Dressed in a plain black T-shirt, brown shorts and Nike sneakers, with a nondescript rucksack hanging from his shoulders, Hanif Kureishi looks like a lost backpacker as he wanders into Bali’s Neka Art Museum. The open-air venue thrums as hundreds of people take their seats ahead of the author’s headlining session at the 2018 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. Within minutes, he will captivate the full house but, right now, one of Britain’s finest writers goes largely unnoticed.
And, when we meet for our interview, the 64-year-old is once again devoid of the airs and graces you might expect from someone who has produced a body of work as notable as his.
A prolific playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker and novelist, Kureishi became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2008 – the same year The Times named him on its list of The 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945. His 1985 film, My Beautiful Laundrette, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, earned him an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, while his debut novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, won a Whitbread Award on its release in 1990. And he hasn’t stopped since, making a career as a writer look deceptively easy.
“I was saved by ignorance,” says Kureishi of his chosen path. “I didn’t know how rare or difficult it was to be a writer. The obstacles are a reality, which you have to overcome, and doubt, self-doubt.”
The early years
As a teenager growing up in suburban London, he began writing what would become arguably his best-loved work, The Buddha of Suburbia, about teenager Karim Amir, “an Englishman born and bred, almost…” Amir, like Kureishi, had biracial parents, and faced racism and issues of cultural identity.
“Karim uses sex with people as a way of leaving home and exploring the world,” says Kureishi, adding that it’s “not so much a story about sex but pleasure”. Both are recurring themes in the author’s work, and Kureishi admits he honed his craft writing raunchy stories for men’s magazines early in his career. However, he did things a little differently than most writers of erotic fiction.
“I got more interested in what people would say to each other after they had copulated, and the editors of the magazines I worked for got annoyed by those long digressive conversations.” By way of explanation, he adds: “An artist is somebody who starts with the rules, then breaks the rules, then takes the whole thing through another language.”
The Buddha of Suburbia was a ground-breaking work of post-colonial literature, and inspired a BBC TV series featuring a soundtrack by David Bowie. Serendipitously, Kureishi attended Bromley Technical High School a decade after his fellow trailblazer. The pair would eventually become friends. “We grew up in a time when you had to have a fixed identity,” says Kureishi. “And suddenly someone like Bowie comes along wearing a dress and high heels, and you thought, ‘He knows me, he understands me, and he’s going to take us away from here.’”
Almost two years after Bowie’s death, he continues to inspire Kureishi. “One of the reasons I wanted to come to Bali was because Bowie loved Bali – Iman scattered his ashes here,” he says. “I think he loved Balinese theatre, the masks, the dressing up, the exaggeration.”
The creative juggler
A shape-shifter in many ways himself and with so many mediums at his disposal, how does he know whether a story will be a film, novel or play? “It’s really the subject matter that determines that. It used to be the money. When I had to support my kids, I had to write movies to make money. Now I’m free.”
In between teaching creative writing as a professor at Kingston University, Kureishi continues to write. His most recent work, The Nothing, follows the decline of an elderly, feted filmmaker named Waldo, who suspects his younger wife is cheating on him. “I wanted to write a story of somebody who is a vapour, disappearing from the world – a character thrashing around in a jar, who can see the things he loves that he is losing.”
On his current project, Kureishi is guarded. “Writers hate that question because they’re always working on something but they don’t want to talk about it because when they do, it sounds like crap,” he says. “Somehow, the idea evaporates when you tell someone. But I am writing, that’s all I can say.”
ON HIS SHELF
THE MODERN-DAY AUTHORS WHO HAVE CAPTURED KUREISHI’S IMAGINATION…
“I read her book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, and I was really inspired by it. I thought it was great that she said that.”
“She wrote White Teeth and On Beauty. We live in terrible Trump times but knowing the (postcolonial literature) scene is still moving forward, that young people are writing, keeps me going.”
“I met (her) at the Ubud Writers Festival. She wrote a book about madness, Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression. It’s a detailed and moving account of psychosis.”