Monday, 27 January 2014

Hanif Kureishi interview: 'Every 10 years you become someone else'

The first time I met Hanif Kureishi it was the mid-80s, and we talked about writing fiction for Faber and Faber whose list I was directing. Kureishi came into my office like a rock star and I remember thinking that he did not seem in need of a career move. He was already riding high on the international success of his screenplay, My Beautiful Laundrette.

In fact, Kureishi was cannily pondering his next step. He was on the lookout for a means of self-expression that might sustain a way of life and over which he could have some control. Movies, he said, were chancy, a gold-rush business. There was money in novels and a mood of great expectations as a new generation of writers, especially from the Commonwealth, came through. I had just published Caryl Phillips's first novel, The Final Passage, and Kureishi expressed a quite competitive desire to outdo his Caribbean rival. Four years later, he completed The Buddha of Suburbia in which, as a sly nod to my role in its gestation, I got a walk-on part – as a policeman.

Today, with Kureishi's latest novel, The Last Word, due for publication, it's a good moment to review his record. To the New York Times, he's "a kind of post-colonial Philip Roth"; for the Times, he is one of "50 greatest British writers since 1945". Approaching 60, he has reached the age of honours: a CBE in 2008, plus a characteristic barb ("If it's good enough for Kylie Minogue, it's good enough for Hanif Kureishi"); the PEN/Pinter award in 2010. Like Pinter, he has just sold his manuscripts to the British Library.

Unlike some, he hasn't left for America and still lives in Shepherd's Bush, west London, where he continues to write fiction and screenplays. Le Week-End, directed by Roger Michell, starring Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent, was an acclaimed cinema release in the autumn of 2013. The Last Word comes out on Tuesday. Not many contemporary writers pull off that double, especially after 30 years. But that's the thing about Kureishi: he has always performed in many dimensions (short stories, essays, screenplays), projecting a mischievous air of jeopardy and transgression.

When I visited him at home in west London just before Christmas we began to explore his overlapping lives. From a career of thinking and talking about himself, the public Kureishi has morphed into someone he can happily discuss as a kind of alter ego. In the past, he has said that he gives "at least one interview a week. Over a period of time you work up an account of yourself and one day you find you even believe it. Finally, it has become the story of your life." Exactly so.

You might say that he's been playing a double game since the day he was born in Bromley to an English mother and a Pakistani father on 5 December 1954. As a "child of empire", the young Kureishi grew up in two worlds, western and eastern. Originally from India and later Pakistan, his father's family are what he calls "upper-middle-class". He continues: "My grandfather, an army doctor, was a colonel in the Indian army. Big family. Servants. Tennis court. Cricket. Everything. My father went to the Cathedral school that Salman Rushdie went to. Later, in Pakistan, my family were close to the Bhuttos. My uncle Omar was a newspaper columnist and the manager of the Pakistan cricket team."

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