Hanif Kureishi on Infidelity, Mortality, and Europe’s New Racism
In Conversation with the Author of The Nothing
In 1985, Hanif Kureishi wrote the screenplay for the British comedy My Beautiful Laundrette, where a young gay Anglo-Pakistani man pursues the dream of opening a laundromat with his lover, a young white street tough with two-tone hair. The movie featured Pakistani gangsters and Thatcherite slumlords, lost college students and white supremacists from the National Front.
The film was a runaway art-house hit in Britain and the United States, making a star out of Daniel Day-Lewis and earning Kureishi both an Oscar nomination and the ire of England’s Pakistani community. In America, it blew apart the lily-white images of the Britain of Masterpiece Theatre, showing a new multiracial, multicultural England of South Asian immigrants and their conflicted children.
In 1987, Kureishi wrote Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, framing multicultural sex against the backdrop of police violence and London riots.
Three years later, in 1990, Kureishi published his first novel The Buddha of Suburbia, mining his own autobiography about a suburban Pakistani boy moving to 1960s London, pursuing sex and drugs. Kureishi has since published seven more novels, two story collections, and screenplays like My Son the Fanatic and Le Week-End. In 2008, the Times of London put Kureishi on their list of 50 Best British Novelists since 1945.
In Kureishi’s eighth novel, The Nothing, the title character Waldo is a once-acclaimed movie director in his eighties, now in the last months of his life. One night, in the bedroom next to his, the paralyzed auteur hears his beautiful, much younger wife Zee having sex with Eddie, a film critic and possible grifter. A psychological battle of wills begins, with Waldo trying to push Eddie out, possibly to salvage the remains of his own life.
The new novel, said Kureishi, started with a con man and a devastating scam. “I’d been the victim a few years ago of a con who stole a lot of money from me and a lot of other people,” he said. “He went to jail for it.”
“At the same time, I wasn’t doing much, so with my girlfriend, I was watching a lot of these old American film noirs with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis,” said the 63-year-old writer during a telephone interview from his home in London. “I was also reading thrillers, specifically Georges Simenon and his Maigret novels. I wanted to write a novel that was partially a noir thriller.”
One day, the voice of Waldo came to him. “I’d have this guy’s voice, Waldo’s voice, come into my head,” said Kureishi. “He was a man who lived through the 60s and 70s, and is now in a washed-up old age, who expects to sink into an easy, satisfying death. Just as he is about to die, he finds out that his wife is having an affair with a con man, a scoundrel. ‘I’m an ill man lying in a room,’ he said. ‘I hear my wife and my friend making love.’”
Waldo has been confined to a wheelchair for the last seven years, and the former sexual demon, a self-proclaimed “wheelchair with a penis,” is also impotent. “The idea of telling the novel from the point of view of a barely cognizant man was also amusing,” said Kureishi. “Waldo was a Beckett-like character, who can’t see or hear very well.”
Mortality also weaved its way into the story. “One of the things I had been thinking about was in regard to my mother and her decline,” said Kureishi. “Why are older people often so angry? However much you accumulate in life, the end of your life is about loss. Your friends are going to die, your children grow up, your position in the world, your vocation will probably be gone. You’ll lose your status and people’s respect for you will be gone. Death doesn’t always have to be a miserable experience, but there is going to be a lot of loss.”
“In Europe, people are living longer,” said Kureishi. “This is the generation of the 1960s, the kids who made the counterculture, who are now in their seventies. This was the generation of sexual liberation, sexual tolerance and new forms of sexual relationships. I wanted to reflect on that. I was born in the 1950s and went through a lot of sexual changes. This really interested me.”
Zee moves Eddie into Waldo’s loft and Eddie takes over Waldo’s office. They make love openly and flirt in front of him. “I thought, what a torture this would be for Waldo,” said Kureishi. “Is it possible that he is paranoid? What can he hear, what does he know? Waldo’s been pushed in to a corner. Sometimes as a writer, I feel that way, too. I am in my house now. I sit at my windows with my binoculars and I watch the world. I feel that I am more and more confined to a corner.”
“I just came out of hospital a few days ago myself,” said Kureishi. “I’m really aware of how difficult it is as you get older to find pleasures when you are on the cusp of losing so much.”
Waldo kicks into offensive mode. He digs up dirt on Eddie, finding out about his history of exploiting women for money. He tries to buy Eddie off, but nothing works.
“Waldo tries to get Eddie out of the picture,” said Kureishi. “He tries to send him away, he tells her that Eddie is a rotten guy, a scoundrel, a blackmailer, but it doesn’t seem to work. That is terrible for Waldo. It’s not just that she’s with another guy, but she’s passionate about him. Whatever Waldo tells her, that Eddie’s bad or corrupt, she doesn’t seem to mind at all.”
“What is most devastating to Waldo is the loss of being recognized,” said Kureishi. “When you are a child, there is a sense of certainty with your parents, that you are irreplaceable. Suddenly, there is the anonymity he feels because his wife is so passionately in love with somebody else. That she adores Eddie is an insult to his place in the world and to his genuine sense of himself as a man.”
After Kureishi was scammed by his accountant out of his savings, he turned to his craft. “I was in despair about losing my money and humiliated,” he said. “I thought, ‘I could write about this.’ I wrote a long essay called ‘My Con Man.’ I didn’t get my money back, but it liberated me. I could write about this and integrate it into my work.”
Eddie the grifter is a high-born Londoner who ekes out a meager living on the periphery of the London cultural scene. He is the kind of man who puts himself on wealthier people’s drink tabs at parties.
“There are people like Eddie in London,” said Kureishi, “You see them at all the openings, from screenings to cocktail parties and readings. There is free wine. You wonder what they do for a living? How do they exist, how do they get by? You realize for them, it is a real hustle. I am rather sympathetic to Eddie. He’s not a successful novelist or filmmaker. He exists in the world of culture and somehow has to make a living. He’s not a fool, but his life is hard. You could see why he would need money.”
In writing about Eddie, Kureishi was drawn back to the film noir style. “What I enjoy about film noir is that the characters are black in their souls,” he said. “They also have charm or are sexy and complex in different ways. It is quite relevant in the world today, considering our fascination with the accumulation of money. You can see it in TV shows like Breaking Bad. He’s a decent guy who needs to raise money for his cancer treatment, then he becomes a crook and a gangster, which blackens his soul.”
When given a pillow by Zee and sent to smother Waldo in his own bed, Eddie is unable to do it. “Eddie isn’t really evil,” said Kureishi. “I thought of him as being innocent and more naïve.”
Kureishi then added the gangster Gabbo to the mix, the owner of several bars who is not above breaking some legs. Years ago, Gabbo helped Eddie blackmail a prep school teacher who molested Eddie, driving the older man to suicide. They are bonded by the teacher’s death.
“I wanted a really nasty guy behind Eddie and all this,” he said. “There are guys I know in London who are charming and feckless. I thought, why don’t I make the guy behind Eddie more and more nasty? The only way Gabboo knows how to help Eddie is to make him more and more criminal. That entertained me to no end.
“What I like about the noir world is that they are all con men, but none of them are very successful. They are all a bit down at the heels. The scams never quite work. In the noir world, these are not rich criminals. They are quite shabby.”
Kureishi was born in the London suburb of Bromley in 1954, to a British mother and an Indian father who immigrated to Britain to study law. But finances forced the elder Kureishi—a failed novelist who wrote at the kitchen table—to work as a clerk at the Pakistani embassy.
As a teenager, Kureishi veered from the predetermined path—he was meant to be an insurance clerk—and discovered bohemian London. As Kureishi told a Pakistani paper in 2012, “I was friends with Indian boys who’d wear velvet trousers and do LSD.” He eventually moved to the city in search of sex and drugs, writing erotica under multiple pseudonyms, before moving on to the plays that would be produced at the Royal Court Theatre in his mid twenties.
“I grew up in the suburbs and I was like all those kids in the suburbs, except my father was an immigrant from India,” said Kureishi. “Eventually my family in India moved to Pakistan.”
“It was the 1960s and many people from the lower-middle classes were going into rock-and-roll, photography and fashion. That wasn’t for me, but because I was interested in The Beatles, I thought it was possible for a lower-middle-class boy, who hadn’t been to a posh school and who hadn’t been to university, to be an artist. We had a much greater sense of social mobility then than we do now in the UK.”
“Some of these kids are becoming bass players in rock bands,” said Kureishi. “I thought I could become a writer. I became aware mostly by reading American writers like James Baldwin and Richard Wright; this topic of race had never been written about in Britain. Nobody wrote about black characters. Most British writing was about the Empire. It was not written from the standpoint of the black characters. It was written from the view of the white characters. I thought to myself, let’s start telling these stories.”
In 1985, at the age of 31, producers at BBC’s Channel 4 asked Kureishi to write a screenplay. The result was My Beautiful Laundrette, directed by Stephen Frears. The movie had a remarkable impact on his career.
“It changed my life,” said Kureishi. “I went with my sons to see Daniel Day-Lewis’s new movie The Phantom Thread a few weeks ago. At lunch the next day, my sons asked me, what was the high point of my writing life? I remembered being at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August 1985, as Daniel Day-Lewis and I walked through the crowd. The crowd parted for us. They looked at Daniel and how beautiful he was, like a God. He was like a young Marlon Brando. That’s when I realized that I could make a living as a writer. Also, it was the first time that you were aware that immigrants could be the subject of fiction.”
In preparing for this interview, I found a dog-eared Granta from 1987 on my shelf that included Kureishi’s published film diary of the period of his Oscar nomination and the filming of his second screenplay, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. The personal attacks on Kureishi were as vicious as they were comic. An aunt from the north of England called his father and said, “Can’t you control the little bastard? Humiliating us in public! Suppose people find that I am related to him?” His ex-girlfriend Sarah, who Kureishi took life material from, called the new film, “Hanif Gets Paid, Sarah Gets Exploited.”
“You’d be amazed that people of color never turned up in the cinema or on television at all before My Beautiful Laundrette,” said Kureishi. I was shocked at how absent we were on the screen.”
When Laundrette premiered in New York in March 1986, demonstrators from the local Pakistan Action Committee called the movie “the product of a vile and perverted mind.” “When you start to write about a minority community, it gets really tricky, because they want you to be their PR guy,” said Kureishi. “They want you to say nice things, but of course most movies and novels don’t say nice things about people.”
“When a person of color first came out and told a story, we’d get a real bollicking from our communities. I began to realize with the criticism that I got, especially at the beginning with Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie that the community really needed to be represented more broadly. Now you can see we have a much more multicultural, multiracial society. Now you can see that people of color are in front of the camera, behind the camera and writing the scripts. You’d be shocked how white it was.”
Some criticism of Kureishi still comes in occasionally. His sister didn’t speak to him for over a decade and publicly questions the accuracy of his portrayal of their lower-middle-class childhood. “I don’t get as much criticism nowadays,” said Kureishi, “maybe because I am older now. The family members are younger than me. It’s not really the same.”
Taking the pulse of the political scene in Britain and Europe, Kureishi sees the rise of a racism more virulent and directed than the racism he experienced as an Anglo-Pakistani in the 1970s and 1980s.
“The racist things that people say in the open in Britain would not have been acceptable five years ago,” said Kureishi. “You can see it in the rise of political parties in Poland, you can see it in Austria and Hungary. You saw it visibly with the rise of Marine Le Pen in France, and in quite a number of other places. You can see the rise of racist politics and a new kind of racism that I have not seen in my lifetime.”
“The racism I grew up with was a lot more casual,” he said. “Now the racism is much more concentrated. In Europe, it is really organized and centered around Muslims, like the Jews were treated in 1930s Europe. ‘The Muslims are diseased, they take our money, they take our women. They are destroying our values. They are corrupting our whole society.’ There is a whole discourse around ‘The Muslim.’ It is horrible, for sure, for somebody like me, who comes from a Muslim background. This is reductive talk of Muslims, for there are Muslim doctors, Muslim politicians. The idea that there are Muslim intellectuals is all but forgotten. In this crude, reductive way. We really have to fight this.”
For Kureishi, arts and culture are his counteroffensive weapons of choice. “We have to fight this racism in every form—through journalism, through the cinema, wherever we see it,” he said. “We have to fight to restore reality. This idea of the Muslim is like the old idea of the Jew… it’s a myth, a fiction. It’s a very dangerous thing, for once you turn someone into a fiction, you can say anything you like about them or do anything to them. It is a very dark time.”