Although Shobhaa De’s been affectionately announced as the “Superstar Writer” of the KLF in its programme, literary sorts know that the real celebrity in this year’s event is Hanif Kureishi. And when Kureishi made an appearance in conversation with Muneeza Shamsie at the main garden venue of the Carlton yesterday morning, we were there to cover it.
The session had its highs and lows. Kureishi’s reading from The Buddha of Suburbia was definitely the most engaging part, with the author reciting already witty prose with a wonderfully straight-faced humour, visibly enjoying the audience’s appreciation. His Q&A with Muneeza Shamsie was disappointing, mainly because of the unimaginative way in which Shamsie approached the conversation. When an author has as much to share as Kureishi does, it could be so much more rewarding to really talk to them, letting the conversation take its own path to areas that are of interest to the author and the audience. Instead we heard a pre-decided set of questions that got funny but fairly textbook answers from their respondent. There’s no debating Shamsie’s experience and stature in this field, but in this particular case she missed some opportunities for a more stimulating conversation.
Things got more interesting when questions were opened up to the floor, and that was when we got a more intimate glimpse into the author’s personality as well. Kureishi got a bit more than he’d bargained for when an old lady stood up to ask the first question.
Lady: Hanif, I remember when you visited Pakistan years ago, we met you through your aunt who was a friend of ours. We asked you how you liked Pakistan and you were full of praise for Pakistan and for its people. But when you went back to the UK and you were asked how you found Pakistan, you said you hated it and that the people there were strange. Could you explain why you did that?
She then asked him: I got an impression from reading your books that you have a very low opinion of women. Would you comment on that?
Such questions could make any author quake in his boots but Kureishi, true to his past, did what a typical urban youth in Britain with a survivor’s instinct might do: he went on the offensive. He danced around the first question by stating that as a writer he felt compelled to speak the truth and that it would be ridiculous to expect him to say something he didn’t mean just so that others would think well of Pakistan. This didn’t address her point, of course, but as he said to another audience member later, “I’m not sure if that answered your question but that’s the answer I fancy giving!” (This elicited a good laugh from the audience). He seemed to lose his cool on the old lady’s second criticism, however, and replied only with an, “I don’t know what to say other than that’s a stupid question.” One couldn’t help but feel at that point that the answer wasn’t much better than the question.
At many points during the session, Kureishi’s thoughts were solicited on the issue of identity and it’s not difficult to see why that would be, given his personal history and the themes that he’s written about. In response to a question by Muneeza Shamsie about the link between autobiography and fiction, he half-jokingly referred to the process of ‘reverse colonialism’ in Britain as the South Asian community has established itself there. He too used to grapple with issues of where he belonged until he developed a firmer appreciation of the benefits of nationalism. “People would ask me where I was from,” he said. “I’d say, ‘I live in that house up there,’ but they would say, ‘No, where do you come from?” Then he visited Pakistan and an uncle of his told him, “Your father is Pakistani but where you’re going back to, you’ll always be ‘Paki’.”
That was the turning point for him. England had to change to suit him, he realised, not the other way round. “We’re British, not half English, not mongrel,” Kureishi eloquently put it. He praised how hard England had worked on issues of race. “I don’t think of identity anymore,” he said at one point. “Becoming a writer saved me. Identity is your relationship with yourself, your family and the place you live. The idea of developing an identity is simply to gather more of the world into you than you did before.”
Fortunately, Kureishi was honest about the benefits his race brought for him. His first assignment with Channel 4 came his way because “they were looking for an Asian or black writer and I was the only Asian or black writer they knew of!” And so was born My Beautiful Laundrette and with it, one of modern British literature’s biggest stars.
“I’m fascinated by the desire to speak, to write,” Kureishi said, who was full of praise for the new cadre of Pakistani writers in English making waves around the world. “You’re lucky if you’re an artist and you’re driven to do what you do. It’s a passion, a love. There’s no other way to do it, because the process is chaotic. You just sit in a corner writing until you’ve got blood coming out of your ears! That’s what it is to write.”