Capturing the very essence of political incorrectness, Hanif Kureishi discusses his thoughts on racism, creativity and sexuality, in a frank, no-holds-barred exchange with Devjani Bodepudi, as she caught up with him at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, earlier this year.
I would like to go back to the beginning…You wrote porn, to fund your way through college, if I’m not mistaken. Where do you see the role of sex in literature today? Where is the next Lolita? Why are we stuck with FIfty Shades Of Grey and so much bad writing in general?
Well, porn isn’t really about sex. Porn is really conventional and there is nothing you can do with it to make it interesting, it’s not really for that. It is a sort of an idiotic form. But, I think writing about sexuality or on the history of libido, I think that is one of the most interesting things, and I think it is interesting because, of course, the way we think about sexuality changes all the time, as you say, for instance Lolita, or Lady Chatterley, when I was a kid, thinking that it was so wild. Now, we live in the world of pornography where sexuality is available to everybody all the time, whereas when I was kid, it was scarce… we never saw a woman naked, you never saw images of people without their clothes on, to see a picture of woman’s breasts was shocking for us … it was incredible, so, it’s very interesting to think about how that has changed, now, say for my kids, changed the way they think about sex and their bodies and other people’s bodies, and all of that. So I think you are right, we need to document the way we think about sexuality now… the way we think about sexuality now is really a generalised perversion. Most of the media coverage of sexuality is to do with perversion, and it’s perverse in itself. So, it’s interesting the liberation that I have lived through, that I wanted, that our generation had fought for has now ended up to a sort of vacuous perversion. I think, so my argument now is what’s really interesting in not sexuality, is love, because sexuality has become so devalued, it’s so everywhere, it’s so nothing, its empty, you really want to get rid of it, it has almost turned into like having a cup of tea, there is actually no danger in it, no risk in it, no sense of authenticity or weird exchange. I am really interested in love now, but I will be interested in reading about how people write about sexuality, but as you say I wouldn’t know who to turn to, to read about sexuality. And Fifty Shades Of Grey, which I have not read, I guess, is not an investigation of sexuality though, it’s an attempt to create sexuality in the reader, I guess.
I think sexuality needs to be written about and needs to be written about in an interesting way and I don’t know at the moment as to who is doing that.
I think you should.
But I don’t know enough about it. But, I am not young; I am thinking about my kids, of what they do, and how they think about sexuality, because their attitude is very casual, and they don’t really have girlfriends but they screw a lot of people. Of course, that would be a characteristic of young people. But also, I have also noticed many of my friends, particularly the women I know are single, a lot of them actually, I mean they are smart women and educated women, and they can’t get boyfriends or they don’t know how to find love.
Or their idea of love is too formulated?
I don’t know, they can’t find men who they think will be good enough for them, I don’t know what that means, and whether that’s true or not, or whether the market of men is down. But, they seem to me to be attractive women. They get a lot of young guys hitting on them. I don’t think young men interest older women in the same way as young women interest older men.
But the question is really how do you find one satisfying, really satisfying, really good for you, and something that really changes you, that’s an interesting question. And I don’t think we are any closer to it since we have sexual liberation and that is why it is disturbing for someone of my generation.
‘Are creative writing students generally talentless or just your students?’ Can you explain that comment, I’ve got a feeling there’s more to that infamous quote… Can we seek to learn creativity or are we just born with it? Are those of us who seek it, simply doomed to failure?
All my students get better, well they all get better, not necessarily because of my talents but because of the application that they put in because of the context, they want to learn and they improve. But, becoming a professional writer and making a living as a writer is a very hard thing to do, and most people are not up to it, just like most people are not up to being professional footballers, being professional chefs or politicians or whatever. But, the creative writing schools may give people the impression or want to give students the impression that they can become famous writers or they can make a living but mostly on the whole it’s not the case.
Universities and the teachers are at odds. The universities basically want to make money out of you, that’s what they do, I have got three kids in the education system, the universities out there tend to extract much money and give them as little face time and value as possible. Me, as a teacher, I object to this. I say, I want to give these students good value, I don’t want to tell these students lies about their abilities or talents, but I will teach them to the best of my abilities. But I also don’t think that giving them a PhD or an MA is necessarily of any value or will add any value, because none of these people on the whole have written books that the public would be interested in. So there is a lot of deception going on in this. People criticise me but actually what I seem to be doing is, pointing out this deception mostly with students and they spend from their wallets. If I say they are talentless, that sounds cruel but I’m talentless in most things, but as it happens, I can write but I’m talentless at almost everything.
You could be a talentless chef, for example. I am just guessing.
Or a talentless footballer, or I quite fancied being a dancer. It’s really tough out there, in terms of being a writer, the kind of dedication and work it involves and the particular temperament to be an artist. I think the universities are trying to sell these modules. Well, one of the things that we do as writing teachers is try to get rid of people’s illusions, so , if a student comes to you and says, “Oh, I can do the first draft of this novel in three months,” and you say “Oh I think you might, in two years”, and that’s a much more realistic assessment but that is tough because then they have to sit down for two years they have to spend most of their days and nights doing these books that may or may not be a success. So, we are the people from the real world.
You kind of touched upon it yesterday, do you think it’s possible to write about anything that doesn’t have an element of yourself… I mean I loved that comment about, it’s like being in a dream and you can’t separate which part is you and which part is not you, but is there not that fear of laying yourself bare, is that what writing is about, or is it a way to create a form of identity? I mean you mentioned it yesterday…
Well, you might create an identity and hide behind it. You know you might create a character, a detective, let’s say Maigret and you might say I am Maigret but I am not Maigret, or Maigret is a bit of me, etc. So, you can lose yourself in Maigret. Or like David Bowie, you might create a character like Ziggie Stardust, or like Lady Gaga, you might create a character like her. So, basically in order to become some sort of an artist there is a big bit of exhibitionism, you see. You have to have, you might say that tendency, that you like to share yourself with others in some way or another. If you are a very modest shy person you better not want to be a pop star or to be a writer or to be a painter, or whatever, there is a lot of, you might say, vanity in it, but also the belief that if you show yourself, it’s also you are like other people. So when I write my story in The Buddha of Suburbia, people then years later, often say that book meant a lot to me, it liberated me, I had felt you are speaking for me and so on and you make that guess that you are like other people. Something that might seem shameful to you actually is also shameful to somebody else, well your sexuality for instance, you might feel confused about your sexuality, other people do as well. So, you write the story and they say, you told my story. So, your shame is their shame too. But, there is a big element of shamelessness in it.
Going back to the Buddha of Suburbia, it is leading straight on to my next question, did you realise while you were writing it that you were going to be giving a voice to so many people? I mean when I read it, I found it funny, sad, ugly, beautiful, all at once, It was just an amazing novel for me and no one had written anything like that before, but did you realise that you were doing something like that?
No, I thought, I was doing, what other writers that liked, had done. So, when Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye, I guess he thought, “I really want to write this story; I don’t know whether people would like it, but I’m going to do it with the best of my ability.” So, I thought I want to write a book, which was like Catcher in the Rye, about a bloke telling the truth of his life as he saw it. So you have these models of young writers who told their early stories. And I thought I want to write a book just like that, and I didn’t know whether I could. But also, I don’t know if you were there yesterday, I was aware that people of mixed race haven’t spoken before. All the stories of the empire were told by EM Forster and Graham Greene, Lucy Conrad and I thought why doesn’t the story of the empire be told by a boy who grows up in the suburbs, people call him a Paki, and he doesn’t know why because he has never been to India and yet he is called Hanif, tell that story too. And the guess is that the story you might tell would be real for some other people.
Tell us about your novel The Last Word… is it about VS Naipaul? Is it a commentary on the cynicism of the aging and the naivety of youth? Is it about seeking a narrative to one’s life?
Actually I think he is naive, I think the older man is naive, I think his political views are really naive, his views about women, his views about the world are really naive, and I think the younger man is more intelligent but less talented, I think that’s an interesting thing actually. It’s a book about writing. It’s a book about rivalry between men, it’s a book about women, talking about women, loving women, adultery, sexuality, stuff like that. Obviously everybody comes out to me asking whether you have written a book about V.S. Naipaul and I thought when I was writing this book, people are going to say that to me and I’m just going have to put up with that. Well, once I got going when I was writing this book, I really enjoyed writing those characters, just as when I was writing The Buddha of Suburbia, I enjoyed writing the characters and didn’t think anymore that this is my Dad. I really like writing this bloke, and whether he is like my dad or not like my dad is irrelevant. I just want to have fun writing the characters, and that’s what I do. Writing has really got to be fun to do and that’s why the universities kind of find it a bit tiresome. I think writing should be relished while doing it, it’s not an academic subject.
You have to wake up every morning wanting to pen something down.
I really look for that in what I am writing; you look for your libido, you think, oh god, that’s going to be a great scene to write. You know, I am going to enjoy writing that, you know.
Well look, look at Lucian Freud, he was up there, in the last days of his life, he was still painting. And you would think why you would do that unless you had the most terrible passion for this. You can’t really do it half-heartedly.
Who influenced your writing?
My father, Graham Greene, D. H Lawrence, people I was reading at that time. Probably, you really think whoever you read…I mean Catch 22. When I was in the discussion today, I was thinking about Mohamad Hanif and his book, The Exploding Mangoes, reminds me of Catch 22 and I was thinking, “oh, I must read that again.” I mean the books that make you laugh, you want to read them again, you want to read another page, that’s all. You are just trying to give pleasure to somebody else. I think that’s one of the things, for students… which is quite hard to impress on the students now. I say to them, look this is showbiz, you know Catch 22 is fun to read, so is Midnight’s Children, it’s a great work of literature, you’ve got to give them a good time. They say, “oh no this is literature,” but I say to them that the best literature is really fun to read, even if it is a terrible story. So, Anna Karenina, it’s a real page turner.
After the twin towers, there seemed to be an acute rise of Islamaphobia. People became sceptical of Islam and Muslims all of over the world and felt a need to reaffirm their allegiances on one side or another. And then the Charlie Hebdo shooting happened in Paris, but would you say the reaction was different this time? Why?
Well, I feel now, I am very aware now, about too much fascism. Things are getting too fascist, we’re getting entrenched in fascism. There’s big fascism, not just the fascism of Nigel Farage but in France with Jean-Marie Le Pen, but also in Germany and Holland, particularly as well. People are not ashamed of being racist any more. They call it “Islamophobia” or they call it “the immigrants,” you know, “there is too much immigration” and so on. Basically it’s racism and you put in euphemistic terms, you’ll get a big surge in racism, and obviously there is a big surge on the other side as well. And I really feel that we progressive liberals are really going to get squashed. And we are coming to the end of all that stuff we like; democracy and free speech and so on, all this fucking hot air about all this fucking free speech, particularly from Obama, a man who tried to squash the torture reports which came out recently and the American administration, as you know is surveying all its citizens, 24×7, with the exclusive terrorism etc., etc. So the idea of not being surveyed and speaking freely etc. I think it is really under threat, under danger. So the idea of speaking freely is in danger, we are living in a genuinely fascistic time than we have lived in before.
What was your reaction to the whole Charlie Hebdo incident, because you explored Islam through a complex series of lenses, you have researched it as a writer, as someone who has roots in an Islamic state such as Pakistan, as a British Asian, as a product of a mixed marriage etc?
Well I felt that we went through all this before with the Satanic Verses, there is a terrible sense of déjà vu, probably it’s much worse because people were really killed. But I got a terrible sense of déjà vu and the awfulness of the whole thing. I don’t like what, I mean, I don’t think that it was funny – the cartoons, they didn’t made me laugh; the French don’t have sense of humour. I have never laughed in Paris. I really think that we are entering a dark period now, and everybody is destroying their freedom particularly this way and that’s really shocking.
You grew up in the Enoch Powell Rivers of Blood era…you’ve said in interviews before that those were worrying times…is something similar happening now, with the insipient rise of UKIP? Should we, British non-whites be concerned or will it all blow over?
UKIP is much worse because they are a mainstream political party now, they are taken seriously. They are not like the fascists bonkers fringe parties, like the BNP… Nigel Farage is going to be a genuine part of the next election. He is also taken seriously by the other parties and he could enter into some sort of coalition, and that’s really shocking. I mean he is a fascist. When I say fascist, by which I mean his whole agenda is basically based on the idea of immigrants, and a fantastical idea of the immigrants, which is a racist idea and is not based on any truth or any reality. We haven’t had a significant political party in Britain really, based on race or racism before. There are two policies one about the EU and one about how he doesn’t like Pakis and now this is a really shocking thing; and that’s a real change.. And they could win what 5-6 seats in the next election? The white working middle class has been totally betrayed, totally fucking betrayed. Thatcher destroyed institutions, social housing, the education of the white working class and Labour then let the white working class go and then they turned to fascism. Well, hello! Thatcher hated the working class; she divided them into white respectable working class, who bought their social housing and the rest who were the rabble who then turned to fascism.
Will it blow over you think?
No, I don’t think it will. I think the immigrants have become such a hated figure now.
What is next for you?
Well, I have done an adaptation of a novel, a wonderful novel actually called ‘To Sir with Love’. I have done another version of the movie, but it’s worse, it won’t have Sidney Poitier in it, which I’ve done for the BBC. When the movie was done, they took out all the mixed race marriage stuff, in the book he falls in love with the white woman and has a sexual relationship with her. I have not seen the movie, I have deliberately avoided it… In the movie there is no mention of that… fucking a white woman was still considered…this was in 60’s, so I am going to do that, and I am very interested in the history of race in Britain, and this was about a black man who worked in a school in 1959 who didn’t get a job anywhere else and I wanted to do an interview with Braithwaite who is still alive. He is 102, and has had a very interesting life. I wrote about him in a piece actually, which you can find on the net – you can look it up on the Guardian or on my Twitter feed, it’s called “Knock, Knock, it’s Enoch” – it’s about Powell and it’s about ER Braithwaite, he’s a wonderful writer.
I will definitely look it up. Thank you so much for your time.
Thanks, great questions by the way.