Hanif Kureishi is the author of novels such as ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ and ‘Intimacy’, story collections, plays and screenplays. ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ was made into a BBC TV series with a soundtrack by David Bowie. ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’, a story about a gay Pakistani-British boy growing up in 1980’s London, won the New York Film Critics Best Screenplay Award and an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay. ‘Intimacy’ was loosely adapted in the controversial movie Intimacy that won two Bears at the Berlin Film Festival.
Your new novel will be published in the coming months. What is it about?
It is a slightly different genre from the stuff I’ve done before. It concerns an older man in his eighties who is confined to a wheelchair and his younger Muslim wife, and her relationship with a con man who comes to stay with them in their flat. It’s a triangle. It’s hardboiled, but I also hope amusing and entertaining. It’s set in their flat, and the con man tries to rob the old man of his wife and everything else.
In what sense do you consider it different?
Isabella, who is my girlfriend and a bit more, has been a very bad influence on me. She encouraged me to spend the evenings watching Bettie Davis and Joan Crawford, American Noir movies from the 40s and 50s. I watched so many American Noirs that I decided to write one myself. It’s a short book called ‘The Nothing’, a novella of about 35,000 words. It’s about London, about looking, about impotence, aging and being unable to work.
It sounds tragic?
I hope so. Maximum fun and maximum tragedy.
Is the older man afraid of dying?
I guess he is, and he’s fading, disappearing from the world because of his age and illness.
Are you writing something else?
I am writing a TV series for the BBC with my eldest son Sachin, who is 23, which is very good fun to do. Sachin was unemployed and desperate. He had to become a writer, he had no choice.
What is your TV series about?
It’s about a Syrian refugee who comes to London to work as a driver for the son of a rock star. It’s about the crossing over of two worlds, that of the refugees and the rich upper bourgeoisie of Notting Hill. You see both worlds from a different angle.
Can we consider TV series the ‘novels’ of today?
Yes, they are really good. We go to dinner with friends and all they talk about is box sets, in the same way as we used to talk about movies. The quality is very high. For instance, ‘Transparent’ on Amazon is really good, about a Jewish family in LA. TV is the central form at the moment and I would like my kids to work in TV as writers.
How is it for them to be the children of a successful writer?
Their mother is a TV producer, so it’s natural for them to work in that world. My father wrote about his father. Each one writes about their mother and father, and my students are the same when I teach creative writing. I learnt a lot about writing from my father.
What is the secret of being a writer?
The voice. When you read Knausgård, J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, what you notice is the voice, the way the writer addresses you.
Do you write in the first or the third person?
I wouldn’t comment. It depends on the material. First person is very powerful. It depends on the point of view.
What is the point of view of your new book?
‘The Nothing’ is written in the first person. We look through the limited point of view, through the camera, of the old man, who is watching.
You have always been interested in the Muslim world, for instance the female character in ‘The Nothing’ is a Muslim. What do you feel about the strong wave of terrorism that we have had in Europe?
It would be very shocking if there had not been terrorism in Europe. There have been so many wars; Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. Western people think they can prosecute wars in other places without there being any implications. It’s a stupid idea that you can outsource your wars and never notice any response. That world is not getting better and there are no good leaders and it has no history of democracy. Usually Right wing power emerges out of chaos, which the West has caused by destroying infrastructure, universities and schools.
Will our peaceful way of life in Europe come to an end?
Definitely. With the rise of the Right in France with Marine Le Pen, and she really is a fascist, the EU will consist of the Germans. These are very unstable and dangerous times. It’s not looking good. It’s a worse world than the world we grew up in.
What is behind the discontent?
There is discontent because of hyper-capitalism or neo-liberalism in the West, which we have seen since Thatcher. In contemporary America Detroit is unbelievable, miles of desolation, and the hyper-rich have sucked up the world. The poor think Trump and Putin are saviours. It’s a joke.
Where does the world stand today?
The world is very interesting and terrible at the moment. We have seen a big rise in anger from the so-called disenfranchised. Apparently we are in the middle of a populist uprising. Since 2008 many people have been disenfranchised and ripped off, and so have turned to a charlatan who promises to repair their injuries.
Do you think populism leads to fascism?
Simon Schama was saying he thought fascism began in Europe in the ballot box. He considers Trump to be a fascist. I am not sure about that, but I can understand people turning to a slogan which has no meaning, like “We can make America great again.” It’s tragic and sad to see this.
Do you think that writers are still a voice in today’s society?
I think so. Artists and writers have to speak about the discourse. We can think about the way the language is being deployed and how it misleads people. It’s very interesting that Donald Trump speaks in slogans.
When there was the famous ‘Dreyfus affair’ in France the writer Emile Zola made a huge impact with his article ‘J’accuse’. How is it that now there are no writers with strong voices in America?
Writing doesn’t occupy that place any more. The only equivalent was the Salman’s Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’. The 14th February 1989 fatwa was equally significant as a point in literary history, and before 9/11. Looking back it is even more significant than Zola.
Are you saying that writers are no longer significant?
The most important cultural form in our life has been pop music, rock and roll. The novel is a minor form, of no interest to the public. Certainly not in the UK and USA. Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan are more important than Philip Roth. Dylan is probably the most significant cultural figure in our lifetime. In the 60s pop musicians were the outsiders that carried all the values. Pop music communicated, talking about class and sexuality.
Now it’s not like that anymore?
It has been domesticated. There’s no outside to capitalism now. Capitalism swallows everything. All I can do is be the artist I have to be. That’s quite a lot.
What did you think about Brexit?
I was very shocked that the popular vote went against the EU. I didn’t think for a moment it would happen. I don’t believe either Brexit or Trump will repair the injuries of the disenfranchised. The French will vote for Marine Le Pen and leave the EU, and it will be very bad for Italy. The same thing will happen across Europe. We will have a Right wing world, and Russia will become very powerful. If NATO declines and the EU implodes a bipolar world will emerge.
Is there a wave of dissent against populism?
The anti-fascist Left of centre is still very strong in the UK and the US. That’s why the communities are so divided.
There have been riots in the US after Trump’s election?
Yes, they have to live under Trump and we have to live under fringe weirdos here. It’s a nightmare. Most of us didn’t see that the impact of the 2008 collapse would make people poorer and poorer. Austerity meant that people had to pay for the collapse of the banks. I believe in the possibility of resistance. Until recently we have made big progress with the growth of multiculturalism in Europe, women’s rights and gay marriage.
Are we in danger of losing our freedom of expression?
I’m not aware of that in the UK certainly, or in other EU countries. Since the post-War period we have lived in a lovely bubble of liberal expansion.
Do you think Brexit will actually happen?
Theresa May has to achieve the Brexit because three previous Conservative Prime Ministers were all destroyed by their own party. The Right of the Conservatives are very destructive. If she doesn’t co-operate she will be out.
Has your life changed?
I am 60. You get to 60 and your life changes, you don’t have the same ambition, your interests alter. The Oscars and Cannes, I have done all that. Publishing a new book is not a big thing in the same way as it was.
Do you write with a computer and read books on Kindle?
I still like to write by hand. I read both books and Kindle.
How many hours do you work in a day?
Less and less, but I do something every day. I keep a journal which I gave to the British Library, accounts of friends, meetings, diverse conversations. I hope they won’t be published. When I was between 14 and 18 I was a delinquent teenager, always in trouble, breaking the law, doing drugs. Then I became a successful writer and it has sort of worked out.
What interesting books did you read in the last year or so?
I read a lot of Knausgård which I thought really profound, really good. I think Knausgård is a wonderful writer with formidable intelligence. I don’t read much fiction, I am busy watching TV. I think TV is in a very exciting time. All the leading film directors work in TV now.
Are you in touch with the new generations of creative people?
London is a global city and still, just about, a great place to live in, because there are young people here. In comparison, Rome is a semi-dead city for tourists, it is like being in London in the 70s, nothing really works. London has a vigour to it, people can make art and movies here.
Is London still going to be a good place to live?
London is being destroyed by the wealthy. Nobody interesting can afford to live here anymore. It’s very difficult for young people, and the city will become a playground for rich people who don’t live here. The major investors in London are the Chinese.
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Photos of Hanif Kureishi and Alain Elkann by Glauco Canalis, with thanks to the Italian Cultural Institute, London