His next project, Hanif Kureishi is saying, will be a fat, juicy novel about a shrink, chockablock with "all the stuff that I'm interested in — you know, race, sex, politics, psychoanalysis, literature, TV."
The time frame? The 1970s through July 7, 2005, the date of the suicide bombing attacks that rocked Britain. Got a title yet? Yes, Kureishi replies while crunching his way through a salad at a favorite haunt in his funky Shepherds Bush neighborhood. It's going to be called "Something to Tell You."
Maybe he should make that "I Told Ya So." Because the England that Kureishi evoked in his prophetic screenplays for the mid-'80s art-house smashes "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," and more recently in the under-seen "My Son the Fanatic" — a country of ugly ethnic tensions, dreary politics and deep cultural angst — bears an uncanny resemblance to the actual England of today.
But those films, like Kureishi's novels and short stories, somehow balance their seriousness with a tone that's light, playful and shot through with carnal heat. For Kureishi, the political is always passionately personal, and intemperate sexuality inevitably spews over every form of social prophylaxis.
An assiduous observer of cross-cultural give-and-take, Kureishi has a knack for diagnosing what's ailing his fellow Brits, individually and collectively, at any given moment. His writerly signature of spot-on social witness and gritty poetics is again on display in his latest script, "Venus," a Pygmalion-themed drama starring Peter O'Toole in bravura form as an aging wreck of an actor playing Svengali to a young would-be model. The film will open in U.S. theaters next month.
Kureishi says the idea for the film, which partly centers on the relationship between O'Toole's character and another hoary thespian played by Leslie Phillips, was inspired by an offhand remark by Kureishi's friend Stephen Frears, who directed "Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie."
"On Fridays I have breakfast with Stephen Frears and various other mates of mine, and we all sit around and just gossip, read the paper, shoot the breeze," Kureishi explains. "And I remember Stephen Frears saying to me, he said, 'I'd like to spend my retirement like this, like sitting in a Cairo café, sitting around with my friends, smoking the hookah, talking, reading the paper, it's a very comfortable way to live.' And I thought, yeah, why don't I write a film about that?"
Getting an actor of O'Toole's stature to play one of the leads was an unexpected bonus. "Very brave actor," Kureishi says of O'Toole. "He's not afraid to show himself being derelict, old, despair. He just looked at the camera, shows himself."
Though Kureishi's screenplays and novels tend to be very character-driven, they always keep a close eye trained on the story's social context. In Britain, that backdrop has changed radically and rapidly over the past quarter-century, and Kureishi has been one of only a handful of writers to keep pace with it.
His 1995 novel "The Black Album" deals with a young Pakistani British man from the provinces struggling to reconcile the different sides of his divided cultural heritage. Tellingly, it's set in 1989, after a fatwa was issued against Kureishi's friend Salman Rushdie for writing "The Satanic Verses."
In the short story "My Son the Fanatic" (1999), the title character, the son of an immigrant, assimilated Pakistani cab driver, voices his revulsion toward his family's adopted England, which he sees as decadent and two-faced. "They say 'integrate,' but they live in pornography and filth and tell us how backward we are," the son bitterly tells his bemused father.
Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, Britain was becoming obsessed with the cultural stare-down between its white, secular majority and its estimated 1.5 million Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Middle East. Last month, a public row erupted when Prime Minister Tony Blair and other politicians criticized the wearing of veils by Muslim women as a slap in the face to mainstream British society. "It's an important debate about the relation between Islam and liberalism and the kind of society we want to make," says Kureishi, who was born in southern England in 1954 to a Pakistani immigrant father and an English mother.
No pulling punchesFOR a guy who always seems to be writing from the eye of a cultural whirlwind, Kureishi in person seems improbably even-keeled. A compact man of medium height, with tightly cropped gray hair and a stare as focused as a peregrine falcon's, he chats with amiable forthrightness about an array of booby-trapped subjects: Slavish materialism in the post-Thatcher era. Inter-religious strife. The nasty, as well as euphoric, things that can happen between a man and a woman in bed. (His 1998 novel "Intimacy," which he wrote around the time he and his wife were splitting up, was both reviled and praised for its wince-inducing honesty.)
As a writer, Kureishi draws on a rich tradition of British postwar kitchen-sink realism, particularly in theater and film, that endures in the work of movie directors like Frears, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. But like an earlier generation of writers including E.M. Forster and Joseph Conrad, Kureishi also sees British culture and society from a global perspective.That allows him to turn his hard, clear gaze on both Eastern extremism and what he calls Western "moral imperialism." He points, for example, to the way Westerners lecture Muslims about tolerating gays or treating women as equals, even though most Western democracies outlawed homosexuality and denied women the vote until relatively recently. "It takes a long time for these values to emerge," he says, "and they usually emerge by people pushing from within rather than from without."
But he also criticizes Islamic fundamentalists for cliched, knee-jerk condemnations of Western values, a practice he refers to as "Occidentalism" (a play on Edward Said's famous concept of "Orientalism," the myopic stereotyping of the East by Westerners blinkered by Arabian Nights fantasies).
He has visited Pakistan several times and spent months investigating London mosques while researching the short story that would become "My Son the Fanatic." He describes radical Islam as "a very dangerous ideology" and "very close to fascism."
And he believes that Muslim threats against "Satanic Verses" and a recent Berlin Opera production that depicted the Prophet decapitated threaten free expression with a growing climate of censorship and self-censorship that has had a chilling effect on artists.
"When Rushdie wrote 'The Satanic Verses,' we'd never heard the word 'fatwa.' But now you know that if you [curse] the Prophet, these guys are going to come round and shoot you. So in a way it's almost a matter of personal pride and conscience and all that you're prepared to sacrifice for your muse."
Yet Kureishi believes that Western values also are under threat by the West itself. In his 2005 essay collection "The Word and the Bomb," he notes that the Western culture of the 1960s, "with its whimsy and drugged credulity helped finish off the Enlightenment." If Islam is undergoing a worldwide resurgence, he suggests, it's been triggered by the failure of Western countries to offer their citizens more in the way of spiritual sustenance than Wal-Mart specials and "Girls Gone Wild."
"I think there's a lot of disgust, self-disgust, in the West, justified or not — I don't think it is, actually — about what's really shallow about this culture," he says. "You know, there's a philosopher [who] says this wonderful thing. He says we're only giving democracy to the rest of the world now because we don't want it anymore. We only give them what we don't want, we give them our leftovers, our old clothes or our pity. And now we're giving them democracy, but we're not really interested in it, all we're interested in now is only materialism."
Twenty-five years ago, when Kureishi and a handful of other writers and film makers started pointing out that Ye Olde England of tea and scones and starchy manners was morphing into rowdy, multiethnic Cool Britannia, he says, nobody seemed to notice or understand what a big deal it was.
As to why other esteemed (read: white, middle-class) English novelists weren't venturing into the back alleys of Britain's new ethnic communities, Kureishi replies, "I don't think that they could find an angle on it . And then they had to write about it from a white point of view. They were probably afraid of seeming to create stereotypes or to be racist or whatever."
Today, a slew of new writers, such as Zadie Smith ("White Teeth") and Monica Ali ("Brick Lane"), are helping England deal with the new self it finds staring back from the mirror.
What ties many of Kureishi's ideas together is a theme at the heart of "Venus": scapegoating. In the movie, Jodi Whittaker plays a young blue-collar woman who comes to London to be a model and hooks up with O'Toole's character, who becomes her mentor.
It's a story that's been told many times, in many different ways, in class-conscious England. What hasn't changed, Kureishi says, is the tendency to keep stereotyping and mocking those perceived to be at the bottom of the social order, whether dark-skinned immigrants or the working-class white-girl character in "Venus."
"Being a 'Paki,' I've been scapegoated," he says. "I'm very interested in figures who carry the disgust of the society."
email@example.comCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times