Hanif Kureishi (British South Asian Theatre Memories)


I’m Hanif Kureishi. I’m a novelist, playwright
and screenwriter and, always available for paying work.
Thanks. Em, how did you get involved in theatre? I went to the Royal Court in the early 70s.
When I was eighteen, I sent a play in, to the Royal Court. And my dad found a letter
from them and he said you should go in and see them. So I went in and I met Donald Howarth,
em, and I met Samuel Beckett on my first day in. He was there, er, rehearsing, Footfalls,
with Billie White – Whitelaw. Em, and they invited me to read scripts. I worked there
backstage, and I did everything in the theatre you could do and I thought, this is the life
for me. This is great. And I met writers, directors, and I felt, that was the first
time I was in a place where I really felt at home. Where I really felt I belong with
this community. But there were very few Asian or Black or anybody of any other race. It
was mostly public school, English, white. Did you go to public school?
No no, neither of them. You know, my father was an immigrant. I came from state school,
school background. There was nothing, no real history of theatre in my family.
So what inspired you to go into theatre in particular?
Well, I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t want to sit at home on my own writing all
the time. I wanted, as it were, to work with other people. Em, and I was inspired I think
by, by John Osborne. By the idea of writing pictures of, of contemporary Britain. Part
of the job of the theatre was to be political and social in the sense that you engaged with,
the time in which you lived. I think it was the fact of the Royal Court being, as it were,
er, contemporary, that really compelled me. What was it that made it feel as though you
wanted to have a social comment on, on the time. Was it something…
Because, well, I wanted to comment on my time because, that was really the TV also, I’d
grown up, grown up on really…during the Potter, Alan Bennett, em, all those plays
for today, the Wednesday Play, lot of that stuff directed by Stephen Frears. I felt it
was, it was, contemporary. It was about class, it wasn’t really about race but it was about
class. Em, and it was amazing to see, the world in which you lived, the schools you
went to, factories that, you know, your neighbours worked in, on tele. Em, the literature wasn’t,
as it were, only in the past. It was only this idealized Shakespeare or Dickens from
another period. It was about what was happening now that excited me then. Yah.
You said it wasn’t about race. Mainly about class. Was it was it that you wanted to feel,
was it that you felt, you wanted to fill that void, and talk about race?
Well, I think I wanted to get some sense, to make some sense of what the hell I was
doing in Britain. My father had come from Bombay. My he’d married an English woman my
mother. Er, I came from a vast Muslim family, and I was a Paki. And I wanted to know what
that meant and what I was doing here and how all these, let’s say, historical forces had
brought this boy to south London who loved Jimi Hendrix. Em, and so basically, I was
writing for years what became My Beautiful Laundrette and later on the Buddha of Suburbia.
You now, my earlier works about my, as it were, derivation, trying to work out why I
was there…and who I was from, and what what, what I meant. So I was trying to do something
quite interesting which was actually, a theatrical idea which was to link my own life to…to
history and to the world. You say, you’re a Paki. Em, I suppose that
term’s now evolved in some circles to being British South Asian. What does that term British
South Asian mean to you? Well, I had to learn what it was to be British
which meant that Britain had to reinvent itself for my benefit rather than the other way round.
By which I mean that Britain had to see that it had become a different kind of place. It
took a long time for that penny to drop you know. And one of the, one of the ways in which
that penny dropped was because people began to write about Britain differently. And I
think, certainly, em, My Beautiful Laundrette, em, and certainly, I think, Midnight’s Children,
and then the emergence after that of many, em, Black and Asian writers particularly,
Zadie Smith particularly made a huge difference to, to, er, and of course then the emergence
of Black and Asian, em, actors, em, also MTV, bringing people like Prince for instance as
well into the, into the limelight. So it’s a whole conjunction of forces really which
meant that, what we call world culture, or world music, or world food, or world writing,
or voices from elsewhere began to move towards the centre.
So, that term British South Asian, do you see that as a, as a piece within the larger
puzzle? Well the puzzle is really to do with the identity
of Britain. What it means and how it began to see itself differently, rather than, in
the end, you realize that it isn’t your problem. It’s their problem. It’s like the prob, you
know, it’s it’s like with madness. I mean, the problem with madness is not madness. It’s
it’s the normal people. It it, you know, it’s the concepts, the ideas you have about how
the world should be that are too limiting. You have to open them up so you can see more.
You need more words. You need a, a better language. You need em, em, to see more. To
understand more. Em, and one of the ways in which you do that is through culture.
Em, would this, terms then, as you say, the need for the vocabulary be increase, to I
suppose, feels to me to legitimize that term more, the term British South Asian is worth
attribute, attributed to it as well? Do you feel your work can be attributed to the British
South Asian banner? 06:45 HK: I’m a writer. I don’t care. I just
write books that people like or they don’t like and I am a British writer. All this other
stuff is a lot of guff to me. It’s irrelevant. I mean and try and make contact with a reader.
Em… You have done with a breadth of readers. Just
this morning I was reading Outskirts and Borderlines. They seem like two different worlds but the
same time from the same world. Em, but you, but they do, em, target two different audiences
would you say. Even if you didn’t mean that. I never knew whom, I don’t think writer, most
writers know who their audience is. You find an audience. You hope for the best. You write
something. I mean I wrote My Beautiful Laundrette. It’s about a skinhead and a Paki kissing,
and having sex in a launderette. I didn’t realize there would be a mass worldwide audience
for this, people would want it, you know. Um…you need an audience as a writer but
in a sense we had to make an audience. Rushdie and I and and the early writers and certainly
Naipaul before him had to make an audience to say look, there are these new voices. We
represent this new world. Have a look at this because this is actually happening to you
and around you, you know. John Osborne had to remind people that this was right at the
centre of the world as it was happening. Em, so you create an audience too. But there’s
an audience already there. I mean, both those things.
Do you think then it’s useful to consider British South Asian theatre as a distinct
label…or world. Well, British culture I would talk about and
how it’s changed. Dance certainly through Akram who is a genius. Literature through
Zadie, Rahman, poetry, I mean the whole of culture’s changed, em, and had to change,
because we are more present and these stories are really important. Em, and in a sense,
all culture. All culture has to be in a state, as it were, permanent revolution, and entirely
depends on the new. Could you describe, coming back to you for
a little while, did you could you describe your own artistic journey, em, so, if we start
from the Royal Court to where you are today. Well, just learning to be a writer, whatever
that means, working out characters, situations, how the characters speak, conflicts between
them. That does it, will work for me as an artist seem right for me, and and somehow
will speak to a, an audience about their concerns. Em, but particularly in the theatre and certainly
it’s really to do with changing audiences. I mean theatre audiences on a whole are ghastly,
were always ghastly. Were too limited I mean it’s just, you know, late middle-aged white
people. You go to the National Theatre now, it’s the same.
You think it’s always been that way? Well you really have to make an effort to
find your audiences. You know, we toured. In the end I cured it by doing a film. Huge
amounts of people went to see My Beautiful Laundrette in the cinema that they wouldn’t
have gone to see in the theatre. You just do it in the movies.
Do you think that seems to work? Well it’s it’s helped to change the climate
I think. It helped change the climate insofar as people then thought, so called Asians,
or Black writers and so on, are speaking to all of us. Not just to a small minority audience.
I mean that was always the fear in the theatre, that somehow the only people would see a play
about a Pakistani would be other Pakistani people. This was not of general interest.
I think My Beautiful Laundrette, and certainly Midnight’s Children, showed that we were not
minorities in that sense. So what is it about film then that people
go and see your work in theatre that they won’t.
Em, well with movies it’s really to do with, in My Beautiful Laundrette, we had a star,
Daniel Day-Lewis, became, at around that time, a world star, one of the, he’s one of the,
you know, he’s probably the best actor in the world now. So, we were lucky, that we,
we could cast him, as it were, get him cheap. Em, and also, that was around the time when
the gay thing was really coming into prominence. It was really important that such a minority’s
voices were being heard at the same time as women’s voices were being heard, and at the
same time as, you know, racial minorities voices were being heard. We were all, as it
were, part of the same crew. And My Beautiful Laundrette somehow, brought all that stuff
together. That crew, does it still exist today as a
whole? I think the crew, as you refer to, is really
fragmented, you know. The A, so called Asian cause has become, you know, radical Islam,
you know. The women became really middle-class. And the gay thing got very very narcissistic,
it seems to me. So there’s never been a united front. Well there was maybe in the 70s. But
it’s long gone now. We don’t really have a Left in that sense. We certainly don’t have
a working class and we don’t have a Left. We don’t have a united front of so called
minorities voices now. Do you think that affects the work.
No. Artists are very creative. And the work that’s coming out of…I mean is an amazingly
creative city. It’s a fantastic place to be in. And the amount of creativity you see among
young people of all races, colours, ages is fantastic.
I’m curious, em, with your family around, personal er family, were there er any reluctance
felt by individuals when you decided you wanted to be a writer?
Well I come from a writing family, My uncle’s are writers. My father wanted to be a writer
so it wasn’t such a big deal. I didn’t have my mother screaming, crying I want you to
be a doctor, you know, all that rubbish. Em, but with Asian families the truth is the kids
have to educate the parents, you know, they really do. They really have to educate their
parents into what sort of people they are, the young people. What they wanna do. What
it is to be an artist, a writer, it’s a profession. You know, I’m a professional writer. I’m an
artist, but I’m a professional writer. I make a living. I support my family. I’m, you know,
respectable, and indeed, far more respectable than most doctors. So we have to educate the
eld, the elders in in that respect, we are not going to be poor starving artists always
though there is always that possibility. Course. In what way have you reconciled and
now this is an evolving question and the answers evolves with it.
13:34 HK: What? What I’m about to ask is probably an evolving
question. In what way currently do do you see your transnational experience in forming
your identity. Well, who I am is, er what comes out you might
say. When I sit down to write as it were, the whole of my soul, my psyche, my history,
my being, seeps into my work. So, the way I think about race, the way I think about
immigration, the way I think about my father, the way I think about Islam, they way I think
about women, the way I think about sexuality, the way about I I have thought about everything
is informed by my history. About er is informed by who I am, and how I’ve lived, and where
I’ve come from, and it comes out of my work in some ways that as it were are also unknown
to me. They are sort of unpredictable to me. So… you are what you write but you write
in ways that let’s let’s say are unpredictable. And how can you suggest, I mean do you realize
how your work’s evolved over time? As your identity’s evolved over time?
My work’s huge in it’s, because there’s more and more of it now, you know. Now I’m nearly
sixty. When I look at it I think god, there’s loads of it now. And it’s still coming out.
I’ve got a novel coming out, The Last Word. I’ve got a movie on the weekend. I’ve got
lot’s of stuff cooking. I mean, I’m amazed by that. That it’s lasted this long. I’ve
done so much. But I’m still alive and I still have ideas.
Where do you feel the state of theatre is today.
I like, I go to the theatre. I like, I saw a great play about Dervishes at the Upstairs
at the Royal Court the other day. Did you see it?
Djinns of Eidgah? Yah.
No. I haven’t seen it. Yah. I really liked it. And there’s some really
great stuff going down at the Young Vic. Em, some very good stuff going on at the Lyric
in Hammersmith. You know, I like what Shaun’s doing over there. So I go to the theatre now
and again. It seems much much more lively than it used to be. And the voices are more
multiple than they were before. There are more people you hear from. I mean it was a
very very narrow, I mean, you look at the history of the National Theatre on the TV
the other night and you just think it’s…it’s so narrow. It’s shocking how narrow it is
then the range of experience they represent. So, as it were, politically correct. Em, you
really see how exclusion works. But it works unconsciously. It’s not, as it were, people
deliberately excluding the voices of other people. They don’t even notice that’s how
power works. It’s interesting. They don’t even see that it’s happening.
So what’s the antidote. Is it to make a film? As it was in your case?
The ant, the antidote is for artists to work as they wish. The antidote is for artists
to find a way that satisfies them and then to find an audience. There are thousands of
new ways to work, you know, particularly through the internet and working cheaply and the new
technology and etc. etc. I mean the internet has really freed people as artists. Doesn’t
necessarily mean they are going to reach large audiences, but it’s made all sorts of cultural
creative opportunities possible. Em, unless there’s anything else you’d like
to ask er… I don’t. You ask the questions. One more question.
Yeah. My final question is just who’d you like, er, would you like to tell us which
particular work of yours holds the most importance for you, and why?
Well I think My Beautiful Laundrette was a breakthrough. It was so bold, and we made
it so naively. And it changed all of our lives, you know, everybody involved in it, from Saeed
Jeffries to Tim Bevan who produced it to Stephen Frears, obviously Dan, Gordon,
Changed their lives professionally? Totally changed their lives professionally.
Gave us opportunities that we hadn’t had before. You could make other films. You could get
other jobs. I think that was really the turning point. And a and a real turning point in British
culture as well. That was when the door opened. When those two boys kissed the door opened
to other worlds and other voices. The the and and that door would never close again.
Thank you very much. Pleasure.

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