Hanif Kureishi on his writing process, and the Brit-Asian Arts Scene

Hanif Kureishi has a piece in last Saturday's Guardian called "Fear and Paranoia." It's a series of reflections on the occasion of the revival of "Borderline," a play he wrote 25 years ago.

Kureishi has lately been a rather inconsistent writer (I haven't liked his recent novels much), but he was a vital part of the emergence of a progressive British-Asian literary 'voice' in the 1980s. This piece is a kind of memoir of those times, and includes some historical background information -- about the Southall Riots, the threat posed by the National Front, and Kureishi's own ambitions as a young, progressively-minded writer.

One part that caught my eye involves Kureishi's account of how he wrote "Borderline," which aimed to document the voices and struggle of the South Asian community in Britain in the late 1970s. But the content of the play may be less interesting to us today than the writing process Kureishi describes:

The play did get written. It also got rewritten. This, I saw, was when the real work began. If I'd had too "pure" a view of the artist, I was soon to learn that aesthetic fastidiousness wasn't a helpful attitude. Max was severe and precise, sending me into a dressing room with instructions to write a scene about so-and-so, with certain characters in it. I rewrote as we rehearsed; I rewrote as we played it around the country; I rewrote it when we opened at the Royal Court, and even after that. This was the first time I'd worked in such a way and it was an important proficiency to develop; it came in handy two years later when I worked with Stephen Frears on My Beautiful Laundrette, and was required to rewrite on set.

I was also ambivalent about the journalistic process. I was full of material already; I had hardly touched on my own experience as a British Asian kid. Why were we interviewing strangers in order to generate material? Yet as we began to talk to people I found these conversations were not chatter; they were serious - some taking place over a number of days - and always moving. I was fascinated to hear strangers talk. It was something like a crude psychoanalysis, as one only had to ask a simple question to be drawn into a whirlpool of memories, impressions, fears, terrors. I was shocked at how much people revealed of themselves, and how much they wanted to be known, to be understood. The community was close and supportive, but the cost of this was inhibition and constraint.

There are two things that seem worth repeating here. One is Kureishi's humility as an aspiring playwright -- rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. The other is his discovery of the value of "hearing strangers talk," which seems important. Another way of saying it is: young writers, you may have a lot to say, but you'll be more interesting when you learn to get outside of yourself.

The second part of the piece gets into the decline of 1980s political theater and the rise of Islamism, which for Kureishi destroyed the vibe:

During the 10 years between the Southall riots and the demonstration against The Satanic Verses, the community had become politicised by radical Islam, something that had been developing throughout the Muslim world since decolonisation. This version of Islam imposed an identity and solidarity on a besieged community. It came to mean rebellion, purity, integrity. But it was also a trap. Once this ideology had been adopted - and political conversations could only take place within its terms - it entailed numerous constraints, locking the community in, as well as divorcing it from possible sources of creativity: dissidence, criticism, sexuality. Its authoritarianism, stifling to those within, and appearing fascistic to those without, rejected the very liberalism the community required in order to flourish in the modern world. It was tragic: what had protected the community from racism and disintegration came to tyrannise it.

I hear you, and nicely put. And I might add that the rise of strong religion hasn't just been a problem in the Muslim community.

Note: I wrote a post on Sepia Mutiny last summer inspired by another Guardian column from Kureishi. It covers some similar ground.