I don’t read novels as it interferes with my signal, says Hanif Kureishi

Hanif Kureishi

Hanif Kureishi. Image credit: www.nickcunard.co.uk

I don’t read novels as it interferes with my signal, says Hanif Kureishi

09 May 2014

By Naomi Canton

Hanif Kureishi’s novels are popular for their dry wit, provocative nature and controversial themes and in person at the Opening Night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2014, he did not disappoint either.

Having created a media storm at the recent Independent Bath Literature Festival by saying “creative writing courses were a waste of time,” even though he is a teacher on one at Kingston University, Kureishi made plenty of provocative remarks at Asia House too, when discussing his latest novel The Last Word with BBC special correspondent and presenter of Talking Books Razia Iqbal.

When she asked him about those comments at Bath, he said: “I nearly got sacked after that last time. I can’t comment. The Dean was up all night, let’s say.”

When probed further he said: “I don’t have any difficulty teaching people how to write. What I have difficulty with, is the system. Universities are basically Tesco’s with books.

“It’s a commercial system, whereas we are trying to make art, I think, in some way, so the two don’t go well together. I think of universities as dating agencies where you get to meet the students and see whether you get along with them or not  –  like an introduction service. The Dean is going to go crazy! ”

At one point during the debate, responding to one of Iqbal’s questions, he said: “That’s such a ridiculous question. I don’t know what it means. I can’t make any sense of what you are saying,” leaving Iqbal temporarily speechless.

The London-born 59-year-old, whose father is Pakistani and mother is English, began his session by reading from his seventh novel, which is about an old Indian writer (Mamoon) living in leafy Somerset  and a young man writing his biography (Harry), a story strikingly similar to that of V S Naipaul and his biographer, Patrick French.  Even the description of literary titan Mamoon resembles that of 81-year-old V S Naipaul, who lives in Wiltshire.

Looking quite serious, dressed in a blue and white checked shirt, Kureishi, who lives in west London, explained what motivated him to write it: “I liked the idea of writing about an Indian writer, as I come from a family of Indian writers;  I liked the idea of writing about a young man as I was a young man once; [I liked the idea of writing about] women, drugs, lots of conversation, lots of arguments; so it just seemed like a good structure. I know that I have got an idea for something and I need a structure to organise it and then I can find out what I want to say.”

When Iqbal asked him if the book was based on French and VS Naipaul, Kureishi said:  “I remember someone saying to me Patrick French is going to upset about this. I said: Why? Everyone finds him very attractive in the book and lots of people sleep with him. Why would he speak to his lawyers about that? It seems to me I have done him a favour – although I don’t know him. My stuff always has grumpy Indian old men in it. If you look at My Beautiful Launderette or The Buddha of Suburbia, any of my stuff, grumpy Indian old men are my Mona Lisa. I come from a big Muslim family. My Dad had 10 brothers.  So I am used to all those boys – the smoking, drinking, showing off, shouting  and fighting.

“Those characters in the Buddha or a character like Mamoon are very familiar to me.  So it’s not that I suddenly woke up one day and thought I should write about a story of a particular writer. It’s just the characters in my stories have got older and older and I ended up writing about someone in their 80s.”

In The Last Word Harry embeds himself in the country house of the Indian writer.

“It is a colonial novel and it’s set in Somerset. It’s the other way round – all the masters are brown and all the servants are white. It’s basically [British TV drama] Upstairs Downstairs turned the other way!” he said dryly.

He then went on to say: “I come from poor white trash. In one part of me I come from the white lower middle-class or working class suburbs of the 1950s and 60s. You can see that in My Beautiful Launderette as well.  A book is a dream in which every bit of the dream is part of yourself in some disordered way linked to the centre of yourself.”

When Iqbal asked him if the book helped him understand why he was a writer, he said: “I never doubted I was not a writer. I am more of a writer now than I have ever been before. As artists get older, they get more obsessed about what they are doing. You think a day off is a day wasted. I am a writer because I have an idea and I want to write it down. It seems more important to me than doing anything else. We never have that problem of what are we are going to do today. We always know what we are going to do.”

The Last Word was also an attempt to write a comedy about  “why we tell stories, what the point of it is, why it matters, why it matters how we use language, what it means in this age of social media and how we can communicate seriously to each other,” he said.

“The fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 had a big impact on me and made me think ‘Why am I doing this? Why does it matter? What should we be writing a novel about? What do these stories do for people? How have they changed my life? What is the point of all this scribbling away? What would it be like to write novels in Pakistan?’”

He mentioned the fatwa made writing “much more important” to him. He was thrown out of the Whitechapel mosque in London because he was taking notes (research for his My Son the Fanatic and The Black Album) because they knew he was friends with Salman Rushdie, he said. “I was so shocked by what was going on and I just wanted to speak to these kids. My father had come to Britain to get away from the constraints of his family and background in Pakistan so the idea of coming here and having more constraints was such a puzzle to me. I was so fascinated in what was going on with these kids and so I thought I would write about it.”

He also spoke about how his sons found his life “pitiful.” “One of my sons came into my room, the study, the other day, and looked around in a rather sad way, and said ‘this is your life, isn’t it?’ He could see this man trapped in this pile of books scribbling away and I said to him, ‘Yes, this is how I pay for your shoes, mate, so if I was you I would be grateful.’”

“My kids don’t read at all. They have never read a novel, none of them, I am not joking, and they are at university. They watch American TV. I don’t know any men that read novels. Women do. I would not be caught dead reading a novel any more than you would catch me wearing yellow! I don’t read them for personal reasons as it interferes with my signal. I need to be in a certain state of mind and if I read someone else’s book I can’t get in the right place. I don’t need to read. I know what I am doing now and I want to do it completely individually in my own way. Like having a conversation with somebody that is completely honest.”

He then spoke about how the experience of immigrants from the British Empire settling in the UK was the leitmotif of his writing.

“My Dad came from India to England to make a life and somewhere along the way he said to me, as though it had just occurred to him, ‘You don’t belong anywhere do you? Then I thought maybe I don’t, and then you start to think about what belonging is. It’s also a problem of the world you are living in that sees you as an issue.”

He said it was the “white lower-class background” of his mother and “that conjunction of things” that made him want to write.

He grew up in a world where “it was normal to be white and whiteness was the standard,” he said. “Anyone who was not white was either slightly retarded or patronised or you did not quite fit in. But that was the bar, being white. It was so odd to live in that world. It was like being normal as opposed to being mad. What you have to do is to give up the idea of the standard and then you are free,” he added.

“You don’t know you are black or have any colour or you are a different race till you go to school. Then they tell you and you have to work out the whole history of colonialism backwards in your head. Then you realise you exist in a network of other people’s language,” he said.

He was born in Kent, but once he reached London, he discovered a less racist place, he said. “As soon as I got to London it stopped being racist for me because London was so cosmopolitan and mixed and it was a different world and we were away from the National Front. Also I realised I was very lucky because no one had written from that position before and it was just luck; I had a subject  which was the way in which Britain was conducting a huge experiment in terms of race and it had completely changed from a monocultural to a multicultural society we now live in – without anyone deciding this – and there was this incredible revolution that I lived through by mistake. I had a great subject, a dramatic subject, and you are lucky as a writer if you get a subject”.

His first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) set in 1970s England, was a huge hit and he is widely considered to have created a new immigrant narrative that reflects how many young Asians in the UK felt about themselves.

When Iqbal asked whether Kureishi, who was awarded the CBE in 2007 for his services to literature, regarded himself as part of the establishment, he said he saw himself as much more rebellious, angry about the world and anti-authority than ever.

Responding to a question from a member of the audience as to whether he was close friends with Naipaul. He said: “We get along perfectly. We hang, that’s all I’m going to say. We hang loose.”

As for why he was a creative writing tutor, if he made enough money from penning books, he said: “Never ask a writer about money! Don’t even get me started! I like the students, I really like them and it’s really good for me to teach, because I talk about  writing with them whereas writers only talk about money and their divorces with each other, never about writing.” He said teaching students how to write was like “deconstructing the engine of the car”. “So it’s very technical and I find that really fascinating. I think it’s important if you know something to teach someone else.”

To see a video clip of the event click below:-

To see a slideshow of the event click below:-

To listen to the full audio of the event click below:-


The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival takes place from 7 May to 21 May 2014. To see the full programme click here.

To read other stories on the Festival click here.

The Festival hashtag is #FAL14. Follow us on Twitter at @festofasianlit and on Instagram.