If any novelist, playwright or screenwriter of the past 40 years could be called ‘a writer of consequence’, to use the literary agent Andrew Wylie’s term, it would be Hanif Kureishi. While not shifting units on the scale of his near contemporaries Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, Kureishi’s cultural influence – through his explorations of race, class and sexuality in novels such as The Buddha of Suburbia and films like My Beautiful Laundrette – is inestimable. In this first major biography, Ruvani Ranasinha tracks Kureishi’s progress from his birth in Bromley in 1954 to a Pakistani father and English mother, through his glittering, always provocative career, to the recent accident which rendered him unable to walk or use his hands. It’s a long and challenging read, yet one that fizzes with insight into the tumultuous times in which Kureishi produced his best writing.
Ranasinha’s major coup is her seemingly unrestricted access to Kureishi’s diaries, which allows an extraordinary intimacy with her subject, bringing him into ever sharper focus as the book progresses. From the start, Kureishi fantasises about escaping the violent racism of his youth through writing: ‘I dreamed of being on TV and being called a writer.’ And not just any old writer: ‘I want to win the Nobel Prize,’ he admits, though Ranasinha illustrates how his cast-iron self-belief is undermined by a lifelong inferiority complex bequeathed by the suburban upbringing in which his father mentored him as a creative artist. When he finally finds his subject, his diary records drolly: ‘The Asian community has been for me what dishwashing was for Orwell.’
It is Kureishi’s search for this compelling subject, and a satisfactory form with which to express it, that takes up the first half of the book. Beginning with Borderline, his play for the Royal Court, Ranasinha comments: ‘Kureishi’s plays helped revitalise British drama with new vocabularies and visions of identity in an increasingly cross-ethnic, transnational world.’