by Huma Munshi
Hanif Kureishi, like many of the male protagonists in his novels and screenplays, comes across as slightly nervous and awkward. He deploys a healthy dose of dry wit while reading from his new book, The Last Word, in the Purcell Room at the Southbank, London. His success in giving voice to the immigrant experience continues to make him an intriguing writer.
Kureishi is experiencing a revival of sorts with the release of the aforementioned book and the BBC showing a number of his older screenplays including My Beautiful Launderette and My Son the Fanatic. Whilst watching My Beautiful Launderette someone tweeted that the film “liberated Asian art in Britain”. It breaks down stereotypes of Asian people and provides a different narrative to that of the one depicted by Enoch Powell and his ilk in the infamous “rivers of blood” speech.
The issues raised in the film remain topical. It was only recently that members of the English Defence League marched through Tower Hamlets causing huge unease with the Muslim residents living in the area. Kureishi claimed at the Southbank discussion that he was perturbed at his own plot which sees the British Pakistani young man and the skin head kissing. I think the enmeshing of these two worlds, symbolised by the kiss, was there to make everyone, from the fascist right to the religious conservative, hugely uncomfortable. There is no place for sensitivities or censorship in Kureishi’s world.
Kureishi, of English and Pakistani parentage, gives voice to the story of those of us who have experienced Britain as our home while battling against people telling us we should “go back to where you came from”. Kureishi stated during the Q and A that he has been asked on numerous occasions: “do you feel like you belong in the UK”? and “are there too many immigrants”? His tart response was: only the French who have “overtaken Shepherds Bush” where he lives.
Kureishi indicates that all his characters, male and female, reflect some part of him. It made me wonder about the female characters Kureishi has written about. In Le Weekend, for which Kureishi wrote the screenplay, we witness the slow deterioration of a relationship between an older couple. In one scene the male protagonist, played by Jim Broadbent, who I’ve always assumed is modelled on Kureishi, crawls on his hands and knees to his wife wanting to “sniff” her as she holds up her dress. It is classic Kureishi: raw, painful and very disconcerting. After the Southbank Q and A, I wonder whether actually the character of the wife resembles Kureishi’s feelings of being trapped in a passionless relationship. He did leave his long-term partner and in the film you can sense her turmoil at wanting to leave but being bound by a sense of duty and affection towards her husband.
The one question I posed to Kureishi was whether he found the act of writing a cathartic experience given how personal his writing is. The question seemed to take him by surprise but he eventually answered that he thought the reader might find the act of reading stories which reflect common experiences cathartic.
I think Kureishi is correct in suggesting that seeing our experience reflected in art, be it on screen or in literature, helps the reader and audience understand our own concerns on identity, sex and relationships. It makes us feel less like we are living in a vacuum and helps us to explore these issues even if there are never any easy answers. It is for this reason that Kureishi continues to have a special place in the heart of British readers and particularly for those of us navigating the maze of identity and belonging.
Hanif Kureishi was at the Purcell Room on Wednesday 12 February.
She has written widely on honour based violence, mental health, film and intersectionality. Her weekly column will reflect her passion for activism, a feminism that reflects her own experiences as an Asian Muslim woman, film reviews and current affairs. Read more of her articles here
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- What’s the problem with Black Masculinities? (mediadiversified.org)
- Hanif Kureishi: What they don’t teach you at creative writing school (telegraph.co.uk)
- Hanif Kureishi’s archive acquired by British Library (theguardian.com)