HANIF KUREISHI has amassed a significant body of work as a novelist, screenwriter and playwright. His book The Buddha of Suburbia won the Whitbread Award for the best first novel in 1990 and he has been named by The Times as one of the 50 greatest British post-war writers.
But even he is not immune from the shadow of self-doubt. Kureishi, who is appearing at the Hay Festival Kells, Co Meath, this Saturday, recently wrote a piece for The Guardian on the fear of rejection and how writing can be an emotionally tortuous process. When I ask if he ever wishes he had taken an alternative route, his reply is emphatic.
“I like being a writer, I don’t think I’d be able to do anything else. I worked in offices, in the theatre, but it suits me to sit around my house writing. One of my sons walked in the other day and looked around my study with some pity and said, ‘This is all you do, isn’t it, you sit around all day’, but I like it because I live in my imagination. I’m not sitting in a prison.
“The other day I was thinking I’d spent my whole life as a writer and it seems now, looking back, amazing that I was able to make a living as a writer, to have children and all the rest of it, not to have to get a proper job. It’s quite a hard thing to do, to keep a career going and make a living, unless you’re JK Rowling. It’s quite tough for an average, jobbing writer to get by so it seems marvellous to me.”
Working in academia helps many writers in this regard, and Kureishi is no exception, holding a professorship in creative writing at Kingston University London. One can imagine, then, the reaction when in 2014, he told an audience at the Bath Literature Festival that he believed creative writing courses were a “waste of time”. Is this still his view?
“Yes and no. I think they’re a waste of time in that they confer an academic credibility on something that’s much more like rock and roll, more spontaneous and less conventional. On the other hand, I’d value the relationship between the teacher and the writer, the teacher and the student, so I’d never dismiss that. I’ve had people in my life — writers, editors, directors — who’ve taught me a great deal so I wouldn’t discount that but I wouldn’t necessarily put it in an academic context.
“But I’m a professor in a university myself and it’s part of how we make a living as writers. Also some of the students are really good, but in my lifetime the university system has become a bit of a supermarket, it’s about extracting money from students rather than giving them value. I deplore that and I think many teachers feel we’re just screwing the students. My kids have university fees of £9,000 and they’re in debt, having left university, to the tune of almost £40,000.”
While Kureishi first made an impact with his plays, becoming writer in residence at the Royal Court Theatre when he was only 28, his talents reached a wider audience with his Oscar-nominated screenplay for the 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Daniel Day Lewis in his first major film role.
It addressed the themes of of homophobia and racism in Thatcher’s Britain through the story of a young gay Pakistani man living in London. The film is now more than 30 years old, yet its themes are more relevant than ever, especially in the context of the Brexit referendum debate, something which saddens Kureishi.
“It disappoints me hugely, what’s happening in the whole of Europe regarding the character of the migrant — an abstract, ghoulish undead figure who’ll come and take your money and your job. It’s horrifying to me as the son of an immigrant, with mixed-race children, that the debate has become so debased.”
He points out that much of Britain’s wealth came from its empire. “The idea of insulting people who want to come here and work seems really low. It’s shocking to see how right-wing the media has become — all the newspapers apart from The Guardian are in favour of Brexit. I don’t feel the British public is as anti-EU as that, but it’s very hard from reading the newspapers to get a sense of what’s really going on.”
Kureishi believes those involved in the creative professions have an important contribution to make.
“One of the things writers, artists and conscientious journalists can do is talk about the way we talk about this, how debased the media has become about this. It’s a real shame.”
In recent years, Kureishi has focused on how we navigate life as we age. His drama The Mother depicted a relationship between an older woman (Anne Reid) and her daughter’s boyfriend (Daniel Craig), while Venus garnered the late Peter O’Toole award nominations galore for his role as an elderly actor who befriends a younger girl.
Kureishi’s most recent film, Le Week-End, was acclaimed for its portrayal of an older couple, played by Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, who return to Paris in an attempt to rejuvenate their marriage.
“I guess I’m interested, particularly in Le Week-End, in what happened to my generation, which was so exuberant about revolution and social change. Certainly things with racism and feminism worked out more favourably, to a certain extent, but in terms of egalitarianism, I’m very aware in London of the huge and growing gap between rich and poor, and the disenfranchisement of people. And that’s why people are turning against the EU and seem to think Michael Gove is going to save their ass.
“It’s fascinating that we’re back to thinking about race and identity again — race is still a defining issue in the UK, and the US.”
Kureishi will be returning to that theme with his latest project, a BBC adaptation of To Sir With Love, a novel which was made into a film starring Sidney Poitier in 1967.
“It was written in 1958 by a black Guyanese writer, ER Braithwaite. It’s about a black teacher working in an East End school,” says Kureishi. “It’s really interesting to redo this because it shows young people what it was like to be a black man in London after the war. Most people had never seen a black man and were horrified and fascinated. When I was a teenager it was the first book I’d read and and it has lived in my heart since.”
In 2014, Kureishi’s archive was acquired by the British Museum. What does he think someone unacquainted with his work would make of it?
“I think they’d feel I was alive and active in some interesting times. I was born and grew up in the 1950s, after the war, and I came to consciousness in the ’60s and ’70s, which were quite a radical time; then you had Thatcherism. So, I hope my work would give some picture of the post-imperial period after the emptiness of the end of the empire — the making of some kind of multi-cultural, multi-racial society seems to me to have been an amazing transformation.”