Writer and editor

Hanif Kureishi at Kew

Added on by Anealla Safdar.

This is an almost complete transcript of an hour-long event with Hanif Kureishi on his latest book LOVE + HATE (Faber & Faber), which was held September 2015 at the first Kew Gardens literary festival, “Write on Kew”.

Steven Gale and audience members posed the questions.

Some sections relating to personal details have been omitted and are represented by ellipses.

Gale’s questions are in bold, Kureishi’s responses are in regular, and audience questions are in italics.


Are love and hate two sides of the same coin?

…How painful it is hating people, actually. And there’s some love in the book, some desire, some interest in other people. But there is a close connection between the two things because in a sense, the people that you love are the people that you need the most. And the people that you need the most are the people who can deprive you of what you need. They can give it to you and they can take it away. Obviously, we’ve all had mothers who turn up an then they go off and do other things and they drive you crazy. So you realise that dependence is what you need to survive and dependence can really make you furious with other people. So I guess my writing and all of my writing has been concerned with what it's like to depend other people and to have other people depend on you and what goes on between men and women and men and men and so on. That’s what I’ve tried to think about.

One of many great lines - there are two very powerful essays on racism, amongst other things. The one about Braithwaite, To Sir With Love, and one about Enoch Powell. In the To Sir With Love, you say, ‘People love to hate’. What do you mean by that?

Yes, there’s real enjoyment in it. There’s real sadism in it. One of the things that’s odd to me that I’ve always written about, that’s fascinated me about the human condition, is how much people hate themselves. And how self harming people are. On the whole animals don’t do that, you don’t find animals slitting their own wrists or harming themselves deliberately in that sense. There's something odd about the human animal - that most of the damage that actually we suffer is mostly done to ourselves, so I became, what was the question? Oh yeah, I thought well the hate is either inside - it's self directed or it can be other-directed. And my father came from India to Britain at the end of the forties so I lived through, with him my sister, my family, through this period, through the sixties really, of quite crude racism. You know, and people would be racist to you everyday all the time. Particularly at school, particularly the teachers. So you get crazy. And it’s casual but there is a lot of hate in it, and you really begin to feel paranoid, and you feel a victim. So I thought a lot about language, I guess, as a young man.

The language that people use about you: ‘Where you belong, you're a Paki, do you live over there?' 'No I don't live over there.' 'Will you ever fit in? You don’t really belong here. You don’t belong anywhere.’ Going through all that, which is really other people's descriptions of people, their language, and after a while you feel sort of hemmed in by their words. And I remember going home thinking, from school, thinking, being really desperate. And I was a delinquent, bad child anyway, and I was in a bad situation, you might say, thinking, I've got to write about this and then thinking, nobody’s writing about this. And then feeling a sort of liberation that nobody had written about this, and could I do it? Could I find a way to do it?

One of the books that I had read as a young man was To Sir With Love which was a novel about a black teacher in the east end, a wonderful novel made into a terrible film with Sydney Poitier and Lulu. The song’s fantastic, she sings at the end… In the Sydney Poitier version there is no interracial sex, in the novel it’s about a sexual relationship between a black man and a young, Jewish teacher. In the film they took all of that out...

So I grew up in all this and I thought I would write about it, but I would write about it as it were from my point of view. That one of the things that you want to do, that you need to do, as a young person, any sort of person, is to find words for your experience, to stick words to your experience. And to talk back against, you know the wide of words that can engulf you from other people. So that’s why I wanted to be a writer, and why I still want to be a writer, and why I might recommend writing as a good way of creating your own identity. You make yourself out of words. You could be made up out of other people's words.

I mean some people say, well why do we need artists? I was on a walk the other day supporting Ai Weiwei. One of the journalists said to me, ‘You're just a load of old artists walking around aren't you? It’s pointless.’ And I said, ‘Well yes, I can see what you mean, it's pointless, us walking around. On the other hand, artists, one of the things that we do is make ideas. And we provide words and add to the conversation, so it's not entirely useless us just wandering around, and I would say that Ai Weiwei is a bit more talented than you are guv’.’ But it's an interesting question, what do artists do, and I guess I was thinking, I began to try and be an artist because I needed more words, or good words, to defend myself with.

What age were you when you were having these, making a sort of resolution? And what other books influenced you? 

I remember sitting, I can see myself now, looking out the window. I was 14 and I thought, I am so fucked, at school. And now I thought, I’ll become a writer. And that really cheered me up. And I could see that there was a way out, that at that moment there was a future. Because it was the sixties, there was the Beatles and the Stones and the Who and the Kinks, lower middle class men, some women were getting out and being artists. And I thought, I’ll do that, but as a writer. And then I suddenly felt less depressed. And I’ve felt less depressed ever since, I have to say. Because you make a future through words. Or the idea of writing a story excited you about the future. I was 14 or 15 and really in a bad way, and that saved me I think.

Because also I knew, I’d be stuck in Bromley otherwise, because in Bromley, you married quite young and you got a house and you carried on, and we would learn that you know, we were brought up to be civil servants, work in insurance, and so on. And I thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of here and become a writer.’ It’s amazing how naive, well you are naive at that age, and I did actually become a writer. It seems shocking to me to think that you could do that, particularly an Asian boy from nowhere. But it's amazing to me and I look back on it with amazement. 

What other influences affected your consciousness?

Well, American books about boys running away from home really, On the Road. Movies like Easy Rider, obviously Philip Roth's novels, Normal Mailer, later on Hunter Thompson, Sylvia Plath. And the French novels about boys running away from home, which were Balzac and Stendhal and so on. I mean everything. People often ask, Who's influenced you? And you say, well everything really, it’s all gone in and come out, I don't know how or where. Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix, everything. Images of freedom, mostly images of freedom from America, sitting in the suburbs listening to Velvet Underground thinking, ‘I want to live that life’. It was really that and it really gave me sense of how to, to get out. 

You mentioned earlier the sort of casual racism that sort of was being used by teachers at school in sort of the sixties and so on. What do you think has, in terms of attitudes and this casual racism, what do you think has changed in the last thirty or forty years, and what do you think is the same?

I think nobody ever talked about the idea of a multi-racial society or a multicultural society. It was basically a white modernist society that I grew up in, with us in the street really. And then more and more et cetera. So the whole idea of multiculturalism and multiracialism and so-called globalisation and the movement of people, we know know that the whole word is everybody is on the move all the time. And it's shifting to basically where the labour is and where the money is. You can see that. You turn on the news and see people scrabbling at the fences trying to get into racist Hungary in order to come over here and take our jobs. So in a sense it’s become more desperate and the racism tends to become more institutionalised with the parties, say like Farage’s party, UKIP, you see the same tropes.

But I don’t know, I don't live on the street in that way. You don’t. The casual everyday racism that we had, and the horror. I mean I had a girlfriend whose father wouldn't allow me to go into her house because he would say, ‘We wouldn't have Pakis in the house,' and that sort of horror . I don't know. I am sure it still goes on, but I can’t say from my own experience…

It’s rather an interesting experience, actually, if you can really get over and get through it. You really see something and you learn something from it actually, because it’s quite rough. And you then learn to identify with other victims, you might say. And after that it was sort of all right for me. It isn't to say that racism, I mean the division between the good and the pure you need to see that with the Germans and the Greeks - you know the Germans are hard-working, pure, and the Greeks are you know lying under the trees, lazy. You can see the same division, the desire to see the good and the pure on one side and the bad and the corrupt, taking our jobs and having sex all the time on the other side. And you can see it obviously, people currently in the US as well. A friend of mine, a British, black actor just came back from the US and he said, it’s just appalling there, the way people look at you and talk to you, you know, et cetera , et cetera. I don’t think we’ll ever rid the world of racism, but it’s possible to resist. 

My fear I suppose is that attitudes haven't changed very much. All that’s happened is people are more inhibited about showing those attitudes. It’s to do with language, and what one is permitted to say but underlying the fear is that people are thinking pretty much the same.

It’s really whether it’s politicised. It’s whether it’s politicised and I can see that there are more parties arriving in Europe, in particular in France, Hungary and as we know in Greece. UKIP, really pathetic actually - I mean when it comes to fascism, they're really disappointing actually. I mean if you really want a fascist and you get Nigel Farage, it’s really disappointing. He’s just, you know, hopeless. And that’s the sort of fascism that’s rather pathetic, and actually a reason to be proud of England. The fascist leaders of England are not like Mussolini. But when it becomes politicised and then you see a war growing and a fence around Europe and people scrabbling at the fence and all that, and you realise that, we were saying earlier that, you know, that you and I and the rest of us here will be living in a gated community. And it’s terrible for us that are in and terrible for us that are outside as well. The whole situation is awful. So we’re really confronted with difficult political decisions. 

When you’re talking about power, you say that racism is the lowest form of snobbery, which seems to be absolutely spot on. Another thing in the book is about creativity, and how racist attitudes are intrinsically sort of uncreative and unimaginative. Can you talk a bit about that and a bit about creativity.

Well it’s to do with paranoia really. I mean paranoia sees the other as persecutory. ‘They’re going to come over here, they’re going to take our jobs and go on benefits. And sleep with all our women and men.’ It’s on a loop, it’s so dull, there’s no sense of creativity of, you might say, well 'What can we do together, what can we do? Could there be some exchange, could there be learning, could we have conversations, could we..’, you know, the creative idea is really do to with making connections. Whether you’re writing in a room, whether you’re cooking, whether you’re having a conversation or whether you’re talking about the changing, let’s say, the ethnic or racial make up of a country. What can go on between these people? There seems to me to that the relation between, let’s say, India and Britain.

Leaving, let’s say, aside all of the politics, there’s also been something really interesting and creative in all sorts of ways, and good things have gone on. I remember someone saying to me, ‘All those Syrians coming across the border,’ you know, they said, ‘They’re full of germs and diseases, and they’re bringing them into the heart of our land.’ And I thought, well that’s the paranoid position, yes, that other people are you know, carry germs and diseases. But if you see it like that it’s a sort of idea about who other people are just persecutory. But the question really is, well what can we do? What kind of exchange can we make? And that seems to me to be a more fruitful and interesting view.

I’m interested in your own creative work, and how one sort of brings that together. How, when you’re working, do you sort of isolate yourself from this rather toxic lack of creation that’s around us. How do you cocoon yourself to e in a situation where you can do good work?

Well it’s you know, I look out the window all day really. And I see some really interesting things out my window now I’ve got binoculars. Um. People tell you stuff when they come round and when I go out. And I have ideas for things that I want, that still compel me. You’d think by now you’d have run out of ideas, that people wouldn't want to write anymore. But most of the artists that I know that are successful or whatever, but are still going, that’s what they want to do, making films because they want to make films, or drawing drawings, or making songs. I mean I really like writing. I mean I thought today, oh what a shame, I’ve got to break off now and I want to carry on writing this afternoon. I still want to do it. I still have the hots for it. I really like to do it. And I just think, oh just a bit more, I’ve got a really good idea there. It’s something you’re trying to chase, it’s something you’re kind of pursuing, a kind of perfection you know is impossible. And you think this time, I’m really going to get it, and once I’ve got it that will be the end and then I’m going to stop. But you never get there, and you have another idea, my God it’s a torment. It’s such a pleasure though being an artist.

I can see why everyone wants to be a writer. I can see why two percent of the population are writing novels, at least two percent of the population are writing novels at one point. Because in a sense you really are in a free space. There is no money there in a sense. I write because I want to write. I don’t think, well this one’s really going to earn me a lot of money because the truth is you really don’t know that. But I want to do this, if I don’t get paid I still want to do this. There’s a sense you’re outside of the constraints of going to ‘workness’ that I see through the binoculars. And it’s very, very pleasurable and I can see why people want to be artists. I can see it, and it’s enviable to have such pleasure doing something that is in the end…

Is the discipline onerous though? You must need to have discipline?

People say that, but I wouldn't say that. I wouldn't even use that word anymore. If you’re a footballer or a dancer or a violinist or whatever, you would have to have, you've got to do it every day. Lionel Messi may be a genius but he still practices every day. But I wouldn't call it discipline, I get up every morning and I think, I want to do this now. I don't think, you've got to do it today. I think, I really want to do that. I want to do that more than anything else. If I’ve got to do stuff during the day, I will get up and do two hours work and then I can get on with the day. So I wouldn't call it discipline, I’d call it, desire or love.

Love is probably the best word for what I want to do. I want to do this. I want to do this today, to finish that paragraph. And there’s something, well you do have to force yourself sometimes, but there’s something terrible about forcing yourself to do something you don’t really want to do. Because actually it should be quite joyful. It would be like forcing yourself to enjoy dancing, you know, or trying to force yourself to go to sleep, which you can’t do. I mean there’s something quite natural about writing if you’re enjoying it….It has to be pleasurable, and it really has to come naturally and it can do when you’re sitting there, you know, bleeding through the ears.

Does that level of desire, for whatever it might be, in this case writing, does that come with a sense of vulnerability, and if so, is that okay?

Why would you be vulnerable?

For me, if one feels in love with anything, if one desires something, one is giving up oneself in ways one might not otherwise want to do, feel compelled to do?

I think you could argue that you don’t fear that. You don’t fear that. You feel, I want to go as far as I can, and say what need to say without fear .When you’re younger you might fear that, you know, what’s mum going to say when she sees that? My mother always sits through all my films with her hand over her eyes. Seems to me to be a good sign, if your mother is shocked by what you’re doing. You now, you’re on the right track. Yep. You probably would have to be something of an exhibitionist to be an artist.

People say, well how could you do that, how could you say that? And you think well, I mean, I could never be an actor. I worked in the theatre and when you see an actor you think how have you got the balls to stand there and do that, I don’t understand it, I could never do that. But if you’re that person then the showing off, or showing yourself, or exposing yourself in a particular way seems to me to be necessary, rather than something you would be afraid of. It’s like a performance in private.

[reading from book]

Is it a disadvantage to be brought up to trust people? 

It’s very disillusioning though when you do lose your trust in people which is what happened to me after this (accountant case) and I presume to anybody who has been involved in something similar. You really start to think, oh that person could be a bit dodgy, that’s a bit dodgy won’t do that, and you become much more suspicious and paranoid actually which is not good for you. But I could see that you would be weary. 

I was just wondering if the preparation for one’s children is to teach them not to trust people?

I can’t answer that, that’s a good question, but you have to trust people otherwise the world just falls apart. There’s no reality at all. Other people are trustworthy and you learn to trust them and they won’t let you down. You have to know that about people. But just keep away from accountants.

Audience questions

You’re a very eloquent talker, and I want to just ask you about your process of writing. The way you talk is very engaging. Is there a different way? Do you write by hand or do you type on a computer? You write a novel or short stories, compared to a film script? Just to kind of hone in on my question, do you ever when you’re doing a film script for instance speak your dialogue out loud before you write it down?

It would be very wise to do that to speak the dialogue. I mean when I read that sentence. I always say to my students, well you should be able to read it, you should be able to get through this. When I read that sentence I nearly went blind trying to get from beginning to end. I thought if I was doing that now I would cut that sentence in half. I try and write short sentences. The process? Well you just sit there don’t you. And you sit there and sometimes you write very fast and sometimes you sit there and nothing goes on. And you gestate. And you have to know that nothing’s going to happen today, nothing’s going to happen tomorrow or the next day or the next day. And you have to learn how to wait, actually. So experience might teach you that. You know, you can’t force it.

But you know I do have good ideas. I’ve had good ideas in the past, so I’ve learnt from experience. I’m writing something at the moment. At the beginning, three months ago, I was writing really fast. Really fast. Things were going great, and then I really just hit the wall and now I’m lucky if I write three or four sentences a day. But I know that all you need to have happen is for everyday for it to move on a little bit. Sometimes it moves that much and sometimes it moves just that much. But everyday it moves forward in some way or another. It doesn’t go backward. And that’s something. So I’ve learnt that also. So that’s the process. But I write movies, I write essays, I write stories, I write, yeah, I do that because I like doing it. Or because I never thought that I couldn't do it, actually. I know how to do that I don’t know why, but some people can do the tango. Does that answer your question?

I just wondered do you write by hand?

Oh I do, I write by hand, I always write by hand. I’m a real pen queen. I love all that stuff. Always fiddling around with my ink, I love all that. And lots of writers are quite queeny about all that. There’s something very beautiful there. Writing is like drawing for me. I like making a shape on the page, I turn the page, and I do this, and I’ve got a drawing here, you know. And actually I enjoy fiddling about with that stuff. Something very cold about computers. It doesn't look nice on the page particularly, and there’s nothing you can do it about it because it looks like everybody else’s. Something about using your hands, and the paper, it’s very beautiful.

And also it’s slower, writing by hand, and you need it to be slow so you can see the words and you can cross them out and so on. That’s how it develops for me. So it’s enjoyable, the whole process is fun for me, it’s like being an artist with a drawing or painting. I like to see how it looks on the page. The visual sense of a piece of writing is important to me. There’s the paragraph, there’s the dialogue, there’s this and that. You look at it as well. See how it looks. So it’s a visual experience for me as well as just an intellectual one.

I’ve got stock and I don’t know how to edit my work and start getting some of it published? I need some advice.

What I do, what I do everyday, I advise my students to do this and it’s a matter of choice really, I practice something called free writing. I do that for about a quarter of an hour or half an hour and sort of get going. Free writing is free association by writing. You sit down and write down your dreams. Or you sit down and write down our conversation. You sit down and write whatever. It’s like, you know, just jumping in the water. So I sit down and my desk, the rule is you have to start, you’re not allowed to stop, and you fill the page, and you might write the weather is bad today, or I had a bad dream last night, or I really hated my dinner last night. The rule is you don’t have to stop. I find that really works with me and really gets me going, because then you sit down and you have an idea and then you have another idea and something may or may not occur. Then I might read for a bit and mediate for a bit. But I always do something, but I have the desire to do it. I can’t give you the desire to do it if you don’t have that.

I’d like to apologise because I’m an accountant, and I’m also a novelist. I’d like to ask do you think there’s something of a dichotomy between being an artist, as it were, and also being what you might call in the commercial field to earn a livelihood?

Not at all, no. I don’t see why. TS Eliot worked at Faber & Faber, he was a publisher. Kafka worked for an insurance company. Absolutely not at all, you can be an artist and you know a world political figure as well I guess, I can’t see why not, no. No, no, I’ve got nothing against accountants as it were in general…I think being an artist is about where you speak for yourself, you might say. When you’re at work, you are in some sense pleasing other people, you’re pleasing the boss, you have to go along with the system. I can see that.

When you’re an artist you go along with yourself. You’re following your own desire exactly as you wish, and it’s a terrific freedom in being an artist. It seemed to me that when I see artists I think that’s really enviable, I wish I could be an artist, then I remember that I am and I think, this is really worth doing because of the freedom that I can say what I like to myself and to the world and I can make something, where there was nothing. And there is something profoundly beautiful in being able to do that. So I can’t see there would be any reason why you shouldn't be, you know, an artist and an accountant or indeed a dominatrix. 

There are two things you said that I am particularly interested in. One was that you said you feel you never get there. And the other was when you talked about the early racism you’d experienced. Both of them seemed to be crucial as stimulus for your next work. I wonder if never getting there meant you actually disliked what you’d written and you were constantly trying to do something better next time, and whether you feel that racism you encountered particularly as a young man without it you would never have been a writer?

I like what I do and I enjoy doing it and I want to do it. And then when it’s done I forget about it. Steven today on the way here talked about a story that I’d written, and I’d completely forgotten what’s in the story. So you write to forget, or to get rid of something, or work something out for your own benefit. And then it’s gone, you forget about it, and you lose interest in it. The question was does it make you unhappy because you never get there, is that the question?

The question is, is it the fact you felt you hadn't got there a driver for the next book, that’s the question. Do you sort of think to yourself, am I going to get there next time?

But that’s why you have conversations with people. If you felt you’d had a conversation with somebody, you would never need to speak to them again would you? I mean in a sense it’s new. What I’ writing today is newer than yesterday or day the before. And in a sense you’ve never said it to the other person. There’s always something else you need to say. A new layer. Otherwise the relationship is dead. So the fact that you haven’t got there is really what’s interesting about writing, actually. I mean it’s in a sense like a capitalist accumulation. You can carry on and and rich people carry on and get more and more money and they’re none the happier because of it. But with writing there is a some satisfaction, huge satisfaction in it.

There’s a kind of incompleteness that’s really enjoyable. You know you have your dinner and five hours later, you’re hungry again. You want to eat again. That desire to eat again is creative, you want something nice, you want to have a good time with your food. With writing it’s similar to that. There is a sense of incompleteness, but it’s rather like hunger - you look forward to, as it were, having satisfaction and then you go through a cycle. 

And the question about racism, did that make me into a writer? Probably, probably, probably in the sense that I thought, at quite a young age, there must be other people in my situation. I am different to other people but there must be other people in my situation. And I can make them understand about this by writing a story. Like throwing a letter in a bottle out to the sea because I was so isolated. So it came out of a very strong desire to talk about how awful it was, for somebody to understand that.