No Fear He May Offend : Literary bad boy Hanif Kureishi knows that the racial and sexual themes in his works will scandalize many. But those elements, he says, reflect the realities of a diverse, changing world.
It’s hard to believe that the slight, soft-spoken guy in jeans and long dark curls is the angry young man lionized as a literary terrorist by the British press. Sure, Hanif Kureishi’s “My Beautiful Laundrette,” a razor-edged take on race, class and sexuality in London, was as scrappy as it was fresh. Even in the States, Muslim pickets hounded the New York showing of “Laundrette,” accusing the half-Pakistani screenwriter and author of betraying his own kind.
Kureishi made tart headlines yet again with the raw, nose-thumbing title of his second satirical film, 1987’s “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.” Not only did it make the Motion Picture Assn. of America testy, but it inspired some of the country’s established newspapers to remove any hint of salaciousness from their ads, opting for the positively dignified “Sammy and Rosie.”
Still, if Kureishi is an agent provocateur of letters, then they make terrorists a little gentler in England. Here, the English subversive comes off as virtually restrained. Kureishi is now negotiating on the phone with room service at the Chateau Marmont, which he is passing through to promote his acclaimed first novel, “The Buddha of Suburbia.” His voice is barely more than whisper-soft. He is trying to cross the vast cultural divide between England and California, so that he can achieve the greater good of eating lunch. This means he must get room service to understand that herbal tea simply will not do for an Englishman.
“I want Earl Grey,” he murmurs. “Earl Grey.” Pause. “You don’t have ordinary tea?”
Some extraordinary beverage arrives, along with spare slices of Brie, Cheddar and tomato, which he nibbles idly with a knife. He seems like a character from his rollicking novel in that his identity is very much in the eye of the beholder. In “Buddha,” one man’s guru--namely, the title character, who offers suburbanites pithy nuggets of Eastern wisdom--is another man’s adulterous, lowly clerk.
Kureishi’s own identity seems equally elusive. If, for example, his fondness for explicitly rendering bisexual experimenting in his book and films has ruffled the British press, which insists on tarring him as provocative, then Kureishi offers a considered, level-headed explanation for all those scenes of sexual profligacy.
“If that shocks you, then it shocks you,” says Kureishi, 35, who has made no secret of his own bisexuality. “I try to reflect the world as I see it. The world contains lesbian people, black people, gay people and straight people and they do all kinds of dirty stuff together that sometimes you put in a movie.”
Perhaps even trickier, but central to Kureishi’s work, is the question of cultural identity.
“My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost,” his novel begins, marking the half-Indian protagonist’s treacherous, eccentric journey from the lackluster suburbs to the sophisticated city. Time is marked as bell bottoms give way to the dissonance of punk culture. “The Buddha,” like Kureishi’s films, is heavily autobiographical, which has sometimes nettled the author’s family. Kureishi’s father inspired the adulterous Buddha character but only because his suburban neighbors were known to seek out his counsel.
“Everyone’s writing is drawn on their personal experience in some ways, although most of the incidents that happen in ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ didn’t happen to me directly. My dad is really nervous in case the neighbors think he was (expletive) away in Beckenham having a really good time and stuff, when in fact he was at home watching ‘I Love Lucy’ like everybody else.”
Kureishi was born to a Pakistani father and English mother. His father came from a well-to-do Bombay family that later moved to Muslim Pakistan. The family sent its sons abroad for their education. (Kureishi traces his friendship with embattled author Salman Rushdie to their families’ alliance in Bombay.)
Kureishi’s father went to England in the late ‘40s to study law at London University. The law held no great fascination for him, but Kureishi’s mother, a young lower-middle-class suburban woman, did. Kureishi’s father was considered quite an exotic catch in those days, before mass immigration from the former colonies triggered waves of racist violence.
The couple settled in suburban Bromley, a mere 10 miles from London, but culturally much more distant. “We always considered the river to be the crucial divide,” Kureishi says. “We always used to talk about going to London.”
By the mid-'60s, when Kureishi was attending his local boys’ school, racial tensions had erupted in England. For the rebellious Kureishi, education sometimes came in unpleasant packages.
“You were always getting kicked around, but then you were getting kicked around anyway,” he says. “People would abuse you and say, '(Expletive) off Paki.’
“There was one teacher who only referred to me as Pakistani Pete. So I used to call him by his nickname, which was ‘Jock’ because he was Scottish. That’s like saying someone’s a Limey, I suppose. It’s not terrible. He went mad. He had me slippered--they beat you with a tennis shoe. Stuff like that was pretty disturbing.”
Kureishi’s youth also included troubling brushes with racist parents of his English girlfriends, whom he lampoons in “Buddha.” Karim is barred from a girlfriend’s home by her beefy English dad, who is immortalized with the sobriquet Hairy Back. Beating a retreat, Karim has an unfortunate encounter with a lusty dog--which may or may not have been drawn from real life.
“I’m not saying,” Kureishi says with a mysterious smile.
As a youth, Kureishi channeled his fury into his writing. From the age of 14, he led an untypically disciplined life, napping on his return from school, then writing fiction after tea, at 7ish, until bedtime at 10. At that tender age, Kureishi knew no shame, seeking and obtaining audiences with patronizing publishers who were surprised to find a schoolboy in uniform on the other side of Kureishi’s promising manuscripts. He wrote three novels in his teens.
“I knew it was the only way out,” Kureishi says. “If I didn’t become a writer, I would have stayed in the suburbs like my friends. They worked in insurance, customs and excise, banks. They were managers of shops. Boring stuff, really. Some of the others became rock ‘n’ roll stars, which was the other thing we were interested in.”
In the book, Karim’s growing maturity is measured partly by his relationship with his stepbrother, punk rocker Charlie Hero (modeled after Kureishi’s schoolmate Billy Idol). As time wears on, Karim, once infatuated with Charlie’s fame and thorny style, becomes disaffected with the shallowness of the rocker’s hedonistic existence.
In reality, rock ‘n’ roll had a more positive influence on Kureishi’s development. In the English suburbs, it was the rockers who broke out and made their impressive way in the world.
“The Beatles, Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, they were all suburban boys. They were not hard city kids. They were lower-middle-class like me. They sat in their bedroom like me listening to Chuck Berry records and Elvis records.
“They were examples for our generation--not to say we were talented like them. But Jagger came from Dartford, which was near me, and David Bowie went to the same school I went to. They weren’t literary models, but they were boys like us who got out of the suburbs, made money and practiced their art as they wished.” Kureishi wasn’t a chain-sporting rocker himself, preferring to run with the hippie crowd in those days of ‘60s choices, which also included swats--eggheads--and skinheads. Kureishi sometimes found himself in the curious position of having friends who turned into skinheads, whose favorite pastimes included “Paki-bashing.”
“I was very disturbed by it,” Kureishi says. “When you’re young and you’re in a male school and it’s a very macho place, there really isn’t a vocabulary for discussing these things. You can’t--these guys were walking around with knives.”
Kureishi later did manage to put words to those experiences. The ambiguity in his friendships with skinheads is played out in “Laundrette,” whose Pakistani protagonist finds comfort in a sexual relationship with Daniel Day-Lewis’s skinhead character.
By the time Kureishi began attending King’s College in London, he’d turned from solitary novel-writing to the more glamorous alternative theater. “It was young people, radical. It was live entertainment. You met actresses. You got out and about. The novel was associated in my mind with stuffy people in Bloomsbury. The theater was Sam Shepard and Peter Brook and all that stuff. More like rock ‘n’ roll. More active.”
Kureishi got a job as an usher at The Royal Court, London’s main radical theater in the mid ‘70s, and began writing plays about “the same stuff that ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ is about--young people, music, drugs, sexual experimenting, being in the suburbs, except all the characters were white. It never occurred to me to write about Asian people, really. I’d done it once or twice but I never thought that this was a subject. There were no half-Indian boys in literature.”
Kureishi’s plays were staged by The Royal Court, among other fringe theaters. “The King and Me,” a well-received short play about a man obsessed with Elvis, prompted an English professor friend to make a career-swerving suggestion: “ ‘Why don’t you write about your own background, being Asian in Britain? This material is so rich. No one’s really written about it.’ ”
Kureishi began peopling his plays with Asians and fascists, among others, finding a voice in the Royal Shakespeare Company--and trouble with some colleagues in the theater, who attacked him for his complicated portrayals of Asians. The novel’s Karim, too, provokes his colleagues in the theater when he portrays Asian characters as sometimes irrational and foolish. Both take place in the politically sensitive ‘70s.
“We argued a lot about how women were presented because of the media being what it is--full of stereotypes,” Kureishi says. “People were always saying, ‘Well, the dominant culture has these stereotypes of Asian people. We mustn’t reinforce them. We must show them as being good and loyal, primarily as nice people. We mustn’t show them as tricky, because people already think of Asian people as tricky.’
“It’s very hard if you’re a writer to write a play about nice people shaking hands all the time. So I never took any notice of it and I never have. I’m not doing PR. Does Shakespeare present Hamlet as a nice Danish prince? A writer’s job, if we have any job in society, is to tell the truth as we see it, to write about the world as we observe it, and the world is a strange place and people are divided, unusual, wicked and good.”
In those lean years, Kureishi padded his purse by writing magazine pornography under various pen names, among them Antonia French. “I destroyed all that stuff. I should have kept it. It’s a terrible form, though, pornography. It’s so limited. There’s no black people. There’s no old people. You know what you have to do and you do it.” Kureishi was rescued from obscurity by Independent Television’s Channel 4, which commissioned him in 1984 to write a teleplay. That teleplay was “Laundrette.”
“We ran it at the Edinburgh Festival, Daniel Day-Lewis, (director) Stephen (Frears), (producer) Tim Bevan and I. Dan and I were talking about it the other day, and we said, ‘That’s the day our lives changed.’ ”
The 1985 film, about cultural collisions encountered by a gay couple who operate a Laundromat, was the darling of the critics. Orion picked it up for theatrical distribution in the United States, where its quirkiness and fearless take on homosexuality won it a devoted following. “The ‘Laundrette’ got a really big gay audience,” Kureishi says. “It was one of the first films to lock into that audience, I think. I don’t think people realized that there were these huge communities all over the world that never got any movies made for or about them.”
Although Kureishi has snippily likened the usual anonymity of screenwriters to that of medieval architects, the press often gave him equal billing with Frears because of the film’s unusual and personal subject matter.
But even if Kureishi achieved some measure of fame with “Laundrette,” remuneration was somewhat more elusive. The screenwriter saw little of the $10 million made by the $1-million film--just enough, though, to buy two years of freedom that enabled him to return to novel writing--in some ways, Kureishi’s form of choice. “A movie is 90 minutes, two hours, and you’ve got to get in and out pretty quick. You’ve got much more space in a novel. It’s a limitless form. You can go off here. You can go off there. You can go around the corner. You can go back to the past. You can have much more fun in that way. And you don’t have to hand it over to anybody else, to act as a director. It’s published as you wrote it. Wonderful.”
These days, Kureishi lives with his girlfriend, Tracey Scoffield, who works in publishing. They live in west London, in a “sort of bedsitter land,” a modest neighborhood with small flats for transients, students and immigrants. Kureishi is taking his first turn at bat as a director, which makes him nervous, even though he wrote the screenplay. Its working title is “London Kills Me,” and it’s about “three kids involved with drugs in London, squatters and homeless and round and about.”
Kureishi says that city will always loom large in his writing, because while his work attempts to grasp the slippery issue of cultural identity, Kureishi’s own identity is unswerving. “You always know who you are until people ask you about it, really, don’t you? Like (English author/director) Jonathan Miller said, he didn’t realize he was Jewish until somebody said, ‘What’s it like being Jewish?’ It’s rather like that. I always felt I was an English boy until people said to me, ‘Do you really belong here?’ Or, ‘Do you feel at home in England?’ people would say, when I was 15, 16, which rather disturbed me because I never thought about it any more than anyone else.
“So your identity doesn’t get shaken until other people doubt it. One’s identity has to be some sort of alliance between the way you see yourself and the way other people in the world see you. I’m an English writer, a British writer, let’s say with an Indian background. And there’s going to be more and more of that in England.”