Islam that people want, because there are all kinds of things in Islam which are clearly not compatible with liberalism. I mean, Islam is, you know, it’s a pretty old religion. There’s a lot of stuff in there that you wouldn’t want around now. And that, clearly, one can’t make compatible with what goes on now. And it’s a nightmare to try and do that.
And so you’re going to have to give up those bits. I mean, there are parts of Islam that seem to me that, if you take them seriously, are still neo-fascist. And it is a very, very unpleasant religion in all sorts of ways. I know you can’t say that and you’re not supposed to think that, but it’s true.
And so is Christianity. You have to jettison those bits, you know, in order to live in this country. It seems to me that the basis of our living in England, of our living in England together, is liberalism. And liberalism and certain parts of Islam don’t go together at all.
And I think as Muslims we’ve got to thrash this out and talk about this seriously, and really see what it is that we want to do with the religion. I mean, a religion isn’t only something that you just swallow whole. It is a pick and choose thing too. I mean, there are bits of it you emphasise, bits of it you still use, bits of it that you’re not interested in, that are redundant, and so on. And I think all Muslims have to come to terms with that, because an old religion in the modern world is a strange thing. And that religion has to evolve too.
It’s a conversation that we, in the Muslim community, have to carry on having. I don’t know what the answer is to that, but it’s a conversation we have to have. You can’t block it out in the way the fundamentalists clearly want to do.
[Audience:] Do the stories in Love in a Blue Time move away from ethnicity as a central topic?
I suppose when I was a young man, the most interesting thing about me, or the strangest and oddest thing, was the fact that I was a ‘Paki’. That I was called a ‘Paki’ on the street. I would go out and people would go, ‘He’s a Paki’. And this was very, very odd and disturbing and strange to me.
And obviously, I wanted to write about what ‘Paki’ was, what it meant. You know, in their heads as well as in mine. Because, I mean, the worst thing about racism—almost the worst thing about racism—is the way that you internalise it. It’s the way that not only is it in them, in their hatred for you, but it becomes a puzzle in your own head too.
You know, that it burns you up. It destroys you. It eats away at you, because your identity is torn apart by it. You know, I can see why people become fundamentalists, because it would be a way of excluding all that madness in your head that’s caused by people looking at you as an object in certain ways.
So that obsessed me for a long time. I wanted to write about it. But I’m not only that. There are other things. I’m a man, I’m related to other people, children, and I live in the world. And there are lots of other things that I want to write about too. And I think that as a writer you have to renew yourself and find new subjects and develop and so on.
It doesn’t mean that I’m not going to write about ethnicity now. My new play is about a lot of rich, middle-class people who go to the country for the weekend. But it doesn’t mean that the next thing won’t be about fundamentalism or, say, about …
You know, I want to feel free to not only be an Asian writer. I am going to be a writer who is also Asian. And, as I say, it’s interesting that there are now Asian directors who are doing films that are not only about Asian subjects. And that we are, you know, just artists too. And don’t have to be put into that bag.
So yes, I mean, I want to extend my ranges of writing, because it’s interesting for me to find new subjects to write about.
[Audience:] All over Europe there are different minorities in different countries. And having lived through much of the same history, looking into the future, can one see a new kind of European culture developing, which actually includes all these minorities? A European culture for all these people from different backgrounds, but still European.
Like America? It depends what you mean by culture. I mean, you, might have a junk culture which seems to me a lot of what American culture is.
[MacCabe:] Do you think that Europe has been offered a chance of a much richer way of mixing those elements?
Yes. Well, the woman who asked the question is a Turkish woman who lives in Berlin. I think there’s a possibility of that in this country, for instance. I don’t know if there’s a possibility of that kind of European culture, say in France, where, if you talked to young, say, Algerian kids, as I was recently, they were saying to me that they feel completely excluded in France from French culture.
You know, and French culture has no time and no place for them. And in fact, they walk around in the South of France and there are places where you can’t go and you’re not welcome and you’re utterly condemned to be outside of the society. And there’s no sense in which French culture—which I can’t say I am an expert on—has embraced Algeria, say. I think things are probably different in each country.
And I think England, probably in that sense—though I hate to hear myself say it—it’s probably more liberal than a lot of the European countries in that sense. You know; even despite the fact that it’s racist too. I mean, we’re talking about gradations here, not absolutes.
I don’t know, but I would think that there would have to be. Because if there isn’t, the opposite is what? It’s probably exclusion. It’s a very important question.
[Audience:] Do you feel responsible as a writer? Particularly after The Satanic Verses?
I think it would be dangerous for writers to have too much of a sense of responsibility. And I would say, in so far as a writer has any responsibility, it’s to their own imagination, which is important, but also the responsibility of being sceptical, of asking questions, of being provocative, of looking at things.
What writers do, if writing has any value, is for us to have a conversation with ourselves and with each other, about the kind of men and women we are. About the relationships we have, about the society we live in. About the relation between black and white.
I mean, we look at all that as writers. That’s why we have to have a serious culture that isn’t just a junk culture, that isn’t just rubbish television. You know, that is great cinema, proper novels, poetry, dance, theatre and so on. And the serious culture is of central importance.
And part of that is that it is irresponsibility, you know. It is asking questions of authority. And not being, I don’t know, respectful to ideologies. You know, writers have to be—in so far as they can be—the dangerous ones. The ones who ask the questions. Which is why The Satanic Verses is such an important book, why it’s a central book. Because it’s such a dangerous book.
And you know, that, you might say, was Rushdie’s responsibility: to write a dangerous book, to ask difficult questions. To stand up to these guys who run Islam, you know, and say to them, ‘Who are you? What’s going on here? What’s this religion doing? Who does it belong to? What is a religion?
[Audience:] You only show one side to the fundamentalist character in The Black Album.Don’t you think you should show that he has more than one aspect?
Well, I like to think that I do, and also in the film My Son the Fanatic, I like to feel that, in so far as I can, the characters are sympathetically portrayed. And that this is an argument worth having and there are points on both sides.
But I suppose that in the end I would betray the fact that I don’t like fundamentalists, and fundamentalists don’t like writers. So, you know, there is going to be a kind of animosity between us from the start. But it’s an argument worth having and it’s worth engaging with the fundamentalists. And I would want them to engage with me too. But it’s difficult.
But I try.
[Audience:] Has your work been shown in India, and what do you think of its reception?
Well, my books are published in India and distributed. And I think you can get the films on video. Certainly The Buddha was in the shops in India the day after it had been shown on TV here. And they video it off the telly, with the adverts on, and then sell them in Bombay, which I rather like.
And I think Indians in India have a great interest in what Indians in England and Canada and America and Germany, and so on, are doing—and how different Indians in these countries are from the Indians who are in India, and so on.
To be honest, I don’t know whether they like what I do, or whether they don’t.
[Audience:] Two questions. The first, how did your parents decide what beliefs you would be taught? And second, do you think that mixed-race marriages work?
In so far as any marriages seem to me to work, then it doesn’t seem to me, necessarily, that mixed-race marriages are going to be more difficult. Because it seems to me that all marriages involve some kind of exchange and compromise and so on.
But I didn’t come from the sort of family where the rules were absolute. I mean, I do know people from those families, and you know, you’re an Asian kid, you have to go to the mosque, and you have to get married, and you have to get a Mercedes, and you have to do this and you have to do that. There’s a very strong idea of what everybody in the family is supposed to do. And those families are awful.
Actually, I did experience some of that in Karachi, in Pakistan, when I lived there. I got a real sense of claustrophobia there. This is our family and you have to behave like that and you can’t go out like that. I mean, our family doesn’t do that. And you could see that in these families you would soon be bleeding from the ears. But my father wasn’t like that. He was much more liberal and he liked the Pink Floyd. And he kind of … he liked England and he wanted to be English. And he liked English people.
And he was very curious about England. And he liked all the neighbours. He really liked being here. And was determined to fit in and join in. And he didn’t feel that being an Indian somehow excluded him from knowing about England. So I didn’t come from that kind of family.
And I can’t say that my parents ever particularly argued. They argued about my sister; that my father wouldn’t allow her to do certain things, things all the other girls could do, but because she was Pakistani, she couldn’t.
But they didn’t really do that with me, because I was a boy and I had to be, you know, sort of rough and out and about. So that was all right.
So I didn’t come from that kind of background. My father came from a literary background and wanted me to be a writer. So there weren’t those kinds of conflicts.
But I don’t think mixed-race marriages are necessarily worse than any other kinds of marriages, or anything. It’s going to be a nightmare. It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be a nightmare, because other people are difficult. You know. And there’s a lot of them. And there’s a lot of them to swallow. They’re in your face. And they come with a lot of other people too, they’re called relatives.
And you have to sort of absorb them as well, and the whole thing is very difficult. I can see that; having a relationship with somebody else at all. And I can see that perhaps if you come from different races, I don’t know, it might make it more difficult, but not necessarily so. It would depend much more on the emotional make-up of the people involved, I would have thought.
[Audience:] Do you think that your view of the sixties is realistic or romantic?
Well, it’s interesting, because Colin and I were talking about it before, and Colin was saying that in 1968 he thought it was a real wiggle. That there was a real bend in society, that things did change in those months in 1968.
And I certainly was aware, at the end of the sixties and through the seventies, that there was a sense, I suppose, of possibility. Because pop and the electronic media and all that represented, you hadn’t had any of it before, in that way.
And Karim’s adventure does seem to him to be an adventure into an unknown world. I’m sure there are unknown worlds for young men today, but I don’t know what they are, and perhaps they’ll be to do with technology and computers, or strange, new drugs, or whatever.
But Karim’s story, to him, is completely new, and that was a romantic period, because of the sixties and seventies, and the changes in British society were so dramatic.
I’m sure they’re going on now too. But I wouldn’t be able to be romantic about them in the way that I was able to romanticise the late sixties and seventies. So I can’t really answer that question, but maybe Colin …
[MacCabe:] I think that would take a long time and everybody would get very bored. OK, the final question.
[Audience:] Do you trust Tony Blair?
Well, I’ve been very, very interested in the way that the culture has changed as regards the police, actually, at the moment. And the police, obviously, all those years under Thatcherism, were able to swing on in the old way. And you can see that they’re really getting shocked at the anti-racist stuff that Jack Straw is doing; that seems to me to have given them a real shock.
Race crimes, and taking race very seriously. I’m surprised to find myself commending the Blair government for this, and I wouldn’t necessarily want to have to do this. But I can see that the culture on race has actually changed, quite considerably. Actually, probably in the last few months, due to the Stephen Lawrence case.
So I wouldn’t like to say that I trusted Tony Blair, but I would say I’ve been happily surprised by how good the party has recently been on race, actually. And how they are putting the screws, particularly on the police, and insisting the police do pursue racist crime and so on.
And I am rather happy about that actually. But I would be suspicious, as any thoughtful person would be, of Tony Blair.
Phil Baker (review date 12 November 1999)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 885
SOURCE: “Umbrella Rage,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 12, 1999, p. 24.
[In the following review, Baker offers a generally positive assessment of Midnight All Day.]
“What could be more beguiling than other people’s stymied desire?” asks the narrator in one of these ten short stories [in Midnight All Day], bitterly sure that the tale of his romantic misfortunes is going to do the rounds among his friends. Stymied desire is the constant factor in the collection, which circles relentlessly around non-communication; toxic relationships and the bloody-mindedness of other people.
Frustration piles up excruciatingly, in “Strangers When We Meet”, when Robert arranges a romantic break with his mistress. Florence, only to find that at the last moment she has to bring her husband. They check into the same hotel, where he can hear Florence and Archie in the next bedroom. He talks to Archie in the bar about his situation, and Archie, asks. “Do you want her to leave her husband? … Wait ’til he catches up with you!” Later, Archie introduces him to Florence: “Florrie, he’s been unhappy in love. Married woman and all that. We must cheer him up.” The narrator has earlier wondered why he doesn’t just knock on their bedroom door: “I am all for surrealism”, he says, dignifying a situation which is closer to farce.
Things are bloodier in “The Umbrella”, in which Roger is taking his children out for the day. Bringing up children can be fraught at the best of times; Robert has confessed that he and his wife have different ideas about raising their son, and “peaceful moments at home are rare”. As for Roger, he and the children’s mother are separated: “As well as refusing to divorce him, she sent him lawyer’s letters about the most trivial matters. One letter, he recalled, was entirely about a cheese sandwich he had made for himself when visiting the children. He was ordered to bring his own food in future. He thought of his wife years ago, laughing and putting out her tongue with his semen on it.” Today, the trouble is about an umbrella. It is raining, and he knows there are several umbrellas in her hall. Asking mildly gets him nowhere, and her wilfully dumb reply goads him into spelling things out: “Yes. An umbrella. You know, you hold it over your head.” The situation has descended into a Basil Fawlty tirade, and it is going to get worse. There were three umbrellas there last week, he insists; aren’t there still three there? “Maybe there are” she says. Of course, we are never told why she hates him so much.
The lack of communication which figures so largely in these stories is unwittingly complemented by Kureishi’s prose which seems oddly, of a piece with stories about emotional inarticulacy. It is a strange style flat, jerky, over-full, unhelpfully explanatory. “This thing has made her mad; such paranoia I find abhorrent. Nevertheless, I have been considering the same idea myself.” It extends into the characters’ direct speech: “I enjoyed watching you standing across the road. I was delighted when, after some consideration, you made up your mind to speak with me.” At its simplest, it can seem like something from a phrase-book: “I open the paper and order haddock, tomatoes, mushrooms and fried potatoes. … After breakfast I will get the train back to London.” These stories have more cargo in their rage-inducing situations than in their language, so it seems particularly to the point when one of the narrators talks about his experience of psychoanalysis. “That which cannot be said is the most dangerous concealment, he says, adding that he has never had such conversations about “the deepest personal matters”; “to myself I call analysis—two people talking—the apogee of civilization”. Kureishi is all for civilizations.
One of the happier stories here features an urbane, Indian radical from the 1960s and his younger girlfriend. He loves her, but he finds himself up against her English cultural yobbishness. She has a limited vocabulary (she has been to a university, but he realizes education must have changed since his day), and her former peer group were grudging provincials, suspiciously on the look-out for anything they considered superior or ambitious: “For this you would be envied, derided, hated: London was considered “fake and the people there duplicitous.” More than the lack of opulence, he is disturbed by the poverty of imagination in modern life. “It makes me think of what culture means—,” he says, and she interrupts him: “It means showing off and snobbery.” To him, on the contrary, it means “an indispensable human expression”.
Anybody who remembers the scathing ad hominem reviews of Kureishi’s last book—obliquely alluded to here—will scan this one for evidence of misogyny and general swinishness, but for the most part it seems a sincere attempt to objectify something important about emotional knots, communication and cultural values. Kureishi does play into the hands of his detractors with the lightweight last story, a Gogol-esque fantasy about a detached penis which takes on a life of its own, wearing dark glasses and sitting in cafés. It is mildly arrogant, but chatty and not unreasonable, and its owner recaptures it easily after it falls asleep. If only other human beings were so tractable.