Hanif Kureishi: Something Given - Reflections on Writing
"Now, whether it were by peculiar grace. A leading from above, a something given..."
- Wordsworth. Resolution and Independence.
My father wanted to be a writer. I can't remember a time when he didn't want this. There were few mornings when he didn't go to his desk early, at about six o'clock in one of his-many suits and coloured shirts, the cuffs pinned by bejewelled links, before he left for work carrying his briefcase, longside the other commuters. Writing was; I suppose, an obsession, and as with most obsessions, fulfillment remained out of reach. The obsession kept him incomplete but it kept him going. He had a dull, enervating civil service job, and writing provided him with something to look forward to. It gave him meaning and 'direction,' as he liked to put it. It gave him direction home too, since he wrote often about India, the country he left in his early '20s and to which he never returned.
Many of my dad's friends considered his writing to be a risible pretension, though he had published two books for young people, on the history and geography of Pakistan. But even for my father, who loved seeing his name in print - I remember him labouring over the figures for average rainfalls, and on the textile industry - this was not authentic writing. He wanted to be a novelist.
He did write novels, one after another, on the desk he had had a neighbour build for him in the corner of the bedroom he shared with my mother. He wrote them, and he rewrote them, and he rewrote them. Then he typed them out, making copies with several sheets of carbon paper. Sometimes, when his back hurt, he sat on the floor and wrote, with his spine pressed against the wardrobe. But whatever his posture, every workday morning I would hear his alarm, and soon after he would be hammering at his big typewriter. The sound pounded into us like artillery fire, rocking the house. He wrote at the weekends too, on Sunday afternoons. He would have liked to write in the evenings but by nine o'clock he'd be asleep on the sofa. My mother would wake him, and he'd shuffle off to bed.
In one sense his persistence paid off. By the time he was sixty he must have completed five or six novels, several short stories, and a few radio plays. For many writers this would be considered a life-time's work. Often he became dejected - when he couldn't make a story live; or when he could, but had to break off and leave for the office; or when he was too tired to write; and in particular when his books were turned down by publishers, as all of them were, none of them ever reaching the public. His despair was awful; We all despaired along with him. But any encouragement from a publisher - even a standard letter expressing interest - renewed his vigour. Whether this was folly or dedication depends on your point of view. In the end all he wanted was for someone to say: "this is brilliant, it moved me. You are a wonderful writer," He wanted to be respected as he respected certain writers.
Once, in Paris, where I was staying, I went to a restaurant with one of' my father's elder brothers. He was one of my favourite uncles, famous for his carousing but also for his violent temper. After a few drinks I admitted to him that I'd come to Paris to write, to learn to be a writer. He subjected me to a tirade of abuse, Who do you think you are, he said, Balzac? You're a fool, he went on, and your father's a fool too, to encourage you in this. It is pretentious, idiotic Fortunately, I was too young to be discouraged; I knew how to keep my illusions going. But I was shocked by what my father had had to endure from his family. You couldn't get above your station; you couldn't dream too wildly.
Perhaps my uncles and father's acquaintances found his passion eccentric because Asian people in Britain hadn't uprooted themselves to pursue the notoriously badly paid and indulgent profession of 'artist'. They had come to Britain to make lives for themselves that were impossible at home. At that time, in the mid-'60s, the images of India that we saw on television were of poverty, starvation, and illness. In contrast, in the south of Britain people who bad survived the war and the miserable 1950s, were busily acquiring fridges, cars, televisions, washing machines
For immigrants and their families, disorder and strangeness is the condition of their existence. They want a new life and the material advancement that goes with it. But having been ripped from one world and flung into another, what they also require, to keep everything together, is tradition, habitual ideas, stasis. Life in the country you have left may move on, but life in the diaspora is often held in a strange suspension, as if the act of moving has provided too much disturbance as it is.
Culture and art was for other people, usually wealthy, self-sufficient people who were safe and established. It was naive to think you could be a writer; or it was a kind of showing-off. Few of father's friends read; not all of them were literate. Many of them were recent arrivals, and they worked with him in the Pakistan Embassy. In the evening they worked in shops, or as waiters, or in petrol stations. They were sending money to their families. Father would tell me stories of omnivorous aunts and brothers and parents who thought their fortunate benefactor was living in plenty. They knew nothing of the cold and rain and abuse and homesickness. Sometimes they had clubbed together to send their relative to England who would then be obliged to remit money. One day the family would come over to join him. Until this happened the immigrant would try to buy a house; then another. Or a shop, or a factory.
For others, whose families were in Britain, the education of' their children was crucial. And this, along with money, was the indicator par excellence of their progress in the new country. And so, bafflingly to me, they would interminably discuss their cars.
Even we had to get a car. Most of the time it sat rusting outside the house, and my sister and I would play in it, since it took Father six attempts to get through the Driving Test. He became convinced that he was failed because of racial prejudice. Eventually he complained to the Race Relations Board, and next time he passed. Not long after he crashed the car with all of us in it.
Writing was the only thing Father wanted to be interested in, or good at, though he could do other things: cook, be an attentive and entertaining friend, play sports. He liked being a father. His own father, a doctor, had had twelve children, of which ten were sons. My father had never received the attention he required. He felt his life had lost 'direction' due to lack of guidance. He knew, therefore, what a father should be. It wasn't a question for him. He and I would play cricket for hours in the garden and park; we went to the cinema - mostly to watch war films like "Where Eagles Dare; we watched sport on television, and we talked.
Father went to the library every Saturday morning, usually with me in tow. He planted notebooks around the house in the toilet, beside his bed, in the front room beside his television chair in order to write wherever he was. These notebooks he made himself from a square of cardboard and a bulldog clip, attaching to them various odd-shaped sheets of paper -- the backs of flyers which came through the letter-box, letters from the bank, paper he took from work, envelopes. He made little notes exhorting himself onwards: "the whole secret of success is; the way to go is; one must begin by ...; this is how to live, to think, to write ...' He would clench his fist and slam it into the palm of his other hand, saying, "one must fight."
Father was seriously ill during much of my youth, with a number of painful and depressing ailments. But even in hospital he would have a notebook at hand. When dying he talked of his latest book with his usual, touching but often infuriating grandiosity. "In my latest novel I am showing how a man feels when..."
My mother, quite sensibly, wondered whether he might not be better off doing something less frustrating than shutting himself away for most of his spare time. Life was slipping away; he wasn't getting anywhere. Did he have to prefer failure as a writer to success at anything else? Perhaps she and he could do things together. Nothing changed, that was the problem. The continuous disappointment that accompanied this private work was hard for everyone to bear, and it was the atmosphere in which we lived, Sometimes Mother suggested the illnesses were precipitated by his hopeless desire for the unattainable. But this was not something Father liked to hear.
He was convinced that she didn't understand what such a passion entailed. The fact was, she did. Yet he wanted to get to people. He had something to say and wanted response. He required attention, The publishers who rejected his work were standing between him and the audience he was convinced was waiting.
Father was good company funny, talkative, curious, nosy and gossipy. He was always on the look-out for stories. We would work out the plots together. Recently I found one of his stories, which concerns the Indian servant of an English couple living in Madras before the Second World War. The story soon makes it clear that the servant is having an affair with his Mistress. Towards the end we learn that he is also having an affair with the Master. If I was surprised by this fertile story of bisexuality, I always knew he had an instinct for ironies, links, parallels, twists.
He liked other people and would talk with the neighbours as they dug their gardens and washed their cars, and while they stood together on the station in the morning. He would give them nicknames and speculate about their lives until I couldn't tell the difference between what he'd heard and what he'd imagined he'd heard. "Suppose, one day," he'd say. "that man over there decided to..." And off he would go. As Maupassant wrote, "You can never feel comfortable with a novelist, never be sure that he will not put you into bed one day, quite naked, between the pages of a book?
It amused Father , and amazed me - it seemed like a kind of magic - to see how experience could be converted into stories, and how the monotony and dullness of an ordinary day could contain meaning, symbolism and even beauty. The invention and telling of stories - that most indispensable human transaction - brought us together. There was amusement, contact, entertainment. Whether this act of conversion engaged father more closely with life, or whether it provided a necessary distance, or both, I don't know. Nevertheless, father understood that in the suburbs, where concealment is often the only art, but where there is so much aspiration, dreaming and disappointment, as John Cheever illustrated - there is a lot for a writer.
Perhaps after a certain age Father couldn't progress. Yet he remained faithful to this idea of writing. It was his religion, his reason for living, the God he couldn't betray and the God who wouldn't let him down. Father's art involved a long fidelity and a great commitment. Like many lives in the suburbs, it was also a long deferral. One day in the future when his work was published and he was recognised as a writer - good things would happen to him and everything would change. But for the time being everything remained the same. He was fixed, and, from a certain point of view, stuck.
Writers are often asked - and they certainly ask themselves - what they would do if they were not published. I suspect that most writers would like to think that they would continue as they do already, writing to the best of their ability without thought of an audience. Yet even if this is true that most of the satisfactions are private you might still need to feel that someone is responding, even if you have no idea who they are. Until you are published it might be difficult to move on; you could easily feel that nothing had been achieved, and that by failing to reach another person - the reader - the circle had not been completed, the letter posted but not received. Perhaps without such completion a writer is destined to repeat himself, as people do when having conversations with themselves, conversations never heard by anyone.
Yet father would not stop writing. It was crucial to him that these stories be told. Like Scherazade, he was writing for his life.
Where do stories come from? What is there to write about? Where do you get material? How do you start? And: why are writers asked these question so often?
It isn't as if you can go shopping for experience. Or is it? Such an idea suggests that experience is somehow outside yourself', and must be gathered. But in fact, it is a question of seeing what is there. Experience is what has already happened. Experience, like love and hate, starts at home: in the bedroom, in the kitchen. It happens the moment people are together, or apart, when they want one another and when they realise they don't like their lover's ears. ...