The Game of Self—How I Wrote The Buddha of Suburbia

15 November, 2022

Hanif Kureishi


All first nov­els are let­ters to one’s par­ents, telling them how it was for you, an account of things they did­n’t under­stand or did­n’t want to hear, say­ing what could­n’t be said, pro­vid­ing them with a big­ger picture.

It was the late ’80s, and I was in my ear­ly 30s, when I began to work on The Bud­dha of Sub­ur­bia. The two films I’d writ­ten pre­vi­ous­ly, My Beau­ti­ful Laun­drette and Sam­my and Rosie Get Laid, had bought me time and mon­ey. The suc­cess of My Beau­ti­ful Laun­drette had giv­en me con­fi­dence that the writ­ing tone I’d found, could be extend­ed into the nov­el I’d want­ed to write as a teenager.

I had been no good at school, but always felt more alive than the peo­ple around me. I was a horny book­worm, and nov­els got through to me. I thought I’d do one. I did several.

They were not pub­lished. But I did write what became the first chap­ter of The Bud­dha of Sub­ur­bia, as a short sto­ry for the Lon­don Review of Books, pub­lished in 1987.

I believed that was that. Then I kept think­ing there was more mate­r­i­al. I had an intense expe­ri­ence which can hap­pen to writ­ers, when you under­stand that your sub­ject is right there; you have lived it already, and that world is wait­ing to be con­vert­ed into scenes. If peo­ple were not writ­ing books about peo­ple like me, I’d write one myself, spit­ting out all the painful things, rude­ly, light­ly. Some­one said to me, write your plea­sure. I did.

My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Eng­lish­man born and bred, almost. I am often con­sid­ered to be a fun­ny kind of Eng­lish­man, a new breed as it were, hav­ing emerged from two old his­to­ries. But I don’t care — Eng­lish­man I am (though not proud of it), from the South Lon­don sub­urbs and going some­where. Per­haps it is the odd mix­ture of con­ti­nents and blood, of here and there, of be­longing and not, that makes me rest­less and eas­i­ly bored. Or per­haps it was being brought up in the sub­urbs that did it. Any­way, why search the inner room when it’s enough to say that I was look­ing for trou­ble, any kind of move­ment, action and sex­u­al in­terest I could find, because things were so gloomy, so slow and heavy, in our fam­i­ly, I don’t know why. Quite frankly, it was all get­ting me down and I was ready for anything. 

Read­ing the first para­graph of The Bud­dha now, I’m sur­prised to notice that the hero, Karim Amir, announces his nation­al­i­ty three times. I guess he was inse­cure. Like David Bowie, he was eager to find an iden­ti­ty, throw it away, and start again the next day with anoth­er one, brand new.

In 2015, Zadie Smith wrote a love­ly intro­duc­tion to my nov­el. She describes dis­cov­er­ing the book at school, which she calls a first for us “new breeds.” She says, “Irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty is an essen­tial ele­ment of com­ic writ­ing.” And Karim Amir, my boy and avatar, who likes both boys and girls in bed, and where pos­si­ble both at the same time, is deter­mined­ly wild and rash.

But Karim knows some­thing that most peo­ple don’t know. And what he knows is price­less: that being a per­son of col­or isn’t at all like being white. No white per­son walks into a room and finds it weird that there are only white peo­ple present; no white per­son thinks of them­selves as a prob­lem for oth­ers, a ques­tion, a per­plex­i­ty. No one asks them where they’re real­ly from. Whites belong in the world. It’s theirs, they own it, and they don’t even appre­ci­ate it. But they do get defen­sive and cranky when you point it out, as you have to, repeatedly.

Karim under­stands that being a per­son of col­or means being bul­lied all the time. Yet while whites might con­sid­er them­selves supe­ri­or, it’s more orig­i­nal and enjoy­able being under­neath, laugh­ing up at the pover­ty of priv­i­lege. Karim begins to get that his dis­ad­van­tage is his advan­tage. Then he stops car­ing either way. He’s free.

The writer Hanif Kureishi (pho­to Witi de Tera/Opale/LeeImage).

Where does one write from? From one’s race, gen­der, age, polit­i­cal out­look? Or some­where else? Some­times peo­ple ask, and one asks one­self: what exact­ly are you doing when you’re doing it? This is an inter­est­ing ques­tion and not straight­for­ward to answer. I guess one writes from a sort of void or gap; some­where between con­scious­ness and the uncon­scious. From where a bit of dream meets a bit of real­i­ty. From a shad­ed space where there isn’t too much con­trol or crit­i­cism; from where things can just appear, if you’re lucky. From where hard work meets friv­o­li­ty, and graft meets a giggle.

If any­one thanks me — and occa­sion­al­ly they do — for writ­ing The Bud­dha, or says it meant some­thing to them, I am always grate­ful, since I’m remind­ed of how a few decent peo­ple, along with some good sto­ries, once got me out of a bit of a jam, and into a more open world.

As I think about my nov­el today, look­ing back on myself, I wish I were that boy again, free on his bike. But I know he’s still in me, fun­ny, hope­ful, rarin’ to go, always up for it, going somewhere.

Hanif Kureishi, the British author of Pakistani and English heritage, grew up in Kent and studied philosophy at King’s College London. His novels include The Buddha of Suburbia, which won the Whitbread Prize for Best First Novel, The Black AlbumIntimacyThe Last WordThe Nothing and What Happened? Among his many screenplays are My Beautiful Laundrette, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Le Week-End. He has also published several collections of short stories and had numerous plays performed on stage. France awarded Kureishi the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and in 2008, The Times of London included Kureishi in its list of The 50 greatest British writers since 1945. The same year, he received the distinction of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Kureishi has been translated into thirty six languages.

Daniel Day-LewisHanif KureishiLondonMy Beautiful LaundretteNovel writingscreenplaysThe Buddha of Surburbia


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