Hanif Kureishi’s work is known for its explosive cultural impact, notably bringing Asian families into the British cultural consciousness in his screenplays and novels like no other writer before him. Born in 1954 to a Pakistani father and English mother, Kureishi’s world was the suburban Bromley. Growing up in the 60s and 70s Kureishi felt conflicted for several reasons. He experienced racism and his suburban existence was fettered by the consumerism and Neo-Liberalism which emerged from the sixties. Kureishi’s version of London has a consequential duality: there is the suburban London he was born in and the metropolitan London he and his characters seek to experience.
Kureishi’s writing career began early, when he started writing plays for the Hampstead Theatre, aged 18. But he soon turned his attention to the screen. He wrote My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) which went on to star Daniel Day Lewis to much critical acclaim, with the film telling a story not too dissimilar from his own. My Beautiful Laundrette stood out as something unique amongst the then fashion for films which projected the glamour of the British Empire such as the adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India in 1984. Kureishi, like many others, puts this down to Thatcherism. Working against this and urging cultural inspection closer to home in Bromley, Kureishi’s writing clearly struck a chord with the public as he went on to receive an Oscar nomination for his screenplay.
Throughout his career Kureishi has not limited himself to one artistic medium. Having tried theatre and screens both small and large, what remained after My Beautiful Laundrette for Kureishi was the novel form. He put pen to paper in 1987 and by 1990 his debut novel The Buddha of Suburbia had been published. It won the Whitbread Award (now Costa Award) for best first novel, putting him in the company of the likes of Zadie Smith and Ian McEwan. The novel’s themes are similar to those which propelled Kureishi to screenwriting stardom, as the protagonist, Karim Amir, struggles to escape the cultural trappings of suburban Bromley in the 1970s. Kureishi’s realist style is visual and episodic, juxtaposing events which cut across British society at various levels, drawing comparisons with Salman Rushdie. But Kureishi remains stubborn in his resistance to these, citing that while Rushdie’s style is definitively ‘magical realism’ there is nothing magical about his own, preferring to label his own work as ‘English realism’.
“In the suburbs, people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness”
Kureishi’s first great protagonist, Karim, is determined to break free of suburban existence and rails against any influence which threatens to keep him in Bromley. The drugs, sex and rock and roll of the 70s, as for many at the time, prove to be Karim’s means of escape. This shift to the cultural and political Left takes Karim into the London theatre scene, where he meets a man called Shadwell who is making his way as a director. Shadwell gives Karim the role of Mowgli in Jungle Book, yet what seems like progress at first is actually indicative of the struggle for artistic recognition either for Karim or British Asians in the arts more generally. Indeed, The Buddha of Suburbia has been credited by breaking new ground in the way it spotlights a portion of British society which had previously never been appreciated in cultural consciousness. Understandably, Karim feels he just cannot continue with Shadwell and looks elsewhere.
When his big break finally comes, Karim moves quickly through the ranks of London theatre before moving to New York for a brief foray into the glamour some might think to be the logical next step. Things don’t work out and when he returns to London ten months later the novel ends just before the 1979 general election. At this point it is important to remember that Karim’s journey is one of a teenager on the brink of adult independence, told through the lens of someone who is writing after a decade of Thatcherism. Karim’s liberty and coming of age is in this way contextualised by the political climate that precedes and follows the account the novel provides.
Bromley was home for Kureishi when he was young, as it was for Karim. Many of Kureishi’s plays, films and novels choose to flaunt their characters’ unglamorous origins in the suburban area of London before they move into the city to find new personal liberty. Yet the relationship between the periphery and the centre is not as simple as the latter provides refuge for Karim from the former. Yes, Karim wants to escape Bromley, but what The Buddha of Suburbia privileges above most other things is the value of community, relationships and individual freedom. Kureishi’s depiction of Bromley as a place which stifles does not make it less interesting as a literary location, but more so. He forces us to ask ourselves why this may be.