Hanif Kureishi used to know who his readers were. They were “hip young kids”, reading The Buddha of Suburbia, his novel about sex, drugs and race in 1970s London.
When the book came out in 1990, he was a rebel hero.
Now, 13 years later, although no longer sure of who his fans are, Kureishi retains the air of a man slightly too cool for his surroundings. Aged 48 and smoothly turned out, he sits on a sofa in his publicist’s office, legs akimbo, and observes the world with imperious ease. He has written a new film, The Mother, about the sex life of a woman approaching 70.
“I can’t imagine hip young kids queueing to see a film about an old girl,” he says laconically. “I don’t really care. I didn’t write it because I thought it would make me a rich man. I wrote it because I was interested in it.”
Kureishi’s interest is in the invisible, the people in the margins — signified in The Mother by a shapeless, snot-coloured coat worn by 68-year-old Anne Reid. When he saw the movie in a cinema, he says, “there was a young woman sitting near me and when the old woman started having sex, she covered her eyes. She was appalled. The idea of an older woman having sex does not go down well with people. It’s shocking.”
Sex is never easy in Kureishi’s world. He wrote of a gay, mixed-race affair in his 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette, and then in his novel Intimacy about a man falling out of love with his partner, the details of which so tallied with his own circumstances — leaving his publisher girlfriend for a younger woman — that he was condemned in the British press.
“Well,” says Kureishi, “I think when you’re writing, you look for the bits that are difficult. They’re the exciting bits. You look for conflict. When you’re writing you’re aware that when you stop, at that moment it’s an act of censorship. If you think, ‘I shouldn’t say that,’ it’s always the things you should say.”
But there are other people’s feelings, too, I say.
“Well, separation is traumatic. It’s horrible to think that people have to part. Not only that they have to part, but that they may even hate each other before they part. And when you hate someone, you maybe behave monstrously towards them, which is a disgusting thought. And they hate you as well. That’s what goes on. And it’s worse if there are children. Writers happen to write it down, which makes them bad.”
Kureishi grew up in Bromley, south London, where people didn’t speak their desire, but bottled it up until they were miserable. His father was Indian, his mother British. Bromley was very white in the 1960s and 1970s. The whole family stood out.
Does he think Britain has become less racist since then? “Well, when I was a kid,” says Kureishi, “the racism was sort of casual. You’d go down the street and people would say things to you all the time. And at school, everybody would be racist in a way they wouldn’t be now. On the other hand, the way my window cleaner talks about asylum seekers — ‘these fucking asylum seekers, they come over here taking our jobs’ — is exactly the same as what people said about ‘Pakis’ when I was a kid. You just realise that the focus has changed. I think racism is where people talk about what they hate about themselves: greedy, money-grabbing, it’s the same vocabulary that applies to the Jews, the blacks, the asylum-seekers, the Pakistanis, the Irish.”
Kureishi was in a pub in Hastings during an England-Turkey football match when everyone started chanting, “I’d rather be a Paki than a Turk.” It surprised him. “I thought, ‘They wouldn’t sing that in London.’ I don’t think London bears any resemblance to England. It’s a right crummy place without London. I think if England didn’t have London, it’d be a fucking dump.”
Kureishi’s mum is still in Bromley; his father died several years ago. He is currently writing a book about the experience of reading his father’s journals. The manuscripts are very intimate, says Kureishi. He felt a bit odd when he got to the part about his father entering a brothel, aged 16. I shouldn’t be looking at this, he thought. But then he reasoned that his dad would have been “flattered and knocked out” that his writing was going to be published.
Has his mum seen The Mother, I wonder? “Yes. She loved it. She kept saying: ‘Am I going to be shocked by it? Will I have to cover my eyes?’ Eventually she saw it, and she was relieved that it didn’t seem to be about her. Which it isn’t.”
Kureishi studied philosophy at King’s College, London. “I’m interested in philosophical psychology, people like Nietzsche, Freud, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida. It seemed to me that the real philosophical breakthroughs of the 20th century were in terms of the understanding of language. What is language? Where does it come from, how does it work, what does it do? Language and gender. Yeah.”
He gets up early and writes every day. “That’s all I do all day. I’m always writing. I’m an obsessive. It’s not because I’m a disciplined person. It’s because I’m crazy about it.”
His most depressed period, he says, was when he had just left university and was waiting to see if any real writing talent might emerge; if it hadn’t, he says, he would have had to become an academic. But it did, and he started writing plays for the Royal Court theatre. One of the characters in The Mother is a failed writer.
Does he ever worry about the ideas drying up? Because the more time you spend at your desk, I argue, the less of life you see to write about.
“I’m at home with my missus, with my kids ... but, fucking hell, what do you think it’s like in my kitchen? It’s a crucible in there, it’s an emotional crucible.”
There is a price to pay for using one’s own hot-house as material, as Kureishi as found out. But, he says, “It’s better to speak, in my view, than to shut up. It seems to me that if you speak — that’s what the mother does — she speaks her desire, and there’s hell to pay. But in a sense she’s more alive because of it.” — Â