Hanif Kureishi – Edinburgh Book Festival 2010

Hanif Kureishi - Simon & Schuster

Hanif Kureishi is often accused of being controversial. His writing explores sexuality, race, religion and politics. I went to his event at the Book Festival hoping for something juicy and I wasn’t disappointed. He read a short story from a forthcoming collection about a sick woman whose friends visit her bedside each night to tell her stories. In The Widow, a man recounts an affair he once had with an older woman. The story was funny, touching, and ripe with explicit oral sex. Not bad for an 11am reading.

Growing up, Kureishi’s father encouraged him to be a writer. “I come from a writing family. My uncles were writers too so it wasn’t such a weird thing in my family. My father wanted to be a writer but he never managed. He was a civil servant and very depressed.”

Luckily their different styles of writing meant that Kureishi’s father did not envy his son’s writing career. “He thought my stuff was a bit dirty, it wasn’t philosophical enough. I thought that was a good thing. I wouldn’t want him to be humiliated by my success. We established a rule that his writing was deep and meaningful and mine was trashy and everyone was happy.”

Kureishi’s father is not the only one to have had reservations about his son’s writing. Other family members have criticised him for exploiting their lives in his stories. He admits that family and friends have provided him with “more than enough material” to write about and justifies this, saying, “Looking at my family and seeing their relationship with the wider world seemed like a good way to write about race and contemporary Britain.”

He describes growing up in a London suburb where he encountered overt racism daily, people shouting ‘Paki’ at him on the street. “It was humiliating and wearing.” He found respite when he got a job at The Royal Court Theatre, eventually becoming writer in residence. “Getting to the theatre, where everyone was weird and odd and strange, was a huge relief. The Royal Court wanted material that was about the contemporary world. They were committed to making material about class and social change. I felt welcome there.”

In the course of his writing career, Kureishi has written scripts, short stories, novels and screenplays, switching between forms to balance earning a living with artistic freedom.  “I’ve got to write movies to buy time to write other things. If I do that film then I’ve got six months to write that story.”

As a creative writing teacher he tells students his students how hard it is to make a living as a writer. “Getting by financially is a difficult thing.” He ticks off the writers he admired when he was young: “Kafka, Beckett, Kerouac. None of them had three kids in private school. The artists I admired were just that, pure artists. I can’t really afford writer’s block. Once I had kids and got a bigger house, to hell with the block, I just had to get on with it. I’ve got lots of projects on the go. If I get stuck on something I move onto something else. My children want to be rock stars and I’m doing my best to stamp it out. I want them to be doctors or lawyers and earn a living.”

Although he has ample screenwriting experience, Kureishi says that he is not going to be involved when the BBC turn four of his short stories into half hour features to be broadcast next year. “I’m happy to give them my work to do what they want with it. If they do a good job or if they mess it up that’s fine. You have to allow other people the creative freedom you want for yourself.”

Kureishi is just as happy to take stories from other people as he is to give away his own. “You get a story in a sort of flash, usually when the person who you are about to rip off is telling the story to you,” he jokes.  The idea for A Terrible Story came from a tale his friend told him. “Half way through I thought, Oh God, I’m going to have to write this down.”

He says that when the inspiration for a short story hits, “you need to write it down quickly, like a sketch. Chances are if you work on it for a long time you’ll make it worse.” Although Kureishi claims he is “much too lazy” to research his stories, he has spent a lot of time in London mosques talking to young radical Muslims, which inspired both the short story My Son the Fanatic and also the novel The Black Album, now published together in a single volume. “Talking to these kids, your hair would stand on end. They hated their parents and they hated the West.” Kureishi believes it is important to deal with such sensitive issues in fiction. “I think art should be dangerous. It’s important that writers are asking difficult questions, that they interrogate people. Freedom to speak and to ask questions is crucial.”

With his own writing grappling with these dangerous topics, Kureishi likes to read an entirely different sort of fiction. “I don’t want to read anything miserable. I know how miserable the world is. I read P. G. Wodehouse.” He doesn’t read often, however, finding that the style of the book he is reading creeps into his writing. “You need a clear signal when you are writing, your own unconscious and voice. If you read someone else’s books it interferes with your signal.”


2 thoughts on “Hanif Kureishi – Edinburgh Book Festival 2010

  1. It was 1982 when he was writer in residence at the Royal Court. I guess I phrased it badly. But still cool that your favourite theatre is where Hanif Kureishi cut his playwriting teeth!

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