Laid and laundered in the movies. outspoken Hanif Kureishi has taken a sabbatical from the cinema to launch his career as a novelist with the ribald romp. The Buddha ofSuburbia. Julie Morrice meets the man
who loves to shock.
He calls himself a hippy. but Hanif Kureishi has none of the intellectual floppiness that often goes with long hair and embroidered shirts. If he is a child of the 60s. he is one who has learned that to give peace a fighting chance you have to take on some of the attributes of the opposition. So he is tough and direct. as stubborn of jaw and piercing ofeye as any pin-striped yuppie.
He is thirty five and has been the apple of the public eye since 1985 when My Beautiful Laundrette flashed its seamy brilliance over the Edinburgh Film Festival and gave British film-making a kick up the arse. Before that he was a reasonably successful playwright. working with
Joint Stock and at the Royal Court. adapting Kafka for the radio and Brecht for the RSC. Since then he has written Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. journalism and short fiction and. now. his first novel.
The Buddha ofSuburbia has superficial similarities with Kureishi‘s films. particularly in its evocation of London as a violent fairground where laughs and love and degradation rub shiny shoulders. and in its underlying theme of the value ofexperience. no matter how painful.
What is different is the point of view. Gone is the ambivalent eye of the camera which can dwell lovingly on a cheekbone one minute and lingers while it‘s splintered by a steel toe-cap the next. ‘In the cinema you can give people a whacking.‘ says Kureishi. ‘When you‘re writing a book it‘s much more of a seduction. You have to draw people into the story and make them pick it up again and again.‘
The seducer in this case is Karim. narrator and protagonist. and in the throes of an utterly sensual adolescence. Dressed with psychedelic swagger. ears bathed in
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Dylan and Floyd. he plunges into keenly-anticipated hedonism in the London ofthe Seventies. lapping up emotional and physical thrills wherever he finds them. "Those things do happen to you when you‘re young; before you‘ve worked out what you‘re really like.‘ says Kureishi. ‘I think I was rather like that. Always up for anything.‘
In The Buddha ofSuburbia it is up to the reader to be outraged on the central character‘s behalf. Under the verbal assaults of a girlfriend‘s father — ‘However many niggers there are. we don‘t like it. We‘re with Enoch.‘ — and the subtler racism of the London theatre set — ‘We need someone from your own background. Someone black.‘ — Karim seems practically unaware of the wider significance of his own experience. "I‘he world is an amusing place.‘ says Kureishi. ‘Especially when you‘re young. and the things that happen to you are more incomprehensible to you. You don‘t see what a great injustice is being done.‘
Age and experience bring a tightening-up ofattitudes. a stronger instinct for self-preservation. but in the older. wiser Kureishi there
remains an openness. a belief in the necessity ofconfronting the actual. In fiction. his concern is to write about real lives. In the battle between black and white. his sworn enemy is the stereotype.
‘The everyday concerns of people are really to do with their work — have you got a job or not. what sort ofwork you do. And there are very few good books which are actually concerned with that. Most writers don‘t know that world because their work is something they do on their own. It‘s like when Paul Mc(‘artney says. I‘m just an ordinary person. And you think. You might think that mate. but my brother-in-law doesn‘t have a job. You don‘t know what that‘s like.‘
The insularity of British writing is. thinks Kureishi. a great failing. He welcomes Tom Wolfe‘s assertion that writing should have a journalistic component. ‘You don‘t just sit at home and write about your mistress. You get out and about and write about the active world. There comes a point in your life where you‘ve used up your experience. your terrible childhood or whatever. and you‘ve got to get out and spend some time with the police. or investigating the law. money. finance. Even then you might bean observer rather than someone who actually lives that life.‘
The life that Kureishi has actually lived. and which he draws upon freely in his fiction. is one that perhaps explains his aversion to the easy answer and the superficial reaction. Like his novel‘s hero he is the son ofa Pakistani father and a white mother. He was brought up in Kent. His father‘s first language is English. He is ‘an Englishman born and bred. almost.‘
Kureishi‘s early plays were concerned with white working-class experience. and he was. at first. wary of writing about Asians just for the sake ofit. ‘When they said write from your own experience. they meant the experience of being Asian in Britain. which is something I resisted fora long time. It seemed as natural to me to write about one as the other. It wasonly lateron that I thought. Well I really am interested
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The List 20 April — 3 May 199077