For many, Hanif Kureishi is a fine comic writer, a superb scriptwriter and an important essayist. He has produced a number of masterpieces (The Buddha of Suburbia, My Beautiful Launderette) and, inevitably, a few duds too. For British Asians of a particular generation, however, he is much more than this. For those of us who came of age in the 1980s, Kureishi is one of the writers who helped us discover our voice, one of the writers through whose words we could make sense of our struggles to find an identity and a place in an often hostile society. Sivanandan and CLR James, James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon – all politically shaped my understanding of race, class and identity. But it was Kureishi who spoke far more viscerally to my hopes and fears, desires and aspirations. I did not so much read Kureishi as hear him. His voice was as much a part of my soundtrack as Jerry Dammers, Chuck D and Prince.
Britain was a different country then. It was a country in which racism was vicious, visceral and often fatal, in which racist stabbings were common and firebombings of Asian houses almost weekly events, in which ‘Paki bashing’ was a national sport. It was a country in which I remember more than once as a child getting on a bus, and the passenger next to whom I sat getting up to sit somewhere else. It was a country in which a cadet at the national police academy could write in an essay ‘Wogs, nignogs and Pakis come into Britain take up our homes, our jobs and our resources and contribute relatively less to our once glorious country. They are, by nature, unintelligent. And can’t at all be educated sufficiently to live in a civilised society of the Western world.’ A country in which the police superintendent in the Chapeltown district of Leeds could tell an audience, ‘There are 15,000 West Indians in this locality and I can tell you that 15,000 West Indians are very difficult to police. They create all sorts of problems. Drugs is one, prostitution, brothels and vice are others.’
It was also a country in which the image of Asians was that of an unassertive people, a people who, unlike African Caribbeans, seemed to take their kicks and licks and were too scared to look folks in the eye. That was never the full story, of course, and by the 1970s it was definitely not so. From strikes such as Imperial Typewriters in 1974 and Grunwicks in 1977, both led by Asian women, to the anti-National Front riot in Bradford in 1976, out of which the Asian Youth Movement was born, and the defence of Southall against fascists in 1979, during which teacher Blair Peach was truncheoned to death by a member of the notorious Special Patrol Group, Asians were not simply looking racists in the eye but spitting in their face. We were taking matters into our own hands. I spent much of my time in the mid-80s organizing street patrols on East London estates protecting Asian families from racist thugs.
It was to this generation of Asians who were kicking out not just against racism but also against the conventional image of what an Asian should be, to whom Kureishi spoke. Kureishi’s work, the writer and critic Sukhdev Sandhu recalls, transformed the way that both he and his white friends saw what it meant to be Asian. Asians ‘had previously been mocked for deference and timidity… We weren’t gobby or dissing.’ Not so Kureishi’s Asians. They were as cocksure, streetwise and sexually charged as Kureishi himself. ‘Kureishi’s language was a revelation’, Sandhu writes. ‘It was neither meek nor subservient. It wasn’t fake posh. Instead it was playful and casually knowing.’
I can still remember the shock, pleasure and recognition I felt the first time I watched that moment in My Beautiful Launderette when the landlord Nasser evicts a black tenant. His white sidekick Johnny protests that he should not treat another black person so cruelly. ‘I am a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani’, Nasser curtly tells him.
It was not that I identified with the loathsome Nasser or found anything to admire in his Rachmanite philosophy. It was just that with that one line, Kureishi broke out of the prison of identity in which we had found ourselves, as a consequence both of racism and of anti-racist notions of ethnic belonging. ‘It was a new idea of being Asian’, Kureishi says, ‘not the traditional notion of victims cowering in the corner. I wanted to show that Asians were not all progressive or nice – so I had an Asian as a vicious Thatcherite.’
In his acceptance speech for the PEN Pinter prize last year Kureishi talked of the dilemmas and confusions, the needs and desires, that led him to became a writer:
As the son of an Indian father and English mother, I didn’t want to be like the English, I was already English, almost. But I became aware that I represented some sort of problem for the English, because they kept asking me who I was, where I fitted in, where I belonged and how long I’d be staying, not difficulties which my father, an Indian, had had. I was asked these questions so often I began to lose my bearings. What was I doing to the neighbours to make them so philosophical?
And so, as a teenager, I began to write. I wrote for my life. The idea of having an identity by calling myself ‘a writer’ suddenly seemed both consolidating and liberating, like a Cartesian assertion of existence. Critics sometimes like to characterise me as an autobiographical writer, and I like to reply that all writing is as autobiographical as a dream, in which every element both does and doesn’t belong to the dreamer, and is somehow beyond them. “Who’s there?”, the first line of Hamlet, is the question writers ask themselves when they sit down to write, perhaps in the hope, one day, of finding out. But there are multitudes there.
I was aware that I did want to speak of the experience of my family and myself. This seemed necessary and important for my survival. It was something of an epiphany as I sat at my typewriter every day, after school, and found I had my own words, however clumsy and derivative. Those of us like me were not, then, merely subject to the denigrations and descriptions of others. We could talk back. Writing would be a message to the world outside my family, and outside the suburbs. I would inform people what was going on, what life in the new Britain – a Britain unknowingly transforming itself forever – was like for us. This was not writing as a form of defence, but, for me, as a way of situating myself fully in the alien world, an attempt to work out a place in it – writing as an attempted solution to various internal and external conflicts.
Kureishi wrote his novels and screenplays for the same reason that we read them and watched them: both to tear up the old cultural map and to discover where we stood in the new landscape we were creating. Looking back over Kureishi’s work over the past thirty years is to follow the changing contours of that landscape.
The key turning point in Kureishi’s writing was the controversy over The Satanic Verses and the fatwa imposed on his close friend Salman Rushdie. I have written many times about how the Salman Rushdie affair was a watershed in both British politics and in my life. It was even more so in Kuresihi’s life. ‘It changed the direction of my writing’, he once told me. ‘Unlike Salman I had never taken a real interest in Islam… I was an atheist, like Salman, like many Asians of our generation were. I was interested in race, in identity, in mixture, but never in Islam. The fatwa changed all that.’ The questions of race and identity remained crucial to Kureishi’s work. But these had to be thought through in a different way, to make sense of a different cultural landscape.
All of which explains why I will truly enjoy having a conversation with Hanif Kureishi tonight in the final event of this year’s Festival of Asian Literature. The event is called ‘Saying it like it is’. And hopefully it will be. Hopefully we will be gobby and dissing. Join us.