Hanif Kureishi: ‘Racism makes people mad – it’s necessary to deal with this in fiction’ | Books

My earliest reading memory
I can remember lying on my parents’ bed and reading a book all the way through for the first time. Whether it was Biggles, Bunter or something by Enid Blyton, I was hooked. I began going to the library every day, and have barely been able to go an hour since without passing my eyes over some sentence or another. Reading has become a habit, but it has never stopped being a pleasure.

My favorite book growing up
My father had an excellent library of political and philosophical works, which was where I received my education, insofar as I have any. But it was Tom Sawyer that captivated me from his first brilliant page. Twain’s energetic, haphazard story of an uncontrollable urchin and his various scrapes and adventures helped prompt my first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Tea book that changed me have has teenager
ER Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love was the first book I read about race and schools in Britain. I already knew how mad and aggressive racial difference made people, and it helped me begin to understand that questions of race would be at the center of the postwar western world; I saw it was possible and necessary to deal with this in fiction.

The writer who changed my mind
I was reading philosophy at university when I saw that, as part of our course, Richard Wollheim would be reading on Freud, despite the fact Freud was despised if not refuted by many philosophers. I then read Wollheim’s lucid Freud introduction published in the brilliant Fontana Modern Masters series. Philosophy was fascinating but dry, and Freud suddenly had me thinking about sexuality, censorship, dreams, the unconscious and language. Even then, in the 70s, people were saying that Freud was wrong and outdated. While these critics are now forgotten, Freud’s work continues to be relevant and explored.

The book that made me want to be a writer
JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, along with Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, made me aware that it was possible to write books that could be as inspiring, truthful and direct as pop music, but with more depth and background. And with great jokes and better stories. The individual voices of these writers helped me see that it is tone and character rather than plot that can drive a readable novel.


The book I reread

I repeatedly return to the Swann in Love section of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which two people – the aristocrat Charles Swann and his lower-class lover Odette de Crécy, who are clearly unsuited to one another – get lost in a spiral of recognizable jealousy, obsession and paranoia. If love and desire can make us completely crazy, it is, unfortunately, the thing we crave the most and cannot do without.

The book I could never read again
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was a favorite of my friends and I in the late 70s, and we’d read passages of his flowing, speed-inflected prose to one another while sitting cross-legged on cushions drinking wine. I remember it as a wonderful book about escape, freedom and an open future, and I have no wish to discover that the whole thing was, in fact, as Truman Capote put it, just “typing”.

The book I discovered later in life
Once Upon a Time by my favorite uncle, Omar Kureishi, which is the story of the large – 12 children – Kureishi family living in exotic privilege in India just before the second world war. Under a tyrannous but fond gambling father with a penchant for Parsee women and extravagant cars, the brothers have many adventures on trains, in cafes, at soirees, and while playing cricket in Poona and Bombay (now Mumbai). Nevertheless, as Kureishi explains, the central character will always be the British Raj, and soon the family will break up and spread out, living everywhere but never in India again.

My comfort read
When I feel myself becoming gloomy or pessimistic, the book that reminds me that change and optimism are possible is Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism, a wise and witty essay that recommends both equality and indolence, and appears to believe you can’t have one without the other. And: “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.” genius.

The book I am currently reading
I am really relishing Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, which concerns a shapeshifting boy/girl flâneur, as they move through a crazy 1990s scene of leather bars, dyke clubs and punks. With lashings of sex, music and clothes, it is filthy, sharp and clever. What’s not to like?

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