Hanif Kureishi is something of an enfant terrible in the world of contemporary British literature. He is the author of iconic film scripts such as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and ground-breaking novels such as The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) and, among others, The Black Album (1995), as well the moving semi-autobiography My Ear at His Heart (2004). As much as he was fêted at first for his “cheering fictions” (English, 103) about a tentatively true and authentic British Asian, then British Muslim, experience, he rapidly distanced himself from the reductive role of cultural delegate. Since the turn of the century his stance on class, race and gender politics has proved complex and sometimes disconcerting, his work apparently not always respecting the doxa of political correctness.
Hanif Kureishi was born in Bromley in 1954, a Kent suburb of London, the son of Rafiushan Kureishi, an Indian-born Muslim from a well-connected Madras family, and Audrey Buss, who came from a lower-middle-class Kent family. These biographical details are important in Kureishi’s work, as race, social classes and the suburban dimension of his early life are central themes. Indeed, the racism he experienced at school (from pupils and, apparently, from staff), the fear of social downward mobility, and the moral pettiness associated with suburbia condense the author’s detestations, thus explaining, as their counterparts, the centrality of transgression, self-reinvention and individual freedom in his work.
His cultural production is wide-ranging and includes novels as well as plays, short-stories and film scripts, focusing on the emergence of marginal identities in public life, the institutionalization of youth culture through pop music and the commodification of transgressive attitudes towards sexuality. The common thread throughout his work could be defined as a radical resistance towards any form of framing, and a predilection towards the playfulness awarded by the fluidity of identities. If “irony is Kureishi’s most reliable trope” (Buchanan, 14) and pervades his work, individual freedom at all costs is his ethical compass. As an uncompromising sceptic towards any form of prescriptive social and moral politics, Kureishi has incorporated the rebelliousness of the 1960s and 1970s liberal, anti-establishment mantra, together with the hedonistic cynical individualism of the Thatcher years.
Although he rapidly distanced himself from the awkward position of cultural interpreter bestowed on him at the beginning of his career, Kureishi is nonetheless best identified for his early fiction full of “people who hadn’t turned up before” (BBC Interview): upwardly mobile South Asian entrepreneurs, bookish Pakistani uncles exiled on the grim streets of suburbia, disenfranchised Muslim youths eager to make it right to the top, punks, queens, writers and pop stars; all the marginal types of society, waiting for their moment. Kureishi portrays the ‘funny kind of’ Englishmen who had previously not been present in British cultural representations except as racial and comic stereotypes. Kureishi’s work is driven by three complementary dynamics. The first dynamic shares the same territory as postcolonial fiction, while the second inscribes Kureishi within the social tradition of British literature and the “state of the nation” novel, exploring the ambiguity and fluctuation of social, ethnic and sexual identities. The British social text is constantly present in Kureishi’s work, slightly distorted through the prism of satire: the overt nastiness of 1960s racism, Thatcher’s brutal social revolution, the Blair years and their cynical whiff of “Cool Britannia”, the contradictions of British multiculturalism and the rise of religious fundamentalism, and, perhaps more poignantly for Kureishi, the limitations of western liberalism and humanism. A third dynamic, which seems to have grown in complexity with time, deals with the nature of autobiography, literally writing the self, which in Kureishi’s case is a performative act of constant renewal. At the turn of the century, his writing has started exploring more intimate seas, sometimes hugging the shore of autobiography, as his first-person narrators become middle-aged and gradually face the trials of the passing of time, while politics are still present as distant echoes. As Kureishi observed, “Every ten years you become someone else” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/19/hanif-kureishi-interview-last-word). Counterlife, by Philip Roth, bears some similarities with Kureishi’s texts, all the more since he views Roth, together with V. S. Naupaul, as his literary fathers. The following extract from Roth’s 1986 novel offers some perspective on Kureishi’s approach to writing:
What people envy in the novelist aren't the things that the novelists think are so enviable but the performing selves that the author indulges, the slipping irresponsibly in and out of his skin, the reveling not in ‘I’ but in escaping ‘I,’ ... the gift for theatrical self-transformation (Roth 45)
Kureishi is a versatile author: his writing career began in the early 1970s, under the pseudonym Antonia French, writing pornographic stories for an adult magazine while studying philosophy at Lancaster University then King’s College in London. He rapidly established himself as a playwright and his first play, Soaking the Heat, was performed at the Royal Court Upstairs in 1976; in the following years he became a celebrated author of London fringe theatre. In 1981 London critics voted him the most promising playwright as The King and Me, The Mother Country, Outskirts, and Boarders established his reputation; he was awarded the position of writer-in-residence at the Royal Court in 1982. In 1985 he was already a recognized playwright when, together with film director Stephen Frears, he became a household name with My Beautiful Laundrette.
The film is an important landmark in British culture. It epitomizes the renewal of British independent cinema in the 1980s: topical and politically committed to the representation of new voices, devoid of stereotypes, with a wry and provocative vision of an aesthetically distanced representation of reality. At the same time, it remains an immensely popular film with a highly accessible subtext. My Beautiful Laundrette, with its mix of queer romance, East-Meets-West comedy and social drama, subverts ethnic stereotypes and racial clichés. The script, originally meant as a low-budget television film shot in 16-mm for Channel 4, was nominated for the Academy Award and Bafta, and is part of twentieth-century British cinema heritage. But, following his friend Salman Rushdie’s advice, Kureishi wanted to be taken seriously as a novelist. The next breakthrough as a ‘Commonwealth writer’ was The Buddha of Suburbia, a short story which Kureishi eventually developed into a novel.
The Buddha of Suburbia is now a classic of contemporary British fiction. Part picaresque novel and part Bildungsroman, The Buddha of Suburbia is the coming-of-age story of Karim Amir. The opening paragraph of the novel has become about as familiar as the opening sentence of a Dickensian novel:
My name is Karim Amir and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories. But I don’t care – Englishman I am (though not proud of it), from the South London suburbs and going somewhere. Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored. (3)
The narrator, whose voice constantly oscillates between cheeky confidence and ironic restraint, is marked by duality, and these tensions underpin the whole novel. Karim is an aspiring actor of mixed origins, with an Indian Muslim father and a white English mother, who experiences the youth culture of seventies Britain: as hippies fade out, punk explodes on the cultural stage and becomes the generation’s new paradigm. Karim experiences identity as a form of performance as the arbitrary nature of cultural selves is ironically exposed. Thanks to his “Indian” credentials, the aspiring thespian obtains the part of Mowgli in a politically self-conscious production of The Jungle Book, but because his skin tone is not brown enough, he is covered in body make-up which makes him look “like a turd in bikini-bottom” (146). Kureishi deals with issues of class and race by using irony to resist clichés and types, focusing instead on idiosyncrasies and individual quirks. The novel shows how performative and unstable national, social and sexual identities are, always escaping the constraints of orthodoxy, and “going somewhere”. For Karim, and perhaps it was the case for Kureishi, “England’s dreaming”, to quote the Sex Pistols, offering both bleakness and violence, but also endless possibilities for escape and renewal.
The fatwa, the call for Salman Rushdie’s cold-blooded murder – and anyone associated with The Satanic Verses – issued by Khomeini in 1989, had a profound impact on Kureishi. The Black Album (1995), the short story “My Son the Fanatic” (1994) and the film adaptation of the same name (1997) reflect the dark atmosphere prevailing at the end of the century. Yet, for Kureishi, the ‘Rushdie affair’ was not exactly the confirmation of a Huntingtonian reading of the world where a rational, secularist western civilization “clashed” with a fanatical, religious East. The fiction and the film tend to go beyond mere binary oppositions between fundamentalist religious intolerance and liberal tolerance with free speech as its totem. Although Kureishi clearly sides with a progressive vision of society where religion is kept at a distance, what the author illustrates is the fractures and internal tensions of Great Britain, together with the fragility of a heterogeneous society blessed by the rewards of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms.
By foregrounding Islam as a source of intolerance and putting the 1990 riots and book burning in perspective with far-Right racism and the campaign of urban terrorism waged by the IRA, Kureishi somewhat fell out of favour with some critics who had previously seen him as the iconic postcolonial writer. For Ruvani Ranasinha the novel produces caricatures of devout Musims (that) “further objectify this already objectified group whilst reinscribing dominant liberalism as the norm” and provides a myopic response to the Rushdie affair by establishing a binary opposition between Islam and liberal creativity. But, as Rehana Ahmed points out, ironic descriptions “dislodge such reductive opposition” (Ahmed, 108), together with the awareness of the estrangement and poverty of a significant proportion of Asian Muslims (112). By providing a social context to the success of radical, reactionary Islam among young South Asians and turning to the distancing tool of satire, Kureishi problematises the difficult issue of religion and resists oversimplification. Indeed, the characters’ liberal answers to the criminal fanaticism exhibited by some community leaders are constantly undermined by satire. It is impossible not to read in Kureishi’s description of left-wing academics the author’s own scepticism towards Labour’s answer to the contradictions of multicultural Britain.
“My Son the Fanatic”, both the short story and the film, are equally paradoxical works in which Kureishi exposes the shortcomings of a British liberal frame of mind when it comes to dealing with the progressive values of hybridity and alterity. On the contrary, Kureishi reveals not just a rift in the fabric of society but a complete shift in moral and political values. The immigrant community, and especially the younger generation, becomes the guardian of conservative values, resists assimilation, and perceives alterity as a threat to its imagined integrity. On the contrary, the host community (at least its progressive part) and the older migrant population are the champions of hybridity, progress and – that most inviolable British value – individual freedom. Multiculturalism seems to come with a high price. However, with the turn of century, Kureishi distances himself from the problematics of identity and cultural representation, at least in his fiction, and explores more private themes such as family life and middle-age crises, artistic creation and the validity of pop music. Intimacy (1998), a first-person narrative about a middle-aged man about to leave his wife and two children for his mistress, seemed to have baffled some critics. Ruvani Ranasinha even detected in this portrait of “’new masculinity’” a somewhat misogynistic self-portrait (Ranasinha 111).
Gabriel’s Gift (2001) both covers familiar ground and marks a departure from Kureishi’s territory: youth and its fractures, pop music and the illusory fame it brings, and the opposition between suburbia and the protean urban energy of the London musical scene are still present. On the other hand, the exuberant and cheeky narrators of The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album are absent, together with the focus on cultural hybridity, cosmopolitanism and class divisions. The short stories published during the same period cover the same ground: the anthologies Love in a Blue Time (1997) and Midnight All Day (1999) explore the banal intimate fractures of middle-aged narrators, the tone oscillating as always between a celebration of sexual freedom and a more sober portrait of disoriented characters. These stories are mostly elegies for the vanished ideals of the sixties and seventies and paint a rather disenchanted picture of Britain at the turn of the century. The interpretation of autobiographical elements seemed also to have played a role in the books’ reception as some critics and readers tended to identify the first-person narrators with Kureishi himself. Some vitriolic comments from his ex-partner, Tracey Scoffield, or his own sister Yasmin Kureishi, tended to blur the line, in a very un-postmodern manner, between author and narrator.
The question of “readerly incompetence (Munos 33) and the “the ‘biographical connection’ between text and reader” (ibid.) is at the heart of the autobiographical memoir My Ear at His Heart (2004 as well as of the novel Something to Tell You (2008). The autobiography’s subtitle, Reading my Father, and the novel’s narrator’s profession, psychoanalyst, stress the importance of interpretation and the connection between fiction and reality in an author’s life. Fathers and father-son relations are central issues in Kureishi’s writing, and his own father Rafiushan played a crucial role in his self-realization as a writer. In his novels fathers are ambivalent figures, both disappointing and fascinating, failing to live up to their own expectations, yet also creating an aura of quirkiness. In Kureishi’s case, the father’s figure is intimately connected with the author’s identity as a half Muslim Indian and as a successful British writer. Disappointment and fascination are deeply connected in Rafiushan’s case with a deep sense of social degradation and artistic failure. As Johan Hari remarks:
You cannot interview Hanif Kureishi alone. He is always accompanied by the spectre of his father, Rafiushan Kureishi. “If you think the living are difficult to deal with, the dead can be worse,” one of his characters says. His father pushes his way into Kureishi's conversation punctually, at least once every five minutes. “Yeah, I think about my dad every day. The whole time," he says. "I still want to be like him, and I still hope one day to coincide with him... Sometimes, I think I go to my desk only to obey my father.” (Hari)
My Ear at His Heart is a hybrid text which blends Kureishi’s ‘discovery’, then postponed reading, of his father’s writing, essentially three unpublished autobiographical novels in which Kureishi’s father retraces his Indian past, the towering figure of his father Colonel Kureishi, an Army doctor, and the sting of sibling rivalry. Kureishi thus eventually explains to himself, and to the readers, Rashufian’s ambivalence towards his son’s early success, as they reminded him of his elder brother Omar’s own literary accomplishment as a famous cricket commentator in Pakistan and respected author of memoirs. For Kureishi, his father appears as a disappointed man, whose frail health reflected his lack of literary accomplishment and social downward mobility: his modest job as a clerk at the Pakistan Embassy in London was a far cry from the pampered existence he had led in Madras as a member of the Muslim anglophile elite, made of servants, cricket whites and high social aspirations. The book does not, however, offer clear-cut interpretations, but instead offers a reflexion on the nature of autobiographical writing for a postcolonial writer and the burden of representation.
Something to Tell You is, once more, a return to familiar grounds – a successful middle-aged professional of Pakistani origin whose life is about to go topsy-turvy, over-the-top secondary characters, the minutiae of North London middle-class, a louche semi-monde of bouncers and hustlers – with a twist: the famous Freudian analyst committed a crime in his youth, and this secret is the reason for his first therapy session. This did not go very well:
To prevent myself collapsing, I had to hold on to a lamp post. I began to defecate uncontrollably. Shit ran down my legs and into my shoes. I began to weep; then I vomited - vomiting the past. My shirt was covered in sick. My insides were on the outside; everyone could see me. It wasn't pretty and I had ruined my suit, but something had started.
This scatological “something” is the beginning of a career: a very bankable author publishing some case studies of patients, but also hiding in plain sight as an analyst uncovering others’ secrets. One chapter brings us back to My Ear at His Heart as Jamal, the narrator, describes a visit to his Karachi relatives in the 1980s. The journalist uncle is very reminiscent of Omar Kureishi, and the academic aunt resembles celebrated Pakistani poet Maki Kureishi. Moreover, the description of the Karachi Grammar School elite also announces Kamila Shamsie’s early novels and Moni Mohsin’s satires, thus establishing a literary connection with contemporary Pakistani novelists. Something to Tell You also plays with referentiality, both internal and external, as characters from The Buddha of Suburbia make an appearance, as well as a conversation with Mick Jagger on the merits of the local school.
Kureishi’s recent fiction, The Last Word (2014) and The Nothing (2017), offers disillusioned representations of ageing writers and artists and delineates a crude and rather cynical outlook on, in the first case, the ambivalent relationship between a Naipaul-like author and his long-suffering biographer, and, in the other case, a Bergman-like description of sexual decrepitude. These two novels seem to take stock of Kureishi’s liberal humanism and can be read as elegies for the idealism of the sixties, seventies and eighties. Sexuality, as is often the case with Kureishi, is very much present, as yet another proof of the importance of transgression as the staging of individual freedom. As always, Kureishi blurs the limit between reality and fiction, never contradicting autobiographical interpretations of his novels.
To conclude, race, class and sexual politics are present in Kureishi work, but always perceived through the distorting lens of the subject’s desire and uniqueness. The “kooks and kinks”, to borrow a Kureishean idiom, are what define individuals as they dramatize the possibility to reinvent themselves and exercise their free will. Kureishi stands out, after a career spanning four decades, as an all-rounder who has kept identity politics at a distance, and who has yet paved the way for a whole generation of novelists like Monica Ali or Zadie Smith. Indeed, in Smith’s own words,
Here – as in so many matters of English life – Kureishi has proved a kind of seer. And hugely influential for a generation of writers, me included, of course. What he gave us most of all was a sense of irresponsibility, of freedom, in the smallest things as well as the biggest.
Kureishi is a writer of the in-between, an author who coincided with a period of transition in British culture which saw the appearance of the marginal voices – and faces – from decolonized nations of the British empire and who, by staging their differences, planted the seeds of a renewal of contemporary fiction. Coming a generation after V. S. Naipaul – and radically more leftfield – but less formally iconoclastic than his friend Salman Rushdie, Kureishi represents a turning-point. Indeed, his work emerged at a particular conjuncture in the late 1980s when “new ethnicities”, to quote Stuart Hall, were less about operating categories of representation than using performative strategies that emphasized race and ethnicity as arbitrary, floating signifiers. Kureishi’s staging of marginalities – ethnic, class and sexual – is part of a dual strategy of both becoming part of a recognizable mainstream tradition, while at the same time satirizing and keeping it at a distance. His novels are distanced zeitgeist fictions about the state of Britain, constantly oscillating between different polarities: East and West, multiculturalism and the fractures of Great Britain, rebellion and nostalgia, postcolonial ethnicities and fluid identities, at home in British literature as his admiration for quintessentially English novelists Evelyn Waugh and Henry Green confirms. The hybridity of his work is also present in his fascination for pop music and the possibilities of reinvention it suggests: like his fellow Bromleyan and friend David Bowie, the fluidity of identities, self-reinvention and playing with the arbitrariness of signifiers are the keys to Kureishi’s writing.
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---. The Buddha of Suburbia. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
---. The Black Album. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.
---. Love in a Blue Time. London: Faber and Faber, 1997.
---. Intimacy. London: Faber and Faber, 1998.
---. Midnight All Day. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.
---. Gabriel's Gift. London: Faber and Faber, 2001.
---. My Ear at His Heart. London: Faber and Faber, 2004.
---. Something to Tell You, 2008. London: Faber and Faber, 2008.
---. The Last Word. London: Faber and Faber, 2014.
---. The Nothing. London: Faber and Faber, 2017.
Moore-Gilbert, Bart. Hanif Kureishi (Contemporary World Writers). Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001.
Munos, Delphine. “Tell it slant”: Postcoloniality and the fiction of biographical authenticity in Hanif Kureishi’s My Ear at His Heart: Reading My Father”, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, February 2019. DOI: 10.1177/0021989418824372
Ranasinha, Ruvani. Hanif Kureishi (Writers and Their Work). Devon: Northcote House Publishers Ltd, 2002.
Roth, Philip. The Counterlife, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985.
Smith, Zadie. “Zadie Smith on The Buddha of Suburbia”. Online at https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/zadie-smith-on-the-buddha-of-suburbia
Citation: Veyret, Paul. "Hanif Kureishi". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 28 May 2020 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=2572, accessed 25 January 2022.]